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Japan Pocket WiFi vs. SIM Card: Which is better?

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Staying connected in Japan is super important for navigating trains and translating menus. But how do you access the Internet in Japan? In this guide, we share our experience using a Japanese SIM card, an eSIM, and a Pocket Wifi and tell you which is best for your travels in Japan.

Japan Pocket WiFi Device eSIM Computer

If you’re planning a trip to Japan, you’ve likely seen a lot of information out there about SIM cards and pocket Wifi devices, and even eSIMs.

Frankly, it can be a bit confusing weeding through all the junk and finding out:

  1. Which option is better for you
  2. Whether you need one at all
  3. Which company is best

In order to make this process a bit easier for you, we decided to put them all to the test and see which is better: a Pocket Wifi device, a Japanese SIM, or an eSIM

If you want our short and sweet answer, tab here to jump down the article to see our recommendations. Otherwise, keep reading and we’ll answer all your questions related to Japan Pocket Wifi’s and SIM Cards and eSIMs.

Japan Pocket WiFi vs. Japanese SIM Card Guide


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Okay, first things first…

Do you actually need mobile internet access in Japan?

You might be wondering if having your devices connected is really worthwhile. We used to travel all the time without any cell service at all, and we actually loved being disconnected. We would log into Wi-Fi service at night at our hotel or hostel for any Internet time we needed.

However, Japan requires a bit more planning. Here’s what I mean:

The train system is easy to navigate… with an app. Japanese signs and menus are easy to translate… with an app.

Essentially, there are 2 main reasons you’ll want to stay connected. 

1) Navigation

Japan Pocket Wifi SIM Card Navigating Trains

Getting around Japan can be complicated, to say the least. There is an app (Japan Travel by Navitime— download it now!) that is a total lifesaver and tells you exactly which trains to take (even the best cars to get in based on your route!).

But you need the Internet to use it to its full capacity.

We didn’t want to risk taking the wrong trains or missing them because we couldn’t connect to the Internet.

2) Translating

Japanese SIM Card Translating Food Labels

Many signs around Japan have both Japanese and English. However, there are also lots that don’t.

You’ll also find menus, instructions, remotes, brochures, and ingredient labels that you might want to read. To do this, you’ll want to have Google Translate.

Before your trip, it’s a good idea to download the Japanese Language pack, which you can access offline.

However, some of the most helpful features — like live photo translation — are only accessible with an Internet connection. Without that feature, you will have to figure out how to type in Japanese characters which, I can tell you from experience, is very difficult as a total beginner!

Other reasons you might want to connect to the Internet:

  • Random Google searches: We liked being able to look things up on the spot, like: What are the best things to do in Tokyo? and “How much do sumo wrestlers weigh?”
  • Finding restaurants: I’m a sucker for finding restaurants on Google Maps by reading reviews. Seriously, it’s how I find gems and avoid the duds.
  • Understanding menus: If you’re an adventurous eater (I’m with ya!), you can skip over this one for the most part, but if you have any dietary restrictions (or aversions!), you’ll likely need to do a little translating of ingredient labels and menus.
  • Social media: And let’s talk about social media… during our time in Japan we posted a ton of Instagram stories to share what we were up to and stayed on top of our emails (or at least tried to).

All of these things require one thing. You guessed it: The INTERNET.

Here’s our personal experience…

During our first trip to Japan in 2015, we went with nothing: no SIM card, no pocket WiFi, and no way to stay connected to the Internet.

We were in Japan for one week, and when we needed the Internet we’d pop into a coffee shop or wait until the evening when we could get WiFi at our hotel (although one Airbnb we stayed at had no Internet at all!).

We made it through the week just fine, but there were challenges. We got on the wrong metro a couple of times, and we had to do more planning upfront.

We decided that on our second trip, we definitely wanted a way to stay connected.

On this second trip (August 2019), we noticed there are more public WiFi spots around the country than a few years ago, but we just don’t like the idea of relying on them.

Connecting to public WiFi can certainly be clutch when you’re lost or you need to do a quick search, but it’s not a private connection (be careful with the information you use on these networks!) and they aren’t always very fast or reliable.

