Charming streets, dark alleys? Anti-mugging ID plan for Rome
March 21, 2013 8:38 AM   Subscribe

I am planning a trip to Italy this summer. I will have several days within Rome, and am looking forward to exploring the nooks and crannies of the city. I've read that I should only carry enough money for each day, in case of being mugged -- works for me. Regarding ID, would it be a good idea to leave my passport in our rented apartment, and carry my driver's license and/or a photocopy of my passport within the city? These seem like less dire things to lose while travelling.
posted by bullitt 5 to Travel & Transportation around Rome, Italy (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I have to say that in all the months I lived in Rome and the times I have stayed there, I felt way safer than I did at home at night in DC or Philly. That said, yes, there is crime (especially north of Termini at night) and yes, there certainly are pickpockets. I found it easier to just leave my passport because it's bulky and never had issues that couldn't be solved with a copy, with the exception of some internet cafes (Italy has strict rules on monitoring internet cafes) and exemptions from museum fees (unlikely to be a problem unless you're a US citizen enrolled at an EU uni.) Make extra color copies of your passport and save a copy to Dropbox or another safe online system. If you keep it in your apartment, keep it in a non-obvious location and check it frequently. Have a great trip!
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:51 AM on March 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

The Roman mugging panic you see on American travel websites is completely overblown. Pickpocketing in the very crowded areas full of oblivious tourists is the real issue, and there are things you can do to discourage that (basically, make yourself look like a more challenging target than the next guy-- be obviously alert, keep zippers closed and your bag close to your body, if you have a bag; wallet in the front pocket if you don't; don't wave around cash or expensive electronics). If you've spent enough time in New York to be able to act like a New Yorker in public places (walk with purpose, don't trust or engage strangers who approach you on the street), you'll be fine. Rome's a confusing city and you'll definitely need a map on you, but try to be discreet (orient yourself while sitting at a caffè, or at the very least move out of the flow of foot traffic while you check the map; nothing screams "easy target" like someone who stops dead in the middle of a busy sidewalk and pulls out an enormous map).

With regards to your ID, do what makes you feel most comfortable. Why do you feel like you need an ID on you in the first place? If it's in case of emergency, a photocopy of your passport should be fine (some people like to do it the other way round and keep their actual passport on them in a money belt or something like that and leave photocopies stashed in their luggage).
posted by oinopaponton at 8:55 AM on March 21, 2013

Italian law actually requires that you carry identification at all times.

I would actually be more worried about someone breaking into the apartment, really. I always carried my passport and left copies at the hotel/hostel/etc.
posted by jaguar at 9:07 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was there last summer. I don't think you need to be more worried about mugging than in any US city--though, that said, my wife and I were followed in a rather sketchy way after leaving Termini (we're from NYC/Philly and live in Boston and we can tell the difference between being a mark and being on the same route, believe me). We got in a cab, and that was it (and it probably was a dumb idea to try to walk from Termini to our hotel anyway).

I set up internet service on my iPhone, so we never needed an internet cafe--I can't speak those rules. But otherwise I never needed my passport (or other ID) for anything. I'd leave it at the hotel.

It was stunningly hot! But also the most wonderful place ever. It's not responsive to your question, but I (and others surely) have restaurant and activity recommendations. Feel free to memail me or post a new question! Can't wait to go again.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:10 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Your chances of being mugged are slim but they are greatest if you are in a place which is crammed with other tourists. Therefore:
1. Try to time your visits to busy places so that the crowds are slightly less packed.
2. If you can (as anywhere) try to look a little like a local - get a plastic bag from a local shop and carry your maps, guidebook, water bottle, etc in that rather than a back pack. Sometimes it is even better to put your camera in there than round your neck. Thieves guess that backpacks and shoulder bags contain valuable stuff - but a carrier bag will just contain some sandwiches surely!
3. Rome does have some Vespa mounted pick pockets. You can avoid them by walking on the left of streets and perhaps staying a little way in from the kerb. Always be on the lookout for Vespas in Italy generally - they are often driven be young kids with little road sense.
4. If in doubt follow the most egregiously loud and obvious tourists. The thieves will target them first.
posted by rongorongo at 9:18 AM on March 21, 2013

Not in Italy, so FWIW when I've travelled to sketchy places I stitched a small pocket inside the waistband at the small of my back--exactly the size of a wallet card. Kept ID, credit card, room key and a small bit of cash there. I could easily reach back when I needed them.

