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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New Germany Data SIM Card Rates for Ortel

Ortel, a German cellular provider using the EPlus network, has offered extremely affordable calling and data plans for a couple of years now. In the past, the main issue with them is that although they offered inexpensive data plans, the data plans were limited and not ideal for travelers who use a lot of data on their phones or tablets. In addition, when you ran out of your data plan, you had to wait until the 30 day plan was up in order to get more data credit. This month, they launched the ability to continue to add data on your plan as needed. For just 9 Euros (about $12), you can add an additional 5GB of data to your data bundle. When considering that carriers such as Verizon charge $25 per 100 MB, this is an incredible deal. In fact, it’s about 1% of what Verizon charges. This is how it works.

First, you need to have a SIM card for Germany with the ability to have mobile data. Then, you once you arrive in Germany, you send a text message for the data bundle that you want ex. 15 Euros for the 3GB plan for 30 days. While this is a lot of data and the vast majority of people will not consume it, there is always the exception. Hence, if after a couple of weeks you run out of data, you can send a text to 77300 saying “SpeedXL” and if will add 5GB to your plan. This will deduct 9 Euros from your credit and therefore, you need to make sure that you have enough credit on your account. You can always check your account by dialing *100#. If you need more credit, simply go to an E Plus store and purchase a top up or order one from Cellular Abroad.

While the SIM card DOES work with tablets such as the iPad, you will need to first insert the SIM card into a phone in order to activate the SIM or add the plan. Another alternative is to call Ortel directly and have them activate the data plan.

In closing, I would like to add that while it does take perhaps an extra 5 minutes of ones time to purchase a German SIM card online as opposed to simply roaming with your current carrier, the savings are significant and if you are planning on using your device, whether it be a smartphone or tablet, without having to worry about either running out of data or paying huge overage fees, this is a great option.

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Using the iPhone 5C Internationally

Many customers buying a new iPhone are buying them without a plan. While it may be tempting to buy a subsidized iPhone, the fact is, in the long run, you may end up paying more by being stuck to a 2 or even 3 year plan and once you make that commitment, you cannot change providers if you are unsatisfied unless you pay a heft early termination fee. In addition, travelers cannot swap their SIMS for a local SIM card in order to get significantly lower rates.   According to Apple’s website

“If you buy a SIM-free iPhone, you will need to purchase a GSM-compatible nano-SIM card separately. In the United States, you can purchase such a SIM from AT&T or T-Mobile. When you travel internationally, you can use a nano-SIM card for iPhone 5c from a local GSM carrier.”

Apple mentions AT&T and T-Mobile, which are the two top GSM providers in the United States. I would like to point out that there are plenty of other carriers, called MVNOs (basically, smaller carriers using AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s networks) that offer competitive plans as well. There are quite a few out there and each has its target market but just a few that come to mind are H2O, Red Pocket, Lyca and Simple Mobile.

Apple also mentions the concept of buying a local SIM card. Buying a local SIM card doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to go to that destination and buy it once you are there. There are several online sites, including Cellular Abroad, you can purchase local SIM cards before your trip. Rates drop dramatically for calls and even more for data. You can expect to pay about 1/5th or 1/10 of what you would pay with AT&T, Verizon, etc. even with one of their voice or bundle packages.

However, if for ease of use you do want to use AT&T or another providers service while traveling internationally, be sure to get a bundle. Some carriers will automatically charge you for the bundles you use while others will make you guess in advance how much you need and then charge you astronomical fees if you exceed your plan.

My recommendation is this. If you are going overseas either for a short period of time or you know you will not use or not need to use your phone, then getting a bundle and roaming with your current provider can make sense. If, on the other hand, will be there for more than a few days or need or want to use your phone for Google Maps, find reviews of restaurants you are thinking of eating at, want to check emails or Skype back home without worrying about racking up a huge bill, then do yourself a favor and get a local SIM card.

