Brain drain: More Italians than ever are moving abroad

More than 100,000 Italians chose to move to a new country in 2015, a 6.2 percent increase from the previous year, according to a report presented on Thursday by the Fondazione Migrantes.

Brain drain: More Italians than ever are moving abroad
More Italians than ever are choosing to move abroad. File photo: Pexels

The  'Italians in the world' report tracks the number of people on the Registry of Italians Resident Abroad (Aire), and revealed a shift in the age and social status of those moving abroad. Italian expats are most likely to be young and single, with men slightly more likely than women to make the leap abroad.

Better opportunities for young Italians

Fondazione Migrantes described the rise in emigration – particularly among the 18-34 age group, which made up a third of emigrants last year – as a “brain drain”, noting that not only do Italians of the 'millennial' generation have the highest average level of education, but they also suffers from the highest unemployment levels, leading many to look overseas for work opportunities.

With the many programmes offering study and work opportunities to young people abroad, such as Erasmus+, for this generation “the choice is not so much whether to leave, but whether to stay”, the report added.

There are more opportunities for young, qualified Italians abroad, the report argues. Photo: Stein Magne Bjørklund/Flickr

The total number of Italians who emigrated in 2015 was 107,529 – a 6.2 percent increase from the previous year, with 36.7 percent of those (39,410) aged between 18 and 34. 

The next most likely age group to pack their bags were 35-49 year-olds, who made up 25.8 percent of migrants, while children aged under 18 accounted for one in five Italians to move abroad. Just 6.2 percent were aged over 65, and this was in fact the only age group to see a drop in migration numbers year-on-year.

A drop in emigration from the south

Another interesting change was the increase in emigration from the prosperous north of Italy.

Traditionally, southern Italians have accounted for the majority of those moving abroad, due to economic factors such as high unemployment in the southern regions.

But latest migration figures show a sharp rise in moves from northern Italy, with Lombardy and Veneto the regions with the most emigrants. Sicily fell from second to third position, followed by Lazio, Piedmont and Emilia Romagna. 

This shift may seem surprising, as Lombardy is one of the wealthiest regions, consistently reporting a high GDP per capita, high rate of growth and low unemployment. 

However, increased employment opportunities and higher quality of life are becoming more popular reasons for moving abroad, according to Fondazione Migrantes, suggesting that even in the wealthier regions, qualified Italians feel they could get a better deal by moving to a new country.

In fact, earlier this week the Ministry for Economic Development faced backlash after a leaflet advertising to foreign investors boasted that experienced Italian workers were paid significantly less than their European neighbours.

“Italy offers a competitive wage level (that grows less than in the rest of the EU) and a highly skilled workforce,” the Italian Trade Agency declared.

READ MORE: Italian government boasts of low wages in campaign for investment

Italian government boasts of low wages in campaign for foreign investment

Photo: Pexels

'Migration is harmful if it is one-way'

So where are Italians moving to?

The most popular destination was Germany, where 16,568 Italians decided to start a new life, followed very closely by the UK (16,503), Switzerland and France. Over two thirds of expats (69.2 percent) stayed within Europe, with the majority of the rest opting for North America.

The number moving to southern America saw a sharp drop of 14.9 percent compared to 2014, and only 352 Italians moved somewhere outside Europe or America.

Italians are most likely to move to northern Europe. Photo: Pexels

“Mobility is a resource,” the report noted. “But it becomes harmful if it is one-way, in other words when it is a hemorrhage of talent and skills from one place, with no corresponding return.” 

Italian President Sergio Mattarella echoed this concern in a statement, saying that the study “forces us to look for solutions to benefit from migration, eliminating the risks”.

He added that the choice to leave the country was often “a sign of impoverishment  rather than a free choice inspired by the movement of knowledge and experience “.

A total of 4,636,647 Italians are registered as living abroad, a number which has increased by 3.7 percent since 2014. The 'Italians in the World' study has been running since 2005, and over the past decade the number of Italians abroad has swelled by almost 50 percent.


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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.