My Experience Using a TIM SIM Card in Italy

Italy SIM card

I have been a TIM customer in Italy for nearly 20 years and through my business, we have sold and rented thousands of them over the past 12 years. While we no longer sell TIM due to some of the issues that I will address, I think that I know a thing or two about them.

TIM, or Telecom Italia Mobile, branched off of SIP, the now extinct national carrier. They were the first mobile solution in Italy and are still the largest, albeit not by a large margin. The coverage is very comprehensive and it has always been a force to be reckoned with. The other two main carriers, Vodafone and Wind, are also major carriers (Wind is a distant third place and is known as the “immigrants’ carrier” and it is also very widespread in the South). While Wind probably has the best deals, their coverage, with the exception of the south, including the islands, is sketchy in central and northern Italy. Vodafone, while practically unknown to most Americans,  is a huge carrier and is second in subscribers only to  China Mobile. The fact of the matter is, I really like TIM and the service and have had my phone number, a very easy one to remember (ex. 3333843333, not exactly this but very close) for many years. However, would I recommend TIM to Americans or Canadians or really any other nationality traveling to Italy? Not unless you speak Italian. This is why.

As I mentioned previously, Cellular Abroad sold thousands of TIM SIM cards each year. About 5 years ago, we switched to Uno Mobile. Uno Mobile is an Italian SIM card that uses the Vodafone network.  The main reason we were frustrated with TIM is this. On occasion, when you attempt to add call credit or even to make a call, the operator comes on the phone, basically to solicit and sell a new product to the user. While this is aggravating enough, the real issue is that if they do not understand you, they can, and often WILL, block your SIM card, requiring you to go to a store and present them with a passport or another form of ID and confirm your identity.  In addition, if they see irregular calling patterns, like many international calls, which is what our customers did, they can block your SIM card. This would occur to about 2 or 3 percent of our customers. While it was beyond our control, asking them to go to a TIM store while on vacation was certainly not the first thing on their agenda. This was the main issue with TIM when we were still selling them and I know that this still occurs, probably even more than before, as I always find myself having an (unwanted) conversation with someone from TIM when I am using my phone in Italy. Still, since I speak Italian, they can confirm my identity over the phone and I can tell them that I don’t want to know about their new products and services…thank you very much!

Another big issue that I am aware of is receiving expensive text messages. According to a conversation I had recently with TIM, this is a problem even for Italians. It works like this. You receive a message that prompts you to answer so that you get free – whatever, weather report, news, money, etc. The problem is, in the terms and conditions, this signs you up for weekly or monthly texts that cost you money. I have seen them up to 5 Euros per message. Although we do not use TIM anymore, we do hear from TIM customers all the time who complain about this.

Another issue, and one that we struggled with back in the day, is the different calling plans and TIM’s efforts trying to get people to switch their calling plans. It is difficult enough to begin with to try to figure out what plan works best for you (call landlines for free but cell phones or competitors cell phones cost a ton of money, or nights and weekend rates great, poor during the day, etc.etc.) but what happens on a regular basis is that TIM texts you and says, “we are switching your plan to the XYZ plan. Text ‘no’ if you are not interested”. Many of our customers of course didn’t understand and the rate we promised, and originally had, would change.

About 5 years ago, thanks to this issue as well as the fact that TIM makes you give them a copy of your passport to register the SIM card, we met with Uno Mobile. They were looking for a SIM card that would work perfectly for English speaking travelers to Italy. Since we were in the business of selling SIM cards to English speaking travelers going to Italy, they listened to what we had to say. They asked for a list of what a tourist going to Italy would want in a SIM card and we gave them this list:

1. Low rates within Italy and back to the US
2 No registration required with a copy of the passport
3. Easy to understand rates
4. English prompts
5. English speaking customer service reps

They were able to implement all of our suggestions  and we even became exclusive vendors for Uno Mobile in North America.