For our third trip to Japan (November 2023), we got a rental wifi router (Pocket WiFi) and eSIMs for both our iPhones. The wifi router was mostly used when we were on our computers doing some work on trains or in our Japanese rental car.

But the eSIM really came in clutch when navigating a city, doing some quick research, or posting on Instagram. And we didn’t have to fiddle around with the tiny SIM cards.

So whether you choose to go with no Internet access (not advised in our opinion), a mobile hotspot, an eSIM, or a Japanese SIM car, we have good news for you:

Getting Internet connection in Japan is very affordable!

Japan Pocket WiFi Device and fall foliage

While Japan is a notoriously expensive destination, staying connected is surprisingly pretty cheap.

We’ll go over the costs below, but first let’s go over the 4 options you’ll have:

  1. Pocket Wi-Fi Device (aka portable hotspot)
  2. Japanese SIM card
  3. eSIM
  4. Add international coverage from your home cell carrier

Let’s start with number 4 because (spoiler alert!) we’re going to knock this one off the list right away.

Frankly, adding international coverage from your home service provider is the most expensive option. Expect to pay between $5 to $10 USD per day, depending on your carrier.

Not only is this option more expensive than the others, but often this option gives you a worse cell signal than you’d have by going directly with the local carriers. Plus, you’ll have no way of contacting the company locally if you run into issues.

For the purpose of this article, we’re going to delve into the first three options:

Pocket Wi-Fi, SIM Cards, and eSIMs

Disclaimer: Before we get into the nitty gritty, we want to note that there are affiliate links in this article. This means we receive a small commission if you purchase through our links. This is how we can continue to put together honest and helpful articles for readers like you. As with every single article on our website, our opinions are 100% honest and the main goal of this article is to equip you with information to make the best decision for you.

Japan pocket WiFi review

Japan Pocket WiFi Device

So what exactly is pocket Wi-Fi, you ask?

It is a small device that fits in your palm and creates an Internet hotspot. You can connect your phone(s), laptop, tablet, or whatever device you have that can get onto the interwebs!

There are many names for a pocket WiFi, here are a few you might see:

  • Portable WiFi device
  • WiFi Hotspot
  • WiFi router
  • Mobile WiFi router
  • Or, maybe all of them combine: portable mobile WiFi hotspot router device

Typically, once you log on to your devices, they should automatically stay connected. We were in Japan for 3 weeks, and our devices stayed connected to this hotspot pretty much the entire time.

Now that you know what it is, let’s talk about the pros and cons to see if it would work well for you.

Pros of Pocket Wi-Fi

  • Can connect up to 5 devices (JRailPass.com)
  • If you’re traveling with computers like us, it allows you to easily connect wherever you go. (Did someone say streaming Netflix on the trains?!)
  • A cheaper option if you split the device
    • If you are traveling as a pair or a family, you can all use this single device, keeping the cost low.

Cons of Pocket Wi-Fi

  • You have to physically carry the device with you.
    • The specific brands vary in size, but ours was small. It fit in the palm of our hand and came in a nice carrying case. Ben kept the carrying case in his pocket and used it to carry coins too, since some of those yen coins are worth almost $5 USD so we didn’t want to lose them!
  • If you were to forget this device in your hotel (or lose it!), you won’t have Internet connection.
  • You must charge the device.
    • Ours lasted us the whole day plus, so we never had the issue of it dying on us. But we did have to remember to charge it overnight.

Recommended Pocket Wi-Fi Companies in Japan

Japan Pocket WiFi Device and Solis WiFi

There are lots of great companies out there, and we suggest doing your research to compare them.

We’ve used two different pocket Wi-Fi brands and can recommend both of them for different situations.

  1. Japan Rail Pass Pocket WiFi: Not only is this the company we’d recommend getting your JR Pass from, but they also offer a Pocket WiFi rental service. The process is quite simple: Your device is mailed to your first hotel in Japan or you can pick it up at the airport, and return it in a prepaid envelope with which they provide you. You can connect up to 5 devices on this hotspot.
  2. Solis WiFiThis is a slightly different option, as you will purchase the actual hotspot device ($160 USD). This is a great choice if you travel to many different countries and want to bring a hotspot device with you. You can purchase packages through Solis for basically anywhere in the world. We used this device while traveling in New Zealand and had a good experience. You can connect up to 5 devices on this hotspot.

