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Brought your cell phone with you to Italy? Great. Now, how the heck do you use it?
First, let’s clear up a little misunderstanding many people have about their phones in Italy: Almost all of your cell phones should work. Yes, even American cell phones. To make sure, check to see if your cell phone supports GSM 900 and GSM 1800 frequencies.
Here, though, is the trick: Unless you’ve set up an international package with your provider, making phone calls in Italy could be pretty expensive. So make sure you call your provider before you go to figure out how to arrange cheaper calls while abroad.
Another option – and one that will probably be more economical, at least for calling Italian phone numbers – is getting an Italian SIM card. That gives you your own Italian number, which is very useful: If you’re calling Italian numbers, you’re obviously being charged domestic rates, and your provider back home has nothing to do with it. And although most people say “Wait, I’m on vacation. What Italian number would I be calling?,” trust us: It can come in handy. If, say, you’re trying to make restaurant reservations, find out museum hours, check your Google maps (which you invariably want to do in Rome and most other large cities,) or even if you’re, ahem, running late for an amazing walking tour and want to let the company know, you’ll be glad you got that Italian number.
Your cell phone has to be “unlocked” in order to install a new SIM card, but most American cell phones are. To check, make sure that you can open up the back of your phone and take out the little chip there yourself. Buying a SIM card is also a lot easier to do than it seems. Just walk into any cell phone store – TIM, Vodafone, and Wind are three of the most popular – and ask for a SIM card. The only thing to keep in mind is that you want a “prepayed” card, not a subscription card. Most Americans are on telephone plans that bill them monthly whereas, in Europe, it’s not uncommon to essentially charge a card with minutes/texts/data every so often and then top it up when it runs out. You can buy a SIM card for as little as 5 euros, which gives you 5 euros worth of calls, texts, and data. Make sure you bring some form of identification with you when you go. (Remember, if you’re non-E.U., you’re supposed to have a passport on you at all times in Italy anyway).
If, at any point during your stay, you find yourself running out of credit, you can simply walk into a tabaccaio, as well as many supermarkets and ATMs, to “top up” your phone. You only need to do three things 1.) ask for a ricarica, 2.) tell the clerk who the cell phone provider is provider is, 3.) tell the clerk how much money you want.
Another option you have is just buying an Italian cell phone. You can get a phone, with 10 euros already loaded as credit, for as cheap as 30 euros. That way, you don’t have to worry about unlocking your own phone or switching SIM cards back and forth. And if you ever travel elsewhere in Europe, Africa, or the Middle East, you can switch out the SIM card and use the same phone. Because having your own Italian phone number is so handy, and so much cheaper, we generally recommend that you get your own SIM card or Italian cell phone if you are in the country for five days or more.
But what if you haven’t bought a SIM card, or don’t want to, and you need to make a call from your U.S. cell phone to a non-Italian number? Here’s how you’d do it:
To call an Italian phone number from a U.S. or any other non-Italian cell phone:
- Dial +. Your cell phone “knows” to replace that + with the international access code that you need to dial out of the U.S. to another country. Every cell phone has a + button; it’s usually the same button as the 0 or the *. To access it, try holding down either the 0 or the *, or double-tapping one of the two buttons.
- Dial 39. That’s Italy’s country code.
- Dial the rest of the number. Include the first 0. (When calling other countries, you drop that 0).
So: If someone hands you a card that says their Italian number is 0123456789, then, from your U.S. cell phone, even if you’re in Italy, you dial +39 0123456789. Got it?
To call a U.S. or other non-Italian phone number from an Italian phone:
If you’ve bought an Italian SIM card and are now trying to call the United States or another country other than Italy, here’s what to do.
- Dial 00. That’s Italy’s international access code. If you’re dialing from an Italian cell phone (or your phone with an Italian SIM), you can often just dial the +, no access code needed.
- If you’re calling the U.S., dial 1, the U.S. country code. If you’re calling another country, dial that country’s code (61 for Australia, 44 for England, 00 for Canada).
- Dial the rest of the number.
Once you have done it once, its pretty easy!