How To Get Cellular Service in Italy (and still have money left over for that Armani suit)


Oh, how things change. Using your cell phone while traveling overseas was once so unbelievably expensive that it wasn’t even a question – these days, when our mobile phones are far more than phones, it’s a question many travelers are asking. To help you figure out whether it’s a good idea to bring your current cell phone with you to Italy – and to sort out your other mobile options if that’s not going to work – here’s Sebastian Harrison from Cellular Abroad.

Currently, approximately half of all cell phones in use in the United States and in Canada are compatible for use in Italy. The good news, then, is that 50% of the travelers from the US and Canada going to Italy can retain their current number and use their phone as if they were calling from home – which may be bad news for those who don’t want to be bothered while on vacation.

An additional consideration is the rate you’ll pay. Rates for making and receiving phone calls are about $1.00-1.30 per minute (plus tax) from US carriers and about $2.00 per minute for customers using Canadian carriers. Luckily, there are other more cost-effective solutions that are easy to tap into. We’ll explore those options below, along with some common questions about using cell phones in Italy.

Will my current cell phone even work in Italy?

If the cell phone you use in the US or Canada has the 900 as well as the 1800 MHz bands, your phone will work in Italy. As a rule of thumb, most AT&T, T-Mobile and Rogers (Canada) cell phones will work in Italy, and most other companies’ cell phones, such as Verizon and Sprint, will not. Check with your carrier or search the specs for your phone online to make sure your phone has the correct 900/1800 bands.

How do I use my current cell phone while I’m in Italy?

Once you’ve figured out if your cell phone will work in Italy, you have a couple of options. The first option is to go ahead and roam with your current service provider. This is an excellent solution in terms of convenience for those who don’t mind spending their hard-earned (or not-so-hard-earned) cash speaking to everyone and anyone who has your usual number and wants to get hold of you. For the rest of us who don’t have the luxury of talking away our money, the best solution is to put an Italian SIM card into your cell phone.

All major carriers in the USA and Canada lock their cell phones to their own service. You cannot simply put in, for example, an AT&T SIM into a T-Mobile phone. This is because they usually lose money on the device itself but, since they make monthly profits locking you into a contract, they don’t mind this initial loss. Still, they want to make sure that you are on their service and not someone else’s.

This locking, however, also means that you cannot put an Italian SIM card into your phone unless you get it unlocked. In virtually all cases, US carriers will provide you with the unlock code as long as you have been a customer for at least 60 days. On the other hand, no Canadian carrier will unlock your phone. If you cannot get your phone unlocked, there are plenty of online websites that, for a fee, will unlock your phone. (Unlocking a phone isn’t without risks, namely to your phone’s warranty, so be sure to read the fine print before you do this.)

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Okay, I’ve unlocked my current mobile phone – now what?

Once you get your phone unlocked, you can get an Italian SIM card. Here you have several options.

The main carriers are Vodafone, TIM and Wind. Vodafone and TIM have great coverage, Wind, generally speaking, has better rates but inferior coverage. There are also a handful of other companies using Vodafone, TIM or Wind’s towers but branded under other banners (Uno Mobile, Poste Mobile and MTV are but a few).

You can either purchase an Italian SIM card in Italy upon arrival or prior to your trip. Getting the SIM card in Italy will be less expensive but also less convenient. It means you will not have the service in hand as soon as you get there and people will not know your phone number prior to your trip. It also means you will have to go to a cell phone store, fill out some documents, show your passport and wait until your service is activated. Still, you stand to save about $25-$30. If you speak Italian and/or are strapped for cash, this may be your best solution. (Here is my not-too-pretty recent experience getting a data enabled SIM card through Vodafone for my iPad.)

Another alternative is to get the SIM card before your trip. There are two Italian SIM cards currently being sold in the US and Canadian markets – TIM and Uno Mobile (Vodafone). Here are the main differences between the two:

  • The Uno Mobile SIM card is already registered (no passport information required), has English prompts and customer service. The rates are as follows; free incoming, 0.18 Euros per minute for calls within Italy and 0.35 Euros per minute calling to the US or Canada.
  • The TIM service offers free incoming calls, 0.55 to call to North America and local calls vary depending on the “profile” you get. Furthermore, you need to scan your passport in order to activate your SIM card.

As the Uno Mobile SIM card was created for the English-speaking traveler to Italy, it is certainly much more convenient than other services and less expensive to use. It is available online through Amazon.com and Buy.com and others as well as through CellularAbroad.com (my company – we specialize in international SIM cards and can give better customer service than Amazon, Buy.com, etc.).

My current cell phone won’t work in Italy, or I don’t want to unlock it – what are my options?

As with the SIM card, you can wait until you get to Italy and buy a complete phone/SIM package or you can buy or rent one here in the US before your trip. Cellular Abroad offers these kinds of packages, or you can buy a cell phone elsewhere (such as eBay) and get the SIM online.

If you are going to buy or need to buy a cell phone for Italy, in almost all cases, I recommend a simple and affordable one that has 900/1800 MHz bands (remember, it needs to be unlocked!). Usually, the more expensive ones have more features that you will probably never use and there is a learning curve to figure them out. Unless you have a degree from MIT, you probably would prefer something very intuitive while on vacation.

What about data plans for mobile phones in Italy?

As far as data goes, there are some excellent data plans on Italian carriers’ networks. Italy is one of the most expensive countries for calling with your cell phone within the country, but one of the least expensive for data service. Don’t ask me why.

For data service, you can pay by the megabyte, by the hour, by the week, or even by the month. For about $30-$40, you should be able to get unlimited data for 30 days.

Special Cellular Abroad Offer for WhyGo Italy Readers

Cellular Abroad is offering a 10% discount to all WhyGo Italy visitors. Be sure to mention WhyGo Italy when you call (1.800.287.5072) or, if ordering online, enter promo code WhyGoItaly. Go to CellularAbroad.com.

Now that I have helped you save money for that Armani suit (or Prada bag), here is one more tip – buy it in the US… It’s less expensive than in Italy!

photos, top to bottom, by: emilio labrador, time stands still, jayneandd, jaybergesen


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