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‘What I wish I’d known’: An American’s advice on getting residency in Italy

Moving to Italy as an American retiree was "exhausting and relentless", writer Mark Hinshaw tells us. Here's his account of the process.

'What I wish I'd known': An American's advice on getting residency in Italy
Finding you way through Italy's bureaucratic maze is a challenge - but it can be done. Photo: AFP

Most Americans visiting Italy will never need to go through what we went through. An American passport allows you to spend up to 90 days in any 180 day period, happily exploring the country and the culture.

An American can even buy property In Italy. But you are held to a maximum stay of 90 days, which works for people with summer homes.

FOR MEMBERS: The ultimate guide to getting residency in Italy

However. Wanting to live in Italy as a legal resident is a whole different story. 

Over a two-year period, we counted 168 discrete steps: I would compare it to being in a maze, with dead ends, blind corners, and confusing circuitous paths.

We wish we had been mentally prepared.

For those wishing to live in Italy longer or permanently, we offer three cautionary notes:

1. Everything will take longer. Much longer. Likely double or triple anything you guess.

2. There will always be another form required. Something not on any list you find online.

3. Eventually, it will come down to your dealing with a real person behind a glass-fronted counter. If you have an entitled attitude, they will quickly see that. I guarantee that person will find a rule that says no to you.

These are the three big permits you'll need, along with my experience applying for them.

1. The visa

To get one of these glued into your US passport, you'll probably need to fall into one of the following categories: a student with proof of enrolment, a worker with a signed job contract, a dependent of someone else with the legal right to be in Italy, or a person who doesn't plan to work and has a sufficient pension or savings to support themselves.


Photo: DepositPhotos

You apply to the Italian consulate that serves your region in the US. They will require a long list of documents. You will also need to get an appointment for a personal appearance, which you can get online.

This step is where Cautionary Note #3 is crucial. We came with the attitude of being supplicants. Every document they asked for we had in a tabbed file.

While we were waiting, we saw a student turned away in tears because she did not have a copy of her degree curriculum. Two acquaintances were rejected because they wanted to live near their son who was stationed in Italy.

They will want bank records, a rental or purchase agreement, health insurance and an FBI background check (a whole other process!). You also have to prove your ability to live with a certain income. (The amount varies by region.)

Approving a visa application will take several months. Meanwhile, a visa is usually only valid for a year from the date of application. That gives you enough time – but just barely – to complete the next steps.

2. The permesso di soggiorno

Essentially this allows you to stay longer than 90 days. You can only apply for it once you are in Italy: it necessitates going to the regional police headquarters, where they will want everything you gave the consulate, plus more. You will be finger-printed and checked by Interpol.

It took us several false leads to realize that the Questura (police headquarters) was even the right place. Our British-Italian real estate agent misled us, saying “Oh, your local city can handle it”. Not true.


Photo: DepositPhotos

We heard about a non-profit agency that offers assistance. We found ourselves waiting in tiny room packed with refugees. But the agency did help us fill out forms and send them electronically. After two hours, they handed us a thick stack of completed forms and told us to mail them from a nearby post office. They said: “Keep the receipt.” (Spoiler alert: VERY IMPORTANT!)

Two months later we received a notice to appear at the Questura, located in a city an hour away. We were given a specific time – 9:00 am. This turned out to be only the time they opened the office.

As we walked in the door, we again found ourselves in another tiny waiting room. With 50 other people. Standing up. For three hours.

Only after standing two hours did we realize we had to put a form in a box near a door. There was no sign saying to do this.

FOR MEMBERS: 'How Little Britain helped me deal with Italian bureaucracy'

After getting called, we were told we had to attend an Italian civics class before we could receive a permesso. They gave us a date for the class, which we assumed was there. Not so. We showed up only to be told it was in another city. An hour away. 

And, because we were in the wrong place, we missed the class. And there was no available date for the class for two more months.

Finally, we received a text message to pick up the permesso – a full five months after we first applied. Same waiting room. Another 50 people standing for three hours. I was the next to last to be called. Before me, a couple was called up to the window. The clerk asked, “Where is your postal receipt?” They had not kept it. So they were rejected.

In the ensuing discussion, the clerk slapped a receipt onto the glass window. I saw it. And I realized I had it!

Two minutes later I had my permesso.

3. The identity card

Everyone in Italy must carry this card at all times. It is as important as a driving licence in the US. The electronic version has key information on it required by banks and even some stores when you make large purchases.

FOR MEMBERS: How to survive bureaucracy in Italy: the essential pieces of Italian paperwork


Photo: DepositPhotos

The place to apply for your ID card is the anagrafe, or registry office. Book your appointment online via the Interior Ministry website to stand a better chance of finding someone there.

Good luck and don't let the crazy process get to you!

Mark Hinshaw is a retired city planner who moved to Le Marche with his wife two years ago. A former columnist for The Seattle Times, he contributes to journals, books and other publications.

Would you like to contribute a guest post to The Local? Get in touch.

This article was originally published in 2019.

