If you travel with an unlocked smartphone (and you should), you really don’t want to access the Web overseas via your home mobile network. Not unless you can afford the second mortgage payments that data roaming requires, anyway.
For visitors to Italy, buying a local SIM card with internet access is as simple as 1-2-3:
1) Find a cellphone shop. All you need to do is find the tourist office or a friendly local and ask: “Sto cercando un negozio [INSERT NETWORK NAME… SEE BELOW]…?” Italians talk on their mobiles all day every day, and anywhere with more than about 100 inhabitants has a phone shop. Euronics superstores sell all the networks under one roof.
2) Remember your passport, or driving licence, or similar official ID. As well as cash or credit card, they are going to ask you for “un documento,” which they will photocopy. This is required by Italian law. If they also request a “codice fiscale” (a tax number), just tell them “sono un(a) turista.” Visitors don’t need one to buy a mobile phone.
3) Choose your network and tariff. If you’re only here temporarily, you want “una scheda ricaricabile, anche per navigare in Internet sul mio smartphone” (“a pay-as-you-go [PAYG] SIM that also connects to the Internet via my smartphone”). Make sure that you also register for a prepaid data option, as paying-as-you-browse for data is very expensive (for EU residents, not much cheaper than connecting via roaming).
As of August 2011, these are the best network-by-network deals on data in Italy:
[Update: the plans and prices as of May 2013 are here.]
TIM: the PAYG SIM card costs €10, which includes €5 of credit towards calls and data. The option “TIM PER SMARTPHONE” costs €2 a week for up to 250 MB of data. To activate it if you already have a TIM SIM, just text TIMSMART ON to 40916. This way avoids any “activation” charges that a shop might try to foist on you. It stays activated, automatically debiting your PAYG balance, until you deactivate it by calling TIM customer services on 119.
Vodafone: as with TIM, the PAYG SIM card costs €10, which includes €5 of credit. The data option “Mobile Internet” costs €3 per week for 250 MB… but the first week is free. You do the math. As with TIM, it renews automatically until you disconnect or run out of credit.
Wind: like TIM and Vodafone, a “SIM ricaricabile” costs €10, with €5 credit included. Wind’s “Internet No Stop Daily” option costs nothing to activate, and debits your PAYG credit €1 on every day that you connect to the Web. There’s a fair use limit, of 50 MB, and you pay nothing if you don’t use the Web on any day. Alternatively, “Internet No Stop” costs €5 to activate (free until September 4th, 2011) plus €9 for a month of traffic up to 1 GB.
3: Known as “Tre” in Italy, 3 charges more for SIM cards, so it only really makes sense for longer stays and/or heavy users. A 3 PAYG SIM card costs €30, which breaks down as €7 for the SIM and €23 credit preloaded on it. Thirty days of data, with a 3 GB limit and a daily ceiling of 100 MB, costs just €5. Note that, in my experience, you’re more likely to have connection problems with 3 in rural areas. Cities should be fine, but if you’re lodging in the sticks, ask locally about network reception.
iPad travellers: As with smartphones, seek out a “SIM per iPad ricaricabile.” A Vodafone microSIM costs €10, which includes €5 of credit. You then have the option of paying to connect daily (€2 “al giorno” only when you use the Web; fair-use limit) or prepay for a month (€9 “al mese” for 1 GB). 3 microSIMs again are more expensive, but €5 buys you 3 GB of data which—and this is the really good bit—you can also use back home if your home country has a 3 network. Currently, that’s Australia, Austria, Denmark, Great Britain, Hong Kong, Ireland, and Sweden all covered by their free option called “all’estero come a casa.” I’ll leave it up to you to calculate if it’s worth packing an Italian 3 microSIM to carry home with your souvenirs and novelty grappa.
This post took lots of time to research, and I’m very happy to share my knowledge here for free. I hope it saves you a bundle. If you’d like to drop a few coins in the box to say thanks, I’d be very grateful; just click the button:
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