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How British nationals can claim Italian citizenship by descent

Whether you're looking to move to Italy or honour your Italian roots, British nationals hoping to get an Italian passport could trace their family tree to become a citizen of Italy. Here's what you need to know.

How British nationals can claim Italian citizenship by descent
British nationals could take the route of ancestry to gain Italian citizenship. Photo by alexey turenkov on Unsplash

British nationals may have various reasons for wanting Italian citizenship – one new motivation may be regaining the benefits of being a European Union citizen once more, such as enjoying freedom of movement within the bloc.

Perhaps you want to recognise your Italian heritage or you already live in Italy and would like more security in the country you now call home.

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

Regardless of why you’re interested in getting Italian citizenship, you’ll need to be prepared for plenty of research, patience and paperwork.

Here are the steps to going down the route of citizenship by descent and the pitfalls to watch out for from a legal expert.

Knowing your right to Italian citizenship

Getting an Italian passport through the legal principle of ‘jure sanguinis‘ (which means ‘right of blood’ in Latin), is a way for you to prove your right to Italian citizenship through Italian-born ancestors.

“This route recognises your citizenship since birth, you don’t acquire it,” Giuditta De Ricco, head citizenship lawyer at immigration firm Mazzeschi told The Local.

“If your documents are in good order and there is a direct lineage with no renunciations of citizenship from family members, Italy has to recognise it,” she added.

The firm has noticed a few more enquiries about this route to Italian citizenship since Brexit, she said. If you’re eligible, it’s a surer way than the other methods.

That’s because this path is slightly different than applying for Italian citizenship by marriage, for example.

“In that case, there is discretion – the authorities don’t have to give it you. Whereas if you can prove you have Italian heritage, you’re getting a document to reflect something that was already yours,” De Ricco said.

Gaining Italian citizenship by descent involves a lot of paperwork. Photo by Lennart Schulz on Unsplash

But it doesn’t mean it’s straightforward or easy.

Your first port of call is to gather all these documents to show your Italian lineage, which can be a time-consuming process: you’ll need to show the dates and places of births, marriages and deaths back through your Italian line of descent.

If you fancy tracing your own family tree, you can, but be aware there are various laws and bureaucracy to watch out for.

How you know you’re entitled to Italian citizenship

Before you go detective on your family history, it’s wise to know if you’re eligible for this route to citizenship.

You are automatically an Italian citizen if:

  • You were born to an Italian parent, even outside Italy.
  • You were adopted as a minor by an Italian national.
  • An Italian parent legally recognises you as their child (e.g., if your father’s name is absent from your birth certificate but he confirms that you’re his child).
  • You were born in Italy to stateless parents, to unknown parents, or to parents who cannot transmit their nationality to their children.

Italy allows nationals to pass down their citizenship. So it doesn’t matter if you’re a citizen of another country, such as the UK, and you have a great-grandparent born in Italy.

READ ALSO: Ten things to know before moving to Italy

You can go back many generations to prove your ancestry – all the way back to the founding of modern Italy in 1861, in fact. But actually, you can go back a little further than that if your research allows.

Those who were alive before Italian unification on this date automatically became Italian. So in that case, you’d need to find the death certificate to prove your relative’s death was after 1861 and they were, therefore, Italian.

If they were born and died before Italian unification, however, you don’t have a claim to Italian citizenship as Italy was not a nation before this date.

Your application will depend on the laws applicable during your ancestors’ lifetime. Photo by Lennart Schulz on Unsplash

Going so far back in history is trickier and will likely make the process longer.

“It is difficult to find birth certificates only starting in 1861 or before from town halls. We can try to find baptism certificates by researching through church records,” De Ricco told us.

“Historical research takes some time. It’s not easy but we can do it,” she added.

Using church records comes with extra paperwork, though.

Each baptism certificate needs to be issued by the parish, authorised by the bishop’s office and you’ll also need a written confirmation from the town hall (comune) in Italy that there was no registry office on the date in question.

Alternatively, you can trace your Italian roots via the maternal line from 1948 (the late date at which Italian women were granted the right to transmit their citizenship to their children).

Since 1861 various citizenship laws have been enacted and so the rules and conditions for acquiring citizenship have changed.

“Citizenship is a technical issue, because you have to analyse the births, marriages and deaths according to the law in that moment,” she told us.