Member comments

  1. I just received my Permesso a month ago. I read this and realize how fortunate I am to be married to an Italian national who knows how to charm people. My wife called the Questura and had a long conversation that set the stage. We came in with the documents they had asked for and we were out in an hour. The only long wait was in doing my fingerprints on the other side of Torino. All told, I think I put about three hours into this. I felt like it was the first time that the Italian bureaucracy ever went smoothly for me. I wonder if they haven’t streamlined certain processes because of the influx of refugees.

  2. My husband and I had similar experiences described above. We finally did get our residency in April 2018 for two years. Therefore, it will expire in April 2020 so we have to go through the process of renewing. That’s not the issue. We were told that once we got residency, we were subject to Italian taxes even though all of our income derives from the U.S. and we pay income taxes in the U.S. We are not planning on living in Italy year round. We are just trying to get residency so that we are not bound by the 90 day rule. Has anyone else had tax issues that might help us out?

    1. Murphy, this is an old thread so perhaps obsolete, but I’d love an update on how you ended up handling the taxes so as not to pay twice, and a lot. Thank you!

  3. It seems pretty simple (at the moment) for Brits. Everything for us was processed by the same friendly lady in our village Comune, with minimal difficulty. She even hand-delivered our residency certificate to our door. It’s obviously nothing like that if you’re not European, and also worse for Europeans living in a large city.

    Murphy, on the tax issue you’ll need to find an accountant and file a tax return every year if you’re resident in Italy. We also have no Italian income (retired), but our accountant has requested our British tax returns, UK income details and information on the value of our property in the UK. I don’t think you can avoid it if you want to preserve your Italian resident status.

  4. I’ve gotten and then renewed my permesso 5 times. I have never had nearly so hard a time. 168 steps?? Civics class?1?! I am sure that each questura is different, but wow. In Perugia the person behind the sportello is always patient and helpful.

  5. We have renewed our permesso 3 times after the initial 1 year permesso, and we had many of the same experiences as Mark Hinshaw. Our Questura is in Ascoli Piceno. The civics class is part of the initual authorization. It was normally a one night class, but the rule changed between the notification of the date of the class and when we actually got to the class. Now it was scheduled for two consecutive nights. It counts for about half the points you need to qualify for continued ability to receive your Permesso. The other is passing the language test. He is right about all the forms you need, and that it isn’t always what their information on their internet site says is required. Also the forms can be picked up at the post office, and after completing it all, it is then mailed to Rome from the post office. Of course at each point there is a fee — a fee for processing the form, 30 euro to mail it, and 16 euro at the tobaccheria for a tax stamp to apply on the form. Even though they give you an appointment time, it is a first come basis. As soon as the door opens at 9:00, there is a mad dash to get your documents into the box by the door inside. It is somewhat of a shoving match. The very small waiting area is packed shoulder to shoulder with only a few seats around the perimeter of the room. We dread every other Fall when we have to repeat the renewal process.

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For members

ITALIAN LANGUAGE

TEST: Is your Italian good enough for citizenship?

To become an Italian citizen, you may need to prove your language skills. Do yours make the grade?

TEST: Is your Italian good enough for citizenship?

From being able to confidently order a gelato to total fluency, there’s a huge variation in the levels of Italian attained by foreigners in Italy.

But there are certain bureaucratic processes that require formal qualifications. When applying for Italian citizenship through marriage or residence (but not via ancestry), you must prove proficiency in the Italian language at B1 level or higher.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Italy’s language test for citizenship

In most cases, getting a carta di soggiorno residency permit has no formal language requirement, though some non-EU nationals may need to sit a language test at the lower A2 level. Read more about that here.

This article relates solely to language ability for obtaining citizenship; the application process has several other requirements depending on which route you take. Read more about this here.

So what does B1 mean?

A B1 level certification is a ‘lower intermediate’ level and means you are proficient enough in the language to manage everyday interactions, according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFRL).

This level of proficiency allows you to “communicate in most situations that arise while travelling” and to understand topics “regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.”

So there’s no need to write with perfect grammar, have an extensive vocabulary, or be able to recite Dante’s Inferno in the original language – but people at this level should be able to make themselves understood in most everyday situations.

It should also be enough to follow most conversations and TV shows or get the gist of what’s in Italian newspapers.

If you’ve lived in Italy for a while, there’s a good chance you’re already at this level or close to it. After all, a decent grasp of Italian really is necessary for everyday life in the country outside of the main city centres and tourist hotspots.

If not, it might be time to sign up for Italian language classes – if you haven’t already. 

If you want to check, there are numerous Italian language level tests available online, such as this one.

What does the B1 language test involve?

The exact structure of the test varies between the four administered by educational institutions approved by the Italian Education Ministry or Foreign Ministry.

They are: The University of Siena for Foreigners (CILS); The University of Perugia for Foreigners (CELI); The Dante Alighieri Association (PLIDA); and The University of Rome 3 (CERT)

These tests can be taken at language schools around Italy and abroad. If your language school advertises B1 testing for citizenship, make sure they are accredited by one of the above institutions.

