The Italians aren't usually fast to embrace technology, but they love their mobile phones (or cellphones, if you're American). If you want to keep in touch with friends at home or in Rome while you're here, you'll need one too. Whether you plan to bring yours from home or buy one here, you'll find what you need to know below.
International roaming: bringing your phone to Italy
Depending on your phone tariff, it's likely to cost you a fortune to make and receive calls on a UK or US mobile while in Italy. It's always worth checking with your network to see if they have any special offers: for example, Vodafone offer their British customers an arrangement called 'Vodafone passport'. This charges an additional connection fee per call while out of the country, and then reverts to UK rates. Other networks may have similar deals, so check with yours.
If you've not travelled abroad before, you may need to call your network anyway, and ask them to make sure that you're enabled for international roaming. Otherwise, you may find yourself in Italy with a phone that doesn't work.
Make sure you turn off your phone's data facility while travelling abroad: unless you have a special arrangement with your network, they're likely to charge you very high fees to download emails or browse the web.
Buying a mobile phone in Rome
If you're going to be in Italy for a while, it may be worth getting an Italian phone. Prepaid phones are common here, allowing you to 'top up' with money as and when you need it, without a monthly contract. Italian phone providers include Tim, 3, Vodafone, and Wind. (Wind's promotional material asks users of other networks to "passa a Wind", which only means move to Wind, but probably doesn't do much for their sales to English speakers.)
Fortunately, the process of buying a prepaid phone in Italy is relatively straightforward, and there are shops everywhere. You'll need to produce your passport, and an Italian financial code known as a codice fiscale. (How to get a codice fiscale.)
One benefit of buying a phone in Italy is that the Italian networks aren't allowed to lock their phones to a particular network, so when you get home you can put in a new SIM and keep using it.
The international dialing code for Italy is +39 and the code for Rome is 06. The 06 prefix is always used, even when calling from inside Rome.
An alternative method of staying in touch while you're in Rome is to use software like Skype. You'll need a laptop and a decent internet connection (perhaps through your hotel's wireless network, or by setting up a broadband connection wherever you'll be living). In effect, Skype allows you to use your computer as a telephone.
Calls from Skype to other Skype users are free, as is receiving telephone calls on your computer. You can also make calls out to landlines and mobiles, but there is a charge for this (rates vary, but tend to be much cheaper than using a normal telephone). You can buy calling credit in advance from their website.
Skype works with PCs, Macs, and a wide range of other devices. You can find out more, and download the software, from Skype.com.