Using cell phones in Italy: dos and don’ts

After we finish booking the hotels, activities, and restaurants for our travelers, we send them a pre-trip checklist. This list includes advice on packing, technology, guidebooks, phrase books, travel insurance, driving, and more. We make sure that they leave for Italy prepared! Also on that list: using cell phones in Italy. Here are our dos and don’ts for a successful trip.

Using Cell phones in Italy

Don’t get a burner phone or plan to swap out your SIM card.

Remember the days when you’d arrive in Europe and buy a “burner” phone? It would have a local number, which you’d send to anyone who needed to get in touch with you. After your trip, you’d throw it out or put it in a drawer to save for the next trip.

Even until about 5 years ago, I would arrive in Italy and buy a SIM card with a local number. I’d swap it out with my North American SIM and use my own phone but with an Italian phone number. It was a hassle for many reasons, but a big cost savings.

Neither of these approaches is necessary any longer for short trips. The good news is that these days, using cell phones in Italy is simple. You can plan to use your own cell phone for your trip.

Do sign up for an international plan.

Do not forget to do this. If you get on an airplane, land in Italy, and turn on your cell phone without an international plan, it will be expensive. All major US cell phone carriers offer international plans that have become very reasonably priced in the past few years. Call your carrier and get the details. Make sure your plan includes talk, text, and data.

My own example: when I went to Italy in 2016, I purchased an international plan from my carrier (AT&T) that was about $250 for a 2-week trip. When I went to Italy in June of 2017, I paid half of that.

Also, the 2017 plan was less complicated. In 2016 I had to choose the amount of data I thought I would need, guesstimate minutes of phone calls and predict the number of text messages I’d use. In 2017, I simply paid $10 / day and I could use my phone the same as I use it in the US. Different carriers have different plans, but using cell phones in Italy is no longer as expensive as it once was.

Using a cell phone in Italy

Do learn how to dial phone numbers using the + sign.

Chances are if you’ve never needed to make a phone call from Europe, you’ve never used the + sign on your phone’s keypad. Using cell phones in Italy requires it. Here’s why:

  • Every single call you make from Italy will be an international call. Even a phone call from your US phone number to another US phone number, in Italy, will be an international call.
  • Therefore, every number you dial will need to have a country code in front of it. The country code for Italy is 39. The country code for the US and Canada is 1.
  • Every international call must begin with the + sign. Dialing 011 to make an international call (as you do when making international calls from the US) will not work from Italy.
  • When calling or texting fellow travelers, you may need to update phone numbers in your phone book. Every phone number must have a + sign and a country code in front of it. For example, if you wanted to call me: in the US (dialing from a US number), you could just dial 773 621 3024. From Italy, you would need to dial +1 773 621 3024.
  • The + sign can be found by holding down the zero on the phone keypad.

Do install WhatsApp.

Italians don’t like text messages because they are charged for each message. Instead, they use WhatsApp, which uses a very small amount of data.

If text messages are included in your international plan, by all means, text each other. However, when you need to text Italians (tour guides or drivers for example), they will appreciate it if you use WhatsApp instead.

Don’t run out of battery.

You may leave your hotel room at 9 am and be out & about for 10 hours. During that time, you’ll use google maps, take photos, post on social media, send messages, and more.

In my experience, the limiting factor in using cell phones in Italy is no longer data use, but battery life.

Don’t count on being able to recharge your phone at a cafe or restaurant. If your phone battery won’t make it through a full day of sightseeing, bring a backup battery.

Do remember that smartphones are attractive to thieves.

During your Italy trip, you should ideally take out your phone, use it, and put it away. Don’t leave it sitting on the table at an outdoor cafe if someone walking by could grab it. Don’t carry it in a shallow pocket, especially in train stations or crowded areas.

Keep your eye on it and treat it as a valuable item. Store it inside your bag, in a zipped pocket. Cell phones get stolen in Italy all the time, and rarely get recovered.

Don’t expect fast and reliable Wi-Fi at hotels (even five-star hotels).

I don’t know the reason behind this one. All I can tell you is that I have planned hundreds of trips for Italy Beyond the Obvious travelers, and received detailed feedback on this topic so I can speak far beyond my own personal experience.

It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s a luxury hotel or a budget B&B – Wi-Fi can be slow or unreliable. If you will need a reliable and secure internet connection while in Italy, I would recommend getting a MiFi device.

Sometimes, using cell phones in Italy can be frustrating. Just expect this, and if you get great Wi-Fi, consider it a bonus.

Do take advantage of having a smartphone on your trip.

I don’t need to tell you why using cell phones in Italy is useful. But, there are some specific ways to take advantage of this tool on your Italy trip.

  • Install Skype on your phone and use that to make international phone calls. Skype uses data rather than talk minutes, which are more expensive.
  • Activate the instant translation functionality in Google Translate. You’ll then be able to point your phone’s camera at any written word for instant translation. This is the single most useful thing you can set up on your phone before you go.
  • Use Google Maps to navigate (but also have a paper map). Hooray! Google maps works in Italy (although not perfectly in Venice). Also, before you go, download offline maps of cities and towns you’ll be visiting so you use less data.
  • Download free Italy audio tours of main sights from Rick Steves.
  • Buy the Kindle or pdf versions of guidebooks. That way you can read historical information on your phone and save the weight of carrying paper in your suitcase.

Using Cell Phones in Italy — Pin it!

 

 


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Posted by on Dec 11, 2017 in Planning Your Italy Trip | 4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Joe M
    December 13, 2017

    I’m not so sure I agree with your idea of retaining your own USA based cell plan. Even with AT&T’s International Day Pass at $10 per day, that’s $140 for two weeks. In contrast, you can buy a TIM for Visitors plan from Telecom Italia for only € 30, which includes an Italian phone number, a SIM, 4GB of data, and 100 minutes of local and international calling for a 30 day period. That seems a far better choice for people who will not be using their phone heavily during their vacation.

    Reply
    • Madeline
      February 12, 2018

      That’s an excellent point, Joe, thank you for your comment!

      Reply
  2. Jim Marinelli
    February 12, 2018

    Joe, Thanks for the info. I was in Florence the month of August 2017 & I purchased a 30 day
    SIM card “special of the month” deal, 30 days and 1000 minutes special. A short time later I
    discovered the minutes special was for 1000 minutes Local & 1(one) minute International.
    I’m returning for 5 weeks in April 2018, but, this time I’ll do my due diligence for sure.

    Reply
  3. MM
    February 21, 2018

    I agree with Joe. The past few years I have purchased a SIM card from WIND for $25 for 30 days, etc. and if I run out of minutes, I buy a card at tabacchi shops or bars even in small villages for 5, 10 euros. Works like a charm, and you know what you are spending.

    Last year I started out using Sprint’s int’l plan, but once we were in the countryside I had too much trouble using the Internet with it. We were stranded while driving, not able to use maps, or look up restaurants and sights. As soon as I got back to Florence I bought the WIND SIM as always, and the rest of our trip was easy.

    Reply

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