Using a cell phone in Italy (or other International destinations)

Updated Aug. 27, 2015

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This article is primarily written for cell phone users coming from the U. S., however, most of the non-U. S. specific information can be applied to cell phone users from other countries.

Much have changed since more than a decade ago, when cell phone carriers tried to force their revenue models on the consumers with many restrictions such as long-term contract, network-locked cell phones and forcing international travelers to pay exorbitant roaming fee (as high as $4 a minute). Today, travelers have more options and flexibility to save significant amount of money.

Ericsson T28w World GSM phoneThanks to pioneering businesses in the field of cell phone unlocking, they helped to bring the concept of "Phone portability" to consumer awareness as much as "Number portability" When consumers want to switch to a different, compatible cell phone provider and keep their phones, they can. What started out as an obscure concept turned into an explicit exemption from the U. S. Copyright Office, and eventually cemented into law by President Obama.  

This trend has been essential in contributing to the change in the industry's business practice. First starting with T-Mobile, and now followed by all major carriers. They no longer force a long-term contract on consumers and give consumers the option to purchase unlocked phones. In addition, now they must unlock a customer's phone on request, a drastic contrast to the adamant refusal of the past.

Today, unlike a decade ago, most people have smart phones and the distinction of a world phone and non-world phone is minimized as most phones sold in recent years are tri- or quad-band world phones. It made the choice to take one's cell phone abroad even simpler as it is one less technical factor to consider. 2015: Microsoft Lumia 640 LTE world GSM phone

Hence, with all these factors in a phone user's favor, traveling with your own cell phone to another country is easy. Even with lower roaming rates offered by the major U. S. carriers. If you plan to use your cell phone on more than few occasions, the saving can still be significant. Take AT&T's most recent (summer 2015) roaming rate for example, you would still expect to pay about $1 per minute for a phone call while abroad under the normal roaming plan. However, if you use a local network in Italy, that phone call could be less than 10 cents a minute. Unlocking your phone gives you the option to use a SIM card from a local carrier in Italy (or elsewhere).

If you are planning to keep your existing phone and stay an extended time, then unlocking your phone and get a local SIM card is definitely the most cost-effective way. For example, Vodafone has an option which gives you 250 international minutes a month for only 9.9 euros! You can also add 2GB internet access plan at 4G speed for only 5 euros a month.

These three are the biggest mobile phone carriers with their own network in Italy, dominating the domestic market:
Vodafone (formerly Omintel)

Other virtual network operator also exist, they use the infrastructure from the above three networks. Some popular companies are:

How do I know if my phone is restricted

If you bought a subsidized cell phone from a carrier in the U.S. or Canada at a discount, it is most likely restricted (with very rare exceptions it is not). If you insert another network's SIM card into your phone, and if it is rejected, then you know the handset is certainly restricted. Common error messages of a phone locked to a specific service provider when you insert a different SIM card are: Subsidy password, SP (Service Provider) lock, phone restrictions. NCK, NSCK, SPCK, Insert Correct SIM Card, Phone Restricted, Enter Special Code, Contact Service Provider, Cannot Undo Restriction, Wrong SIM Card, Not Allowed.If you see any of these error messages, then you need to unlock your phone.

If you see errors such as "SIM PIN" or "Enter PUK" or "SIM Blocked", it has nothing to do with your phone. These errors are the result of the security on the SIM card itself.

I bought a cell phone abroad; can it work in the US?

The predominant GSM radio band used in Canada, US, and Mexico is 1900MHz. However, 850MHz is also deployed in some parts of the country. If you try to use a cell phone purchased from abroad, regardless whether it needs unlocking, it must have at least 1900MHz band.

I want to travel with a cell phone abroad; can it work outside the US?

If you have a GSM world phone with at least 900MHz or 1800MHz band, then it will work in most countries outside the US once unlocked. If you are traveling to Ecuador or Panama, your cell phone must have 850MHz band.