A word of caution about local SIM cards. Some retailers present their SIM cards as being local SIM card when in reality, these are SIM cards that do work in those destination but have to roam to do so. While they work and while you probably will save money, unless you are going to several countries during the course of a trip, try to get a local SIM card.

Here is a list of local SIM cards for some top destinations:

United Kingdom

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Getting a Data SIM Card for your iPhone for Europe

Let’s face it, we are addicted to our phones. While I personally (and laughably for some) still use a Blackberry because I love the QWERTY keypad, I see it all around me and and 40% of our clients confirm that they are iPhone users. And by the way, what’s not to like? The iPhone is an easy to use, great designed device that let’s you check emails, find places to go and tells you how to get there, let’s you watch and take videos, listen to music and, oh yeah, you can also make phone calls. Now, all of the major carriers carry GSM enabled iPhones that let you do everything you do back home overseas when you travel. It’s so easy to do that it is no wonder that people are just bringing their iPhones with them and using them while traveling overseas. T-Mobile even has this great deal that offers free data in over 100 countries around the globe. But please allow me to explain T-mobiles international data plan along with some of the others.

The T-Mobile plan, while certainly a step in the right direction in terms of affordable international service is in a sense a loss leader. The free data is limited to slow 2G speeds so typically what happens is that customers go to Europe, try to use Google Maps or some other app, get frustrated because it’s so slow and call customer service to complain. Customer service explains that only the slow speed data is free, for the fast data, you have to pay for it, which many people do since they are addicted to the fast data experience available back home on their iPhone. Verizon, AT&T and Sprint offer data bundles right off the bat so in a way they are more up front with the fact that they are going to charge you for data and charge you quite a bit. While some people don’t mind paying a couple of hundred bucks for the luxury of using their phones over season, plenty of people have discovered that there is certainly a more affordable solution and that solution is to swap out the current SIM card with a local SIM card. In fact, Apple mentions that users with unlocked cell phones can use local SIM cards right on their website – and as we know, these guys know what they are talking about.

Travelers to Europe using their iPhones, on average, spend about $125 per week to use their iPhones for talk, text and data – and this takes into account the fact that they do so with caution. Therefore, while they are happy with the seamless usability of their devices, many still come away feeling that, sure, while they were able to use their phones, they weren’t really able to use it. In fact, think about it, when would you need your iPhone more than when you are in a place you don’t know so you can find out where you are and where you should go? By swapping out your existing SIM card, you can grab a local SIM and get enough data and also call credit at an affordable enough price that you can use it pretty much as much as you want.

The service we provide is to give you the convenience of having the SIM card in hand before your trip with English instructions and English customer service. Typically, you will pay more from purchasing it from us as opposed to getting them locally. Besides the convenience, in addition, we use the telecom carriers that offer the best value, many of which many be smaller carrier piggy backing on larger carriers’ networks. Some customers are forgoing voice all together and only getting our data SIMs and when and if they need to make a call, do so with an application such as Skype.

In sum, as our addiction to the iPhone and other smartphones grow, so will the time we spend on them. With a local SIM card, this doesn’t mean that your cell phone bill will have to grow in proportion.

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The Newest Trend in International Cellular Roaming

It seems like most of the carriers, including AT&T, Verizon and Sprint (but not T-Mobile…yet) are offering “buckets” or rather, X amount of call time minutes or X amount of MB for data for travelers who want to stay connected abroad. A few of the carriers have encouraged their customers so to speak to sign up for these bucket plans by raising the per minute rates. While on the surface, these offers may seem attractive to their customers, these plans often turn out to be foe instead of friend. Here’s why.

