I love hearing from readers. Especially when they report back on my advice or pose questions that could make excellent articles for the blog. This article was the result of Emily C., a reader.
I would love to read an article on how to use your phone (voice, text and data) while you are on vacation in Italy. How much is it, what providers are available, how much they cost, and how do you get your U.S. smartphone to work with an Italian data plan? Do you need a new SIM or instructions in English? Although I have seen some suggestions that a disposable phone can be purchased in Italy or at an airport kiosk, I would like to receive specific information and recommendations.
Emily, thank you so much!
The answer was simple when I first began spending significant time in Italy. Don’t use your U.S. phone. It’ll be expensive. The advice was to purchase a cheap phone in Italy, and then equip it with a SIM card for local calls. However, times have changed and this is no longer the best option.
How to use your cell phone in Italy
There are many options for staying in touch with your loved ones while you travel in Italy. Unfortunately, there’s no one way to tell you which option is best. Here are some suggestions and things to keep in mind when using your cell phone to travel to Italy.
Allow an International Plan
This is the plan I have chosen over many years. Although the plans have improved and are less expensive, the basic idea is still the same. First, ask your cellular provider if your model of phone will work in Italy. If it does not, then notify your phone provider that your plans are international. Sometimes, you will only pay for the data you use. Other times it may be a package deal that includes a fixed amount of data usage. This option is very simple, as you don’t have to purchase a separate phone or SIM card. You can use your phone just like you would at home.
My experience is that phone calls cost too much per minute. I try to avoid calling unless it is absolutely necessary. But even that is changing. My current carrier, XFINITY Mobile charges only 10C per minute for international calls to Italy. I remember Verizon charging $2 per minute years ago. Although I won’t make a lot of calls, the cost is much lower than it was in the past.
Each carrier offers different international plans. The rates also vary depending on where you are traveling. While I assume that you are going to Italy, you may also be traveling to France, Switzerland, or other countries. You’d need to be familiar with the rates of each country.
You should check with your cell company to determine their international rates and plans. This will allow you to know if your model of phone is compatible in Italy, and then decide if you would like to use your tablet or phone in Italy. It is important to pay attention to costs for calls and texts made vs. calls and texts received. These can sometimes be different.
Sidebar It is important to remember that every call made from Italy by a non-Italian mobile phone to make calls to Italy will be considered international. Calls to Italian numbers and calls back home are all considered international calls. This means that you will need to add the plus sign (+), and the country code at each phone number. Italian numbers start with +39, while U.S. numbers start with +1. (View a complete list of country codes. Press and hold the zero key until multiple options appear. Then, choose the plus sign.
Get an Italian SIM card for your phone
Unlocked phones can be purchased an Italian SIM card at the airport and used to travel with. If you open your phone’s back or side, you will be able to pull out your existing SIM card. You can also check with your carrier. This will explain what a SIM card is and what it does.
This is something I haven’t done – I have never taken an unlocked U.S. cell phone on my Italy trip – but it’s a great option for many travellers. If you intend to make a lot of calls to Italy, or if your Italian phone number is needed so that people in Italy can contact you, this might be a good option. An Italian SIM will save you money for every local call, as all calls to your home phone will be international calls (see the “Sidebar”) above.
You can get a SIM card for Italy by bringing your passport to one the mobile phone shops. It doesn’t matter what brand you choose, but you will need to buy prepaid cards to that company whenever you need more minutes. Wind, TIM and Vodafone are the three main brands. The SIM cards come with a few euros already on them. However, this runs out quickly. The prepaid cards, also known as a “ricarica”, are sold by most tobacco shops. You can then add more to your SIM. Just make sure you know what company’s SIM is in the phone.
You should be aware that SIM cards can be tiny, so take care when swapping them. You should also ensure that they are stored in a safe place when not being used.
Get a Cheap Mobile Phone in Italy
It was what I used to do for a few weeks in Italy. This was partly because I didn’t have an unlocked smartphone and partly because international plans were still ridiculously expensive. I don’t think this is something I would recommend to anyone, unless your phone has an unlocked SIM or you don’t have any mobile phones to take on the trip.
It’s common for a phone to come with credit on it, just as with an Italian SIM card. It’s possible to top it off in the same manner as you would any SIM card in Italy by buying a prepaid card at the tabaccaio of the same company that produced your SIM card.
Don’t think I’m talking about buying an expensive smartphone to replace your Italian phone. The phone I purchased years ago was from an era when you could only call or text. (And just barely, as you would have to press the key three times to reach the third letter). Although it is not ideal for texting, it can be used to make or receive local calls at a low cost.
How to Reduce International Roaming Fees on Your Smartphone
It doesn’t matter which option you choose, if you don’t take precautions, you could end up paying a lot to use your mobile device while you’re abroad. These are some ways to reduce your smartphone and tablet usage, which will help you keep your phone bill down.
Stay with WiFi Only
This is the best option. You won’t have to worry about data usage if your phone is in airplane mode and WiFi is enabled throughout your trip. WiFi is often available in hotels, and you can use it to check your train schedules or update social media before you go. WiFi is not always available in public places, but it is more common than you might think.
Even if you stay in a luxurious hotel, WiFi may not be fast enough. One Amalfi hotel that I stayed at was exceptional. It offered free WiFi but it was in a historic building with walls up to 2 feet thick. This meant that signal strength was almost non-existent if you were not in the lobby. In other words, you shouldn’t expect to be able to upload all your photos to Instagram in one day.
Consider purchasing a Mifi device if you absolutely need reliable WiFi in Italy.
Download tools to use offline
Access to maps is one advantage of traveling with your smartphone. These maps are however a major data user. To keep my mobile map usage to a minimum, I download offline maps of cities to help me plan. There are many apps available for this purpose, both free and paid. Some of these files are quite large, but you can still use them as much as you like without worrying about a map taking up too much of your data. You won’t always see the little blue dot indicating where you are, but you can still navigate using your eyes.
Currency converters, Italian to English dictionaries and walking tours are just a few of the other useful tools for offline travel. Check out the apps in your app store to find what’s new. Make sure you also check for offline capabilities.
Remember that Amazon’s Kindle app allows you to download your Italy guidebooks directly to your smartphone or tablet, and then use them offline!
Keep in touch with your friends and family by using apps
This is something you may not know: Texting can be expensive so Italians try to avoid it as much as possible. Most Italians instead use WhatsApp. It works exactly the same as texting but uses less data than regular texting. It doesn’t matter if you plan to text a lot of Italians, but it’s worth having WhatsApp on your smartphone. It may be necessary to send a message to a tour guide that you are meeting. To make the app work, both you and the other person you are texting must have the app downloaded and signed in.
FaceTime and Google Hangouts are great options to connect with family and friends while on the road. These apps can be used with WiFi for free, but both the caller and the other person must use the same program. FaceTime is for Apple products; Google Hangouts is for Android. You can use WiFi to text and video chat as long as that box is checked.
Skype can be another great app if you don’t have the exact same device as the people you are trying to reach. It’s also free to make and receive calls via WiFi from one Skype user, to another.