Published on: 9 April 2014 | Last updated: 5 April 2018
All change …
A lot has changed since I published the first version of this article. The European Commission first proposed legislation to reduce roaming charges in 2013. When I wrote the first version of this article, charges for voice calls had started to come down, but data roaming charges were still very high. In June 2017 the process was completed when the European Commission announced the end of roaming charges for travellers in the Europe Union.
Roaming …the small print
If you already have a mobile phone with a SIM from a European mobile phone operator, then it's probably best to stick with your existing SIMünchen, unless you are a heavy data user, you're planning a long tour, or you like the idea of a phone number your boss doesn't have. However, there are some strings to be aware of.
Roam Like at Home applies to the countries in the European Union and to Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein. It doesn't apply in Switzerland — although some operators may include calls etc to/from Switzerland in their allowance. This is something to bear in mind if you are travelling in Switzerland, or in a border area where you might find the phone connecting to a Swiss network.
Roam Like at Home doesn't apply in the Vatican City and San Marino — although I'm don't know whether either has a separate mobile phone network (although the Vatican does have its own postal service).
The other European countries that aren't part of the European Union, and where Roam Like at Home doesn't apply are: Andorra, Albania, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, and Ukraine.
'Fair use' limits
Mobile phone operators are allowed to apply 'fair use' limits to the amount of data you can use, so you may not be able to use your full data allowance for free.
There are also limits on how long you can spend abroad before the operator can apply roaming charges, but the good news is that these are probably not going to be an issue unless you are on a really long tour. The rules are that if, over a four-month period, you have been abroad more than at home the operator can write to you asking you to 'clarify your position'. If you continue to spend more time abroad than you do at home and your roaming consumption continues to exceed your domestic usage your operator may start applying a surcharge.
There's a cap on the surcharges — and these reduce year by year. For more details see the factsheets you can download from ec.europa.eu: Roam Like at Home and another page of FAQs. ec.europa.eu: Roam Like at Home FAQs .
Buying a SIM in Italy
If you're not covered by Roaming Like at Home, then you'll need to buy a SIM. The mobile phone market in Italy is competitive, and getting a SIM is pretty easy. You could, of course, buy a SIM in another country if that is more convenient. Probably the only potential advantage in buying a SIM outside Italy 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 another operator with coverage in the area (if there is one).
The major operators in Italy are TIM (Telecom Italia Mobile), Vodafone, Wind and Tre (the last two are now part of the same group, although still operating as separate brands). Other operators that might be worth a look are PosteMobile and CoopVoce — linked respectively to the the post office (Poste Italiane) and to Coop supermarkets. CoopVoce use the TIM network while PosteMobile use the Wind network. The Coop has a ChiamaTutti-Bici where you can increase your data allowance by cycling — 300 kilometres cycling increases your monthly allowance by 3Gb. You need to download and set up the app (search 'ViviBici' on the iOS App store or Google Play).
I have used Tre and TIM. TIM had the most extensive coverage, but now that Tre and Wind have merged, I'm assuming that they will be sharing their networks (see the Wind coverage map). Bear in mind that if you start roaming onto another operator's network, it can be expensive. So make sure that the option to roam automatically is switched off.
The magic word
The Italian equivalent to the term Pay as You Go is ricaricabile (as opposed to an abbonamento). Generally the operator deducts its charge every four weeks until your credit runs out.
Some deals offer a discount if you set up a ricarica automatica paid from your credit card, but the easiest option is simply to pay for what you need when you get the card. If you need to, you can always top-up your credit.
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.
If for any reason you the shop can't provide you with a Codice Fiscale you can go to this site: codicefiscale.us which calculates your codice based on your name, date of birth and . Legally, 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.
The best bet for topping up is to look for a tabaccheria, or bar, that sells lottery tickets (SuperEnalotto). Ask for una ricarica and then give the name of the operator and the amount eg una ricarica Wind di venti euros (20€). You may find it useful to write your number on a piece of paper or carry the card that came with the SIM so that you can hand it to the shopkeeper/barista, who will enter your number into a terminal, ask you to check it, and then enter the amount. Your top-up should be active immediately.
You can buy scratchcards - these are also available in some supermarkets - but these are tricky to use if you don't speak Italian. Or even if you do.
A note about phone numbers
If you are using your normal mobile in Italy, or a non-Italian SIMünchen, 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.
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 (although possibly not such a great option for other people trying to use the campsite wifi at the same time). Skype also offer the possibility to make voice calls to fixed and mobile telephone numbers. 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.
The free Skype app for iOS and Android makes using Skype for phone calls very easy. There are other operators offering similar-ish services.
Wifi is also pretty much ubiquitous in bars, restaurants and hotels. Many towns offer free public hotspots; sometimes you'll find wifi even in the smallest of villages. Most campsites offer free wifi — although you may find the occasional exception where you have to pay.