Most people underestimate their usage. Therefore, say you sign up for AT&T’s Europe Travel Minutes. In Europe, for $120 (plus tax), you get 200 minutes. That’s $0.60 per minute for all incoming and outgoing calls. Not great but not bad. However, chances are, you will not use exactly 200 minutes. You will either use less or you will use more. If you lose less, depending on how much you use, you are “really” paying another amount. Example. if you use 100 minutes, you are paying $1.20 per minute. if you use 150 minutes, you are paying $0.90 per minute. Don’t forget to add the tax which is not simply your state’s sales tax, it is all the government tax which can be around 14-20% of the total. If you go over the bucket, you are paying $1.00 per minute. If all this sounds expensive, you’re right. Still, compared to data rates, this is a bargain. Plus, we can all usually gauge what a minute or 100 minutes is – unless you’re talking to Aunt Sue and a ten minute conversation seems like a lifetime.

AT&T, possibly the most transparent and with the best rates of the Big 4 (AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile) charges $19.50 per MB unless you opt for a package. If you go over your package bundle, that is what you will be paying by the way, unless you go for the largest 800 MB package from the get go. So if the average user uses about 500 MB per month of data, we’re talking about $1000, and again don’t forget your contribution to Uncle Sam. However, you can get a bundle for as little as $30 for 120 MB.

Here’s my beef with all this, and now remember, I am using AT&T as an example and they seem to have at least a clearer and more transparent pricing structure than the other guys and better rates. If you don’t use what you pay for, you are overpaying. If you go over your bundle, you are really overpaying, and, while on vacation, do you really want to have to deal with the stress of having to calculate your usage or not use Google Maps, Facebook, Google Voice Translator, Skype, Tripadvisor or whatever because you are afraid that you are going to return home to a huge roaming bill? I have personally seen roaming bills for $140,000 and I have personally received a roaming bill of $18,000. Long story but it was due to some fine print that I neglected to strain my vision and my brain to interpret.

So what is the best solution? The best solution is to use an alternative carrier. If you are going to only one country, get a local SIM card. Cellular Abroad offers plenty of solutions for data as well as voice. By getting a different SIM card and putting it into your phone, or another phone and SIM card all together, you will not be using your usual provider but another provider. The service will be pay as you go. The benefit is that you cannot accidentally do what the US carriers are banking on, and that is, go over your minutes. Better yet, the minutes and data plans are so affordable that you can use your phone, smartphone or tablet as you choice – just like you do in the US or Canada or even more. Travelers want to use their devices to see where their going or to choose restaurants and itineraries but they are afraid of the roaming fees. If you are going to several countries, then a roaming SIM like the National Geographic Travel SIM is the way to go.

In sum, the carriers aren’t doing you any favors by offering these bundles. Just ask someone who went over their bucket. Therefore, the newest trend in international cellular service is that the carriers make it even more confusing for their customers and at their expense.

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International Roaming with T-Mobile

If you are planning on traveling internationally and want want to use your T-Mobile phone to make or receive calls, check emails or even use Skype, your phone is most likely a quad band GSM phone and thus will work virtually anywhere on the planet. My question is, unless you have endless amounts of financial resources, why do it? The only logical answer that I can think of is that people STILL are not aware of the alternatives. T-Mobile’s international roaming rates START at $1.49 per minute, plus tax. Taxes is roughly 15-20% depending on the state but let’s say for argument’s sake that you are paying $1.75 per minute for every call you make or receive, whether local or back to the United States – and this is in Western Europe where their rates are the least expensive. This is only for phone calls. If you want to use your phone to check your email or use Apps such as WhatsApp, Skype or Google Maps, typical Apps that one would indeed want to use when traveling, the cost is $15 per MB. I am not sure if T-Mobile is targeting the business traveler who may not care what it costs or the tourist who just doesn’t know and certainly doesn’t expect to be robbed by their carrier but the fact of the matter is that they are making a enormous profit at the expense of their customers.

