Italy’s immigrants send billions back home

Italy's much maligned migrants are providing a crucial lifeline to families and friends in third world countries by sending home billions of euros, new figures show.

Italy's immigrants send billions back home
A migrant studies a map of Europe in a Sicilian classroom. Photo: Gabriel Bouys / AFP

Kumar Rakesh is an immigrant who has been living in Italy since 2000, and runs an internet cafè in Rome. Every month he sends money back to his family in the Punjab region of India, near Pakistan.

“Once we are old enough, we need to earn enough money to support our family,” he told The Local.

“Here you can earn €1,000 a month but there it's almost impossible. It's not that prices are different, sugar and petrol cost almost the same,” he added, underscoring the need to send money home.

Immigrants in Italy sent €9.2 billion to family and friends back home in 2014, according to figures from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (Ifad).

The country accounts for almost 10 percent of the €97 billion remittances sent from Europe, and has the fifth highest figure in Europe, behind Russia, the UK, Germany and France, according to the report.

Of the amount sent by foreign workers in Italy, €2.93bn went to Africa, €2.75bn to Asia Pacific, €2.66bn to remittance receiving European neighbours like Romania and Albania, €0.8bn to Latin America and the Caribbean and $0.09bn to the near east and Caucasus.

The money sent by immigrants like Rakesh provides a valuable lifeline for people living in unstable countries. Remittances pull people out of poverty and provide funds for budding entrepreneurs, to promote development.

Not only are total global remittance payments worth more than global aid, they are growing faster than overseas development aid too. The vast majority of remittance payments are regular and continuous, so therefore provide a much more reliable source of income than foreign direct investment.

According to figures from the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some 54,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Italy since the start of the 2015.

Some stay, but many move to other countries, where they hope to find everything denied to them amid the political turmoil in their homelands.

In 2014, the Italian government granted residency permits to 20,600 asylum seekers who chose to rebuild their lives in Italy, a figure that is 27 percent higher than it was in 2013.

These immigrants will play a central role in rebuilding their own countries through the money they send back home.

Given the importance of remittance payments in rebuilding war-torn and unstable areas, recent political infighting between northern and southern regions of Italy, as well as between neighbouring EU countries over migrant quotas, would seem misplaced.

The sooner migrants can find work and send money home, the quicker the situation will improve for everybody.

But this is no easy feat. It can take years for immigrants to find jobs, as they are slowed down by bureaucracy. When their papers finally arrive, Italy's sluggish economy prevents them from finding well paid work.

It's little wonder they are are heading north, drawn by the promise of stable, well-paid employment.

Those who stay struggle to integrate and seldom belong to the Italy where tour guides lead groups through cobbled streets.

They belong to a second Italy, which can be seen down side-streets or at the edge of piazzas. The places where African and Indian immigrants work in small businesses or sell souvenirs to tourists.

These two sides to Italy meet at Rakesh's internet cafè. Here, American gap-year students call home while migrant workers send payments back to their families using money transfer services.

At one computer sits Gallo, 27, an immigrant from the Senegal. He has been in Italy for five years and is still looking for work, in spite of being a trained glass-maker.

He said people send money home to help their families, but like Rakesh, he suggests that remittances are not some sort of economic panacea:  “It depends where they are – if they're in the city then €50 is nothing. If they live in the country it's worth a lot more,” he told The Local.

Five years sounds like a long time. Is it not easy to find work in Italy? Gallo smiles.“It takes up to a year and a half to get your papers, and then maybe you need to retrain to find a job.

“As soon as I have the chance to get out of here I'll go – I won't even think about it.” 

For members


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, 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 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 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 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.


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.