‘Not just extra paperwork’: What it’s like moving to Italy after Brexit

A lot has been said about the additional bureaucracy Brits now face when moving to Europe after losing freedom of movement. But this brings with it a new precariousness and lost sense of belonging, writes Laurence Connell.

'Not just extra paperwork': What it's like moving to Italy after Brexit
Moving to Italy after Brexit is a very different process, and not just because of the added bureaucratic hurdles. Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP

Last year I became one of thousands of UK-based academics to lose their job because of cuts to university budgets made in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Although I liked many aspects of my lecturing job and dreaded the prospect of being unemployed, I was weary. The last four years of working in the university system had exhausted me, and I was ready for a change. 

I decided to see my misfortune as an opportunity. I missed Italy—where I had previously spent four years studying and working—and I craved experiencing its idiosyncrasies, its quality of life, and its beauty again. And since my involuntary career break had removed one of the main things tethering me to the UK, it made perfect sense to start applying for jobs in the bel paese. So when I was offered an English teaching job in a small town in Lombardy, I jumped at the chance.

READ ALSO: How many Britons in EU acquired post-Brexit residency and how many were refused?

But the world had changed dramatically since the last time I had lived in Italy. I had chosen to move to another country in the middle of a global pandemic, when international travel was more restricted than it had been in decades. And I was moving the same year Brexit took effect, meaning I no longer benefited from the freedom of movement that European citizenship provides. So what was it like as a British citizen moving to Italy post-Brexit?

The most daunting part of my move to Italy was navigating the country’s convoluted and time-consuming immigration bureaucracy, including applying for a work visa. 

Of course, I had been aware of Italy’s reputation for bureaucratic complexity the first time around. However, ten years ago I had the benefit of being an EU citizen. As a foreigner, it arguably takes being a non-EU citizen to fully appreciate why the country has garnered such a reputation. 

I applied for the EU Blue Card, which allows skilled workers with a university degree to work for an Italian company. The card has a validity of up to two years and is renewable. 

Thankfully, for this type of visa it is the responsibility of the employer to carry out the initial stages of the application process. This entails applying for a Nulla Osta, a security check carried out to ensure the applicant is not legally restricted to work in Italy, before the candidate himself applies for the visa in the Italian consulate in London. 

READ ALSO: What Brits need to know about visas for Italy after Brexit

Photo by Niklas Hallen / AFP

Although the Nulla Osta sounds relatively straightforward, it was during my application for the security clearance that I learned how easy it is to stumble upon bureaucratic hiccups that can delay the whole process by months. 

For example, the EU Blue Card requires applicants to have an undergraduate degree, but if you graduated outside of Italy you also need to apply for a Dichiarazione di Valore, a legal document certifying that your degree is of equal value to that of an Italian university degree. 

Thankfully I had already applied for a Dichiarazione when enrolling on a PhD programme in Italy years before. So when the local immigration office asked to see a copy of it, I managed to find one on my computer and send it to them. 

However, shortly before the Nulla Osta was due to be authorised, the immigration office asked to see the hard copy of my Dichiarazione – and I couldn’t find it. This was a big blow, because as I knew from the first time I had applied, it is a procedure that can take months and cost hundreds of euros. Would I need to apply again? If so, my diploma would need to “certified” by a British notary, translated into Italian, and sent to the Italian embassy in London to be authorised; current official advice suggests the latter process alone can take up to forty-five days. 

READ ALSO: Visas and residency permits: How to move to Italy (and stay here)

Mercifully, my old university was able to track down the hardcopy of my old Dichiarazione and send it to me, which reduced the time and cost of my application significantly. 

But my overall experience nonetheless echoes a point made previously on The Local by an American resident: that when applying for an Italian work visa you should be prepared for everything to take considerably longer than what you expect. 

In total, my application for the Blue Card took around five months, including the time taken for the Nulla Osta but not including the additional time required to apply for Permesso di Soggiorno residence permit (which I am still waiting for). 

Meanwhile, coronavirus has hardly helped matters. During my application, the local immigration office blamed a backlog of pending applications on the delays caused by the ongoing crisis. 

All of this inevitably took a psychological toll. I experienced plenty of anxiety as I scrambled to attain all the required paperwork, and as I waited for the bureaucratic cogs to turn. But in the background, there was something else, something that was to do with having once had the right to live in Italy and then losing it. I had always considered Italy to be a second home, a place where I belonged, and somewhere that thanks to my European citizenship I had some kind of stake in. 

INTERVIEW: Brexit has turned Brits in Europe into a cohesive force but problems lie ahead

When I arrived in Italy at the end of last year, it was the first time I had entered as a “third-country” national. As I was all too aware, what this meant was that I no longer had the unconditional right to enter the country. The extra documentation required of me and of other non-EU arrivals coming to Italy during the pandemic only accentuated that unfamiliar, unsettling feeling of not being welcome. 

The restrictions and bureaucratic hurdles linked with migrating to Italy as a non-EU citizen have ultimately affected the sense of belonging I have felt in the country. Although I am enjoying life in Italy and still feel at home here, I am no longer free to move between jobs and my ability to stay here is conditional on whether my visa is renewed. 

For me, as well as being about where one feels comfortable, happy and at home, belonging is also closely associated with acceptance and security. Although I would love to stay for the long term, thanks to the precariousness of my position, it may take some time before I’m able to say I truly belong.

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Driving licences: How does situation for Brits in Italy compare to rest of Europe?

As UK driving licence holders in Italy still wait for answers regarding another extension or a long-awaited deal for the mutual exchange of British and Italian licences post-Brexit, we look at how the situation compares to that of their counterparts across Europe.

