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14 mistakes foreigners make when moving to Italy

When you move to Italy, you're bound to make a few mistakes before you settle in. Here are some common ones to look out for.

14 mistakes foreigners make when moving to Italy
Being aware of Italy's quirks and unwritten rules will make for a much more enjoyable move. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

So you’re finally moving to Italy and are ready to throw yourself headlong into ‘la dolce vita’?

Congratulations. But as anyone who has spent much time in the country knows, that dream can start to feel elusive when things don’t go as expected.

You may know by now that spaghetti bolognese is not Italian, and you order cappuccino after lunch at your own peril. But what else will you find out as you dig beneath the surface of Italian life?

To help make sure you get off to the best possible start, here’s a look at a few of the common mistakes foreigners make when they first move to Italy.  

Making only expat friends

One thing you’ll probably notice immediately when moving to Italy is that relationships – and contacts – are paramount.

This isn’t simply because Italians like to be friendly. Italy can be a complicated place, and the bureaucracy baffles those who were born here too.

READ ALSO: 15 things you’ll need to get used to about living in Italy

As a foreigner, it’s no exaggeration to say that most of the information you’ll need to live a rich and full life is probably going to be written in Italian or bad English, if it’s written down at all.

Making a few Italian friends right away will really give you the inside track when it comes to living in Italy, as they’ll be able to guide you when you can’t find the information you need. They will also be eager to help you get a handle on your new language and culture, so it’s really worth going the extra mile and befriending locals.

Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

Assuming things will be open

Italy is often referred to as ‘a country of small- and medium-sized businesses’ by economists. While this has wide-reaching implications for the country’s economy, it also means something very important to ordinary people: almost everything is closed at lunch.

You may hear people say this is no longer true in Italy, but if you venture beyond tourist areas or central Milan you will no doubt find public offices, banks and shops closed in the early afternoon.

The only exception is large supermarkets and high-street chain stores – but even these may be closed on Sundays.

It is therefore a bad idea to assume you’ll be able to use your lunch break to go and do things like get a bank statement, take your shoes to the cobblers or get some keys cut. Annoying, yes, but it does mean that you have no other option other than to stop stressing out and have a proper sit-down lunch.

Not taking the whole afternoon off for an appointment

You’ve no doubt enjoyed taking it easy on Italian holidays, but once you move here you’ll just be trying to live your everyday life – bills, bosses, work schedules and appointments included – but in a different language and at a very different pace.

Moving to a new country always involves some bureaucracy, but Italy has a reputation for red tape for a reason. Things move almost comically slowly, and this can be doubly frustrating if you have somewhere else to be.

This is another thing that varies depending on where you are in the country. Public offices in Milan, for example, are somewhat better set up to meet the needs of international residents than those in a small Sicilian village.

READ ALSO: 13 essential articles you’ll need when moving to Italy

But as a general rule, you’re not going to get much done on your lunch break (not least because those offices may be closed – see above).

In general, it’s probably wise to give yourself a couple of hours for any appointments involving bureaucracy, banking, or healthcare, unless you want the additional stress of your boss calling while you’re mid-argument with a local government official.

And before you go and queue up at the comune, check what you may now be able to do online.

Forgetting to validate your train tickets

If you’re travelling by train in Italy, there are boxy looking machines (usually green or yellow) on the platform: they are used to validate your train tickets.

You need to place your ticket in the machine before getting on the train if you don’t want to be fined and/or thrown off by the conductor once you are in transit.

READ ALSO: Eight things to expect when you move to Italy’s Veneto region

It’s easy to forget, but if does slip your mind, just walk along the train until you find the conductor and let them know you have forgotten and you won’t get into trouble.

Not realizing how expensive painkillers are

In many countries, paracetamol and ibuprofen products can be picked up at the supermarket for small change. Not so in Italy.

Generally speaking, you’ll need to shell out more than €5 at the pharmacy for a simple pack of painkillers, while more advanced cold and flu formulas can cost upwards of €10.

Assuming fresh milk will be available everywhere

For a country which prides itself on its admittedly wonderful gastronomy, there is an awful lot of UHT milk in Italy. If that bothers you, check what type of milk bars are using before you order a milky coffee.

On the subject of milk, it can be tricky to find alternatives to full-fat cow’s milk in cafes, so expect to be disappointed if you attempt to order a ‘skinny latte’ or ‘soy-milk macchiato’.

Tipping each time you go to a bar

In many countries a 10 percent service charge is the done thing, but there isn’t really a tipping culture in Italy so there’s no need to throw your cash around.

If you want to leave a tip, just round the bill up to the nearest 0 or 5 and that will do nicely.

Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

Showing up early to parties

‘Fashionably late’ is always a good idea for parties the world over. However, in Italy it is a practical necessity, unless you want to be standing on your own, waiting for everybody else to arrive.

