Having a cel phone while on the other side of the world is important when you are travelling. Unfortunately, Canadian wireless providers are not keeping up with the rest of the world when it comes to cel phone rates. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that Canada has the third-highest wireless rates among developed countries. Rogers Wireless currently charges $2 per minute for voice roaming and $0.75 per text in Italy. If two of us call each other while in Italy that doubles, plus 2x long distance. This makes finding and using pre-paid SIM cards a necessity.
The first thing to know if you are planning to use a pre-paid SIM card in Italy is that a) you have to have a GSM phone, b) it has to be unlocked, and c) it has to support the GSM 900 Mhz and GSM 1800 Mhz frequencies. There is a very good information page on getting a SIM card in Italy at TripAdvisor.
Note that after this point I am repeating what I’ve discovered via the Internet so I make no guarantees about the accuracy of the following information.
For those of you familiar with the inner workings of SIM card magic, Italy does have an additional unique quirk. According to the forums at PrepaidGSM.net anybody who wants to buy a SIM card in Italy must register for a codice fiscale. If you’re a foreigner you need that as well as your passport to get your SIM card.
Apparently there is an official version that the locals use which must be acquired at an Italian tax office. This is like a Social Security Number and probably isn’t what tourists want. For the purposes of getting a SIM card it seems that an unofficial codice fiscale will work. There’s even a web site (in Italian) where you can generate your own authentic unofficial codice fiscale.
As fishy as that sounds given the fact that the web site isn’t government, Google seems to support its legitimacy. The general Internet consensus is that some people could not get anyone to sell them a SIM card without it, while others found that vendors couldn’t care less as long as you provide your passport (which is a common government requirement in Europe). This is a classic case of YMMV.
Further investigation of the codice fiscale generation site shows that you need to feed it your name, sex, country of origin, and date of birth. If you are comfortable giving up that information you might consider doing it if you absolutely need to get your SIM card quickly or if you just want to avoid potential hassle.
I’m still undecided.
Update 4/9/2010: See Part II of this series: http://averagetraveller.com/italy-prepaid-sim-cards-part-ii-carriers/372/