Using a cell phone in Italy

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:

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.

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