I was traveling Japan earlier, from March 23rd, to March 30th. This was my first time traveling with my phone set to roam. The last travel before that was precisely 7 years 1 month 24 days before this trip, and I did not roam for two reasons back then; one it was cost prohibitive, and secondly, back around that time, I did not have a phone capable of roaming; back in time, I was using T-mobile MDA, essentially a renamed version of the HTC Wizard, which was an EDGE capable, which basically meant there’s no roaming available in Japan. (Japan is one of the few countries out there never had seen GSM deployment.)
Forwarding the clock for 7 years 1 month, 24 days, now I have a Nexus 5, which supports LTE and UTMS. This meant finally I am capable of trying out roaming in Japan. Coincidentally, as a part of T-mobile’s Un-Carrier initiative, they have made available free roaming (albeit with some limitations) available to simple plan subscribers, which basically gave me a chance to try it out.
The premise is that, I get data and text roaming free of charge (data locked to 128Kbps) and calling at $0.20/minutes. Latter pricing is not actually too bad, as some of their domestic plan can come very close or even exceed that at high margins. (For example, Softbank would charge 20 yen — roughly 17 cents per 30 seconds in their White Plan, and DOCOMO would also charge up to 20 yen, but generally more like 11 to 15 yen, that’s 9 to 12 cents. Although in Japan, receiving the call is free as a caller actually picks up that bill, but in case of roaming, both making and receiving a call incurs charges, just like they would in domestic calls in the US.)
Getting off the plane, I have waited for a while, until the phone receives signal. Actually the phone force restarted, but it probably has nothing to do with the roaming; perhaps it’s something to do with the Android 5.1 issue, but once that’s over, it was a fairly smooth ride. The phone received a signal, showing JP DOCOMO as a carrier. Then I received the following two messages from 156 number:
Free T-Mobile Msg: Welcome to Japan. Unlimited text incl with your global coverage. Talk $0.20/min. More info http://t-mo.co/tc
Free T-Mobile Msg: Unlimited web included as part of your global coverage. To purchase high speed data please visit: http://t-mo.co/4G-Data
After a while, I have also received the following from 889 number:
Free T-mobile Msg: For faster web browsing, you can purchase a high speed data pass at: http://t-mo.co/4G-Data
The data pass, which I did not purchase, comes in three increments: 100MB for $15.00 (expires in a day), 200MB for $25.00 (expires in a week) and 500MB for $50.00 (expires in two weeks) — again, I did not purchase these so I can’t speak of experiences using those add-ons. These are still bargains, considering non-simple choice plan would incur $15.00 per MB. While connected to Japanese network, it was locked to UTMS. I am not sure if it’ll be the case with these optional packages or whether purchasing one of these options would unlock access to LTE network.
Pulling IP address of the device showed that it was T-mobile USA’s IP range, which was not surprising considering the packet would still go through their access point, even though it is piped through Japanese network. At 128Kbps, I was worried that my data experience suck, however, it handled fairly well, especially after I turned off most of background backups of photos. It handled things like Facebook post, and Instagram fairly well.
Messaging applications naturally did not have any issues. One thing I noticed is when I jumped from one carrier to another (the network I could roam was on DOCOMO, as well as Softbank) and occasionally, especially when I was emerging out from no-signal area to coverage area, for some reason, it took a while to phone to realize that I have a data connection. This intermittent connection issue was somewhat annoying, but not critical for most of my applications.
Google Maps operated and helped a lot navigating a massive network of Tokyo train systems. Browsing experience was not too bad either; this probably also have helped by the fact that Google Chrome compresses data for me in the background.
In any case, having some form of connectibility was way better than having nothing, and the first try with T-mobile free roaming was a very pleasant one. Now I can’t wait to go back again!