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Internet and Data Access in Italy

For many, accessing the internet is becoming increasingly important and for some, even a necessary aspect of daily life. Email correspondence, destination searches, GPS, Skyping and even accessing Facebook are just some of tools the internet offers. While some travelers to Italy may prefer to leave their concerns back home, others literally would not be able to even go to Italy without having at least partial internet access. Accessing the internet can be prohibitively expensive in Italy but, if you know how, quite affordable. Read on to learn what options are available for accessing the internet while in Italy.

Roaming with Your Current Carrier

Many current handsets, particularly those sold through T-Mobile and AT&T or more sophisticated phones sold through Verizon and Sprint, such as the iPhone, will work in Italy for voice and data. If you only need to access the internet occasionally and doing so through a small device such as a handset is adequate, roaming on your carrier's plan may be a feasible option. If so, particularly if you have the iPhone or a device that constantly check for emails, and therefore consumes data, make sure you figure out how to go to the settings and turn off the data roaming when not needed.

You can also purchase data packages from the carriers which, while expensive, is less expensive than data usage without a package. A word of caution is that if you exceed the amount of data usage in your package, you will be charged hefty fees. AT&T for example charges $10 for each 10 MB of data used in excess of their international data plan and Verizon's fees are even higher. One of the best plans on the market, at least for checking emails, is provided by T-Mobile.

If you have a Blackberry from T-Mobile and you only need access to your emails, for $19 a month, you can get unlimited international email access. You do not have to commit to any length of time and in fact, you can even pro rate their offer. Just be aware that this deal only applies to email access and not web browsing or other data usages.

Purchase an Italian SIM Card with Data

Purchasing an Italian SIM card, either in Italy or before your trip, has been the savvy travelers' method of choice for making and receiving calls for years. However, until recently, affordable data plans for pay as you go SIM cards were not an option in Italy. Now that they are an option, this has become a popular solution for those in need of an affordable mobile broadband solution for Italy, particularly for those who need service for their iPad.

There are several cellular network operators in Italy. The main three are TIM, Vodafone and Wind. There are also a handful of companies piggybacking on these networks and targeting specific demographics. For example, there is the MTV SIM that caters do the younger, music download loving generation, Uno Mobile, which caters to English speaking tourists and the Pinoy SIM, targeting the large Philippine community in Italy. TIM and Vodafone have excellent coverage and fast data speeds while Wind's coverage and speeds are inferior.

Currently, their offers are similar. With an Italian pay as you go data SIM card, you can expect unlimited data for about 25 Euros (about $35) per month. The only very small caveat is that if you consume a certain amount of data, usually around 10 GB, speeds are reduced. Still, unless you are spending hours each day of streaming videos or Skyping, you should not come close to that limit. This is an incredible value. To put this in perspective, a similar amount of data with AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon would be over $10,000.

In order to get your hands on an Italian SIM card that is data enabled, you can either get one online before your departure or wait until you are in Italy. If you purchase on in the US before your trip, you will pay a premium but will have a product in hand to use as soon as you arrive and you will know your new Italian phone number before you leave for the trip and you should also have access to English speaking customer service. If you wait until you arrive in Italy, here is a quick step by step guide on how to purchase and set up a data enabled SIM or Micro SIM.

Purchase a SIM card or a micro SIM card in a cell phone store. If you arrive during the day, you can even find one at Rome, Fiumicino and other international airports. Once you have the SIM card, you must add sufficient credit for the activation including, if applicable, the activation fee. For example, if you need 25 Euros for unlimited data and 5 Euros for the activation, you will need to make sure that your SIM card has 30 Euros of credit on it.

Try to have the vendor add the credit for you, particularly if you have an iPad. If he or she simply gives you a recharge voucher, you will not be able to add the credit with your iPad and will have to ask to borrow someone's cell phone that happens to use the same carrier that you are attempting to add credit to. Once you have done that, you can call customer service and ask them to activate the data. Allow up to 24 hours for the data service to be activated. A word of caution, if you try to use data and your data package has not been activated, you will burn through your credit and then will not have sufficient credit to activate the bundle.

Italian SIMs for iPhones and iPads

Here are a couple of things to consider. If you need a SIM card for your iPad, you will need to make sure it is a micro SIM. If you need a SIM card for your cell phone, make sure that your cell phone is unlocked. Your carrier will usually provide you with the unlock code for free. The first generation iPhone is the only one that uses a full sized SIM card. However, it is also difficult to get unlocked. All other versions use a micro SIM. The latest version, the soon to be released iPhone4, will use a micro SIM card and some will be unlocked and some will not. Still, accordingly, if you are in good standing with your carrier you can get your cell phone unlocked. Another approach is to purchase an unlocked iPhone with no contract. This will cost much more than an iPhone with a 2 year contract but it gives you the option of not having a monthly bill and would probably be less expensive than 1-2 weeks of roaming usage.

While your iPhone and iPad should configure automatically, this is not always the case and in fact is one of the main issues - enough of a concern to include a sentence or two with this information! The APN for Vodafone, TIM and Wind are, respectively, mail.omnitel.it , ibox.tim.it and internet.wind

Another Alternative is to Rent or Purchase a Mobile Broadband Hotspot (MiFi)

The MiFi is a mobile broadband device that in essence, creates your own hotspot. Any wifi enabled device including iPads, iPhones, smartphones, PCs, Macs, etc. are compatible with this device. Up to 5 devices can be used simultaneously. In addition, you do not need to be tethered to an outlet. That means that while you are busy checking your work emails, your husband can be researching the best pizzeria in Rome. The MiFi is similar to a cell phone in that it has a couple of days of standby as well as several hours of continual usage capacity. That means that you can be on a bench in a park or at a café or restaurant in Italy or even on a boat (as long as it is within about a mile from the coastline) and get data service.

Coupled with an unlimited data plan, this is the easiest way to have 24/7, unlimited internet service on any device and, while not as affordable as utilizing just an Italian SIM card, costs just fractions compared to roaming with a US carrier plus has the distinct advantages of allowing multiple users or devices to access the internet simultaneously.

If you plan on staying in Italy for more than a month, it is probably worth the extra effort to purchase a mobile broadband device, such as the Huawei E585 or the MiFi 2352 plus an Italian SIM card and then activate the plan. Cellular Abroad also has them available

WiFi Access

Another great way to access the internet is through wifi hotspots. While free internet access in Italy is not as prevalent in Italy as it is in the United States or other European destinations for that matter, there are a number of centrally located free wifi spots in many of the larger cities. This site outlines a number of free access spots. One thing to remember is that you will need to provide an Italian cell phone number in order to sign up for the service. The number MUST be Italian at foreign numbers are not easily traceable in the event that someone uses the free wifi service for illegal or suspicious reasons. In addition, many café's in tourist areas offer wifi access. Usually the wifi networks require a password. You may need to sit down and have a coffee, snack or glass of wine in order to access the password, which is what many people will want to do anyway!

Here is a list of free wifi hotspots in Italy

Cellular Abroad: Cell phones, mobile broadband and SIM cards for Europe and worldwide. Promo code "SLOWTRAV" for $10 off.

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