‘Do your homework’: An American’s guide to moving to Italy

'Do your homework': An American's guide to moving to Italy
A passenger at Rome's Fiumicino airport, in front of a picture of the Trevi Fountain. Photo: Alexander Klein/AFP
What kind of visa can you get as a US citizen looking to move to Italy, and how much money will you need? John Henderson, who moved to Rome from the States six years ago, shares his advice.

I have become a pseudo clearinghouse for one question that Americans have asked me since 2016: How do I move to Italy?

I’m lucky. I moved here to Rome in 2014. I moved for my love of Italy, not for distaste for what America had become. 

You can escape to Italy — some day. However, it’s difficult. It is much more difficult than when I did it.

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I’m here to give you a plan, but keep in mind, this plan only works if the US flattens its Covid curve enough for the European Union to allow visitors for travel besides “essential” reasons.

In the meantime, start taking Italian lessons, collect the change between your cushions and locate your nearest Italian consulate.

And keep in mind this warning from Patrizia Di Gregorio, head of Expats Living in Rome, an excellent group for making friends and learning Italian: “Most of the Americans who want to come here are broke,” she told me.

“They have no idea what they’re doing and they just come here illegally and try to figure it out and they fail and they go home. The changeover is three months.”

To avoid that rabbit hole, here are some tips on moving to Italy.

Budget

Living in Italy sounds romantic, doesn’t it? It is. However, if you can’t afford to live here, your dream will be a nightmare. Do your homework. It’s time to start crunching numbers.

I moved here twice, once in 2001 for 16 months and once for good in 2014. Both times before moving I did recon missions. I flew from my home in Denver to Rome in the spring of 2012 with just a backpack, a notepad and pens. Then I hit the streets and found out the cost of everything I needed to live here.

Your biggest expense will be housing. Dozens of websites list apartments and rooms for every budget. I used Idealista.it and made a list of apartments I’d like to see in the neighborhoods I wanted to live in.

What kind of bang could I get for my euro? I made appointments with the landlords and said I want to move to Rome. I had no intention of moving right away. I made some vague promises that I’d get back to them if interested and never did. I simply needed an in to see the places.

I asked about the cost of utilities. I asked about condo fees. I found some very nice one-bedroom apartments in the 800-1,000 euro range. 

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Then I searched for other living expenses. I found public markets and wrote the costs of everything from homemade pasta to milk to sausage to fruit and vegetables. I checked with ATAC, Rome’s public transportation service, and wrote the cost of a one-year metro pass.

I went to the train station and checked average prices for trips to major destinations such as Florence, Naples, Venice and Milan. I went to cell phone stores to see how much phones cost and their monthly plans.

I took my notepad to every restaurant and wrote the price ranges of dishes. Of course, I noted the price of wines in restaurants, in enotecas, in supermarkets. I checked movie prices, car rentals, even newspapers, everything I needed to live a normal life in Rome.

You would do this for whatever town you choose, whether it’s Milan, Positano or a village in rural Abruzzo. Every town will require a different budget.

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Photo: AFP

I took my research and determined two crucial numbers: How much money will I need? How much money will I have? I made a list of the bare essentials: rent, utilities, condo fees, food, transportation, insurance, cell phone. I even added a storage unit just in case it didn’t work out.

I added it all up and came up with a yearly bare-essential budget of about $25,000 a year.

Then adding to the list I put costs of extras that make life worth living, such as dining out, travel, entertainment, gym membership, incidentals. That brought the total to about $38,000 a year.

Tweaking my budget every January, I now live in Rome comfortably annually on a bit more than $40,000.

Then I needed a rough idea of how much longer I will live, however scary looking ahead may be. I multiplied that number of years with my yearly budget and came up with my target money goal.

I went to my broker with the figure and asked, “How do we get there?” My situation is different than many. I retired here. I wasn’t going to work. But I’d have some incoming money. I’d rent out my Denver condo. I can start collecting a full pension at 65, the same year I can take my IRA. I get full social security at 68 (I'm 64).

My broker moved around some money on my portfolio, I cut way back on going out and reached my financial goal in August 2013.

I spent that fall getting my visa, which I received that December, and moved to Rome on January 10th. It was a one-way ticket.

However, acquiring that visa these days is not easy.

Visa

You must decide which visa you want. You need something for more than the three-month tourist visa everyone is granted when they arrive.

Deciding what visa is easy. What are you going to do in Italy? I retired. I didn’t want to work. I applied for a residenza elettiva. That means I have permission to live in Italy for a year as long as I don’t have a job and, thus, take work away from an Italian. Agreed. And I’ll contribute money, lots of money. If you show you have enough or will earn enough, you’ve overcome the biggest hurdle.

READ ALSO: 'How I got an elective residency visa to retire in Italy'

However, if you must make ends meet and need a job, you’ll need a visto di lavoro, a work visa. Good luck. In between my two Rome stints, I came close to getting jobs here twice. I applied and received two work visas from the Italian Consulate in Chicago. The jobs fell through, leaving the visas to be worth no more than the passport pages they were stamped on.

A work visa is no longer easy. Immigration has become a major issue in Italy and the government grants fewer and fewer of them. I inquired about one last year to work as a film extra and studios told me don’t bother. I have a better chance at the pope granting me sainthood.

One way to ensure a longer stay is a student visa. Come to study the language and enrol at one of the universities or language schools.

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However, this is tricky. Be careful. Many schools promise to get your visa while you’re here but never come through. While in the US, get proof of enrolment and acquire a visa before you ever leave for Italy. The lengths of student visas differ.

