Updated: Dec 30, 2019
It’s a question we’re asked quite frequently: Will I need my phone in Italy? And it’s a question that isn’t quite as easy to answer as it might seem.
These days we all want to remain connected with friends and family (I won’t mention work) when travelling. But using your phone when overseas without racking up huge fees or international data roaming charges can be a challenge. A search on Google will bring up any number of nightmare stories, with insane charges for people who turned on their data for a short time to check Google Maps or forgot to turn off international roaming. And no-one wants that.
One solution, of course, is to simply leave your phone at home. If you want to shut yourself off from the world, this might have some appeal. But your mobile phone can come in very handy when you’re travelling, so do you really want to leave it behind? And so here are a few options to consider, and the best thing is that the first one is free!
So let’s start with Option A: Take your phone but turn off data.
Why do this - you might ask - if it means you can’t use your phone as it was intended? Well, for a couple of reasons...
First and foremost, most modern mobile phones have very good cameras and it's super handy to be able to take out your phone to snap a few photos whenever you want.
Secondly, the availability of free WiFi in Italy has exploded in recent years. Your hotel will almost certainly provide this (all hotels we use on our tours of Italy do), as will many cafes, bars and restaurants, as well as retail shops and even in public spaces. Almost every city in Italy offers some kind of free WiFi access, and it's usually quite good.
WiFi not only means you can browse the internet and check your email; you can also watch shows on streaming services such as Netflix plus it enables the use of any number of social messaging apps that will allow you to send texts, messages and even make phone calls all for free. Apps like Whatsapp, Skype and Facebook Messenger are easy to use – simply download the ones you want onto your phone before you travel, and away you go!
But your phone can also come in very handy even when you can’t connect to WiFi due to the number of free GPS-supported maps programs that are available. There are a number of these available. Many people use Google Maps (you do need to set it up for offline use); we use one called maps.me (we have no relationship with the company). Before you go to a new location, you just need to make sure you download the map file for that location. Then when you open the program, it will show your location without the need for WiFi or data of any kind. You can even enter a destination and it will show you the way (and track you as you go). When you use the trains in Italy it is really useful, as you can see where you are, which towns you are passing and which station is coming up next. All for free!
If you decide this is the way to go for you, just make sure you turn off international roaming and your mobile data, or even better: turn on airplane mode (you can turn on WiFi even while airplane mode is turned on). We even advise that from time to time you check these remain turned off.
So even without a phone plan, your mobile can be very useful to you, but what if you still want to use your phone just as you do in Australia? Well, then you have Option B: Get an international roaming plan from your phone provider.
Most Australian telecom providers offer international roaming packages. They each differ from the other in terms of price and inclusions, but if you really do need your phone overseas this is the easiest solution (although sometimes not the cheapest – and also there can be limitations. My own plan, for instance, offers a good deal for phone calls but very limited data – which I find very frustrating… more about that later). As everyone has a different phone/provider/plan, it is difficult to make any recommendations here, except to say: check the options on your provider’s website and give them a call.
But maybe your provider doesn’t offer a plan? Or perhaps it’s too expensive or doesn’t offer the number of calls or level of data you require. Well, there are still some ways to make things work for you, the first being what, until a few years ago, was the default action: Option C: Buy a pre-paid SIM in Italy.
The main telecom provider in Italy is TIM (there are others, such as 3 and Virgin). Until a few years ago, we would go to a TIM shop once we arrived in Italy and purchase a pre-paid SIM card, which offered some calls and texts, but usually no data. The plans have changed, but these days they don’t come close to what our homegrown providers offer for international roaming, so we no longer recommend doing this.
We do, however, purchase a stand-alone data plan from TIM as we have a small travelling modem we use when in Italy, but we do that for two main reasons. Firstly, we’re in Italy for 5-6 months of the year, so buying a modem is more cost effective for us than someone only going there every few years. Secondly, we want to be able to access data wherever we are – even when driving through the Chianti countryside or on a small boat on the way over to the Isle of Capri. It really helps in the management of our tours plus it ensures we are well-connected at all times which is important for the safety of our guests. So clearly, this isn’t something for the everyday traveller.
Now, there is a way though that you can access calls, texts and data that is more cost-effective than using your provider, and that is Option D: Buy a pre-paid SIM before you travel.
Whilst these have been around for a few years now, the number of providers and the options they offer have really evolved. A simple Google search will bring up any number of options, and so long as your phone isn’t locked to your network – or if you have space for a second SIM card as many modern phones do – this option can offer great value, especially if you are looking for plenty of data.
We can’t necessarily rate all of the different providers, but we will use one as an example. On one of our May 2019 tours, one of our lovely guests let us know of the plan she had purchased through an Australian company called Sim Corner, which offers a range of plans: data only or data and calls. Our guests had it on one phone and used that to hotspot to their other devices, which gave them lots of flexibility. They were very happy with their purchase and when we checked out the website so were many others. It’s an option we’ll be considering in the future.
So, there you have it. In summary, there are advantages to taking your phone with you overseas even if you don’t use it as a ‘phone’ and just use WiFi. If you do want to use it as you usually would, there are a few ways to do this; from getting an international roaming plan from your provider to purchasing pre-paid SIM cards - either before you leave Australia or even when you arrive in Italy.
The most amazing thing is how much easier it is to stay connected these days. It seems like only a few years ago we were spending a fortune on postcards and stamps – not to mention making expensive long-distance phone calls to stay in touch with folks back home. Nowadays it’s almost like they are there with us wherever we go, and we think that’s kinda nice…
If you come on any of our guided tours of Italy, we’ll give you further advice on the options available to you to remain connected on your phones and other devices. Because we liked what we saw, we have established an arrangement with Sim Corner that provides us with a small commission for sales directed through this website.