Updated: October 2013
It used to be very simple: mobile phones from Japan and South Korea never work outside of those countries, and mobile phones from other countries never work inside Japan or South Korea.
However, these days mobile technology changes so quickly in Japan and South Korea that it is very difficult to get straight-forward information on mobile / cell phone, smartphone and tablet compatibility. Each service provider uses its own type of network, and these are always evolving. But understanding which cell phones work, which smartphones work, and which phone and data services work in Japan and South Korea is a difficult question to answer and depends on your home service provider and your phone.
There are three options for how you can use your smartphone or tablet: use Wi-Fi only, rent a data-only SIM, or use your phone via roaming or renting a local phone. Most basic cell phones will not work in Japan, but some will work in Korea.
Our recommendation: bring your smartphone or tablet, and rent a pocket Wi-Fi device that lets you surf the web, use your apps, and use VoIP (Skype, Google Hangout, Talk Time, etc.) for phone calls. If you only want to use a phone, then our recommendation is to rent one with a service packet.
Using an iPad, iPhone, Android, or Other Smartphone or Tablet in Japan and Korea
In recent years, it became possible to use 3G (2100 MHz) smartphones and tablets in Japan and Korea. This includes all iPhones 3G and up (only the first generation iPhone won’t work) and most newer models of other smartphones.
If you would only like to use Wi-Fi, and make all of your phone calls via VoIP, then you need to find a Wi-Fi connection (for example, at your hotel, internet café, etc.), or you can rent a pocket Wi-Fi device (see below).
If you would also like to use your phone and not dial over VoIP, you will need to roam with your home service provider, or rent a phone with a data package.
Wi-Fi and Pocket Wi-Fi / Mi-Fi for your iPad, iPhone, Android, or other Smartphone or Tablet
The complexities of roaming vs. local network providers is confusing, why not skip all of that and just use your smartphone or tablet with Wi-Fi? More expensive hotels, Starbucks, some train stations, and major airports provide free Wi-Fi, but we recommend renting a pocket Wi-Fi (sometimes called a “Mi-Fi” device, or in Korea, and “EGG”) if you would like consistent service wherever you go.
To purchase or rent a pocket Wi-Fi device with a data plan there are several options.
- JCR – offers daily and weekly rentals, can connect up to 5 different devices
- Pupuru – offers several different rental options depending on how long your stay is, can connect multiple devices
- Rentafone – offers one week packages, can connect up to 5 different devices
- Telecom Square – offers daily and weekly options, can connect up to 5 different devices
- Wi-Fi Hire – offers the most options for rental lengths, can connect multiple devices
- SK Telecom – offers device rentals and packages for pocket Wi-Fi, also phone rentals and SIM card rentals
- Sroaming – offers device rentals and packages for pocket Wi-Fi, also phone rental and SIM card rentals
Local Data Plan for your iPad, iPhone, Android, or other Smartphone or Tablet
If you only have one device and want to use it without a pocket Wi-Fi, it’s now possible to rent a data-only smartphone SIM card during your stay — this will let you use your iPhone or other newer model smartphone in Japan with data service (internet, apps, email, VoIP, Whatsapp, etc.). In Japan, b-mobile, Global Advanced Communications, JCR, and Softbank rent smartphone SIM cards for iPhones and other smartphones. The SIM card can be picked up at Haneda, Narita, Kansai, or Central Japan airports or even delivered to your hotel.
Using Your Regular Mobile or Cell Phone in Japan
While we at Roverly are constantly reinforcing that unlocked GSM quad-band phones are the best mobile / cell phones to travel with, a GSM-only phone does not work in Japan — there is no GSM network. However, if you have a newer model smartphone (check for 3G), it should function just fine. The real killer in Japan is roaming or finding a local service provider.
If you really just want a normal cell phone and do not want to deal with data or Internet service or VoIP, it is generally recommended to either rent a phone for Japan that includes a service and data package, or for longer stays it is recommended to buy a local phone with a service plan. Plus local Japanese phones are super cool (though don’t expect to take it home and show it to your friends — few Japanese cell phones work outside of Japan, or even work with other service providers in Japan).
There are several international phone companies that will rent a Japanese phone to you during your stay, and while it’s cheaper to pre-order over the internet, there are also many options available at the airport:
- Cellular abroad – offers phone rentals with packages for Japan and worldwide, including retaining a local US or UK phone number for all of your international destinations
- Global advanced communications – offers phone rentals and smartphone rentals with phone and data packages for Japan
- JAL ABC – offers two options for phones with phone and data packages for Japan
- JCR – offers a wide range of phone and smartphone rentals with packages for Japan
- Pupuru – offers phone, smartphone, and “tethering”, where your phone doubles as a pocket Wi-Fi device
- Rentafone – offers phone rental with packages for 7 days, 7-20 days, and more than 20 days, the later being the cheapest, including a local Japanese phone number
- Softbank – offers phone rental with daily rate, including a local Japanese phone number
Using Your Mobile / Cell Phone in Korea
While many websites seem to suggest that South Korea has its own isolated mobile technology, recently South Korea has begun providing 3G technology compatible with many smartphones, and its WCDMA-based networks are compatible with some North American-based phones.
Korea also has the best Internet connectivity in the world.
Photo credits: Dani Rubio