Driving licences: How does situation for Brits in Italy compare to rest of Europe?

When Britain left the EU at the end of 2020, the British and Italian authorities hadn’t reached a reciprocal agreement on driving licences.

However, UK licence holders living in Italy were granted a 12-month grace period in which they could continue to drive on their British licences in Italy.

READ ALSO: Q&A: Your questions answered about driving in Italy on a British licence

This was then further extended for another 12 months until the end of 2022.

The UK government announced on December 24th, 2021 that British residents of Italy who didn’t convert their UK licence to an Italian one could continue to use it until December 31st, 2022.

That’s the latest official directive from the authorities, with no decision made on what will happen from January 1st, 2023.

The question on a UK-Italy driving licence agreement rolls on. (Photo by FABIO MUZZI / AFP)

The latest extension – while providing more time – hasn’t ruled out the need to take the Italian theory and practical driving tests and the clock is ticking again with just over six months left of this grace period.

READ ALSO: How do you take your driving test in Italy?

In fact, the authorities recommend sitting the Italian driving exams whatever the outcome, just in case. The process is known to take months, so UK licence holders find themselves once again taking a gamble on waiting for an accord to be reached or taking the plunge by starting preparations for the tests.

As things stand, the latest update to the driving guidance on the British government’s ‘Living in Italy’ webpage in January states:

“If you were resident in Italy before 1 January 2022 you can use your valid UK licence until 31 December 2022,” however, “you must exchange your licence for an Italian one by 31 December 2022. You will need to take a driving test (in Italian).”

The guidance then states: “The British and Italian governments continue to negotiate long-term arrangements for exchanging driving licences without needing to take a test.”

The Local contacted the British Embassy in Rome to ask for an update on the situation, to which they responded:

“Rest assured the Embassy continues to prioritise the issue of UK driving licence validity in Italy and we continue to engage with the Italian government on this issue.”

Presently, the UK’s new ambassador to Italy, Edward Llewellyn, is touring all 20 regions of Italy and no updates on the driving licence have been given in the meantime.

Could there be a deal which sees all UK licence holders in Italy – those who registered their intent to exchange, those who didn’t, those who did register intent but haven’t been able to finalise the process, and future UK licence holders who move to Italy – able to continue using their UK licences in Italy or easily exchange them for Italian ones without having to sit a driving test?

READ ALSO: ‘Anyone can do it’: Why passing your Italian driving test isn’t as difficult as it sounds

It’s still hard to say, as the authorities continue to advise UK licence holders to sit their Italian driving test, while stating that the two governments are still working on an agreement.

The embassy’s most recent announcement was a Facebook post in April acknowledging that “many of you are concerned” about the issue.

“We continue to work at pace to reach a long-term agreement with Italy, so that residents can exchange their UK driving licences without taking a test, as Italian licence holders can in the UK,” the embassy stated.

British residents of Italy can use their driving licenses until the end of this year, the government has confirmed.

British residents of Italy can presently use their driving licences until the end of this year. Photo by PACO SERINELLI / AFP

The embassy reiterated the need for UK licence holders to consider the possibility of obtaining an Italian driving licence via a test, stating: “It is important that you currently consider all your options, which may include looking into taking a driving test now.”

READ ALSO: Getting your Italian driving licence: the language you need to pass your test

So is it true that most European nations have reached successful agreements with the UK over reciprocal driving licence recognition and exchange and the Italian deal is lagging behind?

The evidence suggests so.

UK licence exchange agreements across Europe

As things stand, Italy and Spain are the only European countries where licence exchange negotiations are ongoing.

British drivers living in Spain are becoming increasingly disgruntled at the lack of solutions, as authorities have still made no decision on exchanging driving licences or reaching a deal.

UK licence holders in Spain are currently in limbo, unable to drive until they either get a Spanish driving licence or a deal is finally reached between Spanish and UK authorities for the mutual exchange of licences post-Brexit.

Since May 1st 2022, drivers who’ve been residents in Spain for more than six months and who weren’t able to exchange their UK licences for Spanish ones cannot drive in Spain.

French and British authorities reached a licence exchange agreement in June 2021, considered a generous one for UK licence holders residing in France as those with licences issued before January 1st 2021 can continue using their UK licences in France until either the licence or the photocard nears expiry.

Sweden and the UK reached a deal even earlier in March 2021. British people resident in Sweden can exchange their UK driving licences for an equivalent Swedish one, without needing to take a test, just as they could when the country was a member of the European Union. 

In Portugal, resident UK licence holders can continue to use their valid UK licences until December 31st 2022 but they must exchange their licences for Portuguese ones before that date.

Other EU nations which have decided to allow UK licence holders residing in their countries to swap their driving licences without having to take a driving test include Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Switzerland.   

There are slight variations in the conditions between countries, and some say you “can exchange”, others that you “must exchange” and most encourage UK licence holders to swap “as soon as possible”. In Greece, UK licences continue to be valid without any restrictions or deadlines for exchange.

That leaves Italy and Spain as the two EU/EEA countries where a deal on a straightforward exchange or long-term recognition of UK licences among residents is still hanging in the balance.  

The only question that’s left is why. 

Why are the driving rights of all Britons who resided in Italy before December 31st 2020 not part of the other protected rights they enjoy under the Withdrawal agreement? 

And why is it taking so long to reach an exchange deal?

So far, Italian and British officials have not provided answers to these questions.

The Local will continue to ask for updates regarding the use of British driving licences in Italy.

Are you a British resident in Italy affected by this issue? We’d like to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment below this article or email the Italian news team here.

Find more information on the UK government website’s Living in Italy section.

See The Local’s latest Brexit-related news updates for UK nationals in Italy here.