Sunday, 16 June 2013

Using my iPhone in Italy

Before leaving Canada, I did a bunch of research on how best to enable me to use my iPhone in Italy. While in Italy my phone was a godsend (generally; my next post will be about useful and useless apps), so the strategy of setting it up to be useful was a smart one. I wasn’t expecting to receive or make calls or texts (in the month, no one called me, I made one call, I got one text and sent none), but knew data was something I needed, and needed a lot of.

Looking at Telus’ plans for overseas, their have a couple of deals. Their Combo Travel Pass 50 deal cost $50 for the month I was here, and while the talk/text rates were OK (50 min free calls, 50 free texts), it gave me only 50 Mb of data, with every extra meg costing $1 (and as I type this in late May, I have already used 525 MB).

Before leaving Canada, I paid Telus $35 for the one-time procedure to unlock my phone, enabling the use of another carrier’s SIM card. I looked at this as an investment in future trips, including the US. I’m just betting that a future iPhone will introduce dual-SIM capability for travelling. KC’s looking at getting a phone; I’d lean towards a dual-SIM one for this exact reason.

My pre-trip research on SIM card options led me to TIM (Telecom Italia Mobile). I did look at Vodaphone and WIND, but liked TIM’s options better.  On my first day here, I bought a TIM SIM card from the TIM office in Termini station. Nice people, spoke English, knew what I wanted, helped me get it working. I paid €15 and was assigned an Italian phone number. This got me a “plan” with unlimited Italian talk, text and 500 MB of data for 2 weeks – or so I thought.

TIM sends lots of texts, always in Italian, always confusing, but mostly pushing features and promos, such as this one.
Whatever the heck that means
I started off getting one or two texts a day, then it tapered off. After about 8 days, I got one of many text messages from TIM in Italian. This one looked like this:
The translation made no sense so I ignored it; something about my minutes and seconds being full (when I had made no calls). The next day, my phone was still working (or so I thought) but the 3G logo was no longer there, and I had no data access. I was in Sorrento with wi-fi at the time, so ignored it. On the way home, I stopped in at the Termini TIM office to find out what the message meant and why I had no more data access.

They told me that I understood my plan wrong. That 15 broke down to 10 for the phone number and 5 for the talk/text/data plan. The plan I was on gave me unlimited Italian talk, texts and 500 MB of data for 5 per WEEK. When my week was up, my phone would accept incoming calls, but I could make no calls, and I would get no data whatsoever. Also, I actually had unlimited data in that week, but the data rate would slow by 80% after 500 MB.

No biggie. Still cheap, relative to Telus. Paid 5, they did some magic, turned the phone on and off, and I was back in business I got these texts after I had paid.

Proof I had paid
I was warned I had to pay by week, and could not pay in advance. They gave me instructions as to how to top up – sounding simple, but…

Topping up another 5 a week later was a little harder until I figured it out. At least I understood the text message, for it was the same.

To top up, I was told to buy a 5 card (a “reccaricard” or something like that) in a tabacci or grocery store, so I bought two to always have a spare. Those cards came in €5, €10, €25 and €50, so I was careful to buy €5 cards. The grocery store gave me a receipt for each 5 card with a 25-digit code on it. I was told by the TIM store to phone TIMs service number, 40916, a free call to enter the code. I did. An automated service but all in rapid-fire Italian. I hung up.

I did some ‘net searching on how to change the language on 40916 to English. I found one place that said could text the word ENGLISH to 40916, but that didn't work. I finally found a procedure on a downloadable English pamphlet from their Brazilian subsidiary’s website (TIM is a worldwide company). In any case, it worked (1-1-1-5, I think was the sequence). So I listened to the prompts, switched the language, then entered the 25-digit code. About an hour later, I got yet more texts (in Italian, shown above) that told me the top-up worked. Except my phone still showed no 3G, and I could get no data. Thinking back to how the dudes in the TIM store made it work, I powered the phone down, and back on again, and 3G was re-enabled.

By dialing 40916 I could get a status update on my account. But with my account the status was always the same, since I had unlimited call time and texts. It was the same right to the moment I was cut off, and there was virtually no warning on the 40916 as to when that was coming (I got one warning text in the middle of my stay). In fact, my first 5 lasted 9 days, my second 5 lasted 5 days, my 3rd lasted 7 days – it was kind of random, actually.

The next time I got the text message that I needed to top-up, I pulled out the little receipt, called 40916, entered the 25-digit code, waited an hour, turned the phone on and off, and I was working again. Easy, once you know how.

I just wish TIM would give me a warning that I was about to run out, instead of telling me I had. It would also be nice if I could have put in 10 for 14 days, instead of 5 every 7-ish days.

In any case, here’s the math comparing what I did to what Telus would have cost:
Telus: $50 for 50 MB, plus 475 more MB for $1/MB = $525 for the month

TIM: 15 for the card and the first top up, plus 15 for 3 more top ups = 30 for the month, or about $40 CDN for the month plus the one time unlock of $35.

I’d say it was a good move on my part.

My SIM card is good for one year from the date of the last €5 top up then dies and the number no longer works. So it's an ideal pay-as-you-go plan for travellers. I can go back in 6 months, pay €5, and start using it again. So if anyone needs an Italian phone number and SIM card, send me a note. I'm not using it, but it's good through June 2014.

1 comment:

Edwin said...

Whenever I'm heading to Italy (you never know, was in Spain last week....) I am sure to let you know. So hold onto it will you!