When I first started Cellular Abroad in 2002, my goal was to make international cellular service affordable for any traveler going overseas. Back then there were no apps and no emails to be had on your phone. While the technology behind cell phones has evolved as has as our reliance/dependency on them evolved, what we haven’t seen is an increase in affordability at least when it comes to using a cell phone abroad. In fact, T-Mobile’s roaming rates are about 20% higher than they were about a year ago. So what should one do if they want to use their T-Mobile (or AT&T, Verizon or Sprint) cell phone abroad?

Most T-Mobile phones will work overseas – at least with T-Mobile. T-Mobile locks their handsets so that the SIM card that is in the phone is compatible only with T-Mobile. The reason they do that is because they don’t want you to use the cell phone you purchased from them with a different service provider. Usually you can get your T-Mobile handset unlocked simply by calling them and asking for the unlock code. Sometimes it takes a bit of “reminding” them of your request. Once you get your handset unlocked, you can use a different SIM card in your phone and essentially your will be overridding T-Mobile’s service and using a different carrier. There are two main categories in SIM cards. The first is a roaming SIM card which is a SIM card that works all over the planet. Our SIM card, the National Geographic Travel SIM, works everywhere that T-Mobile’s service works and in even more places. The rates are significantly less expensive than theirs. Typically, for Western Europe, an outgoing call costs $0.69 per minute and an incoming call costs $0.30 per minute, which is about one-sixth of T-Mobile’s rates. Data is about $0.25 per MB. These rates are significantly less expensive than T-Mobiles and yet, depending on where you are going, the rates can be significantly less expensive. For example, if you are traveling to just one country in Europe, and I will use the UK as an example, here are the rates. For the price of a UK specific SIM card (currently $39) plus a bundle package costing $59, you get 3000 local minutes and texts, 1000 minutes back to the US and 1GB of data. So, for less than $100 you get what T-Mobile literally charges about $20,000.

Most people traveling to the UK do not need 3000 local minutes or 1000 minutes back to the US but what they do need is a cellular solution that they can use as needed – whether it be for local or international calls or data – and without having to ruin their vacation by worrying about what their cell phone bill is going to cost them with T-Mobile.

I am looking foward to any comments regarding this post and in particular to the question, “why use your T-Mobile service overseas?” For now, I am convinced that the answer because people are not aware of alternative and significantly less expensive options. What reinforces this conclusion is that virtually every acquaintance that I have who knows what I do has used Cellular Abroad for service. Now the trick is to get them to actually reach for their wallet.

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Retiring in Italy

When people mention retiring in Italy, the first thing that probably comes to mind is that, well, someone must have a very nice nest egg tucked away somewhere. Conversely, when people talk about retiring in Costa Rica or Mexico, people imagine that you must have a limited monthly allowance such as social security or a 401k. The last thing one would expect to hear is that it is possible to retire in Italy with a limited income of $1000-$1200 a month. I’ve personally seen this dozens of times.

OK, so I gotta admit, I am not talking about Rome, Florence or Venice nor am I talking about any place remotely near these cities. Having said that, and hopefully this doesn’t come as a shock to anyone reading this – even though it has when I have mentioned this to people, there ARE other places in Italy than just the Romes and Amalfi Coasts and Tuscanys. Yes but how are these places? They must not be that fantastic. That is not necessarily the case.

In fact, there are many, many virtually unknown (outside of Italy mainly) towns and cities that are no less than absolutely spectacular with great weather, great food and very affordable prices.

I started thinking about this when I met people who immigrated from Sicily to go to the United States or Canada and moved back after they retired. Sometimes it’s because they preferred the Italian lifestyle, other times because they couldn’t afford to live in the US and oftentimes a combination of the two.

Here is a random link for an Italian website that advertises apartments and houses for sale in Ragusa, one of the most beautiful towns in Italy and yet virtually unknown to many American. Ragusa is located in Sicily not too far from Syracuse (Siracusa) Here, you can get something decent for as little as $100,000 – and no, not rent for a month but to buy.


Ragusa at night

Here is a random link for a website that rents apartments and villas You can easily rent a nice apartment in Agrigento for $400-500 per month. If you go outside of Agrigento, you can cut that close to half.

