Jan 29, 2018

Pay Phones: Still Relevant for Travelers in Japan

If you surveyed kids under 15 in the states, I wonder if they would even know what a pay phone is. After all, it seems like everyone has a smart phone, and it can be exceedingly difficult to find pay phones anywhere these days back in America. Don't get me wrong, with smart phone technology, wi-fi, and plenty of apps that allow you to make calls to any place in the world, pay phones are not exactly the most necessary resource in public spaces. Of course, that is assuming smart phone battery doesn't die, wi-fi is available, or any number of other things don't go wrong.

Thankfully, Japan offers travelers an alternative to exorbitant roaming fees, having to buy SIM cards, or trying to find a power point just to plug in so you can make a call: the common pay phone.

Interestingly, pay phones are still relatively commonplace throughout Japan. Certainly, there aren't as many as there were when I was a child, but there are enough that you don't need to work too hard to find one when you need to make a call.

Here's your basic Japanese pay phone:

Pay Phones: Still Relevant for Travelers in Japan photo

The standard rate is 10 yen to make a call, then 10 yen for every minute of talk time after that. Just pick up the receiver, put in your coin, dial the number, and then once you've connected, add additional coins as necessary.

Almost all pay phones in Japan accept prepaid phone cards, which usually carry up to 60 minutes of talk time, but I do not recommend purchasing one unless you just want to have a unique souvenir for your travel scrapbook. If you do intend to use a phone card, just pick up the receiver, insert your card, and dial the number. The pay phone will dispense your phone card when the call is complete.

Where can you find pay phones?

Train Stations: Most train stations will have phone kiosks located at one or more locations (depending on the size of the station). You can always ask a station attendant or look at a station map to find out where the phones are.

Department Stores: The pay phones will typically be near the bathrooms in department store buildings. Other places to look at the restaurant floors.

Government / Commercial Office Buildings: While the number of pay phones in office buildings have decreased significantly, there will still usually be a handful available on the lobby floor.

Hotels: Most hotels (especially large hotels) will have a pay phone area near the check in desk or adjacent to the lobby.

Street Corners: Yes, there are still phone booths located on street corners and other pedestrian thoroughfares in major cities.

For those of you thinking, Why would I need to use a pay phone to call someone when I'm traveling?, here are just a few things that may require you to use a phone:

Emergency Calls: hopefully you won't find yourself in a position to need to make an emergency call, but in the unlikely event that you do, pay phones are available. Just pick up and dial 110 or 119. 

Reservations: Some of you folks out there may be those who have everything planned out down to every meal, so when you are thinking about dinner reservations, you either call or use a website to book your table before leaving the hotel room. For the rest of us, you may need to call on the fly. Most popular restaurants in Japan fill up pretty quickly in the evening, so it behooves you to call in advance. This is also relevant if you need to call to confirm or change an existing reservation (maybe you're running a little late). In those cases, pay phones can help you salvage plans for one of your precious few travel nights.

Linking up with friends: Pretty self-explanatory here, but if you are without phone services and you're trying to coordinate a meet-up, pay phones can come in handy.

Calling a taxi: I always recommend keeping the number for a local taxi service handy. You can get them at taxi terminals at the stations, or just do a quick internet search as you're doing your travel planning. Having a taxi number available can help you in a pinch. Don't stress if you don't speak Japanese, many Taxi services have English language support, and for those that don't, just keep your address or a prominent landmark in mind for coordinating a pick up.

For those of you that are not yet convinced that pay phones will be a necessary part of your travel communication, I leave you with my trump card: one of Japan's many awesome phone booths...

Pay Phones: Still Relevant for Travelers in Japan photo



Hitting the books once again as a Ph.D. student in Niigata Prefecture. Although I've lived in Japan many years, life as a student in this country is a first.

Blessed Dad. Lucky Husband. Happy Gaijin (most of the time).