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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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READER QUESTIONS

Reader question: Do you need to cancel your residency when leaving Italy?

How do you cancel your residency permit when leaving Italy - and do you even need to do so at all? The Local looks into the rules.

Reader question: Do you need to cancel your residency when leaving Italy?

Question: My partner and I are leaving Italy after several years of living here. Do we need to cancel our residency? If so, can you advise us on how to go about doing this?

Most people know that you need to register as a resident in Italy if spending more then 90 days in the country. But what should you do if you decide to leave?

Do foreign nationals need to deregister as a resident, and under which circumstances? And how do you go about doing cancelling your residency?

We asked the experts to talk us through when you should deregister as an Italian resident and the the steps involved in cancelling your Italian residency.

Should you bother cancelling your residency?

As is so often the case when it comes to complex bureaucratic questions, the answer is: it depends. Both on your personal circumstances and on the type of residency permit you hold.

If you’re relocating away from Italy permanently then deregistering as a resident and informing the authorities of your new address is a legal requirement – and you’d want to do so anyway, says Nicolò Bolla of the tax consultancy firm Accounting Bolla.

READ ALSO: What’s the difference between Italian residency and citizenship?

On the other hand, if you’re moving away on a temporary basis, you’re not required to cancel your Italian residency.

“If, for instance, you undertake a two-year assignment somewhere, you can still remain a resident and benefit from all the coverage a resident has, such as healthcare,” Bolla explains.

You might want to hold on to your Italian residency in the short term if you're not sure whether the move will be permanent.
You might want to hold on to your Italian residency in the short term if you’re not sure whether the move will be permanent. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP.

There’s no official time limit for this – you could leave Italy for a number of years while maintaining your residency and then return to live in the country as if there had been no break.

That means that if you’re leaving Italy and aren’t sure whether you want to return, you might want to keep your residency status, at least in the short term (it’s possible to be legally resident in both Italy and another country).

Financial planning and property consultant Daniel Shillito warns: “you want to be sure if you’re leaving the country that it was a permanent decision, and that you weren’t aiming to come back to live – because if you do want to, it could be tricky and quite administrative.”

For British citizens in particular, he points out, “having an Italian residency these days is a valuable thing, it’s not easy to get again.”

This all applies to those with permanent or long-term residency.

If you have a temporary residence permit, you will no longer be considered resident in Italy as soon as it expires – so you may decide it’s not worth bothering to cancel your residency if it’s due to expire anyway shortly after you leave.

Why does it matter?

There are multiple factors to consider here, the biggest of which is taxes.

If you’re resident in Italy, you’re expected to pay taxes here. However, if you’re moving to a country with which Italy has a double taxation agreement or dual tax treaty, you’re protected from being taxed twice on the same income. Many states, including the UK, America, Australia and Canada, have dual taxation treaties with Italy. 

READ ALSO: Can second-home owners get an Italian residence permit?

If you’re moving to a country which doesn’t have a double tax agreement with Italy, on the other hand, you’ll be legally required pay the full amount of Italian tax on your income even if you spend very little time in Italy, so will almost certainly want to cancel your residency.

Even if you’re moving to a country that does have a dual tax treaty with Italy, you may still want to deregister as an Italian resident in order to avoid having to deal with the paperwork involved in proving you’re a dual resident whose tax obligations are limited.

There’s also a third category of emigrant: for those moving to a country on the EU’s tax haven blacklist, such as Panama, simply deregistering as an Italian resident won’t keep the tax authorities at bay. The burden of proof is on the individual to demonstrate they actually reside in the blacklist country and aren’t just trying to evade Italian taxes.

In these situations, Bolla advises clients to register as resident in an intermediate third country after leaving Italy and before moving to the blacklisted country in order to avoid the extra bureaucracy.

READ ALSO: What taxes do you need to pay if you own a second home in Italy?

Do you need to cancel your residency when leaving Italy?

There are multiple factors to consider when deciding whether to cancel your Italian residency. Photo by FABIO MUZZI / AFP.

Other considerations

Besides where you pay your income tax, you’ll want to consider other factors such as official correspondence, tax breaks, and timeframes for residency-based citizenship applications, Bolla says.

If you maintain Italian residency, the authorities will expect to be able to reach you at your registered address, including for things like traffic fines or notifications of tax audits. If you no longer have any link to that address and no one to forward your correspondence on to you, you could end up in a sticky legal situation.

It’s also worth taking into account the fact that new Italian residents can access certain tax breaks that aren’t available to people who’ve lived here for a while. If you cancel your residency and then return to Italy at a later date, you’ll be eligible for those incentives in a way that you wouldn’t be if you’d kept your residency.

On the other hand, Bolla notes, maintaining Italian residency could work in favour of those interested in pursuing citizenship through residency.

An individual must be continuously resident in Italy for 10 years before they can apply for Italian citizenship based on their long-term residence status.

In theory, maintaining your Italian residency while you’re temporarily abroad could mean that period still counts towards towards those ten years and you won’t have to restart the clock on your return – though it’s important to consult a professional if you’re considering this option.

How can you go about cancelling your residency?

There’s no standardised national protocol for cancelling your residency. Instead, you’ll need to contact the comune, or town hall, you’re registered with to inform them of the change and ask them what you need to do.

The process could be as simple as sending a few emails, without even having to set foot in the building. There may also be a form to fill out. Because things vary from one municipality to another, you’ll need to contact your local comune to find out exactly what’s required.

Generally the process can only be completed after, not before, leaving the country, because you’ll need to provide your new address and possibly supporting documentation proving that you’re now resident elsewhere.

“You say me and my family – and then you list all the members – are no longer residing in your town, please deregister us, and our new address is (e.g.) 123, Fifth Avenue, New York,” says Bolla.

If you have a Spid (Sistema Pubblico di Identità Digitale or ‘Public Digital Identity System’) electronic ID, Bolla notes, in many towns and cities (such as Milan), the process can be completed online through the comune‘s website.

You should expect to receive confirmation that you and your dependents have been deregistered as Italian residents, so it’s worth following up until you receive this.

READ ALSO: How to use your Italian ID card to access official services online

Shillito advises using a PEC (Posta Elettronica Certificata, or Electronic Certified Mail) email account if you have one when communicating with your comune about deregistering. 

Messages sent between PEC accounts are certified with a date and time stamp to show when you sent them and when they were received, with a record of receipt automatically emailed to you as an attachment. Within in Italy they have the same legal value as a physical lettera raccomandata (registered letter).

“That secure email communication is official, you’ve got a receipt showing it’s been received,” says Shillito.

“That way you’ve got evidence and a record that you’ve communicated it to them, in case anything went wrong in the future and the Italian government decided to claim you were still living in Italy.”

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