Friday, September 30, 2011

Choosing An Italian Cell Phone

I interrupt this blog to bring you factual information from the Stoic One.  You didn't think I would give you useful information on this subject did you?

Just like many of you who travel internationally for pleasure or business, we use cell phones to stay in touch with home and to make local calls while in country.   Over the years we have gone through many different solutions to having a cell phone in Italy.  We started by renting a European cell phone before leaving the US but eventually graduated to buying an unlocked phone and country specific SIM card through a US company that included an initial small amount of air time and could be recharged, kept and used for future trips.  SIM cards are the little electronic chip that actually makes your phone work, and they are tied to a specific carrier.  This has the advantage of letting you keep the same phone number on subsequent trips but limits the type of plan, and the air time charges, to what the US company offers through their partner.

One of the ways a supplier makes money on the deal is through the premium they charge on the recharges, or top ups, that they sell you.  If you buy your top ups from the US company that sold you the SIM card, which you may need to do if they partner with one of the smaller carriers whose recharges aren't widely available in Italy, you will pay a rather large fee for that convenience.  For example, the last company we used partnered with Uno Mobile in Italy and charged $26 for 10 Euros of air time.  Even taking currency conversion into consideration, that is a profit of about 85% on the air time they were selling.  For the last few years, we have also had our IPhones which work here but are a bit expensive at anywhere from $1.00 to $1.40 per minute of use for both outgoing and incoming calls, not to mention the cost of an international data plan for internet access.  Oh, and then there's the international texting plan that we just can't do without.   As you can see, these solutions weren't particularly low cost.

So, given that we are spending a lot of time here, I decided that it was time for us to get our own Italian cell phone numbers through an Italian carrier and set out to research the various options.  The first thing I learned is that more people rely on cell phones here as their primary phone than in the US.  They are also a lot more comfortable with the "pay-as-you-go", or prepaid, plans than is common in the US.  This allows them to switch between carriers as the mood strikes them while avoiding the dreaded multi-year service contract that we are all familiar with.  Having the latest and greatest phone seems to be less of a driver here, as well, but you can certainly sign up for a contract and get a new phone at a discount just like in the US, if you want.  For example, an IPhone 4 is offered through almost all of the major carriers but it comes attached to a 30 month contract.

There are basically four major cell phone companies here in Italy:  TIM, Vodafone, Wind and Tre (which is Italian for 3).  There are other mobile virtual network operators (like Uno Mobile here or Virgin Mobile in the US), but I wanted to stick with one of the big four.  One of our other considerations was the likelihood that we would be making calls back to the US, so I wanted a combination of low cost in country calls along with the cheapest international calling plan that I could find.  I also did not want to sign up for a contract plan partly because I figured that it would be a problem given that I don't have an Italian credit card, and I just didn't want the hassle.  So, I was left with looking for a prepaid plan with one of the major carriers.  As far as easy recharging goes, they are all about the same with many places to get top ups ranging from the grocery store to every bar in the country to even your local ATM.

The biggest players are TIM (Telecom Italia Mobile) and Vodafone (London based and part owner of Verizon in the US), and I decided to concentrate on them as they also offer landlines and in house internet services.  They offer similar plans and pricing is about the same.  With the prepaid plans you usually trade off a lower per minute charge for a connection fee that you pay each time you make a call.  For example, the typical in country call would cost 8 to 10 cents per minute with a 16 cent connection fee or 18 to 22 cents per minute with no connection fee.  The typical charge for calls to the US was about 50 cents per minute.  Both TIM and Vodafone offer international calling plans that include a good price on in country calls with a reduced cost for calls internationally.  TIM's was the most straight forward at 16 cents connection fee per call, 8 cents per minute in country and 20 cents per minute to the US (and most of Europe).  Strangely enough, Vodafone offered an international calling plan that did not include calls to the US.  Their plan for reduced cost calls to the US required that you sign up for a prepaid plan and then activate the international calling feature.  At least that's what they said on their web site.  I did look at the other two carriers just for comparison and discovered almost the identical plan to TIM's with the addition of an additional small monthly or semi-annual fee.  So, armed with all of this knowledge I set off to acquire two SIM cards for the two unlocked cell phones that we had brought with us.  Here is where the real fun begins. 

There are only two places in Umbertide that sell mobile phones and SIM cards.  The first is Formica, which is a general electronics and home appliance store and Telefonomio, which specializes in cell phones.  They are almost directly across the street from each other and represent almost the same carriers.   Formica represents TIM along with the other three major carriers and Telefonomio no longer represents Vodafone, despite the sign over their door, and does not represent TIM.  I set off to Formica with my translator, Simone, in tow.  There is only one person in the store who handles cell phones and there is always a line of people waiting to speak with him.  There were 3 people in front of us when we arrived at about 7:00 on Wednesday evening.

Formica - Appliance store in Umbertide
Telefonomio - Cell phones in Umbertide

We patiently waited our turn and told him what we wanted.  He immediately told us that TIM was the best option and explained that Vodafone's international plan did not include calls to the US.  As I knew that TIM was the lowest cost option, I was OK with that and told him that I would like two SIM cards.  He told me that I could only have one because they only had one in the store.  He figured that he would have more in the next day or two.  If the warehouse had them in stock.  OK, welcome to the reality of shopping in a small town that doesn't sell many international SIM cards.   I gave him my passport, my codice fiscale (tax ID number) along with a local address and proceeded to buy the one he had for Susan's phone.   I figured I would come back for the other one later.

So, for the next two days I walked down to the store and waited in line only to be told that he didn't have another SIM card.  I think he finally told me that the program was finished, so I went back to looking at Vodafone and the other carriers.  As it turns out, Vodafone had just come out with a new program that did include the US but required a two step process to get it (as previously described).  I set out to find a Vodafone store that could help me and turned to their web site to find the closest store.  Interestingly enough, they did not list Formica when I input Umbertide as my location on the Vodafone search page.  They listed several stores in Perugia and a couple in towns north of us.  Susan and I set off to one of the Perugia stores that was located close to the autostrada and, most significantly for me, not in the centro storico.

Imagine our surprise when we walked in and discovered.....A MALL!  Yes, a real Italian mall with a McDonald's, a Timberland store and a Media World store (think Fry's) that sold cell phones and SIM cards for all the major carriers.  This was the store that the Vodafone web site had directed us to and had identified as one of their full service locations.  We quickly located the correct counter and found a salesperson who spoke some English.  I told her what we wanted and she told me that my options were TIM and Wind.  For a moment there I thought I was back in Umbertide talking to the guy in Formica.  I told her that I had seen an international calling plan on the Vodafone web site.  She then went to a computer and explored the Vodafone web site only to return to tell me that in deed Vodafone did not offer a plan.  Oh, and by the way, she didn't have any Vodafone SIM cards anyway.  She did, however, have a TIM SIM card for the very plan that I had gotten Susan and for half the price (10 Euros vs 20 Euros) that I paid in Umbertide.

The Mall

So, we both now have our very own Italian cell phone number complete with a reasonable calling plan for calls within Italy and back to the US.  It took longer than I would have thought before I started the process, and I went down more dead ends than I would have in the US, but I wound up with exactly what I wanted in the end and we have the extra benefit of having discovered the mall.


  1. I live in London(UK) but most of my relatives lives in other countries so i wanted to know how to make cheap international calls from London to reduce my call rates.

  2. Unfortunately, I know nothing about phones in the UK. I use Skype for all international calls, or FaceTime if you have an Apple computer.