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Italy launches ‘Christmas cashback’ scheme in push for digital payments

A cashback scheme is among Italian government incentives intended to give struggling shops a boost while cracking down on tax evasion.

Italy launches 'Christmas cashback' scheme in push for digital payments
Photo: AFP
Long a country where cash is king, Italy has been prodded towards electronic payments in 2020 by the coronavirus pandemic, while the government is adding further incentives to pay by card.
 
A new cashback initiative launched this week offers an automatic refund from the state to citizens making in-store purchases with a bank card or
smartphone app, as long as they first register their payment methods on the government's own IO app.
 
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Under “Christmas Cashback”, users will get back 10 percent of each purchase up to a maximum of 150 euros before the end of the year, as long as they make
at least ten digital transactions.
 
In a sign of the idea's popularity, the systems behind IO were overwhelmed when 7.6 million people downloaded it by the day of the scheme's launch on
Tuesday
 
The cashback programme “covers purchases made in shops as well as payments to craftsmen, plumbers, electricians, a lawyer or a doctor,” a finance
ministry spokesman told AFP.
 
Italy's government hopes that by encouraging people to pay digitally, the country can crack down on chronic tax evasion that costs the public purse up
to 100 billion euros ($120 billion) per year according to official estimates.
 
Its broader “Italia Cashless” plan aims to “widen the tax base” in Italy and “provide an incentive to improve compliance with tax rules”, the spokesman said  – in other words, making sure more people pay the tax they owe.
 
READ ALSO:
It is still common for shoppers in Italy to run into refusals when they ask to pay with plastic.
 
But data show that the country is gradually coming around to the idea.
 
The percentage of transactions using cash dropping from 68.4 percent in 2016 to 58 percent in 2019, according to a study by Italy's central bank and
the European Central Bank – although even that figure leaves cash payments well above the eurozone average of 48 percent.
 
Photo: Francois Lo Presti/AFP
 
The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the trend in 2020, with more people switching to cards to avoid handling cash and choosing to shop online
during lockdown.
 
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said that by bringing forward the cashback scheme – originally slated to begin on January 1 – he hoped instead to
direct pre-Christmas spending towards brick-and-mortar shops that suffered through lockdown.
 
The programme excludes internet shopping, where users have no option but to pay by card.
 
“This is a period in which we have all increased (online purchases), but now we must favour in-person businesses,” Conte said earlier this month.
 
The government has earmarked 1.75 billion euros for the scheme for 2021, and three billion for the following year.
 
 
There were technical glitches on Christmas Cashback launch day on Tuesday, with many people complaining they could not activate the IO app.
 
Blaming the “huge volume of requests” to use the system, the operators admitted some “inefficiencies” but said they were being addressed.
 
As part of its “Italia Cashless” plan, the government is also automatically enrolling those who pay by card or app in a lottery, with prizes for both
shoppers and shopkeepers.
 
In addition, the ceiling for cash payments is due to fall from 2,000 euros to 1,000 euros from January 2022.

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MONEY

How to avoid huge ‘roaming’ phone bills while visiting Italy

If you're visiting Italy from outside the EU you risk running up a huge phone bill in roaming charges - but there are ways to keep your internet access while avoiding being hit by extra charges.

How to avoid huge ‘roaming’ phone bills while visiting Italy

Travelling without access to the internet is almost impossible these days. We use our phones for mapping applications, contacting the Airbnb, even scanning the QR code for the restaurant menu.

If you’re lucky enough to have a phone registered in an EU country then you don’t need to worry, thanks to the EU’s cap on charges for people travelling, but people visiting from non-EU countries – which of course now includes the UK – need to be careful with their phone use abroad.

First things first, if you are looking to avoid roaming charges, be sure to go into your settings and turn off “data roaming.” Do it right before your plane lands or your train arrives – you don’t want to risk the phone company in your home country starting the clock on ‘one day of roaming fees’ without knowing it.

READ ALSO: Ten ways to save money on your trip to Italy this summer

But these days travelling without internet access can be difficult and annoying, especially as a growing number of tourist attractions require booking in advance online, while restaurants often display their menus on a QR code.

So here are some techniques to keep the bills low.

Check your phone company’s roaming plan

Before leaving home, check to see what your phone plan offers for pre-paid roaming deals.

For Brits, if you have a phone plan with Three for example, you can ask about their “Go Roam” plan for add-on allowance. You can choose to pay monthly or as you go. Vodafone offers eight day and 15 day passes that are available for £1 a day.

For Americans, T-Mobile offers you to add an “international pass” which will charge you $5 per day. Verizon and AT&T’s roaming plans will charge you $10 per day. For AT&T, you are automatically opted into this as soon as your phone tries to access data abroad.