For the last 5 years, we have been selling this SIM card with great success but, to be fair, I do have to mention what the number one problem, and probably really the only one that I am aware of. Recharging the SIM card can present a slight challenge. Here is why. In Italy, when you need to add call credit to a SIM card, you go into a cafe’ or tobacco store


or even a gas station. You can go into one of these stores and add call credit to your SIM card. Virtually all of these stores sell top ups. These top ups are done through a terminal that the clerk behind the counter has access to. Sometimes, if you ask for an Uno Mobile voucher, especially with pronunciation that is not typically Italian, the clerk will say they do not have them. The fact of the matter is that if they can top up any carrier, they can also top up Uno Mobile. All top ups are done automatically through a terminal, hence, if they have one they have them all.  Here is my recommendation:

1. Insist with the clerk
2. Buy a voucher through Cellular Abroad
3. Buy a voucher online at the Uno Mobile website

If you purchase it through the Uno Mobile website, the credit will be added automatically. Please note that they do not take American Express credit cards and the service is in Italian. This by the way is another advantage of the Uno Mobile SIM card. You cannot purchase TIM, Wind or Vodafone vouchers through their online stores unless you have an Italian credit card.

I would truly like to hear your experience about purchasing TIM or any other SIM card in Italy. Again, it works for me as a client but as vendors, working with TIM SIM cards was a challenge.

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Cellular Abroad
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About Sebastian Harrison

Founder and President of Cellular Abroad and travel writer.
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20 comments on “My Experience Using a TIM SIM Card in Italy

  1. I have been in Italy for one month and open to be here for one more. I purchased a Tim sim card for calling, texting, and mobile data. Checking my credit balance has been a bit confusing because I can’t find a way to get the info in English. I am no longer receiving mobile data and I cannot tell if this is because it isn’t available in my current area or because my credit has expired. I purchased a 10€ refill today and it has not yet shown up on my phone. When I checked my balance via SMS I have only 1,42€ available. My first month with Tim was fine but now I am frustrated and confused because I can’t understand basic important info about my account, or figure out where to call for help. Not to mention regular, annoying SMS advertisements from Tim. I wish I would have researched Italian cellular service before going with Tim.

    • Sebastian Harrison on said:

      Hi Chris, using TIM can be challenging, especially if you do not know how to speak Italian. if you email support (at) and ask them to forward me your email, what I can do is to call you and TIM on a conference call and I will help you find out what is the issue. I speak Italian and have dealt with TIM’s customer service for years now. This is one of the reasons our customers prefer the Italian SIM card that we offer on our website, the Uno Mobile one. OK, I will await your email.

  2. Hi there… thanks for this post. My parents are arriving in just a few days to Italy and I live in Germany and am VERY familiar with sim cards and how they work, but my parents are not. They have an unlocked phone… Can you tell me what you would recommend instead? Vodafone? I can’t seem to contact them either. Are they at Malpensa airport? I want to try to give my parents REALLY easy and precise instructions so they can simply purchase it and be done :) Thanks!

    • Sebastian Harrison on said:

      if you had time we could have sent you ours but since you do not then we cannot. There should be a Vodafone store in Malpensa. The challenge is that all the instructions will be in Italian and there are so many different “profiles” as they call them (calling plans and data plans). Lots of options which adds to the confusion. While still better than roaming with a German SIM, they may find it challenging to choose the plan, check the credit and maybe even purchase more call credit. However, as a general suggestion, they should buy a SIM, add maybe 20 Euros or so on it and try to at least find out how to check the credit via SMS. The language issue is one of the big advantages of getting a SIM prior to departure as is figuring out what to get if you don’t speak the language.

  3. Michel Chevrier on said:

    I am leaving with my family June 20th for both Italy (north) and Greece (Islands), total of two weeks. I have an unlocked IPhone 5 and I am technologicaly competent.
    I am looking for DATA and local minutes, SMS is not a must.
    Can I get my SIM cards (I will most likely need two) before departure?
    What would be your providers suggestion ?

