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

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.

'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

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.


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.


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 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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


“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.”


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].

Member comments

  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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REVEALED: What studying in Italy is really like and what you should expect

If you're planning to study in Italy, there's a lot to consider. We asked international students about their experiences of everything from finding accommodation to navigating unusual exam methods.

REVEALED: What studying in Italy is really like and what you should expect

What student hasn’t at least once thought about moving to a foreign country and enjoying life away from home in a new environment? For many, the object of such daydreaming is Italy.

The bel paese is known for the quality of its higher education system and its relatively low tuition fees, which range from a minimum of €900 to a maximum of €4,000 per year at public universities. 

Ranked: Italy’s best universities and how they compare worldwide

Factor in Italy’s culinary culture, picturesque landscapes and warm weather and it’s easy to see why nearly 90,000 foreign nationals move to Italy for educational reasons every year. 

But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. A number of hurdles can turn studying in Italy into a far-from-idyllic experience: snail-paced bureaucracy, accommodation-related trials and tribulations, and locals’ often poor command of English are just some of the problems international students told us they’ve faced.

So, what exactly do prospective students need to know about living and studying in Italy and, above all, how can they prepare for the challenges that lie ahead? The Local asked current and former international students about their experiences to find out.

What to expect from your course

First things first, you should be aware of Italian universities’ teaching and assessment methods. If you’ve never studied in the country before, the chances of you being familiar with the country’s education system are close to zero. That’s because Italian universities have unique teaching methods, replicated hardly anywhere else in the world. 

Most of the teaching is delivered through frontal lecture-style instruction, with hardly any room for seminars or other forms of in-class interaction. Secondly, exams are for the most part conducted orally, with students asked a number of questions (usually around five) about the relevant subject.

Adjusting to this system isn’t always a walk in the park. In fact, some students say they never fully got to grips with it.

“I did my triennale [undergraduate course] at Cà Foscari [University of Venice] and I didn’t like it at all,” says Evelina Gorbacova, a Latvian national who is now doing an MA in Digital and Public Humanities at the same university.

“The system was such that you had to learn everything by heart,” she explains. “You would just go to class, write down some things and then repeat those things at the exam. That was very frustrating.”

Thankfully, Gorbacova says the postgraduate course she is currently on is significantly more practical than her triennale was, and allows for a greater level of interaction between students. 

To avoid any unpleasant surprises, students are advised to pore over the teaching structure of their chosen course before formally accepting a university offer. Usually, such information is readily available online. Should that not be the case, reach out to the university directly and ask for a detailed course handbook.

A student walks outside Milan’s Bicocca University. Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP

Once you have officially accepted your university offer, how should you then prepare for your upcoming encounter with Italian academia?

One thing students recommend is to start practicing your oral presentation skills early on, ideally prior to moving to Italy, and, if possible, in front of a friend or a family member.

“There’s a certain technique that you need to apply to do well in Italian exams,” says Ibrahim Issa, a British medicine student at the University of Pavia. 

“You need to have this skill whereby you can just keep on talking about a subject at will or move the conversation into an area where you’re more comfortable and confident. That’s something that people looking to study in Italy should try to get used to before moving.”

While that might be easier said than done, even a small amount of practice will save you from problems down the line – whether or not you have a natural fear of public speaking.

What paperwork will you need?

For non-EU students, this is the very first stumbling block you’ll come across.

Unlike students from within the European Union, who enjoy freedom of movement across the entire bloc, non-EU students are required to obtain a student visa (also known as type-D visa) prior to entering the country.

The application for said visa, which you will have to submit to the Italian consulate in your own home country, generally entails producing a number of official documents including proof of pre-enrollment in an Italian university course, proof of sufficient financial means, and valid medical insurance.

READ ALSO: Five things to know before you apply for an Italian student visa

Owing to the rather lethargic pace of Italian bureaucracy, the biggest piece of advice students give is to apply long before the start of the academic year. 

“Bureaucracy is a bit of a nightmare,” says Issa. “Any type of paperwork or governmental process takes so long.”

“When you’re pressed for time, as an international student, it can be a really big headache.”

In concrete terms, converting the necessary documents from your native language to Italian might be the most irksome procedure you’ll face. 

“In my experience, the most difficult thing was getting my documents translated and apostilled,” Issa explains.

“That really takes ages and, if you’re trying to do everything within a specific timeframe, which I was at the time, it can be really difficult. Luckily, my dad helped me out a lot. I wouldn’t have made it without him.” 

So, in short, give yourself plenty of time and, if necessary, seek the assistance of family and friends to steer clear of trouble.

A type-D visa isn’t the only certificate you’ll need if you want to live in Italy, however. 

After entering Italy, non-EU nationals have eight days to apply for a valid residence permit, or permesso di soggiorno. The application, which usually costs around €100, must be submitted at a local post office. 

A statue of the Roman goddess of wisdom, Minerva, outside Rome’s Sapienza University. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Students are required to submit a number of documents including a copy of their passport, visa, proof of medical insurance and university enrollment letter. 

This stage is followed by an interview and fingerprint registration at the local Questura (police precinct). Finally, after a three- to six-month ‘processing period’ (yes, we know…), students should receive their permesso, giving them full access to public healthcare, social security and education. 