Pocket WiFi Prices:

For many companies, the price for a Pocket Wifi rental really depends on two things: days in use and the amount of data used.

The nice thing about Japan Rail Pass and Solis WiFi is they have unlimited data usage, meaning your internet will not be shut off once you hit a data limit. Solis does offer 1-month packages with data limits of 1 GB, 5 GB, 10 GB, and 20 GB.

Both Japan Rail Pass and Solis WiFi decrease their per day rate the more days you book it or the more data you sign up for. The prices for each are below:

Japan Rail Pass Pocket WiFi:

  • 7 days: $62.15 USD
  • 14 days: $91.62 USD
  • 21 days: $117.40 USD

Solis WiFi ($160 for device):

  • 5 GB: $30 USD
  • 10 GB: $35 USD
  • 20 GB: $48 USD
  • Unlimited Plan (20 GB, then lower after) 1 month: $99 USD
Japan Pocket WiFi Device and Solis WiFi

Our experience: We mainly used our pocket hotspot for our entire time in Japan during our trip in 2019. We had 4G service in all major cities, trains, and throughout the countryside.

The only time we lost signal or had a poor connection was when we went on the multi-day trek through the mountains on the Kumano Kodo Trail.

The battery on the hotspot lasted all day long and even if it did start to get below 20% we would plug it into the power bank that comes in the rental package. At night we would plug it in along with our phones to charge for the next day.

In the morning we would turn on the device, throw it in our bags and we were always connected. We didn’t even think about limiting our usage because the service was unlimited.

On our most recent trip in 2023, we traveled to some off-the-beaten-path locations in Japan so the service from the pocket WiFi was pretty poor. We reached out the customer service and they had us restart the device which only slightly improved our coverage.

The next time we traveled to Japan, we got a Pocket WiFi from Japan Rail Pass. However, we may have found something that we liked even better than the pocket wifi… keep reading

Process for getting the Pocket WiFi from Japan Rail Pass

Getting a portable WiFi device couldn’t be easier. When booking your pocket wifi, tell them when and where your first hotel is located and they will ship the hotspot directly to your hotel. You can pick up it up right when you check-in.

You can also have the device waiting for you at the airport at a kiosk. This is nice because then you can have Internet access while navigating to your first hotel.

Japan Pocket WiFi Device Return in Japan Post

In the envelope, there will be a return envelope that you’ll use to return the hotspot and cords when you are done traveling. Simply place the items in the return envelope and drop it in the Japan Post (to be safe, it’s best to drop it off directly at the post office, which most airports have them).

Japan Tourist Data SIM card review

Japanese SIM Card Tourist Golden Temple

This one is pretty self-explanatory. You must have an unlocked phone, but when you put a Japanese SIM card inside, you’ll get local signal and data, just like you would at home.

Good to know: All you need is a paperclip or an earring back to open the slot and get the SIM inside!

Pros of SIM card

  • Don’t have to carry anything extra (besides your phone).
  • Good for a solo traveler, or a couple who doesn’t need to connect more devices frequently.
  • Always connected; once it is in your phone, you don’t have to log in or do anything to get Internet.
  • It’s a cheaper option if you are a solo traveler.
  • Don’t have to worry about returning the SIM card after your travels.

Cons of SIM card

  • The only real con is that it’s really only meant to connect one device at a time. And if you only need to have Internet on your phone, that’s not really even a negative, now is it?!
  • Typically, the data SIM card is not available for calling or texting (data only). But most places you need to call or text prefer to be contacted via WhatsApp anyway.
  • It can’t be topped off if you need more data in the middle of your trip.

Recommended SIM Card Company in Japan

Similar to pocket wifi rental devices, there are loads of SIM card companies to choose from in Japan.

We decided to make things easy on ourselves and reserved our SIM card when we booked our Japan Rail Pass ticket. The Japan Rail Pass (or JR Pass) ticket is a train pass that allows tourists to ride pretty much any JR line rail throughout the country, including the super fast Shinkansen trains. It has literally saved us hundreds of dollars when traveling in Japan.

So when booking our Japan Rail Pass on JRailPass.com, we added a SIM Card for 30 days. The service they provide offers fast internet speeds and we never had an issue with speed.