The only time I've ever been robbed was when I stupidly left my money belt in my hotel room (that was Oaxaca).
posted by AnOrigamiLife at 9:20 AM on March 21, 2013

As jaguar says, Italian law requires ID-carrying. But the link to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office travel advice page for Italy says a color copy is probably fine:

By law you must be able to show some form of identification at all times. In most cases a photocopy of the data page of your passport should suffice, but you may be asked to accompany the police to collect the original document, or to produce it within 12 hours. The police will normally ask for your full passport if you are stopped while driving.

Also, get some travel insurance for that extra piece of mind to cover you if you end up missing your flight home/changing your trip plans because you're waiting out a new passport from the embassy if you DO get pickpocketed.
posted by mdonley at 9:22 AM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

What jetlagaddict and oinopaponton said. To me, Rome seems far more sketchy (e.g. beggars and vagrants) than dangerous (e.g. robbers and muggers). I usually carry my passport on me because frankly I suspect it's more likely to be stolen from my apartment than my person. I've never actually needed it though -- even for bureaucracy like police registration they seemed happy with photocopies. Yes, pickpockets will take any chance you give them, but this goes for most big cities and you can take simple standard precautions (valuables in hard-to-access pockets, etc.).

Re map reading, the least touristy way to read a map is to do it on your smartphone. For all anyone knows, you're texting, playing a game, or whatever.
posted by pont at 9:22 AM on March 21, 2013

As with other European tourist hotspots like Barcelona, your main issues are no so much [violent] muggings than pickpocketing and distraction thefts, and bag snatchers, often on bikes or mopeds.

So: take the usual anti-pickpocket measures: don't make it easy for the thieves to find your wallet, be aware of people too close to you or behaving in an odd way, and don't carry oodles of cash about. Be sensible and how and where you pull your camera or wallet out.

To mitigate the risk of distraction thefts and bag snatching do not walk about with a handbag over your shoulder. Either have no bag, a small backpack, or one of those bags that fits snugly and crosses the shoulders. Keep zippers shut. Don't put valuables at the top of the bag or in outside pockets.

My go-to method, pre-Dropbox, of keeping a copy of my ID was just to scan my documents and email them to myself for access through webmail. Or use Dropbox.

Also - it might be law that you need to go about with ID everywhere, but there is more risk carting your passport about than what happens if the police find a bona fide tourist who has left their papers back at the hotel. Carry photocopies and plead ignorance if needs be. You'll have a credit card with your name too. It would be unusual for a policeman to get worked up about it unless you had done something wrong. They'll either accept the photocopy or ask you to present the original at a later date.

Finally - you probably won't look like a local. But there is a very stereotypical dress code for US tourists - the beige pants or shorts, the polo shirt or t-shirt, the white tennis shoes. You'll be less of a mark if you avoid looking like this.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:33 AM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

My friend and I went to Italy (Rome, Venice, Florence) this past September/October. We also found it to be more "sketchy" than "dangerous" and we were two women travelling together. We went to the big attractions with huge crowds and didn't get pickpocketed or anything at all. We even found ourselves in a sketchy area near the Trevi Fountain, at night, navigating a tiny street and had no issues.

We both carried our passports with us at all times and brought about 100 Euro with us each day, leaving the rest of our valuables and money in a safe in our room at the hotel. (That really helped us remain at ease.) I carried my wallet in a different bag than my passport, figuring if anything happened, I could just toss someone my wallet. But nothing did.

As silly as they can be, a small "fanny pack" is extremely helpful and useful, particularly if you thread it through any belt loops you may be wearing, to make it more difficult for someone to slice through the material and grab it and run. I kept all the really valuable stuff in there (passport, Roma pass, room key) and kept my wallet with cash in my purse, along with things like sunscreen, sunglasses, etc. Granted, this may shout "HEY I'M A TOURIST", but you might still look like less of a target than the other tourists around you, and believe me, there are TONS of tourists around you. My friend and I grew to hate our fellow tourists with a passion. ;)

Have a great trip. :)
posted by juliebug at 9:47 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I vastly prefer to carry my passport. Rightly or wrongly, I'm much more worried about an encounter with the police than I am about replacing my passport should it be stolen. (I'd be mildly concerned that the Italian police would be less accommodating of a non-EU citizen carrying a photocopy rather than their actual passport.)

I usually keep it zipped in an inside pocket of my coat when travelling. For the summer, you can always get one of those dorky around-the-neck pouches and keep your passport in it tucked in your waistband (the cords are long enough) if you don't have anywhere else you feel secure to put it.