The Valley of the Temples in Agrigento


Of course, one doesn’t live with a roof over one’s head alone. What about the staples in life? I will tell you that fruits and vegetables cost considerably less than they cost in the United States and the quality is exceptional. Other things like fuel, electricity are more expensive than in the United States but, most people spend less than we do since they don’t drive gas guzzling vehicles or leave the lights on burning all day.

Fruits and Vegetables


By the way, although my examples have pertained to Sicily, one can go virtually anywhere in the south of Italy (excluding the Amalfi Coast), including Puglia, Calabria and other areas.

So, if you are planning for retirement overseas and thought that you were limited to only a handful of destinations, this is not the case. Italy can still be done on a budget.

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I Can’t Stand My Provider!

Practically every day, people complain to me about their cellular provider or tell me how they can’t wait until their contract is up so that they can switch. I have the same news for you as I have for them, chances are, you will have the same sentiments about your new provider if you switch. The reason is that no provider (or any company for that matter) is perfect. However, you can definitely figure out which is the best one for you and stick to it until something else better comes along.

Cell phone carriers are huge corporations interested primarily in making a buck and have little concern for you personally or your needs other than to squeeze as much money from you as well as millions of others in order to satisfy their shareholders. Yet, hate them as you may, they have become a necessary evil. Having said that, the more you know, the better equipped you will be to get the best service for you and at the best price.

Generically speaking, the “best” provider, rates and plans aside, is the one that has the best service – perhaps not perfect service but the best service – where you personally happen to use the phone. Who cares if Verizon has the most extensive coverage of them all if you can’t get a signal in your living room? And who cares if you have an unlimited data plan for $20 a month if it’s throttled (slowed down) halfway into your bill cycle? What you need to do is to arm yourself with the facts and, whenever possible, try them out.

Everyone Has Specific Needs

I have access and discounted rates to the latest and greatest cell phones available not just in the United States but internationally yet, I use a Blackberry Bold, which for my specific needs, is the perfect tool. A lot of my friends and colleagues question why I don’t have the latest Android handset or an iPhone. I use my phone for three things. Making and receiving phone calls, emailing and taking pictures. For everything else, I use my computer where I (unfortunately) and in front of for the majority of the time. If I happened to travel a lot and needed a mobile office, I probably would be using a Samsung Galaxy or another Android phone. In addition, my Blackberry is small enough to fit in my pocket. In terms of the service provider, I use T-Mobile. Why T-Mobile? First, I pay $50 for unlimited everything (well, the data isn’t truly unlimited but I barely use it so it doesn’t matter) and second, and this is an important second, for $19 a month I get unlimited international email access. Sounds really great, doesn’t it? Surely, I am enamored with T-Mobile, right? Not exactly.

While T-Mobile works great at home, if I am on the phone from my office all the way back home, I can expect the line to drop 2 or 3 times. Usually I am talking to friends or family so this is acceptable. And besides, the other carriers along that route have comparable service and dropped calls. So all in all, in terms of rates, coverage and functionality, I am happy with my T-Mobile/Blackberry combination. My problem with T-Mobile is that recently, they billed one of our business accounts $19,000 for 3 days of usage in Australia. Long story and for another blog but still, the reason I don’t hate them is that inherently, one can and will almost certainly have issues with any provider. Quick example, AT&T, when it was still Cingular, erroneously billed me $2,000 but then only offered me a $200 courtesy credit (I left them for T-Mobile the very same day T-Mobile became available in California, which was around 2002). I also had a major, much more serious issue with another carrier, which I cannot talk about as per the terms of the settlement. The only carrier I haven’t had any issues with is Sprint, which I have never used.

To make a long story short, if you only make and receive phone calls, no need to focus on an expensive cell phone that does everything. If, on the other hand, you need a phone that does everything and has unlimited data, maybe you do need a Galaxy phone and a Sprint data plan, the only carrier that currently does offer unlimited data.

