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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

VISAS

REVEALED: EU plans digital-only Schengen visa application process

Soon those non-EU nationals requested to have a Schengen visa to travel to European countries will no longer need to go to a consulate to submit the application and get a passport sticker, but will be able to apply online. 

REVEALED: EU plans digital-only Schengen visa application process

The European Commission has proposed to make the Schengen visa process completely digital.

The special visa, which allows to stay for tourism or business (but not work) in 26 European countries for up to 90 days in any 6-month period. 

Nationals of third countries such as South Africa, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka need the Schengen Visa to visit Europe, but they are not needed for other non-EU nationals such as Britons or Americans. You can see the full list of countries who need a Schengen visa here.

The proposal will have to be approved by the European Parliament and Council, but is in line with an agreed strategy that EU governments are keen to accelerate in the aftermath of the pandemic. 

Once agreed, the system will be used by the countries that are part of the border-free Schengen area. These include EU countries, excluding Ireland (which opted out), and Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Cyprus (which do not issue Schengen visas). Iceland, Norway, Lichtenstein and Switzerland, which are not EU members but have signed the Schengen Convention, will be part of the new system too.

Paper-based processes required applicants to travel to consulates to submit the application and collect their passports with the visa, a procedure that “proved problematic during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Commission said.

Some EU countries have already started to switch to digital systems but not all accept online payments for the visa fees. 

When the new system will be in place, the Commission says, applicants will be able to check on the EU Visa Application platform whether they need a visa. If so, they will create an account, fill out the application form, upload the documents and pay. 

The platform will automatically determine which Schengen country will be responsible for the application and applicants will be able to check their status and receive notifications. Travellers will then be able to access the visa online, and if needed extend it too.

“Half of those coming to the EU with a Schengen visa consider the visa application burdensome, one-third have to travel long distance to ask for a visa. It is high time that the EU provides a quick, safe and web-based EU visa application platform for the citizens of the 102 third countries that require short term visa to travel to the EU,” said Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson.

“With some member states already switching to digital, it is vital the Schengen area now moves forward as one,” said Commission Vice-President for Promoting our European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas.

However, first-time applicants, people with biometric data that are no longer valid or with a new travel document, will still have to go to a consulate to apply.

Family members of citizens from the EU and the European Economic Area, as well as people who need assistance, will also be able to continue to apply on paper. 

The EU Visa Application platform will be used from third countries whose nationals must be in possession of a visa to enter the EU and is different from the ETIAS (European Travel Information Authorisation), which is currently under development.

The ETIAS will be used by non-EU nationals who are exempt from visas but who will need to apply for a travel authorisation prior to their trip. This will cost 7 euros and will be free for people below the age of 18 and above 70. 

Based on the discussion between the European Parliament and Council, the Commission could start developing the platform in 2024 and make it operational in 2026. EU countries will then have five years to phase out national portals and switch to the common online system. 

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