> SlowTrav > Italy > Instructions for Visitors

Using Public Phones in Italy

Pauline Kenny, Andrew McGarrell

You will find public phones all over Italy. These may be phone booths, those egg shaped half booths or free standing phones on the wall (e.g. at the Autogrill).

There are three ways of paying to use a public phone:

  • Coins (Monete)
  • Phone Cards (Scheda - singular; Schede - plural)
  • Credit Cards (Carte)

Some phones take only coins; some take only phone cards. Look at the top of the booth or on the instructions above the phone to see what types of payment the phone takes. Many phone booths have complete instructions in both Italian and English. If a phone takes both phone cards and credit card, they are inserted in the same slot, with the magnetic stripes facing up.

Note: Even if you are dialing a free long distance access number (e.g. AT&T or MCI or a long distance card purchased in Italy), you may need to have a phone card to insert in the phone. Nothing is charged to it, but you need the card so the phone will work. Note: This may have changed, but was this way in 2001.

See our Slow Travel Photo Gallery for several photos of Italian public phones.

Scheda Telefonica (Phone Cards)

Many public phones in Italy take only phone cards. A phone card is "Scheda Telefonica" in Italian (pronounced SKEH-dah teh-leh-FOH-nee-kah). These can be purchased from machines at the airport and at most tobacco stores and bars. They are available in denominations of euro (3.00 euro, 5.00 euro, and more). The cards are valid for about six month from date of purchase (check the expiry date that is printed on the card).

To use the card, snap off the perforated corner in the upper part of the card. The card shown below has the corner snapped off. This allows the card to fit into the slot on the phone and "activates" the card. When you purchase a card, be sure the corner is not snapped off; this way you know the card has not been used.

The card below has an arrow (marked "Puntotel") showing how to insert the card with the magnetic strip facing up and the end with the snapped off corner inserted first.

Phone Card

Scheda Telefonica - Phone Card

This phone card is worth 2.50 euro to be used in public phones. The expiry date is printed under the euro amount - valid until 30.06.3004 - June 30, 2004. The picture printed on these card change frequently. The above card shows a London (England) taxi cab on the front and a London city map on the back. This makes these cards pretty and interesting.


If are not going to make many calls on your trip, it might not be worth buying a phone card. Try to find a phone that takes coins. Look for "Monete" on the top of the phone booth, or if there is no booth, look on the instructions above the phone or at the phone to see if there is a coin slot. Not all phones will have them. These phones take coins from 10 cents to 1 euro.

If you have paid for your call with a 1 euro coin and the call costs less than that, you won't get change, but you can push the New Call button (Nuova Chiamata) to make another call on the same coin.

How to Use the Public Phone

The phone shown below takes only phone cards (it says this on the instructions above the phone). Most of the new phones have a panel above the phone explaining in Italian and English how to use the phone. It shows which cards can be used, how to use the phone and lists emergency numbers.

Public phone

Public phone that takes only phone cards


Photo of instructions panel above this phone - I have copied these instructions below.

Public phone

These are the instructions from above this phone.

1. Lift the receiver and insert the card. The card shows you which way to insert it. If a phone takes both phone cards and credit card, they are both inserted in the same slot, both with the magnetic stripes facing up.

2. Dial the number you wish to call. If you make a mistake when dialing the number, press the button marked "C" to backup.

3. In order to make the call, press the button marked "OK". It is easy to forget this!

4. At the end of the phone call, replace the receiver and remove the card.

Other buttons on the Phone Pad

Cancel Button (Cancellazione): Press to correct dialing error. It erases the last number dialed.

Change Cards (Cambio Scheda): When the display window indicates that your credit is finished, press the "change card" button in order to continue with your call. Then remove the card and insert another card.

New Call (Nuova Chiamata): In order to make another call without replacing the receiver, press the button marked "R".

Language (Lingua): To change the Language that you want, press the "change language" button.

Adjust Volume (Regolazione Volume): To adjust the volume, press the "volume" button.

Reading the Display on the Phone

The amount of money remaining on your card shows on the display, and gets reduced as your call progresses. The rate varies depending on distance and time of day; calls to cell phones (numbers starting with 3) are more expensive. Remember, there is a button marked Cambio Scheda (see photo above), which you can use if your card runs out of time, to show that youre inserting a new card.

Internet Corners

You may come across public Internet Corners. They can be used with the phone cards. These stations may not work very well, so do not depend on them for Internet access.

Emergency Numbers

  • 112 Emergencies - EU-wide emergency number with multilingual operators to route you to the appropriate agency
  • 118 Ambulance
  • 115 Fire Department
  • 113 Emergencies (Local Police) - Polizia di Stato, national civilian police
  • 117 Guardia di Finanza (Financial Police) - if a business has cheated you

Polizia di Stato, the national civilian police, are different from the Carabinieri, who are military. They have overlapping responsibilities and often the Carabinieri have a bigger presence in small towns. They are both separate from the local police, the vigili urbani, who mostly deal with traffic and store opening hours.

Pulse versus Tone

I think that all public phones in Italy are now "tone". When we first started traveling to Italy in 1996, most public phones were pulse, not tone. Pulse is the signal a rotary phone gives when you dial; tone is the signal a touch tone or push button phone gives when you dial. You can clearly hear the difference if you listen when you dial. Although the phones in Italy were push button, you could hear the pulse signal when you dialed. This meant that you could not use the phones to dial your long distance service and automatically dial a US number. An operator had to come on and make the call (this costs more). Also, your voice mail system at home needed tones, so you could not retrieve your messages.

On our next trip we brought a $10 tone generator with us (from Radio Shack). You hold it up to the phone and press the numbers to dial into the tone generator. It generates the tones to the phone and it all works great. In small towns you can still run into an old pulse phone. You can tell because when you first start to dial, you will hear the pulse signal that sounds like an old rotary dial phone.


www.slowtrav.com/photos/showgallery.php?cat=609: Slow Travel photos of phones in Italy.

Andrew McGarrell, of St. Joseph, Missouri, spent his teenage years in Italy and returns there often. Andrew - - Travel Home Page

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