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What’s the difference between Italian residency and citizenship?

As a foreigner in Italy you enter a complicated world of bureaucracy, but one question we are asked a lot is the difference in status between residency and citizenship. Here's an overview.

What's the difference between Italian residency and citizenship?
What rights do Italian citizens have that residents don't? Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Broadly the difference is this: citizenship gives you a lot more rights but is consequently harder to secure.

Here’s a look at how the different categories work.

Non-resident visitor

This category covers everything from people having a long weekend in Rome to second home owners.

Depending on where you come from you are allowed to stay in Italy for a certain period (for most non-Europeans this limit is 90 days) without becoming a full-time resident of the country.

READ ALSO: How British second home owners can spend more than 90 days in Italy after Brexit

The upside of this is that there’s no paperwork, but you don’t have any legal status or right to stay in the country.

You also won’t have access to healthcare if you need it while you are here so will need to make sure you are covered via health insurance or – for EU citizens – the European Health Insurance Card.

Residency

This means that you are officially allowed to live in Italy. The requirements for being an official resident of the country vary according to the country that you come from and your circumstances.

Citizens of EU countries and those within the Schengen zone benefit from European freedom of movement, which means they are entitled to move to Italy to live and work. This freedom is not completely unlimited – there are conditions around criminal records and minimum income level – but is fairly generous.

EU nationals who plan to stay in Italy permanently must register with their local town hall within three months of moving here. It’s not an immigration procedure but an administrative one: even Italian citizens have to do it if they’ve been living abroad, though it’s easier for them since registering as a foreigner requires jumping through extra hoops.

You will need to show that you are in a position to support yourself without state welfare – whether it’s by having a job, relying on a family member or spouse in Italy, or showing you have enough savings to get by. You’ll also have to demonstrate that you have health coverage, either because you qualify for national health care or you have private insurance.

READ ALSO: Who can register for national healthcare in Italy?

People who are not citizens of an EU or Schengen zone country – known as third country nationals – have even more hoops to jump through before they can become residents.

For most non-Europeans, moving to Italy involves first getting a visa in your current country, then applying for a residency permit, known as a permesso di soggiorno, once you arrive. The visa process can be both complicated and expensive, and varies depending on your reason for coming to Italy. Find out about different types of visa here, and read one American’s first-hand account of the process here.

Since January 1st 2021, UK nationals no longer have the rights of EU citizens and will have to apply for a visa to live in Italy. Find out more here.

Brits who were already resident in Italy before the Brexit cut-off on December 31st 2020 should apply for a residency card to show they qualify to keep their rights to live and work here. You can apply at your local police headquarters, without needing to re-register your residency. Find more information here.

DEALING WITH BREXIT:

Once you have your residency in place, you will have access to the Italian healthcare system and other services, and your right to stay or re-enter Italy from overseas is protected.

You will also be expected to pay tax in Italy, including on income earned abroad.  

Third country residents can stay as long as their permesso di soggiorno is valid. You will have to renew your permesso every two years or less, demonstrating each time that you still meet the conditions set out in your visa – for instance, you’re still enrolled or school or university if you’re on a student visa, or you’re still employed if you have a work visa. 

After five years you may be able to apply for a long-term residency permit without an expiry date, but you’ll need to meet certain conditions like having a minimum income and passing a language test.

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

If you commit certain types of crime you can be removed from the country, while other crimes will mean getting a new visa or permesso becomes more difficult.

EU citizens have the right to vote in municipal and European elections (but not parliamentary ones), while non-Europeans have no voting rights.

Certain types of jobs are reserved for Italian citizens only, while others – especially within public administration – are reserved for EU citizens only. Non-citizens cannot run for parliament, but EU citizens can stand as candidates in local elections.

Citizenship

This is the ultimate guarantee of your rights in Italy and once you have become an Italian citizen you are, on paper at least, exactly the same as Italian people who were born and bred here.

You are entitled to stay here for the rest of your life, even if you commit a serious crime, and you can pass your citizenship on to your children. You can also leave the country for as long as you want and return to live without having to ask permission.

You’ll also be guaranteed free access to the Italian healthcare system for you and your dependents, even if you don’t have a job. 

You are entitled to vote and – in good news for those with political ambitions – you can stand for any type of public office including parliament.

But the flip side of this is that citizenship is not easy to obtain.

READ ALSO: How many foreigners does Italy grant citizenship to?

Italy’s rules are more generous than many other countries’ when it comes to allowing people to claim citizenship via ancestry: you can apply even if you only have one Italian ancestor several generations back.

But you’ll need to provide official certificates of birth, marriage and death for every relative between you and them to prove the line of descent, and your claim is usually wiped out if anyone in the chain renounced Italian citizenship before passing it on to their children. 

If you don’t have Italian ancestors then the most common ways to obtain citizenship are through marriage to a Italian person or through residency. 

In either case you need to fulfil a number of criteria, including having lived in the country for 10 years if you’re a third country national or being married to your Italian spouse for three years (two if you live in Italy and one if you have Italian children), as well as a minimum level of the Italian language.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about taking Italy’s language test for citizenship

It’s not a quick process – the Italian state gives itself up to two to four years to process applications – and involves a lot of paperwork. If original documents are in English you have to have them officially translated, notarised and legalised, for a fee. There are also fees just to submit your application.

Find out more about applying for citizenship here.

If you satisfy all the requirements and once your paperwork is all processed you will finally have to swear allegiance to the Italian Republic in a special ceremony (and make sure you say it right). 

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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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