Japan Calling! How to Set Up Your Phone for Travel in Hokkaido

, by Hattie

To rent-a-SIM or to not rent-a-SIM? Staying connected while on holiday has never been more important, especially if you plan to venture into Hokkaido’s wilderness. In this blog, we will walk you through all the ways you can set up your phone for travel in Hokkaido.

A pair of hands hold a smartphone in an outdoor setting. A map app is open on its screen.

Being online in a foreign country has many more benefits in our digital age. Maps are a screen tap away, language barriers become minor hurdles thanks to translation apps and you can even find the perfect dinner option without needing to flip through countless guidebook pages. On our Self-Guided Tours, staying online is also a must as much of the daily information we will share with you relies on having internet access to use properly. Not only that, but staying a phone call away is so much more important on an adventure holiday than a regular leisure holiday, especially in remote Hokkaido. When things go south in Hokkaido’s vast mountains, it’s extremely important to have a means of communication to help you raise the alarm and speed up any rescue efforts. 

Two hikers share lunch at the summit of Mt. Furano. The mountain ridge stretches into the distance, surrounded by a sea of cloud
When you’re out in the wilds, having a means of communication is essential.

Japan once had a reputation as being a difficult place to stay online. Domestic conglomerates held a monopoly on telecommunications, making it almost impossible to find temporary phone options for visitors or to pick up a signal on foreign devices. Those of you who visited Japan for business in the 90s and early 00s may well remember the prepaid flip phones that were the only option for communication while here!

Fortunately however, we’re very happy to report that these flip phones are a thing of the past and it’s now easier than ever to stay in contact with your loved ones while in Japan! Still, there are so many options that it can be hard to know which is right for you. Today, I’d like to walk you through the many options, as well as their pros and cons, to help you make the best choice and get your phone set up before your visit to Hokkaido. 

Check that your phone isn’t on its last 10% before you start reading this - and let’s dive in!

A lady stands in front of a mountain landscape, a pond nestled in a valley below.
Your phone is as well-travelled as you are!

First, an important note - will your phone work in Japan?

Phones across the world work on different frequencies and if your phone cannot receive the frequencies commonly used in Japan, two of the methods in this blog won’t work (rental SIMs and data roaming).

While the majority of recent smartphone models made by manufacturers with a global presence (e.g. Apple, Samsung, Google) will most likely work, some older models and phones made by lesser-known or local manufacturers may not pick up any signal at all in Japan.

It’s a good idea to confirm if your smartphone or device can be used in Japan ahead of your visit. You can easily check if your phone will work online.

Japanese Rental Data SIM Cards

This is a very easy, cost-effective and efficient way to stay online during your visit to Hokkaido. 

As smartphones have become the dominant mobile device the world over, most of them have a SIM card slot that allows you to pop different cards in and out with ease - very handy when you’re going on holiday!

With that being said, you will need to make sure your smartphone is “unlocked” before you travel to Japan. Globally, most smartphones are sold unlocked by default, but if your model is a little older there’s a chance it will be “locked” to whatever SIM card your network provider inserted when you bought the device. If your phone is locked, it will not be compatible with a Japanese travel SIM.

You can easily check if your smartphone is unlocked by going into its settings. On an iPhone, go to Settings > General > About > Carrier Lock. If your phone is unlocked, it should say “No SIM Restrictions”. On Android, go to Settings > Connections > Network and Internet > Mobile Network > Choose Network. Note that the name of these menu options may vary slightly across Android devices. If your phone lists various networks under “Choose Network”, your phone is unlocked but if only one shows up, it is locked.

However, if your phone is locked, don't despair. Most countries require your mobile provider to unlock it for you for free. Reach out to your network to find out what the process is.

A smartphone with its SIM card tray open, the SIM card laid out on a yellow surface.
Using a rental SIM card in Japan is an affordable and easy way to stay connected.

Travel SIMs remain a very popular choice for visitors to Hokkaido to this day! Most travel SIMs that you can find are data sims, which means you will be able to use your apps as well as data messaging and calling services (e.g. WhatsApp) without any high roaming charges. There are many payment plans and data allowances to suit a wide range of people, and as they use domestic mobile carriers, reception is often great, excepting some of Hokkaido’s more remote areas - but that’s par for the course in our northern land!

How To

One of the greatest advantages of rental SIMs is that you can arrange them online, in advance or at the last minute by purchasing them at the airport. 

However, unless your point of disembarkation (i.e. the airport where you pass through security and out into the arrivals hall) is a major international airport, like Haneda, Narita or Kansai Airport, it’s a much more sensible idea to arrange it in advance of your visit. This is especially the case for Hokkaido, as you may be connecting from a major airport into a small, regional airport that doesn’t have a counter to pick up your SIM.

There are a number of companies in Japan that offer great rental data SIM services, but our top recommendations are Sakura Mobile and Mobal. Both have a great range of services to suit all kinds of people and coverage is excellent. Both providers will use one of Japan’s three major network providers, Docomo, SoftBank or AU. If you would like to know where in Hokkaido you might be out of range, check out the service area maps for Docomo, SoftBank and AU.