But Doesn’t Verizon Have the Best Coverage?

First and foremost, even if Verizon has more coverage in more areas, who cares unless you travel to those areas. What matters most is the coverage they have in the areas that matter to you. If you are a business travelers who travels extensively in rural areas, chances are Verizon or Sprint will give you better service than say AT&T or T-Mobile. In addition, and I use this analogy a lot, Verizon uses the CDMA technology for transmitting the signal. AT&T and T-Mobile uses GSM. CDMA uses a spectrum that uses a larger bandwith spectrum and thus, while the signal travels further, the quality is not as crystal clear as that of GSM. A comparison would be AM radio as opposed to FM radio. You get AM radio even out in rural areas but the quality is not as good as it is with FM radio.

Pay As You Go

I like pay as you go. In some European countries, up to 90% of all the users use pay as you go. I think that as more people adopt the European preference of pay as you go cellular service, the carriers will be focused on the rates and the quality of the service rather than focusing on alluring you into a 2 year contract. After all, with pay as you go, if the carrier isn’t up to your expectations, you can easily try someone else.

While I personally do not have a pay as you go service, if for any reason I wanted to dump T-Mobile, I would get pay as you go through another carrier

AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint Are Not the Only Carriers Out There

There are actually probably about 10-15 other carriers, called MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators), that use the big guys’ towers but rebrand the service. A new one worth mentioning is called Lyca Mobile. They offer unlimited voice, text and data for $29 and incredibly affordable rates to make calls internationally. Their website is Cellular Abroad has sold Lyca Mobile in the past for travelers going to France (although we currently use Lebara for France cellular service). The main advantage of using an MVNO is that you get better, often significantly better, rates and the service is the same in terms of reception. What may vary considerably is the customer service. Oftentimes the customer service is offshore and their grasp of the English language or culture may effect your experience.

More About the Cell Phone

From my experience, many phones that tend to do everything have a difficult time doing some things great. For example, I get great reception at my house with T-Mobile but my wife’s iPhone 4s doesn’t. Yes, her phone blows mine away when it comes to watching video and looking at pictures but that is way down the list in terms of what I want my phone to do. Our number one phone that we sell here at Cellular Abroad, and the one that we typically recommend (and the one we make the least profit one by the way) is the least expensive phone. Most of our users are travelers going abroad for just a couple of weeks. Most people do not want go through the learning curve of figuring out how a phone that does everything works while they are trying to enjoy their vacation. Be conscientious of what you need. If you have problems hearing or seeing, get a phone that has a good display. If you are on the phone for many hours during the day, make sure that the battery life is good. If you need a ton of data, make sure your plan offers that. I have a place in Italy where there is practically no coverage. However, I discovered that one of the phones that we used to sell about 10 years ago with a large external antenna works great.

OK, So My Provider isn’t All That Bad

I remember when cell phones first came out and, even at a couple of dollars a minute, people were ecstatic to actually be able to talk without being tethered to a wall. Nowadays, at the first dropped call, some people are tempted to hurl their cell phone against a brick wall. When I recently got that $19,000 bill from T-Mobile I certainly did not feel to much love for them, and I still don’t – at least for that particular issue. Ultimately, arm yourself with as much information as you can and think about what your really need from a phone and possibly test an account or get a pay as you go so that you can switch when and if the relationship turns sour. Following these precautions, hopefully you can find the plan and the phone you have always been looking for.

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How to Avoid Getting Ripped Off in Italy

Interestingly enough, many Italians do not perceive that taking advantage of someone a bit is inherently a bad thing. In fact, culturally, if you pull a fast one on someone, you are just being clever. I am not talking about a major heist at the Banco di Roma or snatching someone’s purse but a little bit of rounding up the tab or a taxi driver not taking the shortest route something that many Italians would not be ashamed to admit. This is not to say that Italians are thieves but rather, a part of the culture. To make a comparison, many Italians think that Americans often hide behind a puritanical façade while for us, we believe that some things are just better left private. In any event, here are a few popular scams that travelers to Italy should be aware of.


