There are two kinds of visitors that come to Rome: those who spring for the international plan with their cell service provider for the peace of mind in case their group should get split up, and those that live off WiFi wherever they can find it. Due to the way cell service contracts work in the US, picking up a cheap SIM card in Rome isn’t always an option for American travellers abroad. Inexpensive “dumb” phones are available and offer a good backup solution for making calls and texting – especially good if you’re planning on moving around Italy. Or if you have an “unlocked” phone which can host a European SIM card, we’re putting together this brief guide to obtaining a SIM card in Rome.
Cell service costs are no where near the investment they are in the states. It’s possible to purchase a new SIM card, activate it, and top it up with minutes, texts, and a data plan for around €20. Individual providers will offer their own packages and many (TIM, for example), have packages especially designed for the needs of visitors to Italy here for a limited time.
We’ve included links to the biggest cell service providers in Rome. For accurate costs, you can visit the website below or find the nearest branch and speak with someone directly.
Data plans are usually more important for international travellers than making calls and texts. Unlimited plans for cell phones are rarely available or convenient. Instead plans will advertise a number of GB (anywhere from 1GB – 9GB) included in the plan. This may be hard to translate into typical online navigation time, but consider that in a typical month 3-4 GB are perfectly sufficient for normal online surfing.
If you need to add money to your cell phone plan (or “Top Up”) you can do this at nearly any Tabacchi (indicated by the “T” sign outside the door) or newsstand. There are two different methods for topping up: 1) automatically: ask to add a specified amount to your phone and the clerk will ask you for your cell service provider (TIM, Wind, etc.) and your phone number. (S)he’ll type it into the system and you’ll receive a text confirmation that you’ve added money to your account. 2) Manually with a card: some businesses won’t have the automatic machine or it won’t be working and will instead sell you a card that you’ll need to do the operation yourself. Instructions are written on the card, but you simply scratch off to reveal the code and can either call or text the specified number to insert the code and top up the amount of the card.
Not all cell services have the best coverage in your neighborhood. This may sound strange, but the truth is that in Rome certain cell services provide better coverage in certain neighborhoods or quadrants of the city than others. The best way to discover which cell service company is best of you is to ask local residents what service they have! It’s very simple to change SIM cards in Italy (while maintaining your number), so it’s not uncommon for Italians to change their service provider frequently to take advantage of special offers or if they experience changes in the quality of their coverage.
*It’s important to note when discussing cell phone coverage that ancient cities like Rome were not designed with cell coverage in mind. It’s very common that service will drop as soon as you enter a building. There may be some variation for certain circumstances with different providers, but in general it has to do with the strength of the signal and the thickness of the walls. It’s very common to find Italians speaking on the phone outside their window or on their terrace, because it may be the only place in their house where they can make and receive calls.
Registering a new SIM card only takes a few minutes. You’ll be required to provide some form of identification (your passport, generally) and, of course, a phone that can host a foreign SIM card (e.g. an “unlocked” phone). Plans are usually Pay-as-you-go, so you may pay the first month but there is no credit card required or ongoing contractual agreement to continue paying for any service. If you are travelling for just a few weeks, you will only need to pay for the first month and the SIM activation fee.
*None of the phone company websites are available in English, but you can use your browser’s translation function to translate the content for information and find your nearest location.
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Did you purchase a SIM card during your stay in Rome? Share your experience in the comments below!