Given that the list of cons for rental SIMs is more a series of minor annoyances than anything that might render them unusable, this is our top choice for our guests in Hokkaido!


  • Easy to arrange in advance, and can be sent straight to your first hotel if you are not able to pick it up at a service counter

  • Lots of options to cover lots of data / network needs and budgets

  • Data downloads are pretty speedy and connection is stable and reliable

  • The SIMs use major Japanese mobile carriers, so coverage is pretty good (though somewhat inevitable that you may still be out of range when deep in the mountains)

  • Easy to deal with at the end of your trip, either return via post or dispose the SIM if returns are not an option


  • Requires your phone to be unlocked.

  • Mostly data only - will not allow you to make calls or send SMS. However, this won’t be an issue for you if you usually use messenger apps to communicate, such as WhatsApp, Telegram or LINE.

  • Requires you to remove and replace your own SIM card, which can be a bit fiddly and may affect apps linked to your original phone number

  • Cannot use any service that sends an OTP to your original phone number to verify activity for the duration of the rental SIM use

  • If you choose to purchase at the airport upon arrival, you’re at the mercy of queues and availability

  • Will not work if your country’s phones are on a different frequency to Japan.

  • Wasteful - if you are not returning the SIM, it has to be disposed as you cannot use it again (not even if you were to visit Japan again in the future)

Japanese Pocket WiFi

This option was the default choice back in the day when it was much harder to find rental SIMs in Japan. However, they remain popular to this day, especially for those with multiple devices or groups.

Pocket WiFi devices are a little more pricey than rental SIMs and so are not a great option for longer trips. With that being said, Ninja WiFi, CD Japan, Pupuru and Japan Wireless are all good options covering many different price points.

If you are an influencer or photographer who needs a higher data limit for uploads during your Hokkaido trip or a WiFi connection across multiple devices (such as cameras, GoPros and laptops), this is perhaps a better option for you than a data SIM. As there is no limit across how many people can use the device at once, it’s also a great option for families or friends travelling in a group. 

An image of a smartphone with a WiFi symbol on its screen on a yellow surface.
Pocket WiFi devices give you a WiFi connection anywhere you go - and the connection can be used across all of your devices and in a group!

How To

Like a rental sim, you can arrange these in advance online or you can simply pick them up at the airport. We would suggest with pocket WiFi devices that you have them sent to your first Hokkaido hotel, as you would for a data SIM. 


  • Easy to arrange in advance, and can be sent straight to your first hotel!

  • Can share in a group and across multiple devices

  • There are often options to upgrade to a higher data cap.

  • Easy to set up and no technical knowledge required– switch it on, hop onto your network and you’re ready to go!

  • Easy to return at the end of your trip, either via post or at airports

  • Will work regardless of your phone’s frequency


  • Battery-powered! If you forget to charge the device or don’t have a spare battery / mobile battery, it can go flat and leave you offline.

  • If there is a daily data cap, download speed can become very slow after you burn through the daily data allowance (so if you like to stream TV shows on long train journeys, this may not be for you!)

  • Despite using mobile networks, coverage is not as good as the rental SIM option and you can sometimes lose signal for the slightest thing– riding the train, walking between big buildings, taking an underground walkway etc.

  • Plans are not as good value for money as rental data SIMs.

Data Roaming Plan

Given that we live in an increasingly connected world, data roaming plans have become more affordable and commonplace across many mobile carriers globally.

This is a great option and very convenient if you’re not comfortable switching out SIM cards or remembering to keep a portable device on you at all times. One major benefit is that it will allow you to keep using your original phone number, so if you are expecting an important call or several important calls during your time in Hokkaido, this is an option you should consider.

However, data roaming plans are quite a bit more limiting and expensive than the other options discussed in this blog. While it may seem like an easy option that can be taken care of within your home country, the limitations make it the least convenient. If possible, consider one of the other options on this list and treat this one as a last resort if you can’t work anything else out!

How To

Simply contact your mobile carrier in your home country before you head off for your holiday and sign up to a data roaming plan to cover you while you’re in Japan! 

Hikers take pictures of Mt Meakan's craters from up high.
If your network has a data roaming plan that covers Japan, you can set it up to cover you for your entire trip, allowing you to use your phone abroad.

The plan will be active only for the duration of time you’re scheduled to be in Japan, however - so make sure you pay close attention to time differences so that it doesn’t kick in a day late or finish a day early. Additionally, make sure data coverage is unlimited. Otherwise, you’ll be in for a nasty surprise when you receive your phone bill!


  • Easy to set up and arrange from your home country.

  • No need to worry about using unfamiliar networks or devices.

  • You can make calls and send SMS, and continue to use your regular phone number while you are in Japan


  • Often expensive for what you actually get in practice, which is usually a very slow download speed while still having to pay high rates for overseas texts and calls.