Check websites at the Italian consulate nearest you. Here’s a list, including the states in their jurisdiction.

You must look up the requirement for each visa and when you acquire everything on the list, set up an appointment at the consulate to hand over your paperwork. You then must wait to see if you get the prize.

Housing

One of the requirements for any visa will be proof of housing.

I took a place sight unseen for two months just to get the contract. It was a tiny 330-square-foot, second-floor cave but in a fantastic location near Campo de’ Fiori in the centro storico. In those two months I could research the neighborhood I wanted to live in and take my time finding an apartment. AirBnBs will offer two- and three-month contracts and often negotiate a price.

Seeking a home in Rome can be brain-scalding. The internet is filled with real estate and rental agencies with lists of apartments that go forever.

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Do what I did: contact a property agency and have them find one for you. In both my stints living in Rome I went to Property International. Both times I wound up renting the first place they showed me.

After my initial two-month apartment in 2014, Property International found me a beautiful 485-square-foot apartment with a huge 380-square-foot terrace overlooking the Tiber River for 900 euros a month. I moved two years ago and Property International found me a bigger flat with heat and air-conditioning (rare in Rome), a big flat-screen TV, huge closet space and a wrap-around fifth-floor balcony for 1,000 a month, the same amount I wound up paying after four years in the previous apartment.

Agencies are expensive. It’ll cost you the equivalent of your first month’s rent. But the next day when you’re lounging in your new home in whatever city you choose, you’ll forget you paid a single centesimo.


Photo: Ludwig Thalheimer/Unsplash

Health insurance

This is another visa requirement but here there is good news. Many European agencies specialize in insurance for foreigners and medical costs in Italy, even if you’re not part of the state health plan as I am not, are a fraction of the cost in the US.

READ ALSO: 'How I ended up in hospital in Italy – without health insurance'

I use Expat & Company out of Belgium. They cover medical procedures, prescriptions and exams. In my particular situation, as a single, 64-year-old male, I pay about 1,525 euros a year.

Work

The best way to get a work visa is to land a job with an American business or corporation overseas and they can get through the red tape for you before you leave. Then again, if that was available, you probably would’ve done it by now, right?

A common money-maker in Italy is teaching English. It’s a bad idea for numerous reasons. The biggest one is the pay. It’s usually awful. One teacher friend says most schools pay between 8-15 euros an hour.

Rome has numerous language schools but some require teaching certificates such as a TESOL or TEFL. Many teachers give lessons in students’ homes and are not paid for their time or travel costs.

Without an EU passport, it’s really tough getting a job legally.

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“Eighty percent of the jobs in Italy are under the table so no one cares,” Di Gregorio said. “Nobody’s going to care. Schools don’t pay that much anyway. You’re not going to hire an American legally and go through the visa process and they quit and you pay the unemployment. The visa process costs money. Why would they do that? They have a bunch of illegals who’ll work under the table.”

She has seen that among Americans, too.

“They live here illegally, most of them,” she said. “We have so many illegal Americans it’s embarrassing. At least half of the Americans who come to Expats are illegal. You get stopped on the streets, you’re American. Because you’re American you get a pass to break the law. If you were from Romania it would be a different story.”

Language

This isn’t a visa requirement but it’s a requirement to live comfortably.

I live in Rome, one of the most famous cities in the world with 9 million tourists a year. Many people speak a few words of English. Some are conversational. Few are fluent.

The more rural you go, the less English you’ll hear. If you don’t learn Italian, you will suffer. Almost no one in hospitals and public services speaks English.

Find a language course months before you move. Find a private tutor. Get tapes and workbooks. Do everything you can to build a foundation.

When you move here, find a school or private instructor. Make Italian friends. Do language exchanges with Italians who want to learn English. I have been a member of ConversationExchange since I moved here.

READ ALSO: A 'scambio' is the ideal way to learn Italian – but be careful how you say it

You will struggle for a long time, especially if you’re old like me. I’ve lived here more than eight years over two stints and I still don’t understand people well enough to call myself fluent. But it’s essential to do daily business, to better understand the culture that will embrace you as much as you embrace it.

Plus it’s fun. You’ll want to talk to your local butcher as much as your fellow American expats. You’ll want to know how to curse in local dialect to earn street cred in your neighborhood bar. And isn’t a new culture what you’re seeking?

So if the US government finally thinks it’s time to develop a plan against the virus after 300,000 deaths, maybe Covid will leave and Italy’s borders will open to you.

Italy’s not going anywhere. I’m certainly not. 

READ ALSO: Life in Italy: The ten things you'll notice after moving from the US

John Henderson is an American writer living in Rome. This is an edited version of an article that was originally published on his blog, Dog-Eared Passport

Want to write a guest blog for The Local Italy? Get in touch at [email protected].


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  1. As someone who also contributes to TheLocal, I agree with everything described in this excellent article. To the points made, I would add three things:

    1. Beware of trying to get a Student Visa by simply signing up for a language course. Consulates are getting wise to this ploy and are beginning to ask for a degree curriculum.

    2. The author’s budget-building process was based on living in a big city. Many Americans seem to only want to live in Rome, Tuscany, or Milan. There are many other perfectly wonderful locations to live in Italy that are a fraction of the cost of living in those popular places.

    3. Many Americans are used to driving everywhere. After the first year, the U.S. driving license is no longer valid. To get an Italian license requires passing a very difficult test, which requires a good understanding of Italian.

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