For example, there was an Italian law in force until 1992 that didn’t allow dual nationality. Until that year, your relatives may have lost their Italian citizenship if they became citizens of another country.

That would mean a break in lineage, but De Ricco told us this doesn’t necessarily derail your citizenship application.

It might mean instead that you can apply for citizenship through residency but on reduced terms such as three years as a resident in the country instead of 10 and passing a language test, which you don’t need to do if applying through descent.

For information on gaining citizenship by residency or marriage, see here.

Want to recognise your Italian citizenship? You’ll need to get your paperwork in order. Photo by Jonathan Bean on Unsplash

How to apply

If you live outside Italy, apply to the Italian consulate nearest to your place of residence. While the legal criteria remain the same, different places may have different procedures and waiting times.

For this reason, De Ricco tells us you can try another consulate if the one nearest to you has a huge waiting list. Some of the firm’s clients reported one to two years waiting time for an appointment at the consulate in London, for example.

It can sometimes take months or even years just to file for an appointment, so instead you can apply to take your case before the court in Rome, providing evidence of the delays at your consulate, the immigration expert told us.

You can also apply within Italy to your local Anagrafe (registry office). 

READ ALSO: What’s the difference between Italian residency and citizenship?

You should expect to provide full birth, marriage and death certificates for every relative you cite in your claim, as well as proof that that they still had Italian citizenship when their children were born. All documents will need to be translated into Italian and legalised with an apostille (an official, separate certificate that confirms their authenticity).

You’ll need to be extra diligent with checking the names and details of these documents, as any discrepancies will cost you time in delays.

This gets particularly tricky if your ancestors changed their name, which wasn’t unusual as some thought doing so might make assimilation into their new country easier, De Ricco said.

If this was the case, you’d need to contact the Vital Statistics Office to make the corrections – or you may even need to go to court if this isn’t possible.

How much does it cost and how long will it take?

Once you’ve got through the research and applying at your consulate, the process should then be finalised within two years, De Ricco told The Local.

How much it costs can depend on whether you want the help of lawyers or not – some of whom offer to check you’re eligibility for no fee and then legal fees may run to around €2000 if you want to proceed with their guidance.

The application fees are around €500 – €600 and you’ll need to take other costs into account, such as getting documents translated, legalised and notarised.

There are ways to cut costs if you’re applying as a family, however, as you can reuse the same documents.  

Do I have to give up my original nationality?

“As a British national, you don’t have to give up your nationality as Italy has allowed multiple citizenship since 1992,” said De Ricco.

“You can renounce your Italian citizenship if you like, which may be more relevant for those people who are allowed only one nationality. But that’s not the case for the UK and Italian law grants you as many citizenships as you want,” she confirmed.

Neither do you have to live in Italy – getting citizenship is different than being a resident of Italy.

If you’re confirmed as being an Italian citizen, 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. There are also no time limits on how long you can be out of the country, if you do live in Italy.

Other benefits for Italian citizens include guaranteed free access to the Italian healthcare system for you and your dependents, even if you don’t have a job, and the ability to vote.

One last requirement to clinch your Italian status is swearing allegiance to the Italian Republic in a special ceremony.

Giuditta De Ricco is the head of citizenship of Mazzeschi, an immigration and citizenship consultancy firm based in Italy. You can contact her here.

Find out more on our section on visasresidency and moving to Italy.

Please note that The Local is unable to advise on specific cases. For more information about visa applications, see the Italian Foreign Ministry’s visa website, or contact your embassy or local Questura in Italy.

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For members


Why is it taking so long to book a driving test in Italy?

People trying to sit their driving tests in many parts of Italy are reporting long delays when booking their theory or practical exam. The Local looks at why this is happening.

Why is it taking so long to book a driving test in Italy?

Getting an Italian driving licence (or patente di guida) isn’t exactly a piece of cake, especially for foreign residents, who, besides familiarising themselves with the national Highway Code, must also achieve a high level of Italian language proficiency before taking the test.

But the process has become more of a challenge over the past few months for candidates experiencing long waiting times – up to five months in some cases – when booking their theory or practical tests.

READ ALSO: Who needs to exchange their driving licence for an Italian one?

As many local licensing offices (Uffici di Motorizzazione Civile, which are roughly equivalent to the UK’s DVLA or the US DMV) fail to explain these delays, candidates are left wondering what the problem is. 

