Postcards from Italy

Cellphones in Italy

It has become more and more important for travelers to have a working cellphone while abroad, both to be able to make and receive calls and to access the web. Everything from trip itineraries and maps to hotel and flight confirmations can be conveniently stored and accessed on smartphones, making travel logistics much more streamlined and easier to organize.


(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Though most new phones purchased in the US will work in Italy with an American cellphone plan, traveling with your US SIM card using roaming services can be prohibitively expensive; you can quickly accumulate hundreds of dollars of charges, especially for overseas data roaming. Before you leave, check with your carrier about international plans which give you competitive rates for calls, texts, and data. We recently used T-Mobile during our last Italy trip, and were very happy with the unlimited data and texts included in our plan.

If you would rather not switch plans, another option is to purchase an Italian SIM card for use in your US phone while in Italy, which is quite simple to do and relatively inexpensive. Here’s a quick guide:

Make Sure Your Phone Will Work

You’ll need an unlocked GSM cell phone that supports the GSM 900 and GSM 1800 frequencies, otherwise even with an Italian SIM card your phone won’t work in Italy. Almost all new smartphones and iPads are compatible, but some older phones may either need to be unlocked to work with another SIM card, or will not support both frequencies, so you should check first.

On the streets of Carrara: Girl with a phone

 (Photo by centralasian via Flickr)

If your carrier can’t (or won’t) unlock your cellphone, or you have a model that won’t support both 900 and 1800 frequencies, you can consider buying an inexpensive cellphone once you arrive in Italy with an Italian SIM card already installed (see below). For €20, you can purchase a basic cellphone, and for less than €100, a simple smartphone…either of which will work in Italy and usually come with a bit of credit included.

Purchase a SIM Card

You can purchase a SIM card for Italy prior to your departure from Cellular Abroad (use coupon code CIUMBRIA for $10 off), which may cost a bit more than buying one after your arrival in Italy, but is worth the extra cost for the convenience. By purchasing your SIM card from a provider in the US, you have the added benefit of an English speaking customer service center for any problems you may have with coverage or data.

Otherwise, you can purchase an Italian SIM card once you arrive in Italy. There are four major GSM network operators in Italy – TIM, Wind, Tre, and Vodaphone – and all have storefronts where you can purchase either a plan or activate a “pay as you go” SIM card. Often, larger electronics and cellphone stores sell SIM cards for more than one carrier in Italy, so you can more easily compare plans and prices. Though staff in airport and train station stores generally speak a bit of English, at stores in small towns or far from the major tourist destinations you may have trouble finding a clerk who can talk through the options with you.

You will have to provide identification to purchase a SIM card, so bring your passport along. Once you’ve inserted the new SIM card and set it up – an operation best done in the store and with the help of the clerk – it may take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or two to activate it.

Using your Italian SIM

Remember that once you’ve inserted your Italian SIM card, your US phone number won’t work, so be sure to save and share your Italian number with anyone who may want to reach you.

A Smoke and a Chat

(Photo by Lee Glickenhaus via Flickr)

If you have purchased a plan, you are set to go. If you have a “pay as you go” SIM card, you can add credit when you run out through your carrier’s website online and at newspaper stands, tobacco shops (tabaccaio), supermarkets, ATM machines, and cellphone stores across Italy.

Generally, SIM credit is good for 12 months. If a SIM card is inactive for 12 months, the phone number is deactivated, so if you travel to Italy often and want to keep your Italian SIM card, be sure to top off the credit online at least once a year.

Related Links

Wifi Access in Italy: How to Get Online

Travel Specialists

Maria Landers

Brian Dore