Published on: 9 April 2014 | Last updated: 16 October 2014
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There are a number of options available, including sticking with the the deal you already have from your UK operator, buying an Italian local SIM or getting an International SIMs. The choice will depend on how long you are in Italy, how many calls you expect to make and what sort of calls eg:
- receiving calls from home;
- calling home;
- calling numbers within Italy (eg checking whether a campsite is open).
Using your UK phone
If you are in the UK and already have a UK mobile and you are planning on travelling within Europe, then it may well be worth considering simply sticking with your existing phone and operator. When I first wrote this article in 2013 calls within Europe cost 35p/min, that cost (thanks to action by the European Commission) has fallen to 18p/min (receiving a call costs 4p/min), and roaming charges for calls are set to be abolished altogether (ie a UK phone subscriber will pay no more for making a call in another European country than they would for making a call within the UK. (The news on mobile internet isn't quite so good, while the EC has pushed down rates a lot, the costs are still prohibitive for anything more than emails or instant messages).
There are a range of deals available under a range of different names: opt-ins, add-ons, boosters. There's a helpful article on moneysavingexpert.com
An additional advantage of roaming is that your phone locks onto the best signal in the area, so if you are in a hole in operator A's network your phone automatically switches to operator B.
Travellers starting a European tour in the UK and wanting a phone for calling within Europe might want to consider buying a SIM from Tesco Mobile who offer outgoing calls within Europe for 18p/min. The SIM itself sells for 99p in Tesco supermarket checkouts and you can buy the initial top-up at the same time.
A note about phone numbers
If you are using your normal mobile in Italy, or a non-Italian SIM, it's worth remembering that in Italy you don't omit the first zero: so if the number is say 0123 456789 you dial +39 0123 456789.
There are a number of companies offering International SIMs. The most attractive feature of these phones is that they offer you a UK (+44) number (as well as a US number). Calls to this number are free to receive but the caller will pay the charge for calling a UK mobile number.
These cards are an option that's definitely worth considering if you expect to receive a number of calls from family and friends, but bear in mind the initial cost which is around £13-£15 - so you'd actually need to use it quite a lot before you break even.
For outgoing calls, in terms of call charges per minute International SIMs are not going to be the cheapest option for calls within the country you are visiting, they may actually also be more than the roaming charges for your normal UK mobile phone. But they do avoid the risk of having stranded credit, and they avoid having to tell people you've changed your number every time you buy a new SIM.
And then of course there's Skype. Everybody knows about the normal free Skype-to-Skype calls - which is a great option for friends and family. Skype also offer the possibility to make voice calls to fixed and mobile telephone numbers. You need to buy credit, but this is by far the cheapest option - especially if say you need to call an 0800 or 0845 number from a non-UK mobile (and expensive even if you do). IME the call quality was fine on a decent internet connection. The major disadvantage is that you have to find somewhere offering WiFi - so it's useful for calls home but not so useful if you're on the road and need to make a call to a hotel or campsite. (NB this is only the cheapest option if you are using free or WiFi connection).
The free Skype app for iOS and Android makes using Skype for phone calls very easy. There are other operators offering similar-ish services.
There are alternatives to Skype (like Viber and Google Hangouts). Lifehacker has a roundup of the mobile Voice over Internet Apps: (Lifehacker: 5 best VOIP apps)
Getting an Italian SIM
If you are planning to stay in Italy a while and want to reduce the cost of local calls and calls home then it may be worth considering getting a SIM from one of the Italian operators (TIM, Vodafone, Wind and Tre). As a guide I bought a Wind SIM this summer to 10 euros (5 euros connection and setup fee the rest credit). There may (as with Wind) also be an option, which costs a few euros more, which gives you cheaper international calls (ie calls from Italy to abroad).
This is an option that is worth considering if you are planning to be in Italy for a while or if you use your phone a lot for outgoing calls.
The credit on the card lasts indefinitely in theory (but I assume that if you don't use your number for a long time you will lose it), which is worth knowing if you are planning on coming back, but not much comfort if you aren't.
Step One is of course to ensure your phone is unlocked. You need to do this before you leave home.
Your best bet is to head for a specialist shop - the main operators (TIM, Vodafone, Wind and Tre) have a shop in larger towns, otherwise there are independent shops selling phones from more than one operator.
Make sure you have your passport with you, and that your phone is unlocked. Legally you will also need a 'codice fiscale' and an address, although in my experience the shop will be able to sort these out for you - especially if you go to a shop that has experience of dealing with travellers. The shop will make a photocopy of your passport, take your money, and your SIM should be active later that day.