  • Japan may not be available on your network’s list of countries or its frequencies may not be compatible with your device - so you may pay for a plan only to arrive and find it doesn’t work anyway!

  • Coverage is often poor outside of urban areas.

  • You could still be hit with extortionate phone bills if you go over your data allowance or accidentally use features not covered by your roaming plan.

AH-Approved Apps

Once you’ve got your phone set up, there’s a number of apps that you might want to download ahead of your trip. Many of the apps that you use in your home country will have inaccurate or lacking information, especially weather apps. Some may also not be available if your IP address suggests that you are not within Japan. 

To help you out, here is a list of Adventure Hokkaido-approved apps! Be sure to download all of these after you arrive in Japan but before your Adventure Hokkaido tour as they will help you out a lot with your adventures in Hokkaido’s wilds.

A pair of hands hold a smartphone in an outdoor setting. A map app is open on its screen.
Our list of recommendations to keep you app-y!

Weather Apps

We are big fans of the Windy.com and YR.NO apps, they deliver much more accurate and relevant weather information than general or free download weather apps.

One of Windy.com’s great features is that it will give you a forecast for a specific location on the map, rather than just a weather centre. This is especially handy for heading into Hokkaido’s mountains, where the nearest weather centre might be a city with a totally different forecast to what is actually happening in the mountains! This will help you to accurately assess weather and wind conditions before taking on a hike.

YR.NO is an app that I have personally started using as my preferred weather app in my daily life. Although it may not offer as much insight into mountainous weather, it offers very accurate information for wider areas and is often much more reliable than free weather apps. My favourite feature is the “sky simulation” feature, which allows you to scroll through the future to see what the weather will do. It’s very useful for me as a photographer, as it helps me to plan where and when to be for the best shutter opportunity!

Travel Apps

Our top recommendations are Google Maps, Japan Travel by Navitime and the GO Taxi App. 

Google Maps is our map app of choice for our Self-Guided Tours, and much of the directions we refer our clients to will use Google Maps QR codes. If you don’t have the app on your device already and you're considering travelling with us on a Self-Guided Tour, definitely take this as your sign to download it! Google Maps is also a really great option for checking out places to eat or things to see and do in the vicinity if you have a little time to spare on our tours.

Both Google Maps and Japan Travel are pretty good for working out train and bus information on the go. Japan Travel is likely to give you more accurate timetables, but it can only tell you how to get from point A to point B on a train or bus line - it won’t be able to help you with navigating your way to and from stations!

Finally, GO Taxi comes in handy for calling taxis in big cities like Sapporo or Asahikawa. It functions in a similar way to Uber - simply open up the app, indicate where you’d like to go and call for a taxi! Nearby taxis will use your GPS location to pick you up. Note, however, that taxis in remote areas may not be signed up with GO Taxi. Outside of large cities, your best bet is to ask your accommodation to schedule a taxi with the local operator for you.

Translation Apps

For many travellers, the biggest obstacle to getting around Hokkaido is the language barrier. However, setting up your phone correctly before you even arrive can help you have a much easier time with this!

Google Translate has improved a lot in recent years despite a once poor reputation. These days, it’s more than just typed text translation - the new Google Lens feature allows you to hold your camera up to text written in Japanese and watch it translate in real time! However, while this feature is very useful for translating menu items and basic signage, it might not help you that much when it comes to documents with a lot of text or lots of paragraphs to translate.

For longer text, or if you’d like to use text-to-speech to ask a question, DeepL or ChatGPT are the new up-and-coming stars of the machine translation scene. Both use complex AI to infer context from what has been written and translate it much more accurately and with greater nuance than Google Translate. If you find yourself lost and in need of directions or if you have a question for accommodation or restaurant staff, DeepL or ChatGPT are our apps of choice!

Myself and our staff have used DeepL and ChatGPT many times for English or Japanese translation into other languages. Both are also very useful for looking up the names of foods, animals or plants in someone’s native language.

Food Apps

Google Maps is useful for finding places to eat locally, as well as taking a sneak peek at a restaurant’s menu. Another app that may be useful for finding good food during your visit is the TripAdvisor app. With a global presence, it will offer reviews from visitors not just from Japan but from all over the world. This can be quite helpful if you don’t speak Japanese, as previous diners might offer tips to help you in your choice such as whether or not a restaurant offers an English menu or caters to dietary requirements.

Connected and Ready!

So, now you’re an expert on how to set up your phone before you visit Hokkaido! It’s a good idea to choose your preferred method to stay connected before you travel to Japan, so during your final preparations, make the time to order your travel data SIM or pocket WiFi device, or get your data roaming plan set up. Apps are best downloaded once you are physically in Japan, as some may be unavailable if your IP address places you outside of the country.

And of course, once you’re online, all that’s left to do is enjoy your visit to Hokkaido… Oh, and to share regular social media updates of your amazing Adventure Hokkaido trip to make your family and friends jealous, of course!

Dreaming of an independent adventure in Hokkaido?

Take a look at our Self-Guided Tours.