The first thing that comes to my mind are the “tassisti abusive.” These are the guys who approach you at the airport asking if you need a taxi. Unexpected travelers who in fact, intend to take a taxi easily fall into this trap. Phony taxi drivers are easy to spot out as legit cabs say, “taxi” on them.  The main problem, besides the fact that they are unlicensed, don’t have insurance and hence, you have little recourse if you get in a wreck of have other issues. In addition, they are seldom less expensive than legit taxis, oftentimes their cars are falling apart. More often than not, they will also scam you. For example, they may quote you 100 Dollars and then at the end of the trip ask for 100 Euros. Or, they might just quote you 50 Euros and then ask for more upon arrival, and threatening to call the police.

Even regular taxis can be problematic. Taxis are now closely regulated since in past years overcharging tourists was the norm and not the exception. Nowadays, taxis have fixed rates to and from the airport and therefore, tourists do not need to be cautious of getting ripped off immediately upon arrival (tip: there are many car services with private drivers that charge about the same as a taxi). However, if you take a taxi within the city from point A to B, there is a good chance that your taxi driver will not voluntarily find the fastest route. You might not necessarily drive many miles out of your way but even a few blocks can add a couple of bucks to your bill. My advice is sit back and enjoy the scenery because unless you are familiar with the city, you will probably be completely oblivious to what is occurring.

$15 Cappuccino

The second thing that next comes to mind is rip off prices and surcharges at cafés and restaurants. Always make sure that you know up front what you will be paying. If you are not given a menu with a pricelist, that is a telltale sign that something is not right. Generally speaking, if you sit down, expect to pay double or trip (or more in touristy places like Piazza Navona or Piazza San Marco) than you would standing up. While that cappuccino may cost you $15, at least, and contrary to the US, nobody will rush you away from your table. What is important is that you are aware of up front. In the event that you do feel that you do feel that you have been ripped off, even the suggestion that you will call the Carabinieri (call 112 from your Italian cell phone) or, even more effective, the Guardia di Finanza (dial 117) – the Italian version of the IRS but with a gun – will very much get their attention.

“Will You Buy Me a Drink?”

Another costly scam is falling for the, “meet beautiful women in my nightclub” pitch. While this happens is many cities and towns in Italy, the most notorious place is the famed Via Veneto in Rome. Typically, men in suits solicit passerbyers and tell them that there are beautiful Italian women just dying to meet them. As soon as you walk in, indeed, women will gravitate toward you and ask for you to buy them a drink. Don’t do it. That drink can end up costing you hundreds of dollars. These establishments often get away with this because the clients are too embarrassed to say anything to anyone, especially the authorities as there is a little bit of a fuzzy line here if you know what I mean.

Cute Little Kids

Who isn’t a sucker for cute little kids? They are hard to resist but, if you do happen to get accosted by a flock of kids, my advice is to shoo them away and at the same time, keep your hand on your valuables. Gypsy kids are known for approaching tourists and while one distracts the unsuspecting tourist, the others extract wallets and cell phones with their nimble little fingers. I have seen this happen probably a dozen times. Obviously, nobody wants to be harsh toward a group of 6 year olds but if you don’t want to be left without a dime in your pocket, a stern “via!” (“away”) will convey the point.

Speaking of Gypsies my best advice is just to stay away from the all together, you and old. Usually, the woman and children are in the streets either begging or involved in petty theft while the men are breaking into villas and stealing jewelry so you probably wont see too many men around. Even more than the piazzas, the most risky place to be to be pick pocketed is on the bus, particularly those leading to tourist areas. Italian buses are often crowded and there will be a lot of innocent bumping around to begin with so detecting a pick pocketer is no easy task. At the very least, put your wallet in your front pocket and do not have the kind of purse that does not close securely.