Alternative: You can purchase a SIM card at Bic Camera once you get to Japan. However, they tend to have limited amounts of data (2GB, for example), and you’ll need to seek out a store once you arrive. For us, it was much more convenient to have it delivered to our hotel. One less thing to figure out!

Japan SIM Card Prices:

Japan Rail Pass offers two simple prices depending on how long you use it: $45 USD for 15 days and $52 USD for 30 days.

Data Usage on SIM Cards in Japan:

For Japan Rail Pass Data SIM Cards, there is a limit of 10 GB per SIM card no matter how long you use it. This is a major disadvantage in our opinion.

Process for getting the SIM card in Japan

Most companies have the option to have your SIM card delivered to your hotel in Japan so it’ll be ready for you when you arrive (and you won’t forget to pack it!). Hotels in the big cities in Japan are very used to this type of thing, so it’s not a big deal for them.

After your trip to Japan, you don’t need to do anything with your SIM card. You can keep it as a souvenir, or throw it away (properly).

So unlike a hotspot device that you need to return, you have nothing to worry about except going through sushi and ramen withdrawals… And we can’t really help you out there!

Japan eSIM review

Japan eSIM plan on Airalo Moshi Moshi WiFi

For years, people have been saying (and we are part of that group) to get a pocket wifi for traveling in Japan, and a SIM card is nice to have as an additional way to access the Internet.

However, times are changing, folks. In recent years, as recent as 2020, eSIM capabilities in smartphones have been changing the way travelers connect to the Internet while abroad. 

I am not going to bore you with the technical jargon, but essentially an eSIM is a universal SIM card that is permanently installed in your smartphone. Just by adjusting a few settings, you can change data plans and carriers without switching out the physical SIM Card. 

However, you need to purchase an eSIM in order to get the service in another country. Fortunately, eSIMs are very inexpensive and easy to install. 

We’ll talk more about this later, but if you’re itching to know, we recommend Airalo eSIMs for traveling in Japan. We bought plans for our last trip and it worked better than a Pocket WiFi and a physical SIM card

Pros to eSIMs in Japan

  • No additional devices or hardware, just your smartphone
  • High-speed internet, we were always connected to 4G LTE and some cities 5G
  • Download it straight to your phone
  • Inexpensive – some plans are less than $1 per day
  • Able to top up if you run out of data
  • Able to use your phone as a hotspot and work on another device
  • Great cell coverage throughout Japan

Cons to eSIMs in Japan

  • Have to buy a plan for each member of your group with a smartphone
  • The first time setting it up can be a bit tricky, but if you follow the steps below you will be fine

Recommended eSIM Company

We recommend Airalo for all our eSIMS on our recent travels. We have used Airalo on trips to Iceland, Mexico, Scotland, Ireland, Japan, and Thailand and we plan on using them for our upcoming travels. 

Airalo makes it so easy to download the app, purchase the eSIM, and link it to your phone settings. 

If you want to give Airalo a try for your next trip to Japan, download the Airalo app today and browse their plans

Prices

The best thing about getting an eSIM is that there are several options for data packages. And if you run out of data, you can always top off your data again with a few clicks.

Here are a few of the Airalo packages for Japan you can purchase:

  • Data: 1 GB Valid: 7 Days Price: $4.50 USD
  • Data: 2 GB Valid: 15 Days Price: $6.50 USD
  • Data: 3 GB Valid: 30 Days Price: $8.50 USD
  • Data: 5 GB Valid: 30 Days Price: $11.50 USD
  • Data: 10 GB Valid: 30 Days Price: $18.00 USD
  • Data: 20 GB Valid: 30 Days Price: $26.00 USD

How to download an eSIM for Japan

Japan eSIM Airalo Activation Process
Image Source: Airalo.com

Okay, so if there was a tricky part to getting an eSIM this would be it. There are several steps to the setup the first time, but there is one method that is way easier than the others. We’ll explain. 

But first, you should check if your smartphone supports an eSIM. As a rule of thumb, any phone made after 2020 should be capable. For example, here are the more common phone brands and models that support eSIMs:

  • Apple iPhone XS or XR or later
  • Samsung Galaxy S20 or later
  • Google Pixel 3 or later 

Next head to Airalo, browse the plans and select the one you would like. As a reference, both of us purchased the 10GB, 30 day plan for Japan. It was enough for Ben and his phone to use while navigating and driving, but I had to top off my data because I was constantly using data to upload Instagram stories and post. 