  4. Hi all – thank you – Good to know the tips and they are much appreciated. I’m from Australia and have an unlocked Nokia mobile and I only want a prepaid sim for 1 month in September. I’m happy to top up credits as we travel around Italy mainly in the northern half ( north of Rome). As we are also “older” travellers, like Jess, I just want to get the sim and not have to worry about it except to be told or shown credit balance and top up at Tabacchi. If you could assist with My queries please
    1) Where can I buy the UNO sim
    2) which network does it use as you mentioned earlier Italy only has the 3 TIM, VODAFONE & WIND.
    Thanks so much everyone

    • Sebastian Harrison on said:

      You are very welcome. The Uno Mobile SIM card that we have is a little different from the ones you find there (in English first of all and different rates). They are available in Carre Four supermarkets and a few other locations. We can ship it to you for $3 and it would take a week. The things you are mentioning, like not running out of talk time, will not be available with a standard SIM. You will have to top up by going to a tabacchi store. We have a proprietary system that allows you to top up just from the phone. If you cannot get one of ours, I would recommend either TIM or Vodafone (better coverage). Stay away from 3. They have great rates but unless you are only going to be in major cities, their coverage is poor.

  5. Laura on said:

    Not sure if you’re still checking this, but I suppose it’s worth a try.
    I’m trying to figure out what provider to use for my travel to italy in a little over a week. I will be there for about a month total and am looking for relatively cheap and easy internet for that time. I don’t really want anything for a longer term. What would you recommend, that will not cause me much trouble?
    Thanks a lot!

  6. Hi,

    This blog post has been very helpful. My wife and I are landing in Venice on August 23rd. I have an unlocked Nexus 5 (pentaband), so I know it will work in Italy. Is there a location in Venice I can purchase the Uno Mobile Sim Card? Is it too late to purchase one from you now to have sent here?


  7. Jeanie Presto on said:

    I realize this is an old post but I just returned from 6 weeks in Italy. I upped my credit on my cheap, tiny TIM phone and cruised along fine until I started getting automated messages that I could not understand, could not get rid of, and could not make my call. Once I dialled a number, this message would begin and I was out of luck. I thought it might be because I was unnecessarily dialing the country code? I have a SMS message about this I think. It appears I am in a survey. Enough. I know you do not deal with TIM anymore. But, can I put a Uno Mobili sim card in my TIM phone?

    • Sebastian Harrison on said:

      Hi Jeanie. We used to cell TIM SIM cards and we have probably sold 20,000 of them. However, about 6 years ago we switched to Uno Mobile and what you are describing is one of the reasons we did so – people did not understand the texts – and the texts, NEED to be understood! What TIM often does is to send customers text messages asking them to opt out of “special” offers. If you do not reply with a no, guess what…you just signed up for a service. Worse, and this has happened on numerous occasions, customers DO reply to a text and that text happens to be something like a weather report, game resorts or…um…explicit photos. Besides the “splaining” you gotta do to the misses, they hit you up for astronomical fees for the luxury of getting something you don’t want. 5, 6 Euros per day is not unheard of.
      So…to answer your question, yes, Italians phones are unlocked and therefore you can switch carriers. The great thing about the Uno Mobile SIM is that Cellular Abroad created this SIM with Vodafone, a very large carrier in Italy and elsewhere, specifically for the English speaking traveler. All the prompts are in English as it the customer service. This SIM is available with your iPhone, tablet, Galaxy…whatever.

    • Sebastian Harrison on said:

      This sounds like you were getting a spammy text. We have heard instances with TIM that if you do not opt OUT of a feature (such as weather reports, sports scores or…umm…porno), you will get daily reports that will cost you several Euros per message. Bad enough if you speak Italian but obviously worse if you don’t speak Italian and don’t know to opt out of the “service.” But to answer your question, yes, you can put a different SIM card into your phone. We recommend the Uno Mobile SIM as Cellular Abroad has control over the rates as well as the customer service is in English. The coverage is Vodafone by the way so great coverage.

