Most U.S. phones don’t give free phone calls and data in Japan. So what is a data addicted traveler to do? If you have a 3g/4g phone you can almost surely use it over Wi-Fi, especially in large cities like Tokyo and Kyoto.
A basic plan
Turn your phone to airplane mode which eliminates the risk of unexpected and pricey roaming charges. When near a free WiFi location, turn on Wi-Fi and GPS/location while staying in airplane mode.
Leave your phone in airplane mode but manually turn on Wi-Fi and location when you are close to a known free spot. Get familiar with all the places that offer free Wi-Fi. Tokyo and Kyoto metros offer free Wi-Fi, which combined with Google maps will guarantee you get off at the right subway stop. Since the map is still available after you exit the station, you will still have the steps
The luxury solution
If you’re spending a lot of time in rural areas or need to be always connected, whether for work, or your facebook addiction, you can rent a pocket Wi-Fi at the airport. Definitely order one online in advance as they are popular. Here is basic information to get you started if flying through Narita airport.
Actual phone calls
Most 3g/4g phones have the option to make calls over Wi-Fi. Unless you make a ton of calls, this should be adequate. If you’re a phone call person, and have a removable sim card, you can get a new sim card for Japan. Check on whether it includes text messages. If not:
Text message savvy
Use something like Facebook messenger that can avoid text messaging fees when used over Wi-Fi.
Obviously, I’ll be a lot smarter about this after our trip. If I have more tips, I’ll add them then.