Once you purchase the eSIM, read the instructions, but don’t activate the eSIM until you are in the country otherwise your days will start counting and you can’t use the data. 

We typically load the eSIM while we are at the airport waiting for our checked luggage on the airport’s free WiFi. You will need WiFi or a hotspot to load the eSIM for the first time. 

There are three ways to can connect the eSIM to your phone:

  • Direct method
  • QR Code method
  • Manual method

We prefer to use the QR Code Method because it is way simpler and all you have to do is take a photo of the QR Code for it to start loading on your phone.

Here’s our trick: We take actually pictures of each others QR Code so that once we land, we can simply scan the code from the other person’s photos. 

For example: Katie purchases an Airalo plan, Ben takes a picture of Katie’s QR Code on her phone. When we land in Japan, Katie scans the QR Code (which is actually her QR Code) off of Ben’s phone. This begins the activation process. 

For the exact how to set up your Airalo eSIM, follow the instructions in your app, or follow one of these handy guide (and videos) below:

Which is better: Pocket Wi-Fi, SIM card or eSIM in Japan?

Japan Pocket Wifi vs SIM Card Orange Gates

The pocket Wi-Fi, SIM card, and eSIM are all great options as the service is pretty similar.

Aside from a few times that we were in rural areas (and in train tunnels!), we had good connection on both our SIM and our pocket Wi-Fi during our time in Japan. We had the best connection in rural areas with the eSIM.

They use the same service towers, so they seemed to mirror each other: When one had a strong connection so did the other. And when one had a weak signal the other did as well.

Our Internet speeds tended to be average (around 50-100 mbps) using both devices. We’ve had faster Internet connections in other countries, but we’ve also experienced much, much slower speeds.

What to wear in Japan

The real difference comes down to your needs:

Japan eSIM is best if…

…you want to travel like a local, like saving money and are good at following directions. Overall, we’d recommend an eSIM for traveling in Japan. It is cheaper than the other options, gives you more data with the ability to top off your data, and we had the best cell coverage throughout Japan compared to the other options.

Browse eSIM packages on Airalo now.

Japan SIM card is best if…

…you are a solo traveler; you’ll likely be just fine with a SIM. In the case that you need to connect your laptop or other device to the Internet, you might need to wait until you get to your hotel because you typically can’t open the hotspot function on your phone with this SIM card.

Having a SIM is a bit easier because you don’t need to carry anything extra with you and you don’t need to charge an extra device.

But what is even easier is setting up an eSIM, because you literally don’t need anything else but your phone. And it’s way cheaper.

Budget Tip: If you’re on a seriously tight budget and are traveling with a companion, get just one SIM card. The person with the SIM card can use it for navigating throughout the day and you can share headphones to watch videos on trains.

Then once you get to you hotel, you can connect to the wifi from the hotel and download what you need for the next day (maps, directions, videos, podcasts, etc.). This way you’ll have WiFi connection at half the cost.

Japan Pocket WiFi Device

Japan Pocket WiFi is best if…

…you are traveling with 2 or more people and need to connect multiple devices to the Internet at once, the best option will be the pocket WiFi.

Since we are constantly working on our laptops, this is the best option for us. Next time we come to Japan, we will get just the pocket Wifi rental device.

Should you get all three?

Short answer: Nope, not necessary. (We speak from experience.)

Having both a pocket wifi and a eSIM is overkill. We had each of them so we could test them out and go over their pros and cons, but there wasn’t really a benefit to having both at the same time.

Which company is best?

Honestly, I don’t think there is a huge difference on the actual connection you will receive, as most devices will connect to the same cell towers.  

Instead, it’s best to look at company reviews, pricing, and the simplest procedure for receiving and returning the device (if necessary), to find a company that will work well for your situation.

There are many great companies out there, however, we can only speak personally about the ones we have tried ourselves.

How did we choose these companies?

We have traveled to so many countries using Airalo as our data plan that it was a no-brainer.

We did quite a bit of research before deciding on Japan Rail Pass Pocket WiFi. It was just super convienent with booking the JRail pass at the same time.