  8. TIM is terrible. Awful service from stores where staff are deliberately difficult and unhelpful. Both WIND & Vodafone are better, not great but better. Having lived in Europe, Japan and the Middle East I can honestly say that Italy has been the worst country for mobile providers. TIM being top of the bottom. As a temp. solution they can work if you have no choice but more than a few weeks will only allow them to demonstrate their utter disdain for their customers. Maybe the arrival of ’3′ will herald a change.

    • Sebastian Harrison on said:

      TIM is still the number one carrier in Italy in terms of subscribers and hence, they probably have not felt the necessity to improve their customer service. I agree about the customer service. Vodafone comes a close second in terms of coverage whereas WIND and especially 3, generally speaking, have far inferior coverage. I say, “generally speaking” because, while as a whole, TIM and Vodafone have better coverage, there are some areas where the coverage is better with WIND and 3.

  9. Johnson Mathew Pathiyil on said:

    I bought a sim card of TIM since September 2014. i got the program “TIM International Voice” which is supposed to cost only 9 Euro per month. But i am surprised to see that i use hardly 100 minutes out of 400 minutes and never made international calls to my country. But whenever i make make a local call my money is cut. and if no balance money even if the free minutes are there i cant make a call. and i find myself spending almost 15 Euro per month for no reason. i don’t know what is wrong with this company. I don’t really believe these offers are really helping people. Please some one give me a solution..

    • Sebastian Harrison on said:

      I spoke to someone today about a similar issue. I actually made a call to the store where she bought it to find out what was going on. I speak Italian so I helped her out. The problem going to Italy and using TIM or Vodafone or Wind is that if you don’t speak Italian or read it you can run into issues. For example, and this happens often, you get a text message saying, “we are changing your plan. If you don’t want it changed, reply to us with a ‘no’.” if you miss the text or don’t read Italian, chances are, your new plan is going to charge you more. While this…sorta…is ok if you understand that this is common and can read the language, Americans and Canadians are not used to these ploys. Another issue is the customer service. It is virtually impossible to speak to a customer service rep by dialing the 119 number. You have to go through a whole series of sequences to finally speak to a rep. And, if your issue is too much for them to handle (they don’t know the answer or whatever) the call will drop meaning, they hang up on you. I have had this happen to me several times. And not because of any rude comments or attitude but because I have had inexplicable issues that I wanted resolved from them. I personally have a TIM SIM card that I have had forever and I can get by with it but, for anyone not wanting to deal with the issues, I recommend our Italian SIM card from Vodafone (Uno Mobile). Does it cost more than the advertised rates that TIM, etc. post? Yes it does but ours works and when a customer has an issue, like you had, you don’t have to go to a blog to try to figure it out!!!

  10. Rashidha on said:

    Great post I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this interesting and knowledgeable article.

  11. This info has been very useful. I will be in Northern Italy and as far south as Rome for 3 weeks in April. I will be flying into Malpensa at around 8.30pm. From what I understand from above the uno SIM card is available from Vodafone (the earlier posts made me think it was a different carrier entirely). So would I be able to get this at at that airport at that time. After that I will be in voghera for about 5 days and want to get my phone organised before we get there. I really only need data to communicate with friends back in New Zealand. Thanks for the information given so far.

    • Sebastian Harrison on said:

      Hi Fiona,
      The Uno Mobile SIM card is NOT available at the Vodafone stores. it uses the Vodafone network however. This SIM card was designed specifically for the tourist, English speaking tourist at that, and it not available at Vodafone stores. We CAN ship you one from our Los Angeles office. It is only 3 USD to ship to New Zealand. Alternatively, you can get a regular TIM or Vodafone SIM card when you get to Malpensa. It is certainly easier getting a SIM that is in English and of course, probably the last thing you want to do as soon as you get off a 15 hour flight (more or less??) is to figure out a SIM card for your phone!

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