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Italy has been drawing in tourists of one sort or another for thousands of years. It’s not hard to see why.
Long before the ‘eat’ part of Eat, Pray, Love, stomachs around the world have been dragging foodies towards the pizza, pasta, and hundreds of regional dishes around the country.
From the history of ancient Rome and medieval Florence, to the romance of Venice, fashion of Milan, and more, it’s no surprise nearly 50 million people a year choose to spend their vacation in Italy.
With Wi-fi often being slow and unreliable, it’s a good idea to pick up a local SIM card. Prices are reasonably cheap, at least if you go with a reseller. Although the process isn’t as straightforward as some other countries, service and coverage are reliable once you’re actually set up.
Here’s what you need to know.
Note: Italy is part of the European Union, which introduced new roaming regulations in June 2017. These “roam like at home” rules effectively ended roaming charges across much of Europe, meaning you’ll usually pay no more for calls, texts, and data in other EU countries than you would in the country of purchase.
There are some exceptions and limits, however. Double-check the details at time of purchase if you’re planning to use your SIM elsewhere in the region.
There are four different cell networks in Italy, TIM, Vodafone, 3, and Wind. Several resellers also sell services on one or more of those networks.
Vodafone and TIM (and resellers using their networks) have the greatest coverage, with Wind and 3 trailing behind. You should be fine in any of the major centres, but if you’re heading off the tourist trail, check coverage maps before purchase.
I decided to go with Lycamobile, which had the cheapest prepaid rates and uses the widespread Vodafone network.
Although ultimately successful, the purchasing process was far from straightforward. As in many other European countries Lycamobile signs seemed to be everywhere, including at a little store close to my accommodation in Verona.
After waiting for the owner to finish her heated argument with a customer, I asked about buying a Lycamobile SIM. Fortunately she spoke good English, despite being outside the tourist area — my Italian isn’t exactly passable.
My passport was required, and it took about ten minutes for the various photocopying and data-entry tasks to be completed. I was handed a SIM card pack, and a printed voucher to top up my credit. I returned home, inserted the new SIM and… nothing happened.
After rebooting the phone, I received a confirmation message advising my service was now active. When I tried to add the credit as per the instructions, however, I received a message in Italian saying the service wasn’t available.
In the end, I needed to return to the shop for another 15 minutes of troubleshooting. In the end we had to borrow another customer’s phone to put my SIM in, and add the credit from there.
After that, I used the credit to add a data pack, entered the required APN details, and was finally good to go. All in all, it took at least an hour start to finish to get everything working.
My advice would be to make sure everything is working perfectly before leaving the shop. That may mean taking the SIM card extraction tool or a paperclip with you to swap the SIM card instore.
To add the data pack, I entered: *139*1001#
APN details were in the brochure at the shop, but strangely not part of the SIM pack in Italian or English. They were:
Prefer to spend your vacation sightseeing instead of buying SIM cards? Grab one in advance to stay connected in Italy and across Europe.
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Other options are available if you're traveling for longer, need a portable hotspot, or want a different mix of calls, texts, and data. Either way, you'll be connected with a minimum of fuss before you've left the airport.
It’s apparently possible to get the SIM card for free in certain Italian supermarkets and other chain stores, but you’ll likely be on your own if you need to sort out any problems. I prefer to buy mine from shops that specialise in selling them, for that reason.
As a result, I paid €5 for a voice, text, and data SIM with no credit, and €5 for a 1GB data package valid for 30 days.
If you need more data, it’s pretty cheap — €7 for 2GB, €10 for 4GB, etc. You can find all the options here, under the “Data” tab.
If you want voice and text, and/or will be visiting other EU countries and want to take advantage of free roaming, look at one of the “National” bundles instead. As an example, €10 gives 600 domestic calls and texts, plus 2GB of data, valid across the EU for 30 days.
You can buy top-ups anywhere you see a Lycamobile store, which as mentioned seems to be about once per city block. Lycamobile has an English version of its website, including both a store locator and online top-up system if you’d prefer.
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Coverage and Data Speeds
As expected, coverage wasn’t much of a problem anywhere during my trip in northern Italy. I had full service in Venice, Verona, and Milan, and most of the countryside on the train route between them all.
Things were a little more hit and miss with data connections around Lake Como, but getting away from stone buildings always helped. 3G/HSPA+ speeds weren’t blistering anywhere, but at around 5Mbps down and 1.5Mbps up, they were perfectly fine for most uses.
Check out our guides to buying SIM cards in many other countries here.