For the SIM card, we booked through JRailPass.com because we used them during our first time to Japan and we trust the company. They provided excellent customer service for the first time around and I can say the same for this last time.

It was so simple to add on the SIM card in the same booking as our Japan Rail Pass. And if you just want the SIM card and not the pass, you can still purchase that too. But here are the reasons why you should look into purchasing the Japan Rail Pass.

Conclusion: (TL;DR)

Alrighty, this is getting to be a long and beefy article, so if you just want the gist, here ya go:

  • Staying connected to the Internet is important while traveling in Japan because it is very helpful with navigating the trains and translating Japanese writing.
  • The 3 best options for staying connected are downloading an eSIM, getting a Japanese tourist SIM card for your phone, or renting a portable WiFi hotspot device.
  • The SIM card and the pocket WiFi will give you a similar service and connection. The service from the eSIM was slightly better than the other two in our experience.
  • A data eSIM card is best for solo travelers or couples or those who only need Internet on their phone. We purchased our eSIM through Airalo, and it is cheaper than the other two options.
  • A Pocket WiFi is best for multiple people traveling together or those who need to connect multiple devices (like a laptop or tablet in addition to a phone). We used Japan Rail Pass Pocket WiFi and recommend it when traveling to Japan in a bigger group.

Are you planning a trip to Japan?

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Have questions?

Debating between the two options? Comment below and we’ll do our best to help you out!

Comments (14) on “Japan Pocket WiFi vs. SIM Card: Which is better?

  1. Nina says:

    Hi, this might be an unrelated query but you mentioned the Japan travel app (which I already downloaded, thanks for the info) is it worth purchasing the premium version of the app?

  2. Gigi says:

    Hi
    Thank you for this review. It’s very helpful.
    I would like to try FoxWifi as well but I found very little information outside your blog and the few others reviews are bad.
    Did they contact you or did you find them online?
    Thank you in advance!

    • Ben Zweber says:

      Hi Gigi, we actually no longer recommend FoxWiFi for these exact reasons. For a Pocket WiFi, we recommend getting it from Japan Rail Pass (link is in the article). We used them on our last trip in November 2023 and it worked well.

    • bwzweber@gmail.com says:

      Hey Jon, great question, and that’s why we answered it thoroughly in the section "Which is better: Pocket Wi-Fi or a SIM card in Japan?" But if you don’t want to scroll up a few swipes here is the short answer:
      SIM card is best if… you are a solo traveler; you’ll likely be just fine with a SIM.
      Pocket WiFi is best if… you are traveling with 2 or more people and need to connect multiple devices to the Internet at once, the best option will be the pocket WiFi device.
      Let me know if you have any more questions!

      • julie says:

        Great article and a dilemma that I will have in my upcoming trip to Japan. I did have a question. The pocket wifi company you recommended, is it truly an unlimited plan or is it still subject to Japan’s Fair Usage Policy (which throttles the speed once you reach the allotted data threshold)?

      • Ben Zweber says:

        Hi Julie, I guess I am not up to speed with Japan’s Fair Usage Policy, but from our experience, our pocket wifi didn’t seem to have any slower speeds the more we used it. Our eSIMs were better connected and faster if you’re concerned about speeds.

  3. jennyliu92@gmail.com says:

    Thank you so much for this thorough and helpful article! I actually opted to order the SIM card through the JR rail pass website, however opted to pick up at the airport because my boyfriend and I will be staying at an airbnb and not a hotel. Do you know where I would pick up this sim card from the airport upon arrival? (I did specify which terminal we were landing at). Much thanks and going to continue reading all of your helpful posts on Japan!!

    • Ben Zweber says:

      The customer service at the JR Pass website is pretty helpful and quick to respond. I’m sure you can coordinate with them where to pick up your SIM card at the airport. If it’s too late, then maybe you can just purchase an eSIM.

  4. Mcollinscalz@gmail.com says:

    Thanks for the guide, Ok most of the Pocket WiFi you have mentioned dont have international data plans. I would like you to create a post that address international data plans in relation to whicj country. For instance I know of rentnconnect which only offers their services to 156 countries, Skyroam which has 75 countries and AllDayWiFi which has 100 countries. Thank you

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