Using Your Cell Phone in Italy (Without Spending a Fortune)

creative commons photo by Clem Onojeghuo
creative commons photo by Clem Onojeghuo

I really like hearing from readers, especially when you report back after using my advice or you pose questions that would make great articles for the blog. This article is the result of the latter, a question that came to me from reader Emily C.

“I’d love to see an article about how to use your smartphone (voice, text, and data) while on vacation in Italy. What providers are available without a contract, how much does it cost, and just exactly how do you make your U.S. phone work on an Italian data plan (do you need a new SIM card, which providers give instructions in English, etc.). I’ve seen suggestions that a disposable phone bought in Italy or at an airport kiosk is the way to go, but I would very much like specific information and recommendations.”

Thank you so much for the question, Emily!

When I first started spending a significant amount of time in Italy, the answer to this question was pretty straightforward – don’t turn on your U.S. cell phone, period, because it’ll cost a small fortune. Instead, the advice was to buy a cheap mobile phone in Italy and equip it with a prepaid SIM card to make local calls. Times have changed, though, and that’s rarely the best idea anymore.

How to Use Your Cell Phone in Italy

The good news is that you have a lot of options when it comes to keeping in touch via mobile phone when you’re traveling in Italy. The bad news is that there isn’t a blanket statement I can make that authoritatively says one option is always best. So here are some of the things you can do, as well as some things to consider, when you’re planning to use your cell phone in Italy.

public domain photo

Enable an International Plan

This is the option I’ve personally chosen for many years now. The plans themselves have changed – they’ve gotten better and cost less – but the gist is the same. You first ask your cellular carrier if your phone model will work in Italy (if not, you can stop reading this section now), then alert your phone provider that you’ll be traveling to Italy, and they’ll turn on an international plan of some kind. Sometimes that’s a package deal with a certain amount of data usage for a flat fee (no matter how much data you actually use), sometimes you’ll only pay for what you use. This option is super easy, since you don’t need to get a separate phone or deal with a SIM card, you just use your phone like you normally would at home.

In my experience, phone calls still cost enough per minute that I avoid making calls if possible (though it’s nice to have the option for emergencies), but even that’s changing. International calls with my current carrier, XFINITY Mobile, are only 10¢ per minute from Italy (I remember seeing $2 per-minute charges on Verizon years ago!). I still probably won’t be making oodles of calls, but the cost is significantly less than it used to be.

Not only does every carrier have different plans for international cell phone use, the rates differ depending on where you’re traveling. (And yes, I assume you’re going to Italy if you’re reading this, but you might also be visiting France or Switzerland on the same trip – or occasionally travel to other countries besides Italy! – so you’d need to know each country’s rates.)

The bottom line here is that you’ll need to check with your cell phone company to find out what their international plan options and rates are so you’ll know if your particular phone model will work in Italy and then whether (and how much) you want to use your phone or tablet in Italy. Pay attention to things like costs for calls or text made vs. calls or texts received, which are sometimes different.

Sidebar: It’s important to note that when you use your non-Italian cell phone to make calls from Italy, every single call is considered an international call. Calls to Italian numbers, calls back home – all of them. Which means you’ll need to include the plus sign (+) and the country code at the beginning of each phone number. Italian numbers begin with +39, U.S. numbers with +1. (Find a complete list of country codes here.) To add the + to the start of every phone number, press and hold the zero until you see multiple options pop up, then choose the plus sign.

Get an Italian SIM Card for Your Phone

If your phone is unlocked, you can purchase an Italian SIM card when you arrive in Italy and swap your main SIM card to use your phone while you’re traveling. You’ll know if your phone is unlocked if you can open the back or side of it and pull out the existing SIM card, or you can check with your carrier. (And if you’re not sure what the heck a SIM card is or what it does, read this.)

cc photo by Simon Yeo
cc photo by Simon Yeo

I’ve never gone this route – I’ve never had an unlocked U.S. phone with me on Italy trips – but I know this is a great option for many travelers. It might be right for you if you plan to make lots of calls to Italy numbers, or if you need to have an Italian phone number so people in Italy can call you without the expense of an international call. And since all calls made on your home cell phone will be international calls (see “Sidebar” above), having an Italian SIM also saves you money on every single local call you make.

To get a SIM card in Italy, bring your passport to one of the mobile phone shops – it doesn’t matter which you choose, just know that you’ll need to purchase prepaid cards for that particular company when you need more minutes. The three major brands are Wind, TIM, and Vodafone. SIM cards usually come with a few euro already on them, but that runs out quickly. Most tobacco shops sell the prepaid cards (called a “ricarica” in Italian) so you can add more to your SIM – again, just know which company’s SIM is in your phone.

(Note that SIM cards are blasted tiny little buggers, so be careful when you’re swapping them. Also, make sure you’ve got a secure place to store them when not in use.)