These scams can and do occur but you certainly shouldn’t allow yourself to ruin your trip because you are fixating on them. Many big cities target tourists. On Hollywood Blvd in Los Angeles, wannabe actors dressed up as superheroes sometimes threaten you if you don’t tip them if you take their photograph. Petty thieves always seek the path of least resistance. If you do not have a fat wallet bulging in your back pocket or a half open Louis Vuitton purse with iPhones and other valuables half sticking out, chances are, a thief will move on from you and find someone who will.



Sebastian Harrison was born in Rome and has spent the majority of his life between Italy and Los Angeles. He is an experienced travel writer and the founder of Cellular Abroad, Inc.

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My Experience Unlocking my T-Mobile Cell Phone

I have always been a fan of T-Mobile and have seldom been critical of them but when its well-deserved, and taking a cue from Verizon, they are going to hear from me know. I have been a T-Mobile customer literally since day one that they started operating in California – just over 12 years. I have a Blackberry Bold which, despite a bit of mockery from a few close friends wondering why I don’t have a more sophisticated phone like the Samsung Galaxy or even the iPhone 5 (the answer is the QWERTY keypad by the way), I absolutely love the phone. In fact, I like it so much that just last week I bought another phone from T-Mobile as a back up and so I can put my Italian SIM card in when I go to Italy. Since I know that I am in good standing with T-Mobile (bills are paid as is the phone), I assumed that I would have no problem getting the unlock code from T-Mobile. Wrong. Here’s my story.

So last week, I called T-Mobile and asked for the unlock code for my Blackberry bold. The customer service rep viewed my account and told me that I could have the phone unlocked and that it would take anywhere from 24 hours to 14 days. Why possibly so long? Accordingly, if it is not in the system (whatever that means and again, we are talking about a T-Mobile phone), it would take longer to hunt down. I am not leaving for another month so even two weeks is not a problem. Nonetheless, after several days and no email from T-Mobile, I decide to check in to make sure that there are no hiccups. I called in, explained to the rep the situation and he told me that I should have received an email explaining that I need to use that phone for 7 days in order to qualify for an unlock code. I explained to him that it is a secondary phone and he assured me that he would resubmit it and that I should get the code within 24 hours and rarely does it take two weeks. In fact, after 24 hours, I did get this email:

“Thank you for taking the time to contact T-Mobile. We have received your SIM Unlock Request. Unfortunately, this subscriber is not eligible to receive the unlock code at this time. In order to be eligible, the subscriber must complete 7 days of active service on the line. Please submit a new request 7 days after this device has been in use.”

So, I called back and asked if there is any way to get my phone unlocked to which she said only if I do use if for 7 days, even for secondary or back up phones. So, I guess at this point I can in theory put my current T-Mobile SIM in my new phone. That means transferring the contents and maybe the memory card and setting up my email accounts and maybe downloading my personalized settings and maybe a few of the Apps that I actually use such as Pandora. Alternatively, I can “break the law” and get an unlock code online for a few bucks.

So why do they make it this difficult to unlock your phone? I think that it is pretty clear. People have caught on to the fact that there are MUCH better alternatives to paying T-Mobile and the other providers by getting a local SIM card or a roaming SIM like the National Geographic Travel SIM. T-Mobile charges $15 per MB for data roaming. $15!!!!! My prediction is that people are going to start to stay away from these subsidized plans that give you a phone for cheap but then lock you into a 2 year commitment and start buying their phones and doing what 90% of Europeans do and get pay as you go. That way, if you aren’t happy with the service. You can always jump ship.

In fact, after 12 years with T-Mobile and a couple of recent billing issues much more significant that my petty unlocking situation described above, I am seriously thinking about an alternative option. My only problem is that the decision I have to make isn’t about finding the best carrier but finding the least worst.

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