Retired in Rome Journal: Buying an Italian cell phone not as easy as dailing uno, due, tre


It sits next to this laptop, a four-inch piece of black plastic, a bundle of wires, technology and agitation. It weighs no more than a golf ball. Yet how can a cell phone be so difficult?

In Italy it is.

Cell phones are as much a part of Italians’ lives as pasta. They’re connected to their ears like a growth. Land lines went out in Italy about the time of chariot races and cells, or cellulari as they’re called here, have become their lifeline. Italians have the fourth highest usage per capita in Europe (If you care, Lithuania is first), with 1,346 cell phones for every 1,000 people. Yes, that’s right. Italians even have backups.

Then again, so do I now. That’s some insight into how I spent two days getting connected with the rest of the cellular world.

Italy has numerous cell phone companies, all with massive ad campaigns ranging from hot women talking on the phone on TV to company names emblazoned on the front of pro soccer teams’ jerseys. There’s TIM, WIND. The Blooms, my local expat friends, recommended Vodofone, which has a huge office on Via del Corso and young clerks who are as savvy with the English language as they are with cell phones. Also, they can even convert your U.S. cell to Italian. As I said, Italians know cell.

No cell phone store in the world has a better walk to reach it. I strolled past my new friends at the Campo dei Fiori fruit stands, went to the Pantheon where I again marveled at Hadrian’s massive temple to the Greek gods then stopped off at Tazza d’Ora (Cup of Gold) which lived up to The New York Times’ claim as the best cappuccino in the world. I walked through the Piazza Colonna and its 100-foot-high spiraling column with intricate carved details of Marco Aurelius’ military victories. It was built in 193 AD.

I peered at the carvings of the soldiers. I wanted to see if they were holding cell phones.

Via del Corso is Rome’s main shopping artery. Every name Italian brand is on this street which is constantly being prowled by panting female tourists attacking stores like starving lionesses. Here’s a tip, ladies: You won’t find any bargains here. In fact, you’ll find few anywhere in Rome. Italian clothes stores price their clothes for female tourists who will pay anything to show off their “new Italian shoes” in their office in Santa Monica. Men stores, however, price for the Italian man with limited funds. I’ve found incredible Italian shoes for half the price I’d pay at the Macy’s in Cherry Creek Mall. (Psst! Ladies, go to Re di Roma, south of Termini. That neighborhood has no tourists and reasonable prices.)

Vodofone is set up similar to Verizon in Cherry Creek. It’s a big space with everyone wearing identical uniforms and two people greeting you at the door asking to help. I got assigned a pretty blonde who spoke no English but made buying a phone as easy as buying the pizza bianca I had earlier that day. She took my Verizon iPhone4S and sold me 200 minutes and 200 texts plus data for 30 euros ($40) a month. She handed me one sheet of paper with my new Italian number on it. She handed me my old phone and said it will be activated within two hours. And that was it.

We did the whole thing in Italian which was a major step in my advancement toward fluency but gave me reservations that I heard her right. I found another woman who spoke English and went over what the woman told me: 200 minutes, 200 texts, data for 30 euros a month. And it will be activated in two hours?

“Si,” she said.

I strutted out thinking I could not only address the Italian Parliament but I could address it on my new cell phone by the afternoon. But as I wrote emails later that day, my old cell phone kept haunting me with the message, “NO SERVICE.” Two hours passed. Then three. Then four. It never changed. I couldn’t even call the States on Verizon’s larcenist 99-cents-a-minute-go-broke-in-retirement plan.

Then yesterday I marched back to Vodofone. I thought I noticed one of the soldiers on the Colonna was depicted throwing a fit at what looked like a second century cell phone clerk. I was sent to see Pamela, a diminutive doe-eyed woman in her mid-20s. This time I took no chances.

“Parla inglese?”

“Ee leetle,” she said.

Of course, keeping with Europeans’ modesty about languages, she was completely fluent. She examined my phone and told me that they can’t change my U.S. cell phone to Italian because it is locked. I must go to an Apple store and have them do it.

“Dove e’?” (Where is it?)

I showed her a map of Rome and she giggled. She laid it out on the counter and pointed off the map — WAY off the map — to the north. I believe she was pointing somewhere in Tuscany. Desperate, I was ready to hop a bus. Fortunately, a male clerk overheard what we were doing and he said don’t bother. Apple here can’t unlock U.S. cell phones, either.

Instead, I shelled out $50 for the tiny Italian cell that is mocking me as I type this. It looks like one of those burners you buy in foreign countries and throw away along with your water bottle as you go through airport security. But it’s still 200 minutes and 200 texts a month for only 30 euro ($40), much less than in the U.S. It’s also only 15 cents a minute to call the U.S., about seven times cheaper than Verizon.

