Failure to communicate (electronically)

Summary: I planned carefully so I’d have a cell phone with data and GPS. It didn’t work out. Learn from my fail.

“The best laid plans…”

Before I left, I planned meticulously to give myself both the ability to text and call as well as to have data on a cell phone. I wanted to use GPS to track every place I went making it easier to find my way back (or allow others to do so), particularly without need of someone proficient in Japanese and English. I took a separate phone and bought a data plan with international data. I figured I would be set. I was wrong.

When I got to Japan, I fired up my second, data-only phone and waited. It never found a network. I double-checked all the settings. Still no success. I tried calling the cell company (I had recorded their 24/7 international support number before leaving) with my first (call/text) cell phone, only to get a recording that I could not make the call on a cell phone. So I had to call with a Japanese host’s land line. 18 minutes or so later, it was determined my data-only phone would not work. The problem? The phone I designated for data only did not cover the cell phone frequencies needed in Japan. I had neglected to follow my own instructions.

So I had a couple choices. I could:

  1. Upgrade my call/text phone plan for more data (very expensive)
  2. Buy or rent a cell phone in Japan for data (very expensive)
  3. Find another possible phone and get a data plan
  4. Go without data (except when I could find free Wifi)

I decided to try plan 3. My brother had his iPhone 4s with him, and after some translated troubleshooting at a local cell phone store, it was determined that yes, his phone had the correct frequencies and was not locked. But there was still a problem: you cannot simply buy a SIM card in Japan and insert it like you can in the US and most other countries. In Japan, you must buy a phone and plan, or have an existing Japan address/phone number. So that was out.

So I ended up going without mobile phone data on this trip. I only was able to use the intermittently available free Wifi at hotels or host’s homes. There may have been options to sign up for a nationwide Wifi plan (through SoftBank, Docomo, or other companies), but I couldn’t figure out their plans/policies while in-country, so I gave up.

Lessons learned:

  1. Be sure to check the cell phone frequencies in the country you are visiting and verify the phone you are going to use supports those frequencies
  2. Be sure you have a data plan that will work before you go to that country, or make sure you will definitely be able to obtain a SIM card after you arrive. Don’t assume it will be as simple as it can be here in the US.

Next time I go to Japan I’ll make sure I have a working phone and data plan. If not, I plan to rent a Wifi hotspot for the duration of my trip.

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