The short answer is that Italy’s licensing department is facing critical understaffing problems, which, by the look of things, aren’t going away anytime soon. 

“The problem is national,” Emilio Patella, national secretary of Italy’s main driving schools’ union UNASCA, tells The Local.

“The size of the [licensing department’s] current workforce is half of what it was ten years ago, or half of what it should be on a regular basis.”

READ ALSO: Do you have to take Italy’s driving test in Italian?

Cars line up to cross the Italian-Swiss border

People taking their practical driving tests in Como face a waiting time of 140 days on average. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

This means that, presently, there simply aren’t enough employees around to meet the market’s demand – a situation which is the result of “over 20 years where few to no hirings were made”, according to Patella.

Not all local offices are currently registering gigantic delays, with waiting times varying from area to area based on demand and the number of staff available.

Regions in the north-west and north-east of the country – especially Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia-Romagna – are bearing the brunt of the national crisis.

Como has the worst-affected office in the country, Patella says, with the average waiting time for candidates looking to take their practical test standing at 140 days (or well north of four months).

Other cities experiencing long delays include Brescia, Bergamo, Milan, Turin, Vicenza, Verona, Piacenza, Parma, and Reggio Emilia.

Katherine Sahota, a British national living in Brescia, has been trying to book her theory test since September, but says there have been “little to no appointments available” in the area.

While being denied the opportunity to book a test is sufficiently frustrating in and of its own, the issue is particularly pressing for Britons in Italy at the moment.

READ ALSO: ‘So stressful’: How Italy-UK driving licence fiasco threatens couple’s Tuscan dream

The 12-month grace period allowing British nationals to drive across Italy on UK licences is due to expire on December 31st and, with negotiations over a reciprocal agreement between Italy and the UK showing no sign of progress, many British nationals have chosen to get an Italian driving licence. 

But the delays affecting many licensing offices across Italy are already undermining their efforts and mean it’s unlikely some residents will be able to get their licence before the deadline.

Sahota might just be one of them. 

“It is a helpless situation not being able to plan anything,” she tells The Local.

“I don’t think they understand how this affects the lives of people who need to drive for work, for families, for their own freedom of movement.”

Sahota’s situation, and that of many others across the country, isn’t being helped by the inherent nature of the Italian licensing system, which is built on a series of tight, consecutive deadlines. 

Red Vespa motorcycle and vintage Fiat

The Italian licensing system is based on a series of tight deadlines, which make candidates susceptible to even the shortest delays. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

After submitting a request to take the test, candidates have six months to pass the theory exam, within a maximum of only two attempts. They then have 12 months and a total of three attempts to pass the practical exam. 

Also, those who have to resit either exam can only do so at least a month after the failed attempt.

As a result of this, even a waiting time as ‘short’ as two months might keep a candidate from being able to retake an exam within the set timeframe. If this happens, the candidate has no choice but to re-enrol and pay all the enrolment fees again.

Several reports of residents not being able to retake an exam through no fault of their own have emerged over the past few weeks. 

Stefano Galletti, president of Bologna’s UNASCA office, said last week that candidates in the city “can barely take an exam” in the given time span, with longer-than-usual waiting times often keeping people from retaking in case of failure.

READ ALSO: Some of the best learner sites for taking your Italian driving test

While hiring more examiners looks like the solution to the problem, but increasing the Italian licensing department’s workforce might not be as straightforward as many would think. 

According to Patella, the Italian government will have to either implement a special hiring policy known as ‘piano straordinario’ – an option which, he says, hasn’t been considered so far – or delegate tasks to employees of other national agencies in order to fill the current gaps. 

But, even if one of the above measures were to be put into effect, Patella believes that “we would only manage to get back to a normal state of things in around three years” – that’s also because “being an examiner is not a very sought-after job and few people are still willing to do it”.

In the meantime, residents facing delays can get in touch with the Italian licensing department’s support centre to report their issue or ask for guidance. 

It’s also worth noting that residents are allowed to sit their driving tests in a province other than the one where they reside. 

However, if the province where they choose to take the test doesn’t border that in which they are resident, the licensing office can ask candidates to give a valid reason for the choice and to provide additional documentation.

For further information, contact your local licensing office (Uffici di Motorizzazione Civile). Find details of your nearest office here