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CURRENCY

Italian finds 37 million lire in her attic – but it’s worthless

Stumbling across an enormous pile of cash during a clear-out of the attic is a fantasy come true - and it's exactly what happened to one northern Italian woman. But there's a catch: she's unable to convert the hoard into modern money, rendering it worthless.

Italian finds 37 million lire in her attic - but it's worthless
File photo of the old Italian lira. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

Angela Vargas, a 60-year-old from Genoa, came across 37 million lire while cleaning out her attic with daughter Luisa.

The stash would be equivalent to around €19,100 today – that is, if she was able to convert it.

Vargas plans to challenge the central Italian bank in court after being told her find was worthless; she says that the legal time limit for converting the defunct currency shouldn't apply to people who only became aware of cash after the deadline had passed.

The money had apparently been kept in the attic for safe-keeping by Vargas's own mother, who died in 2006 without telling anyone about her secret savings.

Luisa told Il Corriere: “When grandma died, we discovered that she had hid money in the bedding, behind a cushion and in a shoebox. But those were just a few notes, not like this.”

Other families have been through similar disappointments upon finding millions of lire.

In 2014, a call centre worker thought she had found her fortune when she discovered 100 million lire stashed in a safe, but she too was told the cash was now worthless and could not be exchanged into euros. And in 2014, a couple who came across 41 million lire in their cellar told The Local they were planning to sue Italy's central bank after it refused to allow an exchange.

But there is a precedent for courts allowing belated conversions.

Earlier this year, a woman from Piedmont discovered 15 million lire in a hidden compartment of a new chest of drawers she had bought on auction site eBay.

Though she was initially told she couldn't convert it, she appealed to the constitutional court and was eventually allowed to change her stash of lire to modern money – thanks to a temporary re-opening of the lire exchange window.

Ahead of adopting the euro currency on January 1st 2002, Italy’s central bank set a time limit for the exchange of the lire. Any coins or banknotes not presented to the bank before December 6th 2011 are now worthless. 

Italy has the strictest time limit of all 18 eurozone countries, although Finland, France and Greece were just a year behind with a 2012 deadline. The central banks of nine eurozone countries, including Germany and Ireland, have set no limit for exchanging banknotes from the old national currency.

If Vargas is successful in court, she may well not be the only one to benefit. It's believed that there is still the equivalent of €1.5 million of the old currency, hidden in shoeboxes, attics and old chests of drawers across the country.

 

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MONEY

What you need to know about opening a bank account in Italy

There are a few things to know before choosing the right place to put your cash in Italy. Here’s our guide to finding the best bank for you.

What you need to know about opening a bank account in Italy

Money makes the world go round, they say, and even in notoriously cash-friendly Italy, your life will be a lot easier if you have somewhere to put it.

But with daunting paperwork, confusing opening hours and array of diverse offerings, interacting with Italian banks can be challenging.

Here’s our guide to opening a bank account in Italy to get you started.

Step one: Know what’s out there

I come from Canada, where you can count the number of big banks on one hand. That means Italy’s banking sector can be a little dizzying in comparison. At the time of writing, Italy has more than 20 banks with assets of more than €10 billion. 

Among the biggest names in Italy are Dutch-based ING, Germany-based Deutsche Bank, Italy’s own Unicredit, and the Banca Nazionale di Lavoro (now owned by France’s BNP Paribas).

READ ALSO: Which are the best Italian banks for foreigners?

Alongside these big national banks, there are regional providers like the Banca Popolare di Puglia e Basilicata or the Banco di Sardegna, which confusingly operate branches far from their respective homelands. As a result, it’s not uncommon to find a Pugliese bank next to a Venetian one in Lombardy, or encounter a local bank that has just a handful of branches throughout the country.

Consider the fees applied to transactions and cash withdrawals when choosing your Italian bank account. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP)

Disrupting the banking world in recent years has also been the emergence of a whole new crop of online banks, like N26 and HYPE, which offer very low fees by operating no physical branches.

And lastly, there’s the post office: Poste Italiane, in an unholy alliance of paper-based bureaucracy, also operates a consumer bank notorious for slowing down postal lines everywhere.