So now I have two cell phones: a new one to call and text and my old one for the calendar, contacts and pictures. I then spent two hours on the phone with Verizon figuring out how to move pictures from my old cell phone to my new laptop. We accomplished it through means totally beyond my comprehension.

Marcus Aurelius, you have no idea how easy a life you had.

8 thoughts on “Retired in Rome Journal: Buying an Italian cell phone not as easy as dailing uno, due, tre

  1. Hi last night I had to watch Eat Pray and Love. It was great to see her when she was in Rome. I have only been in Venice and just over the boarder from Switzerland. Broncos play tmrw and I really hope they can win and go to the Superbowl. 9 News keeps saying we are on our way to NY but Meadowlands MetLife stadium is in New Jersey. I feel bad for people that live in Jersey, people always consider it part of NY. Two very very different places. Have a great day, Nanc Sent from my iPad

    • Hi John,
      I’m so glad you are finally living your dream). Thanks for the journals, I really look forward to receiving
      them as they are so interesting to read:). Have a wonderful day and weekend!
      Laura King
      Did you get your nice apt in Denver rented? (That was a nice one) just curious.
      Bye of now!

      • And to answer your question, no, I have not rented my Denver condo. If you know of anyone interested in an 850-square-foot condo with a killer view of the Rockies for $1,200 a month, let me know. How’s your health?

  2. Sounds like the same store I went to before my pilgrimage to activate the cell phone that someone had lent me, to use during my pilgrimage. Yes, the locked/unlocked thing is a pain. This summer before returning to Qatar, I purposely bought a smart phone that is unlocked, (had to pay 2x as much for it) but can use it in any country just by changing out the SIM.

    PS: pizza bianca not piazza bianca! ;-)

  3. In Bracciano it took Vodafone two, yes 2, weeks to tell me they couldn’t unlock my nifty new SUCKY Samsung S5. Two weeks! The afternoon I picked up my nonfunctioning SUCKY Samsung S5 I did a google search for unlock Samsung S5. I paid $30 to the Phone Unlocking Store and in 2 minutes my phone was unlocked and my SUCKY Samsung S5 worked on Vodafone. And, becoming acclimated to the Italian culture, I also unlocked my LG Optimus Pro G for $1.99 through the same service.

    It sounds like you got ripped off, though, because I had 500 minutes, 500 messages, and 2 GB of data for €20 for the past year and a half. One last thing, I promise :), Vodafone is the best service, in Bracciano at least. I can’t tell you how SUCKY Tim is there, Wind is better, but for the money and service Vodafone is king.

    • What was the service you used to unlock your phone? I went to Vodafone and WIND when I arrived and they both told me they can’t unlock my Samsung. So I bought a cheap Italian burner and had two cell phones my first year. Then I finally broke down and bought an iPhone which I’m happy with. Romans, however, tell me only immigrants use WIND. Locals use Vodafone. But hey, I’m an immigrant. Seriously, I thought about switching to Vodafone but locals tell me the difference isn’t worth the change. My monthly phone bill is only 18 euros plus topups.


  4. I used The Unlocking Company ( You put in the phone you have along with the IMEI (if I remember correctly – it was a whole lot of wine ago). They send you, after you pay, a pdf or word doc or something like that with instructions on how to do it. I literally received that document a nanosecond after I clicked the pay button. The instructions were simple, and they worked.

    In Bracciano, the mentality is all about economics. These people are pessimistic, hate the government, and taxes OMG, don’t get me started. Or rather, I’ll try not to get myself started. Anyway, some of my friends were on Tim and couldn’t ever reach me. I’m on Vodafone because it actually works. They say Vodafone is too expensive. Really? In the US I was paying $125 for the same service – €20 is a steal.

    Probably in Rome it doesn’t matter which service you’re on. Last year when Vodafone went to the 4G LTE I had to go to Rome to switch my SIM because there’s no LTE in Bracciano. I did notice, though, that as I city hopped Vodafone worked far more than my friend’s Wind phone. And when I went to England my Vodafone had a very simple and inexpensive roaming plan (I don’t know how it is on Wind or Tim).

    • My problem with WIND is their billing. Half the time I don’t get bills in the mail then they cut off my Internet with no warning. Ensuing bills don’t even show bills I missed. Then it takes a week to get it back, forcing me to go to the cold corner café filled with old Roman women screaming all day in Romanaccio. I tried setting up autopay and it didn’t work, forcing me to miss another payment. I pretty much have to call in my payment to the one English-speaking WIND employee in Italy. I speak Italian but I barely understand cell phones in English. Also, WIND’s overseas dialing is real confusing. I could dial Italy from Liechtenstein. In fact, I could probably dial Neptune from Liechtenstein. Yet I couldn’t dial my AirBnB host up the street. I can’t always get answers because my one English-speaking guy in the WIND office rarely has time to pick up the phone. I am wondering when I wrote that the lack of public services is part of Rome’s charm.

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