The structure of the test also differs depending on whether you’re taking the B1 cittadinanza exam or a regular B1 level Italian language certification.

READ ALSO: 12 signs you’ve cracked the Italian language

Could you pass an Italian language test at B1 level? Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Both tests involve answering similar questions at the same level, but the B1 cittadinanza is essentially a shorter version which costs less to take. The downside is this certificate can only be used for your citizenship application and not for other purposes, such as for university applications.

And though it’s shorter, it may not actually be easier to pass; if you fail on one section you will have to retake the entire test (as opposed to just retaking that section under the standard B1 level tests listed above.)

If you’re fairly confident of passing and don’t need it for anything else, it may be the more convenient option.

In any case, the test will involve at least four sections; a written test, reading tests, listening test and an oral test where you have a conversation with an examiner.

Listening 

For this section you will have to listen to two recordings; one of a conversation, and another of a short monologue.

The format varies and each section will be played at least twice.

Here is a sample question from a past paper, after the candidates had listened to a short clip of someone talking about the southern region of Puglia – click here for the audio and transcription.

Ascolta il testo. Poi leggi le informazioni. Scegli le informazioni presenti nel testo (3 per testo).

A) Il programma radiofonico riguarda la cucina tradizionale italiana.
B) Gli ascoltatori partecipano a un quiz e possono vincere un viaggio.
C) La regione Puglia ha ricevuto un importante premio.
D) Questa estate in Puglia è diminuito il numero dei turisti.
E) In Puglia ci sono paesi tranquilli dove ci si può rilassare.
F) La Puglia offre un’ampia scelta di sistemazioni turistiche.

Reading and grammar

This section involves reading two pieces of text, testing your reading comprehension and grammatical knowledge.

Here are some sample questions from a past B1 paper, relating to a report about new public services from the regional government in Tuscany.

A) La Regione Toscana vuole migliorare i servizi online per i cittadini e i turisti.
B) Attraverso un numero verde i cittadini possono segnalare difficoltà, chiedere informazioni, dare consigli sui trasporti pubblici.
C) L’attivazione del numero verde ha lo scopo di limitare i danni ai viaggiatori nell’ambito del trasporto locale.
D) Il numero verde 800-570530 non è attivo il sabato e la domenica.
E) Se il numero verde riceve una telefonata di protesta su un servizio deve informare la ditta responsabile di quel servizio.

See the text and further questions here.

Writing

For the writing test, you’ll need to choose between two prompts and then write 80-120 words.

In this example, you’re asked to write to your landlord to tell them you’re moving out because you have problems with the neighbours.

You’re asked to explain the problem and ask what you need to do, and whether you need to pay rent for the next few months.

Hai dei problemi con i vicini e hai deciso di cambiare casa. Scrivi un messaggio al proprietario del tuo appartamento per chiedere cosa è necessario fare. Spiega perché vuoi trasferirti e chiedi se devi pagare l’affitto dei prossimi mesi.

Do you understand the prompt? Now you need to prove your ability to get the double letters and accents in the right place when writing.

Speaking

The speaking section is in two parts.

The examiner will ask you to begin by introducing yourself and talking about your work, family or hobbies – the examiner will then ask you some questions about yourself.

It should be a discussion, with the examiner asking questions and giving other responses which you are expected to understand. This part will last 6-7 minutes.

Then you’ll be given a choice of several topics to talk about for 7-8 minutes. These topics can be almost anything; you won’t see exactly what they are in advance, but the examiner should give you some time to read through the options and may help you decide which one to choose.

Your answer should include certain grammar points and involve giving your opinion. Again, the examiner will prompt you with questions and it should become a discussion.

Some examples of topics you may be asked to talk about:

    • Preferisci vivere in città o in campagna? Quali sono i vantaggi e gli svantaggi?
    • Quali sono gli aspetti della cultura italiana che senti più lontani rispetto alla tua cultura?
    • L’assistenza sanitaria in Italia e nel tuo Paese: somiglianze e differenze.
    • Quali documenti ti servono per ottenere la cittadinanza italiana? Quali sono le procedure?

Translation:

    • Do you prefer to live in the city or in the countryside? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
    • What are the aspects of Italian culture that you feel are most distant from your culture?
    • Healthcare in Italy and in your country: similarities and differences.
    • What documents do you need to obtain Italian citizenship? What are the procedures?

Could you keep a simple conversation going on these topics in Italian? Then you might be ready for the citizenship test. 

These sample questions are from the CILS B1 cittadinanza exam – see more details on the university’s website here. Exam questions will vary and the structure of exams from other institutions may differ.

READ ALSO: Which italian verb tenses are the most useful?

It usually costs €100 to sit the B1 cittadinanza exam, though some schools also add a default charge for a preparatory course.

Even if you already have a higher level of Italian, exam preparation courses could be useful as they explain the exam structure and likely content.

Find out more about taking the exam in a separate article here.

Speak to your local Questura or consulate, or see the Interior Ministry’s website (in Italian), for the latest information on the process and requirements when applying for citizenship.

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