I am soon to pass a major personal milestone in Italy. After being a temporary resident for five years, I will be receiving the legal status of permanent resident.
This comes with a number of benefits, including being able to work, which the Elective Residency Visa (ERV) that I have does not allow.
Another is that, in contrast to the temporary permesso, the permanent one does not need to be renewed for ten years (and then simply with a new photo). No more trips to the provincial questura clutching a sheaf of papers, waiting in lines, then waiting months for a message telling me to come pick it up. This also simplifies getting an annual national health card – the all-important tessera sanitaria.
Back in 2017, securing the ERV from the Italian Consulate in San Francisco seemed to involve an arduous process. But upon arriving in Italy, we were confronted with a myriad of other complicated procedures, from applying for residency, to setting up a bank account, to getting utility services, to getting decent internet service.
The number of steps is breathtaking. In the first year alone, we counted more than 150 discrete tasks – an average of three every week. Every process was confusing, daunting, frustrating, and of course all conducted in another language.
One might think that the permanent permesso process would be a snap, now that we have been through so many similar endeavors. But such was not to be.
Its always hazardous to make generalizations based solely on one’s own experiences in Italy, as processes can vary hugely, even between adjacent towns. I reached out to ten other expats who have reached this same milestone, and everyone reported significant variations in what they had to do and what was required.
Residency permits – whether temporary or permanent – are based on national immigration law, which should be consistently applied. But tell that to an officer in the provincial questura and see how far that gets you.
Each province can add requirements or interpret them differently. One expat reported that his province does not even offer a permanent residency permit. Another person reported having to return again and again with additional documents.
Provincial officials have considerable discretion to read things into – or out – of laws. Those of us who were previously part of the British Empire were taught the importance of having a foundation in the ‘rule of law’. In Italy, that principle is a little less certain.
Essentially, immigration is administered at the local level, with different people at the helm. Some can be lenient; others can be strict. A few can be downright difficult.
One friend living in another part of the country sent me a list of the requirements given to them. It was impressive. Of course, it doesn’t help matters that countries like the US and UK have recently made it much more challenging for immigrants to enter. So perhaps it’s a bit of payback.
One acquaintance reported that he was in the middle of his process when it was discovered that his visa didn’t allow him to apply for permanent residency. He had to return to his country to get a different visa and start all over again. Another person reported having to submit income tax forms for several years. A police report is frequently required, ostensibly to make sure that Italy is not accepting criminals.
Virtually everyone reported confusing, conflicting, and often confounding directions from their questura. Having a smooth experience seems to be completely the luck of the draw.
Foreigners (stranieri in Italian) currently make up 8 percent of the population. That has been constant for years. Unlike the US, Italy is not exactly a ‘melting pot’ culture.
However, that percentage is high enough to worry some people in the government. Hence the effort to limit immigration, in part through difficult procedures.
If all this weren’t enough, the very name of the permanent residency permit keeps changing.
At one point it was called the ‘Carta di Soggiorno‘. But that name was used for another type of permit. Subsequently, it was renamed the ‘Permesso di Soggiorno UE per Lungo Soggiornanti’ – a phrase almost impossible to easily say. Recently, it’s been shortened, sort of. The present form is Permesso di Soggiorno Illimitata. The constantly shifting terminology and requirements can make grown people cry.
Perhaps the main requirement that intimidates many newcomers is the one to pass an Italian language exam.
The applicant must demonstrate a proficiency level known as A2 – essentially an ability to conduct normal daily activities like requesting internet service repair, a skill that is necessary several times a year. Or, say, paying the annual garbage fee to one’s comune.
Prior to taking the exam, I was petrified. I had not taken a test in decades. My fears ran wild. What if I failed it? Would I be deported? Just how embarrassing is this exam going to be?
The exam I sat for had three parts. The first involved filling in blanks within written sentences so they make sense, selecting phrases from a long list. The second involved listening to a conversation and then being asked questions about it, with the answers given in Italian. The third required extemporaneously talking about an ordinary task from a list of options; I chose visiting the doctor.
This test is just one of many steps in a multiple year long process that Italian immigration regulations refer to as “integration”. Others include taking an Italian civics class, which I found quite fascinating.
Another included a lengthy session of uniformed police taking “fingerprints” of every possible surface of both hands. Not so fascinating.
At this moment, I am awaiting an SMS message on my phone, as it has been more than three months since the in-person appointment. That was the method of notification at every previous stage of application and renewals. But I’m not holding my breath; one time it took six months. Then again, I might not get one at all.
So, the process of getting a permanent permesso is arduous, confounding, and varies from place to place and person to person – resulting in likely missteps, unexpected demands, and considerable angst.
Living in Italy is often like living with a gorgeous partner who plays tricks on you, every single day.
Mark Hinshaw is a retired city planner who lives in Le Marche with his wife. A former columnist for The Seattle Times, he contributes to journals, books and other publications.
Have you applied for permanent residency in Italy? We’d love to hear about your experience of the process in the comments section below.