Note: By unlocking a phone, it will only work among carriers of the same network technology. That means if you have a GSM phone, you can use it with other GSM network providers. If you have a CDMA phone (see the next question), and it is a CDMA-only phone, then even if you unlock it, you cannot use it with a GSM network in the U. S. or abroad.

My phone does not have a SIM card (CDMA)

Your phone is either a really old TDMA phone or a CDMA phone. Those technologies do not use SIM cards. For sure you don't have a GSM phone.

Recently few CDMA phone also began to have SIM card socket for storing things such as phonebook and other information. However, this type of feature in CDMA phones is not very popular and they are NOT GSM phones unless specifically indicated.

There are some dual-technology CDMA / GSM phones available:
Apple iPhone (from Verzion and Sprint)
Samsung A790 (from Verzion)
RIM Blackberry 8830 (Sprint's version has GSM portion unlocked so it may be used abroad, Verzion's version has CDMA portion unlocked but the GSM portion is locked to Vodafone)

What about my Verizon / Sprint / Cricket / Alltel / U.S. Cellular / MetroPCS / Qwest phone?

Verizon and Sprint (except Nextel which Sprint just acquired) both operate on the CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) network.
Since CDMA is a different technology from GSM, you cannot use a CDMA handset on a GSM network (e. g. using a Sanyo 8400 or Motorola V60c on T-Mobile's network), and vice versa. This is because completely different hardware is required in the phone; it cannot be changed in software.

Is cell phone unlocking legal?

It is legal. In 2015, by law, U. S. consumers have the right to unlock their own phones.

If I unlocked my phone for one network, do I need to unlock it for another network?

No. Once you unlocked it, your cell phone is open to all compatible network.

SIM Error Messages:

Invalid SIM: This error means that the SIM you have inserted into your phone is either inactive or is not compatible.
Remove phone restriction, Enter Subsidy password, SP (Service Provider) lock, Phone restricted, NCK, NSCK, SPCK locked, Insert Correct SIM Card, Phone Restricted, Enter Special Code, Contact Service Provider, Cannot Undo Restriction, Wrong SIM Card, Not Allowed error, SIM locked, Subsidy locked: Your phone is "locked" (restricted) to another network, you need to unlock it.

Insert SIM: Your SIM is either not inserted in your phone or is inserted improperly. Please remove and re-insert your SIM card. If you continue to receive this error message, your SIM card or phone may be defective.

Unregistered SIM: This error may occur if your SIM card is not fully activated. For example, if you insert an used SIM that is no longer active, or if you insert a SIM from a non-GSM carrier such as Nextel, you will see this error.

SIM Not Ready: This error occurs when you have just powered on your phone and the phone not being fully initialized. Please wait a few moments before accessing your phonebook or placing a call.

OTA OK: This message is displayed when your phone receives a network update, phonebook download, or an Over-The-Air MMS/Internet setting configuration.

Enter PUK: These errors can occur if you have entered your SIM PIN three times incorrectly. If you receive this error message, please contact customer service of your mobile network for a PIN Unblocking Key (PUK) to restore access to your phone. The PUK code is often supplied with your original SIM card.

Check card, Card Blocked See Supplier, Blocked, SIM Blocked, or Contact Card/Service Provider: These errors may occur if you have entered your PUK ten times incorrectly. Your SIM is unusable and you will need to purchase a new SIM card.

A SIM PIN is for your security and can be used to prevent unauthorized access to your phonebook or making calls. When enabled, your phone will prompt you for the SIM PIN when the phone is powered on. Entering the wrong PIN will prevent you from making or receiving calls. SIM PINs are different from a Security Code that your phone may use to secure other phone functions. Please check your phone's manual for further security details.

There are many things to consider when purchasing electronics like laptops and cell phones. Many people just look for the best cell phone or laptop deals instead of researching which product would best meet their needs.

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