In any case, you should make photocopies and keep your driver's license with a photocopy of your passport separate from your passport. It will simplify getting a replacement passport should anything happen.
posted by hoyland at 9:50 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding everyone here. You're unlikely to get mugged in Rome unless you're really stupid or clumsy. Pickpockets are a bigger worry.

You can fight against both by keeping your ID/Passport and most of your cash/credit cards in a money belt that goes under your clothes (and only reach for it when it's safe and/or classy) and your day cash in your inside jacket pocket or some other more difficult to reach place. In the unlikely event you get mugged, give them the day money.
posted by hylaride at 9:58 AM on March 21, 2013

You can fight against both by keeping your ID/Passport and most of your cash/credit cards in a money belt that goes under your clothes (and only reach for it when it's safe and/or classy) and your day cash in your inside jacket pocket or some other more difficult to reach place. In the unlikely event you get mugged, give them the day money.

This is exactly what I did in Rome (and other places) and it worked out fine. If I needed to get something out of the money belt, I'd just find a bathroom - but that only happened a couple of times.

Also, I wouldn't be too worried about the Italian police. I have no idea how they'd react to photocopies, but this isn't Russia. The Italian police aren't really known for walking up to random tourists and asking them for papers.
posted by breakin' the law at 10:04 AM on March 21, 2013

Thanks for the feedback! Part of my concern stems from my father-in-law going for an early am walk in Spain a few years back. He was mugged, and had his wallet and passport cut out of the secret pocket in his pants (!), apparently there was an obvious bulge at his thigh (insert your own jokes here).

I'm not crazy about crowds, so I was planning to do a lot of sunrise walking tours, to beat the rush. The consensus seems to be that a photocopy would work fine, but that I should keep a close eye on the apartment as a resting place.
posted by bullitt 5 at 10:35 AM on March 21, 2013

I know I say this a lot, but definitely go up the Gianicolo at sunrise-- watching the light hit St. Peter's, the Palatine, and all the rest of Rome is fantastic. I used to take walks in Monteverde vecchio and Trastevere all the time at sunrise and it's perfectly safe. Safer in some ways because there are fewer dodgy people as there are no crowds. I would still be cautious and alert, of course. If you enjoy walks, the Via Appia and doing a circuit of the Aurelian walls is great fun. You also get to smell the fresh bread and have first dips on space at the bars for an espresso in the morning!
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:25 AM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

You could always apply for a US Passport Card. One of the benefits I mention to people who ask about it is that you can keep your Passport Book in your room safe and your Passport Card in your wallet. If your room gets burglarized you have your Card, and if you get mugged you still have your Book.

If you already have your Passport Book, you can use the Passport Application By Mail form (DS-82) to obtain a Passport Card, even if it's your first Passport Card. They're $30.
posted by carsonb at 12:58 PM on March 21, 2013

Ooh, this is important to note if you choose to get a Passport Card using the DS-82: You'll likely submit your current Passport Book as proof of your citizenship as part of the requirements to obtain a card. You have to also include a note stating that you'd like your valid Passport Book returned to you uncanceled.
posted by carsonb at 1:15 PM on March 21, 2013

The passport card doesn't work for international air travel, so I'm not sure that it would be particularly helpful if your passport were stolen.
posted by jaguar at 1:27 PM on March 21, 2013

The passport card doesn't work for international air travel, so I'm not sure that it would be particularly helpful if your passport were stolen.

I think carsonb's logic is that it is more compelling ID than a US driver's license. Which is true (outside the US), particularly in a country like Italy where there are national identity cards. It would also be of use if you found yourself needing to replace your US passport overseas. It obviously wouldn't do anything towards proving your presence in Italy was legal.
posted by hoyland at 1:37 PM on March 21, 2013

Hullo. Expat American female here who has lived in Rome for neigh on 15 years now and I used to work in the tourism hospitality sector. Back then it was a regular occurrence to hear about muggings in Barcelona from travelers on the backpacking circuit; Rome is known instead for its pickpocketing.

So in my ancedatal yet long experience, your odds of being mugged here are very close to nil. I think the closest to an actual mugging I ever heard was a guest who went on a pub crawl and got blind drunk and returned back to his lodgings the next day not remembering anything from the previous night but sporting signs of an altercation and sans wallet. There are few areas where I might consider the odds of a mugging to be higher, and none of them are of much interest to your average tourist.

You are infinitely more likely to be pickpocketed or have your bag lifted from the back of your seat as you sip a coffee or eat some pasta in a piazza. Hell, it happened to me for the first time about 2 years back. Also watch out for the scam where some dudes claim to be plainclothes cops and ask to see your passport and money to check for counterfeit bills.