While the previous piece of advice applies here too – always prep the required paperwork in advance – familiarising yourself with the Italian language, or, at the very least, Italian legalese, is the smartest course of action here. ​​

Italy’s English proficiency is second to last in the European Union, which means that many public officials are not as fluent in the language as might be hoped.

READ ALSO: Why Italians have a hard time learning English – and how things could improve

“Learning Italian will save you so much time and effort when you’re dealing with bureaucracy,” Issa says. “Going to public offices like the post office or the comune without knowing a little bit of Italian can be really, really difficult for newcomers.”

If, for whatever reason, you’re not able to acquaint yourself with the relevant Italian jargon prior to your permesso-seeking quest, you might want to ask someone you know to help you. 

“During my first year, I often had people from my collegio [hall of residence] come with me to the comune or other public offices,” says Issa. “That helped me out quite a lot, even in terms of confidence.”

If necessary, you could also ask your university’s international admissions office for guidance.

What about accommodation?

This is usually challenge numero due for non-EU nationals – and the first one for European citizens. 

According to Numbeo’s Cost of Living Index, Italy sits in the middle of the European pack with respect to rental costs. On average, renting a flat in Italy is cheaper than in the UK, Germany and France, but more expensive than in Greece, Croatia and Poland.

Monthly rent can range from €300 to €600 a month depending on the flat’s location, considering distance from the city centre and the university campus. On average, the monthly rent for a three-bedroom flat close to the city centre is around €1400, whereas renting the same type of flat in the city outskirts would set the tenants back around €900.

When it comes to finding a rental the safest available option for foreign students, and especially for first-year students, is to go for university accommodation

Mauricio Benitez, a Honduras national who recently graduated from Milan’s Bocconi University with a Master of Science in International Management, lived in a hall of residence throughout the first year of his course.

He says: “It was a great deal. Rent was 650 per month but everything – and I mean everything – was included, even cleaning services twice a week.” 

“On top of that, dealing with the university directly was much more convenient and secure than dealing with letting agencies.”

READ ALSO: Ten things to expect when renting an apartment in Italy

If university accommodation ends up being your choice, the best way to go about renting is through the university’s own channels. Keep in mind that the online registration process usually opens in late spring/early summer.

If you would rather go solo and rent a room privately (or just haven’t been able to book a place in a student hall of residence), there are a number of alternatives you can explore. University bulletin boards, student groups on social media, and student-housing websites like Uniaffitti, Affitti Studenti e Studentsville are all viable options.

However, keep in mind that dealing with Italian letting agencies and private landlords can be incredibly frustrating.

Gorbacova was accepted into Cà Foscari in the summer of 2017, but says relocating to Venice in time for the start of the academic year was no easy feat for her. 

“Finding a flat was hard. I had no knowledge of Italian at that point and a lot of people didn’t even bother to reply to my emails,” she says. 

“Sometimes, they wouldn’t even reply to my calls because they just saw a foreign number on their phone screen. I really don’t want to generalise but I think that most landlords actually prefer Italian students over foreign ones.” 

Besides having a rather ambiguous disposition towards foreign students, most Italian agencies and landlords also often require an Italian-born guarantor, making renting an arduous task for international students.

“I think that, whichever way you look at it, renting is just much, much easier for Italian students,” says Gorbacova. “When they [Italian students] are asked for a guarantor, they can just provide the details of one of their parents, whereas when we’re asked for one, our parents can’t really help much unfortunately.”

Social life and the language barrier

Before you plunge into Italian culture, you’ll need some basic knowledge of the language.

As previously mentioned, Italy is one of the worst-scoring European countries when it comes to English proficiency. In fact, it is one of just two countries (the other one is Spain) where English-language skills are classed as “moderate” rather than “high”. This means that most Italians, and especially those over 40, are not exactly fluent in English. 

While at university you will hardly need to speak any Italian – academic staff and local students generally have a good command of English – you will need to have at least some knowledge of the language to fully enjoy all the perks of Italian life.

Jeremias Finster, a 25-year-old from Nuremberg, Germany, recently graduated from Milan’s prestigious Bocconi University with a Master of Science in International Management

“Language matters,” says Jeremias Finster, a recent Bocconi graduate originally from Nuremberg, Germany. “It’s not just about becoming friends with local students. If you’re going to the supermarket or to a restaurant, or if you’re just interacting with the neighbours, being able to speak the local language improves your experience so much. It really allows you to have a different type of connection with the surrounding environment.” 

Your university will surely offer language classes, but all of the students we spoke to strongly recommend laying some groundwork before moving. This can easily be done with free online courses or language-learning mobile apps.


Once you’re in Italy, strive to be around local students as much as you can. Although it might feel quite natural for you to hang out with fellow foreign students, try to socialise with Italian nationals as doing so will greatly help you practice and improve your language skills.

“During my time in the country, I really tried to get out of my comfort zone and make friends with Italian students,” says Finster. 

“On lunch breaks, I would often join the ‘Italian group’ in the canteen. That was a great opportunity for me to not only get to know the local people but also practice my speaking.” 

If you’re not the type to bond with others over a risotto, bear in mind that there are also many university societies and activities that you can join in order to get yourself involved with local student life. Buona fortuna.