For informal evenings with friends, up to half an hour after the invite time is on the polite spectrum. In some places, that could stretch to an hour.

Obviously, group social contexts are one thing, business meetings and dates are another. In the case of the latter two, it’s polite to be punctual.

Thinking you can use your bank cards everywhere

By the letter of the law, businesses in Italy are currently legally obliged to let you pay on your card for all items following a rule introduced by the previous Draghi administration back in June 2022.

However, as previously stated, Italy is a country of ‘small and medium sized businesses’, which has implications here too.

It’s not unusual to find small independent shops advertise card payments, but that the machine is mysteriously broken. If it does work, it may take so long for the payment to go through that you give up and pay in cash.

Many shopkeepers have long refused to accept cards for small transactions, saying it is not worth them losing part of their profit in commission.

And in November 2022, the Meloni government released a draft budget proposing that fines for retailers refusing card payments on amounts lower than €30 would be suspended until at least June 2023.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why people in Italy might have to carry more cash from now on

That means Italy is far from becoming a totally cashless society just yet, so it’s always wise to carry cash with you as you go about your everyday life – just in case.

Thinking you like things

There’s a lot to get your head around when learning the Italian language, but here’s something to know right away: you should stop saying you like things.

In Italy, things like to you, or please you. That’s just how the Italian verb piacere‘ (to like) works, though this construction is an alien concept for many English speakers.

READ ALSO: Some of the best podcasts for learners of Italian

So if you want to say ‘I like it’ you have to say ‘a me piace‘: literally, ‘it likes to me’ or ‘it is pleasing to me’. So far so good, but if you want to say ‘I like them’ you have to then change the verb for its plural form and say ‘a me piacciono‘.

Super importantly, if you want to tell an Italian guy or girl you like them, you have to say ‘mi piaci‘.

Drinking too much at parties

Some cultures drink more than others and Italians drink less than most.

Obviously this is a generalization, but the statistics show that the further south you go, the less people – women particularly – drink outside of mealtimes.

So if you want to make friends or network at your next Italian party, it’s probably a good idea to take it easy on the booze.

READ ALSO: How do Italians eat spaghetti? The Local answers Google’s questions

Even when young Italians proclaim that they drink “a lot”, be aware that this will probably turn out to be a sensible amount by most northern European cultures’ standards; drinking so much that you start shouting, falling over, picking fights or telling strangers you love them is far from the norm.

After all, staggering drunkenly through the streets is hardly ‘la bella figura’.

Thinking you can get an Uber – or a taxi

You might have noticed this one on previous visits to Italy, but ride-hailing apps like Uber don’t exist here – at least not in the way you might be used to elsewhere.

While you can of course get a traditional taxi if you’re in a major city, you might also find that local residents simply don’t use them, and as a result taxis of any sort are very thin on the ground elsewhere, including in large provincial towns. 

READ ALSO: Six things foreigners should expect if they live in Rome


Putting your washing machine on at night

Most people live in blocks of apartments in Italy and in some areas, usually in the north of the country, there are actually laws about what times you can make noise and put your washing machine on.

Precise rules vary building-to-building but if you don’t want to incur the wrath of an overzealous neighbour, have your laundry finished by 10pm.

Kissing or not kissing

Kissing rules are a nightmare for foreigners in Italy, as there is no blanket rule that tells you how to behave: what is culturally normal in one part of the country is less normal in another area.

Generally, men and women can (but don’t always) give each other a kiss on each cheek for hello and goodbye in most areas of the country. In the centre-north it’s less common for men to greet each other like this. However, in many parts of the south – Sicily in particular – men do give a kiss on both cheeks when they greet each other.

Needless to say, kissing is informal, so wherever you are, you don’t want to kiss your boss, bank manager or waiter. Even then not everybody kisses, some people just like their personal space. 

With your friends, a good bit of advice would be to simply follow other people’s lead: if they are accustomed to a kiss they will probably warn you and say ‘un baccio’ before they move in for the kill.


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For members


How to apply for an Italian elective residency visa from the UK

If you're a non-EU UK resident or a British citizen who wants to move to Italy post-Brexit, the elective residency visa is one of the options available to you. Here's how to apply from the UK.

How to apply for an Italian elective residency visa from the UK

Since Brexit was finalised at the start of 2021, British nationals who want to relocate to Italy have been in the same boat as all other extra-EU citizens, requiring a visa to make the move.

For those who receive a passive income and don’t need to work, the elective residency/residence visa (ERV) is a popular choice – though the application process can be confusing.

EXPLAINED: How to apply for an elective residency visa to move to Italy

A recent survey conducted by the Local on the experiences of British citizens moving to Italy post-Brexit found that a number of respondents – mostly retirees – had applied or attempted to apply for this visa.

However many described the process as being far more onerous, complex and stressful than they had anticipated.