Carry a photocopy of your passport and lock up your real passport in your hotel safe. Should you be stopped by the real police, as noted above, they will probably just grouse a bit, ask you where you are staying and at most have you bring the original copy to the station. I sort of even doubt that last bit because (from what I have been told by a few police/carabinieri that I have known) generally speaking they try to avoid any potential scenario that would have them dealing with our pain-in-the-ass embassy.

Buon viaggio!
posted by romakimmy at 1:43 PM on March 21, 2013

The passport card doesn't work for international air travel, so I'm not sure that it would be particularly helpful if your passport were stolen.

The first half of this is true. But the PPort Card comes in handy if you need to prove your US Citizenship to someone overseas. It won't get you on an airplane, but it will get you into a US Embassy, for instance.
posted by carsonb at 2:14 PM on March 21, 2013

I was in Rome in 2011, stayed in and hung out in some pretty edgy neighborhoods (much more crime-prone than anywhere on the tourist trail), and didn't worry about any of this.

My rule of thumb for most European cities (including Rome of course) is to act as if I'm in any major US city. Carry a purse that closes and is held close to, or better yet across, my body. Be careful not to flaunt around my wallet, money, or ID. Be mindful in crowded places like metro stations. Be double mindful after dark, including but not limited to walking only on well-lit streets with lots of other foot traffic, walking with purpose, blending into the crowd rather than sticking out like an obvious tourist, etc.

I think your passport may be safer in your accommodations, though, especially if you're renting a private apartment. You might need it during your stay, in which case, sure, carry it on your person. But, again, don't flaunt it around and be mindful of your things.
posted by Sara C. at 5:15 PM on March 21, 2013

Also, with regard to all this "Italians are required to carry ID at all times" and "but what if you're stopped by the police" -- I've been to Italy several times, for longish trips over more than a decade. I've never so much as spoken to an Italian police officer, and never been asked for ID anywhere besides Immigration at the airport, or maybe to check into a hotel. If there's something you know you'll need to prove citizenship or identity in order to access, by all means keep your passport on you. If not, honestly you should be fine. It's not like there are random checkpoints of cops checking everyone's papers.
posted by Sara C. at 5:22 PM on March 21, 2013

I've been to Italy and Rome many times. I have been stopped while driving and had to show my papers. I tend to always carry my passport with me, either on my person or in a bag that is unlikely to ever leave my person.

I was pick-pocketed once...on the Rome subway, in a very crowded car going to the Spanish Steps, I think. I am an obvious tourist. The pickpocket must have been an amateur, because I felt a tickle in my front pants pocket and had enough time to double check my pockets to make sure I was missing the cash, subway ticket, and ATM receipt. The only person who could have reached into my pocket was a young woman standing next to me. When we reached the station and the doors opened, she moved deeper into the car, as the crowds rushed towards the door where we were standing. I grabbed her arm and could only give her a hard look as I was at a total loss for words (yell "al ladro", by the way). She couldn't break my grip and then to my amazement pulled the wad of cash and papers out of her pocket and handed them back to me. I don't think this is a standard outcome.
posted by jindc at 7:50 PM on March 21, 2013

Heartily seconding carsonb's suggestion to use a US passport card as your main form of ID abroad. YMMV, but my driver's license displays my home address while the passport card doesn't, and if I had to lose any form of ID, I'd rather it not advertise where I lived. A passport card is also much more inconspicuous than unfolding a photocopy of or flipping to your passport book's ID page.
posted by evoque at 11:53 PM on March 21, 2013

Coming in really late here, but - as a 40-year resident of Italy, 30 of those in Rome - I can endorse all of the reassuring stuff upthread. Just two points:

1. Italian law requires you to carry specifically "photo ID", i.e. some kind of official ID which has your photo on it, so a credit card isn't enough, but a driving licence is (if of course it is a type wiht a photo on it). But yes, a photocopy of the main page of your passport will always be acceptable, at least for the moment. Only in case of really serious stuff will they want you to produce the original within a given time-limit.

2. The closest thing to mugging in Rome/Italy is to be surrounded by a swarm of several underage immigrant kids, who will distract you while one (or more) of them is picking your pocket, backpack, or whatever. They know they can be taken to the cop-shop but not held if they are under, I believe, 14 (or maybe 16), so they have virtually no restraint. If that should happen to you, abandon all decorum and scream at them at the top of your voice and swat them away - the last thing they want is the attention of passers-by, and they'll leave you and run.
posted by aqsakal at 2:54 AM on March 28, 2013

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