Knowing the lay of the land will help you pick out the best offering for your life and location. Consider your choice carefully. When we arrived, we chose N26 for its low fees and easy sign-up. But soon, we needed a bigger bank that could offer services like a fideiussione (renter’s guarantee).

Choosing the right bank is about more than knowing if it has a branch in your area — as you settle, a bank’s mortgage offerings, insurance, or high-interest savings accounts may become more important to you.

Step two: Decide what account you need

Technically, if you’re over the age of 18, you’re eligible to open an account in Italy — but most account types are only available to residents, which includes foreign nationals who are here because of a valid job offer or degree program.

The most common account type is a conto corrente or current account (a checking account for American readers). These accounts are designed with daily transactions in mind, meaning there are often opportunities to save on fees by maintaining a minimum deposit or balance.

Ask an expert: Which are the best UK banks for Brits living in Italy?

To earn higher interest, you can place your savings in a conto di risparmio or savings account, which offer fewer transfers and transactions in exchange for higher interest. There is also the conto di deposito, a more restrictive but even higher-interest savings account designed for parking your money just to earn.

Lastly, there are conti correnti esteri, foreign accounts, which can offer deals on wire transfers or allow you to use your home currency and save on exchange fees. These accounts don’t require you to be an Italian resident, making them a good choice for people staying for an indeterminate time.

Step three: Review costs

There’s a reason some of Italy’s nicest buildings belong to banks — this country’s banking fees are among the highest in Europe.

Though comparisons are hard to come by, in 2009 the European Commission found that fees in Italy could be four or five times the amount for the same accounts in the Netherlands, Ireland, or Germany.

But choose the right offer, and they don’t have to be — one analysis found these fees could vary by as much as 10 times between banks.

On average, a typical current account cost nearly €95 per year in 2022, with high-interest savings accounts costing even more. But that average dropped to just €25 for online-only accounts like those offered by N26.

A branch of Unicredit bank in Milan. (Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP)

In exchange for these fees, banks offer a range of different services — everything from higher interest to lower transaction fees.

Most banks won’t charge a setup fee, but may charge to issue you with your first debit or credit card. Other services, like cheques, wire transfers, or even ATM withdrawals above a monthly limit are likely to be met with other fees.

Il Sole 24 Ore, one of Italy’s leading financial newspapers, has an online tool that will help you compare bank offers, automatically deducting your expenses from your anticipated interest to show you exactly how much your account is likely to cost.

Make sure to read the fine print — some “fee-free” accounts are promotional offers and expire after a year or so, leaving you paying hefty fees. Others look expensive, but are free if you maintain a low minimum balance or make monthly deposits of just a few hundred euro.

Step four: Visit a branch or sign up online

Now that you know the account type and bank you’re looking for, you can dive into the paperwork.

For a variety of reasons, it’s generally best to wait until you are in Italy to open your account — even in the case of online accounts or conti esteri. Banks will want to mail you your card and know a fixed address in Italy, and you will need an Italian tax code (codice fiscale) to get started in any case.

For online accounts like N26 and HYPE, paperwork is often minimal and requires filing out a few online forms and uploading your ID. 

In physical banks, by contrast, it can be quite extensive, involving a lot of fine print in Italian. If your language skills are poor, consider bringing a friend who can help you review your contracts, or select a bank that you know offers counter service in English.

To open an account, you’ll need the following documents:

  • ID or a passport;
  • Codice fiscale;
  • Residency permit (or, if you’re a non-resident, proof of address like a bill or piece of certified mail); and
  • Proof of your employment income (i.e., a contract or tax return).

Businesses will also need to provide the company’s registration certificate, a certificate of good standing, and statements of the financial status of all shareholders with more than a 20 percent stake in the company.

Take these to your local branch to get the process started. Make sure to check your local bank’s opening hours first — Italian banks are notorious for taking long lunches and closing early in the afternoon.

Closing an account

If you’ve decided it’s time to say goodbye to your bank, it’s unfortunately not quite as simple as visiting a branch.

In most cases, you will need to send a registered letter or raccomandata to your local branch before you show up in person, including signatures from everyone on the account.

And as usual, make sure to read your contract carefully — some banks will even charge a fee to close your account.

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