Before we traveled to Italy for the first time, I did a lot of research on how to use my cell phone. I had a vague notion that I wanted to use Google Maps (not always a great idea, but a post for another day) and Google Translate as a backup for my own nascent Italian skills, but I didn’t know how.
What I did know is that while not having service can be super peaceful, it can also leave you feeling stranded in a strange place when you know a map, a quick phrase lookup, or a Foursquare tip could make your day infinitely better.
And what I learned from my research is that there’s an easy way to get service by getting a SIM card in Rome’s airport for a reasonable amount of euros, but it’s also pretty easy to get scammed. So here’s how to use your cell phone in Italy:
TIM is Italy’s national phone company (think AT&T in days of yore). Like a lot of things in Italy, it’s not always the fastest or most reliable, but it IS the best option. It’s cheap, easy to obtain, and the most straightforward way to get a SIM card.
Here’s why you want to use TIM: They have a special tourism deal that gets you a SIM card and a month of service with 100 minutes of talk and 4GB of internet for about €20. Full disclosure, I remember this being a little more expensive (maybe €10 for a SIM card and perhaps I upgraded the data plan), but it is still the best deal you’re going to find.
In fact, if you’re landing in Rome, there is now a TIM store in Rome’s Fiumicino airport in the shopping area to your right after you exit customs. (It wasn’t always there and makes things infinitely easier!) The TIM workers speak English and will install the SIM for you, which makes this super easy.
Note: Like most things in Italy, it’s not instantaneous like in the US, so once you purchase the SIM, it takes an hour or so for service to activate. You can keep your SIM card for a future return, but will probably have to activate it in person at the airport if it hasn’t been used in a while.
I’ve heard decent things about Vodafone and they’ve got a tourist deal as well, but it might not give you enough data for a week or two of travel, especially if you’re using Google Maps for GPS and directions. I learned the hard way that Google Maps uses *A LOT* of data.
But the biggest reason I don’t recommend Vodafone is that you can’t buy a SIM and activate it in the airport. If you’re headed straight into Rome and want to find a Vodafone store, it’s probably a decent option. But if you’re renting a car and want to hit the road, you’ll be hard pressed to easily find a store where you can activate a SIM.
It’s easy to refill a SIM card to “top up” your service in Italy (you can do this at any tobacco shop), but it’s a little harder to find a store that will sell you a new SIM and activate it, or to restore lapsed service.
When you get off the plane, there will be some very nice people standing at a a sales kiosk offering SIM cards for tourists. Whatever you do, DON’T DO THIS.
They will sell you a very bad plan for a very high price. Like €150-200, rather than the €20-40 you’ll pay TIM. They’re good salespeople and they’ll even take your phone from you “to make sure the SIM will work,” but don’t fall for it.
This is perhaps an equally bad option to the airport kiosk. Both of these companies charge huge fees for overseas service, and you can be stuck with hundreds or thousands of dollars of charges. Don’t even think about it. 🙂
Bottom Line: Get TIM Service
For me, the answer is really easy. Head to the TIM store in the airport and get your SIM. Everything else is either a ripoff or a hassle.