The standard mobile-phone network in Italy and Europe is called GSM. A few American companies (for example AT&T and T-Mobile) use GSM technology; others, including Verizon and Sprint, use a different system, called CDMA, which is not compatible with Italian networks. If you want to use a Verizon or Sprint phone abroad, you must be sure that it is a global phone with GSM capabilities and that your account has been set up with international eligibility.
Within the GSM network, different regions operate on different bands. The United States uses two bands, and Italy and most of Europe use two other bands. Only a GSM phone that is tri-band or quad-band would then work both in Italy and in the U.S. The most popular smartphones all work internationally.
American companies offer international plans to travelers. Check with your company to see the cost of the plans and the charge per minute. They used to be costly but prices have been decreasing.
Another option—and one that will probably be more economical, at least for calling Italian phone numbers—is getting an Italian SIM card. Please check with your company to see if your phone brand and model would work with an Italian prepaid SIM card. Most American phones are electronically locked so that one cannot switch SIM cards. But it is possible to get your phone unlocked (call your company), allowing you to replace the original SIM card with a local Italian SIM. Please note that in most cases the unlocking must be done while in the United States. If necessary you can purchase a GSM unlocked phone or smartphone at Unieuro, Euronics, Media World, or several smaller shops in Milan.
The most popular and reliable Italian mobile-phone companies are TIM, Vodafone, and Wind. If you go on line you will mostly likely find only their regular plans, which require a contract and a monthly payment. But in their stores (you will find them in Stazione Centrale) you will be able get a prepaid SIM card. Prepaid plans with a few hundred minutes calling time and 10 or 20 GB data are relatively cheap in Italy—as low as €15 per month. However, when purchasing one of them you must consider that:
1) You must buy your Italian SIM in person and you must show your passport.
2) Besides the charge for the first month, when you open your account you must pay a fee for the SIM card and add a few euros to keep your account in the black. If at any moment you have zero or negative credit, your account will be blocked and you will not be able to make calls or use your data even if you still have many unused local minutes or GB data.
3) These plans usually do not include text messaging. You must pay another few euros per month for a few hundred messages, or pay for each message with your credit.
4) Some plans may include a certain number of minutes worldwide; otherwise international calls are charged per minute and paid with your credit. Incoming international calls are not charged to you.
5) Before the end of the first month, you must remember to top up your credit to cover the automatic renewal of your plan.
6) Credit is sold by most companies online and usually can be paid with PayPal but not with foreign credit cards. You can also go to stores and ask for a ricarica (particularly tabaccherie, newsstands, or a store of your cell phone company. If you buy credit this way, you will often be required to pay in cash. Some stores can add the credit directly to your phone but others will sell you a small card with a unique code; you will have to call the number on the card to reach the automated service and input the code listed to have the credit transferred to your account.
7) IMPORTANT: Unfortunately, by just viewing certain web pages you might be automatically redirected to a different site or find a background tab opened to a link that you didn’t request, and the simple access to that page could start an unsolicited weekly subscription to mobile services of games, music, or adult content, immediately paid with the credit available on your phone account. When you become aware of this charge you can call the customer service of your carrier to deactivate the subscriptions but all charges that already occurred will not be reimbursed. T\In order to prevent these charges to occur, call your carrier immediately after the opening of the account and activate the “barring SMS” (blocking of all premium rate services). The numbers of the major carriers are: TIM: 119; Vodafone: 190; Wind: 155. Note that in this way you will block also services that you activated intentionally.
A smartphone is also useful for your course’s final project, which consists of an introduction and a slideshow of photographs that you took during your stay in Italy.
Please be aware that calls from Italy to US toll-free numbers may not route, depending on the originating carrier. (In my experience, they never go through). If they do route, then the caller would need to pay international dialing charges, just like for any other call to a US local phone number. If you expect to be calling your bank or another company or institution, ask them to provide an alternate US local number for international calls.