The best bet for topping up is a tabaccheria (many bars can do this as well). Ask for una ricarica and then give the name of the operator and the amount eg una ricarica Wind di venti euros (20€). The shopkeeper/barista will enter your phone number into a terminal, ask you to check it, and then enter the amount. Your top-up should be active immediately. You may find it useful to write your number on a piece of paper or carry the card that came with the SIM.
You can buy scratchcards - these are also available in some supermarkets - but these are tricky to use if you don't speak Italian.
If for any reason you the shop can't provide you with a codice fiscale you can go to this site which calculates your codice based on your name, date of birth and . Legally speaking this is a presumed codice fiscale which isn't a substitute for the one issued to you by the Italian government (even though the actual number will be the same). It's fine for getting a mobile phone.
Wind had minimal initial bureaucracy, but if you then want to do things like top-up online or change add-ons you have to send a photocopy of your passport etc to their head office.
Wifi and mobile internet
Free WiFi hotspots
Until recently Italy had a law preventing unrestricted access to the internet. Intended as an anti-terrorism measure this held back the development of WiFi hotspots in hotels, and cafes etc. Fortunately the law is now being repealed and, at least in more studenty and touristy areas, wifi is becoming more common. My impression is that the majority of hotels and B&Bs have it, and customers expect it. Many local authorities are also now offering free wifi - often you can find it in the smallest of villages. The main piazza or outside the tourist offices are good places to check. However, there is a catch in that, to comply with the law you normally need to provide a mobile phone number: unfortunately many systems only accept Italian phone numbers - although a good number also accept mobile numbers from other countries.
Relying on free wifi is a reasonable option if you are light internet user and can go a day or two if need be without it, or if you are only in Italy for a few days.
Buying an Internet key
Update: Feel at Home from three
In summer 2014 the mobile operator three launched Feel at Home. For Mobile Broad this means that you can use your UK data allowance in any 16 'Feel at Home destination' in just the same way as if you were at home. These destinations include Italy, France, Switzerland and Austria. You can purchase a SIM card with 3Gb of data for £20.49 (2014 prices). The 3Gb allowance lasts for 3 months. If you aren't already a three customer and you want to use the SIM immediately you may need to buy an add-on - check with the shop staff. three may offer similar deals in the other countries where they operate.
If you are a heavy internet user - or simply willing to pay for the convenience, then you can buy an internet stick ('key' or chiavetta). As a traveller you're probably going to want to get a ricaricabile (pay as you go). Expect to pay a little under 20€ for the chiavetta which includes an initial allowance.
TIM (Telecom Italia Mobile) are the major operator with the best coverage. In October 2014 they were offering:
- 2 Gb per month for 10€
- 4 Gb for 20€
- 10Gb (4G LTE) for 30€
Rival company Tre Italia offered
- 4 hours in one day for 1€
- 15 hours in a week for 3€
- 100 hours per month for 15€
- they have also introduced a new tariff of 3Gb for 5€ per month
For both operators, you top up your account as and when, and you can use your new data allowance from the beginning of the new month (or week or day). This can be a pain if you use up your allowance as you can end up paying a more expensive rate for the data used.
With both operators there are offers if you buy a chiavetta and internet access at the same time.
If you have an unlocked key you might be able to buy just a SIM, but make sure that you get the APN and other settings for the operator so you can set up the device manually - it isn't as simply as swapping SIMs in an unlocked phone.
I have used Tre, TIM, and Wind. TIM has the most extensive coverage, but within the areas where it has coverage, Tre is a lot cheaper. Tre's coverage isn't bad (coverage map) so it's definitely an option worth considering - unless you are planning to spend a lot of time in the more mountainous areas and you can live with the occasional loss of service. Bear in that if start roaming onto another operator's network is expensive. So make sure that the option to roam automatically is switched off.
I wouldn't recommend Wind (although their voice services are fine) - when I tried them the service was painfully slow - but it may have improved since then. I've never used Vodafone.
A note for Mac users
If you are using a Mac then there is the additional headache of the software and drivers. My recent experience with the same model internet dongle (a Huawei E3131) from Tre Italia and TIM has been:
- the TIM software didn't work despite being claimed to work with my version of the operating system. The previous version did work but I had overwritten it with the software from the chiavetta;
- the Tre software does work but uses 12 per cent of the processor even when not actually doing anything.
In my experience, the most useful thing is an unlocked 3 Mobile WiFi device (other operators offer similar products) which means I can simply bypass the nightmare world of rubbish software and hunting for drivers.
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