Italy has been drawing in tourists of one sort or another for thousands of years, and 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 dozens of other reasons, it’s no surprise at all that nearly 50 million people a year choose to spend their vacation in Italy.
With Wi-fi, public or otherwise, often being slow and unreliable, it’s a good idea to pick up a local SIM card if you can. Prices are reasonably cheap, at least if you go with a reseller, and 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.
There are four different cell networks in Italy — TIM, Vodafone, 3 and Wind — along with various resellers selling 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 well-worn tourist track, check coverage maps before buying your SIM.
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 seem to be everywhere, including a little store selling SIMs and topups for various providers a few minutes from my house.
After waiting for a few minutes 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 in Verona — 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 before I was handed a SIM card pack and a printout 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 — but when I tried to add the credit as per the instructions, 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, finally requiring borrowing another customer’s phone to put my SIM in and add the credit from there.
After that, I used that 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 — which means taking the SIM card extraction tool with you if you need one. Just like I didn’t.
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:
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I paid €5 for a voice, text and data SIM with no credit, and €5 for a 1GB data package valid for 30 days.
It’s apparently possible to get the SIM card for free in certain Italian supermarkets, 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.
Various call and SMS packages (including international) are available from €7, or you can buy an “all-in-one” package with 200 national minutes, 100 national SMS and 1GB of data for €12.
If you want data, but only need to make a few calls and texts, I’d suggest getting the data package and just adding a few extra euros of credit when you top up.
Casual rates are €0.09/min to call a national landline, €0.12/min to call a national mobile, €0.12 for local SMS and €0.15 to send a text internationally.
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.
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. Speeds weren’t blistering anywhere, but at around 5Mbps down and 1.5Mbps up, they were perfectly fine for most uses.