Buy a Cheap Mobile Phone in Italy

This used to be what I’d do for anything more than a week or two in Italy, partly because I didn’t have an unlocked phone and partly because the international plans were still mind-bogglingly expensive. Nowadays I don’t think I’d recommend this to many people, unless your phone isn’t unlocked (or you don’t have a mobile phone to bring on your trip in the first place).

As is the case with getting an Italian SIM card, when you buy a cheap phone in Italy it’ll usually come with some credit already on its SIM card. You can top it off the same way you’d top off any SIM card in Italy, by purchasing a prepaid card at a tabaccaio that’s made by the same company that made your SIM card.

Keep in mind I’m not talking about buying a fancy smartphone as your Italian cell phone – the one I bought years ago is from the era when all you could do on a cell phone was call or text (and just barely, since you’d have to press a key three times to get to the third letter). It’s hardly ideal for quick texting, but it’s a good option for making or receiving cheap local calls.

How to Minimize International Roaming Charges on Your Phone

No matter what option you choose, using a mobile device from home when you’re in Italy can cost a pretty penny if you aren’t careful. Here are a few ways to limit your smartphone or tablet use, which will keep your phone bill low.

creative commons photo by Tookapic
creative commons photo by Tookapic

Stick to WiFi Use Only

This is the no-brainer option. If you keep your phone in airplane mode with the WiFi enabled for your entire trip, you’ll never run the risk of using data if you haven’t gotten an international roaming plan. Your hotel is likely to have WiFi (sometimes free, sometimes not), so you can log in to update social media or check train schedules before you start your sightseeing or when you’re back in your room at day’s end. Some public places have WiFi, too, though it’s not as common in Italy as you might be accustomed to at home.

Unfortunately, even if you’re staying in a fancy hotel, WiFi isn’t necessarily going to be very speedy. I recall one exceptionally nice Amalfi hotel I stayed in that offered free WiFi, but the fact that it was located in an historic building with walls 2-3 feet thick meant that if you were outside the main lobby the signal was essentially non-existent. In other words, don’t expect to upload a day’s worth of photos to Instagram in a flash.

If you absolutely must have reliable WiFi in Italy, consider getting a Mifi device.

Download Tools to Use Offline

Having access to maps is one of the great perks of using your smartphone when traveling. Those maps, though, are major data users. I try to keep my mobile map usage limited, and download city maps to use offline instead. There are lots of app options for this, some free and some paid, and some of them are pretty big files – but the benefit is that you can use them to your heart’s content without fear of a map slurping up all your data. No, you won’t have the little blue dot telling you precisely where you are at all times, but you can always navigate the old-fashioned way – using your eyeballs.

Other handy travel tools that work offline are currency converters, Italian-to-English dictionaries, and walking tours. Browse your app store of choice to see what’s available – just be sure to look for the app’s offline capabilities.

And keep in mind that with Amazon’s Kindle app you can download my Italy guidebooks right to your smartphone or tablet and use them completely offline!

Use Apps to Stay in Touch

Here’s something you might not expect – texting is expensive for Italians, too, so they try to avoid it at all costs. Instead, most Italians use WhatsApp. It functions exactly like texting, except that it uses much less data than normal texting. Whether you think you’ll be texting a bunch of Italians or not, it’s a good idea to have WhatsApp on your phone. You may need it to send a note to a tour guide you’re meeting, for instance. Note that both you and the person you’re texting with need to have downloaded and signed into the app in order for it to work.

To connect with friends and family while you’re traveling, consider using apps like FaceTime or Google Hangouts. These are free to use with WiFi, the only caveat being that both people on a call need to be using the same program – FaceTime for Apple products and Google Hangouts for Android products. As long as you’ve got that box checked, you can text and have video chats for free on WiFi.

Skype is another great app to have, if the people you want to reach don’t have the same type of device that you do. Again, it’s free to text or make calls from one Skype user to another on WiFi.

5 responses to “Using Your Cell Phone in Italy (Without Spending a Fortune)”

  1. Turnbull, Richard says:

    Whats App is GREAT but you must tell family and friends that they need to have Whats App on their phones as well for it to work!

    • Jessica says:

      Yeah, I thought I mentioned that, but I now see I didn’t! I’ll fix the article now. 🙂

  2. Linda says:

    Great info for first timers. Thanks you for taking the time to write this article to educate us prior to travel.

  3. Greg Speck says:

    Always enjoy your advice. For the last two years I have purchased a TIM 30 day “Tim in viaggio pass” for 30 Euros. The plan changes but right now it is 10 Gid Data, 500 Min and 500 SMS in Europe and USA. Of course you need an unlocked phone to do this. The link is here.

    Best part is take the document you receive from TIM to a TIM store. They will set up your phone and it will be workign before you leave the store. The stores are all over italy, I have used the one at Rome FCO airport and one in Milano and they are very helpful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.