One couple who were on their second attempt strongly advised retaining a lawyer, as they found that the information provided by the Italian authorities was not clear or detailed enough to allow for a successful application.

READ ALSO: ‘Seek legal advice’: Your advice on applying for Italian visas post-Brexit

The Local spoke to three experts about how to maximise your chances of success when applying for the ERV.

Most of the advice given was relevant to anyone intending to apply for the ERV, but some related specifically to the experience of people applying from the UK; we’ve compiled that information here.

Because where you’re applying from – rather than your nationality – is the main thing that matters for this application process, this guidance applies equally to non-British citizens who are legally resident in the UK.

Here’s what you need to know if you’re applying for the ERV as a British resident.

Going through an agency

If you want to apply for an ERV from the UK, you’ll likely need to go through VFS Global, an outsourcing agency that handles visa applications for the UK’s Italian consulates.

This is different to how the application process works for people in countries like the US, Canada, or Australia, who usually need to apply directly to the Italian consulate closest to where they are legally resident.

Most UK applicants, by contrast, deal exclusively with VFS Global, whose representatives conduct the appointment, review the documentation and deliver the application to the consulate on their behalf.

Some of the Local’s readers have said they felt penalised by the requirement to go through a third party middleman, as it blocks them from having direct contact with anyone with at the consulate.

But Nick Metta from Studio Legale Metta says going through an agency can actually provide an advantage, as their representatives tend to be well-versed in all the ERV requirements. “Basically they can do a pre-check, and usually that will avoid you the denial letter,” he says.

Agencies can assist you in making sure all your paperwork is in order.

Agencies can assist you in making sure all your paperwork is in order. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

In the absence of an agency, he says, the consular staff member tasked with conducting ERV meetings is often “a front office handler who in most cases is not very well-versed in Italian regulations or requirements,” – some of whom have provided his clients with incorrect information in the past.

Elze Obrikyte from Giambrone & Partners, who regularly assists UK clients with ERV applications, says that the involvement of an agency also means UK applicants have more flexibility about where – and therefore when – they can book an appointment.

For example, while US applicants have to wait for a slot at their nearest consulate to open up, someone in London has the option to book an appointment at VFS’s application centre in, e.g., Edinburgh, potentially fast-tracking the process for those who are keen to get started.

READ ALSO: EU Blue Card: Who can get one in Italy and how do you apply?

What’s required

VFS Global’s checklist says applicants for the ERV in the UK should have:

    • A completed application form, which can be obtained from your consulate.
    • Two recent passport photos.
    • A passport that is valid until at least 90 days after the requested ERV would expire, plus two copies of the front page and of all Schengen visas issued in the past three years.
    • For non-British citizens, a UK residence permit.
    • A cover letter explaining why you intend to move to Italy.
    • Detailed documentation showing “substantial and stable private income”, including official letters from the banks or financial institutions listed (this must be passive income, as ERV recipients are not allowed to work once they arrive in Italy). 
    • Your last two years of income tax returns.
    • A registered ownership deed or rental lease agreement for property in Italy.
    • A reservation for a one-way ticket to Italy.
    • A marriage certificate for those applying as a married couple, and/or a birth certificate showing both parents’ names for dependent minors.

Applying for an ERV to move from the UK to Italy requires a substantial amount of paperwork.

Applying for an ERV to move from the UK to Italy requires a substantial amount of paperwork. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Advice for UK applicants

Giuditta Petreni, who assists clients with ERV applications at Mazzeschi Legal Counsels, says she believes the ERV process has been getting tougher for UK-based applicants in recent years.

Obrikyte says she thinks consulates have become more strict in general over the past decade, but has observed that British applicants tend to struggle more with the application process than their North American counterparts.

“I see that most of them tend to be not well prepared for this type of application, while American and Canadian citizens, they’ve been living in this situation for years, so they prepare better,” she says.

READ ALSO: From visas to language: What Americans can expect when retiring in Italy

British applicants, by contrast, “tend to submit the application without actually putting a lot of effort in and then they are surprised when the application is rejected.”

Obrikyte says one key area where applicants often fall down is the cover letter explaining why they want to move to Italy.

In her experience, ‘pre-rejections’ – provisional refusals that give applicants the opportunity to fix an unsatisfactory aspect of their application before the final decision is made – are often issued on the basis of this letter alone.

She says that when asked to write a motivation letter, her clients will often write about loving the food or the weather. “This is not enough,” says Obrikyte.

READ ALSO: Visas and residency permits: How to move to Italy (and stay here)

“You must really convince them that, for example, you have purchased a property, you have already been spending a lot of time in Italy, and you are integrated in that neighbourhood.”

“Italian language is not a requirement for this visa, but of course if you mention that you are studying Italian or you know Italian, which helps you to integrate better, this is also an advantage for your application.”