READ ALSO: Seven things to do in Italy in summer 2022

These all allow you to retain your normal phone number and plan.

Beware that these prices are only available if you sign up in advance, otherwise you will likely be facing a much bigger bill for using mobile data in Italy. 

Buy a pre-paid SIM card

However, if you are travelling for a longer period of time it might work out cheaper to turn off your phone data and buy a pre-paid SIM card in Italy.

In order to get a pre-paid SIM card, you will need your passport or proof of identity (drivers’ licences do not count).

READ ALSO: TRAVEL: Why now’s the best time to discover Italy’s secret lakes and mountains

Keep in mind that you will not be able to use your normal phone number with the new SIM card in, but will be able to access your internet enabled messaging services, like WhatsApp, Facebook and iMessage. Your phone will need to be ‘unlocked’ (ask your carrier about whether yours is) in order to put a new SIM card in.

Here are some of the plans you can choose from:

WindTre

WindTre, the result of a 2020 merger between the Italian company Wind and the UK network provider Three, currently offers a “Tourist Pass” SIM card for foreign nationals. For €24.99 (it’s sneakily marketed as €14.99, but read the small print and you’ll see you need to fork out an additional €10), you’ll have access to 20GB of data for up to 30 days.

The offer includes 100 minutes of calls within Italy plus an additional 100 minutes to 55 foreign countries listed on the WindTre website. Up to 13.7GB can be used for roaming within the EU. The card is automatically deactivated after 30 days, so there’s no need to worry about surprise charges after you return from your holiday. To get this SIM card, you can go into any WindTre store and request it.

A tourist protects herself from the sun with a paper umbrella as she walks at Piazza di Spagna near the Spanish Steps in Rome.
A tourist protects herself from the sun with a paper umbrella as she walks at Piazza di Spagna near the Spanish Steps in Rome.

Vodafone

Vodafone has had better deals in the past, but lately appears to have downgraded its plan for tourists, now called “Vodafone Holiday” (formerly “Dolce Vita”), to a paltry 2GB for €30. You get a total of 300 minutes of calls and 300 texts to Italian numbers or to your home country; EU roaming costs €3 per day.

Existing Vodafone customers can access the offer by paying €19 – the charge will be made to your Vodafone SIM within 72 hours of activating the deal. 

READ ALSO: MAP: The best Italian villages to visit this year

The Vodafone Holiday offer automatically renews every four weeks for €29 – in order to cancel you’ll need to call a toll-free number. The Vodafone website says that the €30 includes the first renewal, suggesting the payment will cover the first four weeks plus an additional four after that, but you’ll want to double check before buying. You’ll need to go to a store in person to get the card.

TIM

TIM is one of Italy’s longest-standing and most well-established network providers, having been founded in 1994 following a merger between several state-owned companies.

The “Tim Tourist” SIM card costs €20 for 15GB of data and 200 minutes of calls within Italy and to 58 foreign countries, and promises “no surprises” when it comes to charges.

You can use the full 15GB when roaming within the EU at no extra charge, and in the EU can use your minutes to call Italian numbers. The deal is non-renewable, so at the end of the 30 days you won’t be charged any additional fees.

READ ALSO: MAP: Which regions of Italy have the most Blue Flag beaches?

To access the offer, you can either buy it directly from a TIM store in Italy, or pre-order using an online form and pay with your bank card. Once you’ve done this, you’ll receive a PIN which you should be able to present at any TIM store on arrival in Italy (along with your ID) to collect your pre-paid card. The card won’t be activated until you pick it up.

Iliad

Iliad is the newest and one of the most competitive of the four major phone companies operating in Italy, and currently has an offer of 120GBP of €9.99 a month. For this reason, some travel blogs recommend Iliad as the best choice for foreigners – but unfortunately all of their plans appear to require an Italian tax ID, which rules it out as an option for tourists.

Contract

Though buying a pre-paid SIM card is a very useful option for visitors spending a decent amount of time in Italy, as mentioned above, there’s a significant different difference between buying a one-time pre-paid SIM versus a monthly plan that auto-renews.

Make sure you know which one you’re signing up for, and that if you choose a plan that will continue charging you after your vacation has ended, you remember to cancel it.

UK contracts

If you have a UK-registered mobile phone, check your plan carefully before travelling. Before Brexit, Brits benefited from the EU cap on roaming charges, but this no longer applies.

Some phone companies have announced the return of roaming charges, while others have not, or only apply roaming charges only on certain contracts.

In short, check before you set off and don’t assume that because you have never been charged extra before, you won’t be this time.

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