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RESIDENCY PERMITS

‘Arduous process’: What to expect when applying for Italian permanent residency

When applying for your permanent 'permesso' in Italy, the process varies from place to place and person to person. American writer Mark Hinshaw explains why you should expect the unexpected.

'Arduous process': What to expect when applying for Italian permanent residency
"Italian residency permits are based on national immigration law, which should be consistently applied. But tell that to an officer in the provincial questura." Photo by Serge Taeymans on Unsplash

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. 

READ ALSO: Permesso di soggiorno: A complete guide to getting Italy’s residency permit

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. 

READ ALSO: From bureaucracy to bidets: The most perplexing things about life in Italy

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.

Large piles of paperwork are a fact of life in Italy, though the documents you’ll need tend to vary. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP)

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.

READ ALSO: Italian residency: Who needs to apply for a permesso di soggiorno?

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.

READ ALSO: From visas to language: What Americans can expect when retiring in Italy

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.

Member comments

  1. Well that sound exhaustive!
    We went along to our local comune earlier this yeararmed with the documentation we thiught we needed and made some enquiries and two hours later we exited with our 10 year unlimited stay certificates to hand.
    Sounds like we had it easy compared to some others..It was by far the most straight forward of any of the necessary processes we have undertaken to date in Italy!

  2. Ah, Mark, you have it correctly here. I also started in San Francisco oh so many years ago. I started the process then known as Permesso di Soggiorno plain and simple. I must have had a hundred or more emails with San Francisco officials, and uncountable visits to my local questura in Lucca over a six year period. I was shocked by some of the officials’ attitudes related to their being in control of my future. I eventually made friends with the boss (Capo) of that office who went from being kind to being totally dismissive back and forth and I never knew which was coming next. I eventually won he and his team (temporarily) over by delivering a beautiful cake from Lucca’s best bakery, inscribed with “Thanks Boss and your team” in Italian to his questura office. But after starting the process over several times over the six years I undertook this dream, when the forms were denied for one (irrational to me) reason or another, I finally gave up. Is it possible that the Italian Bureaucracy could actually be this, well, uh, Bureaucratic? Though I passed the language test you wrote about, and had five years of this process under my belt, it became too stressful for the years worth of paperwork and feeling like I was not welcomed there, even though I had spent nearly half a million euros in purchasing and restoring a historic villa, employing 70 craftspeople and artisans who welcomed the work, volunteering, and generally being a decent neighbor and friend to my community. I still love Italy and my friends there, but would never recommend to anyone that they try for permanent residency, unless of course they have close ties to somebody in Rome where this whole process is controlled.
    Virginia Hubbell

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BUREAUCRACY

EXPLAINED: How to write a formal email in Italian

Knowing how to write a polite email will make your life in Italy much easier. Here’s a quick guide to the style rules.

EXPLAINED: How to write a formal email in Italian

If you live in Italy there are countless situations in which you’re likely to find yourself having to write a formal email in Italian, such as when applying for a job or arranging a viewing for a flat.

But while you may be a master at crafting formal emails in your own language, you’re likely to struggle to do so in Italian. Even people with an excellent command of Italian, including native speakers, need to learn the style rules associated with formal writing.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What is Italy’s PEC email and how do you get one?

So here’s an essential step-by-step guide to writing a formal email and getting it right every time.

Greetings 

While greetings are fairly uncomplicated in English (‘Dear’ followed by the title and surname of the recipient will usually suffice), there are multiple options in Italian. 

If you’re writing to someone that you’ve never met before, you’ll want to address them with either Egregio (eminent) or Spettabile (esteemed), like so:

    • Egregio / Spettabile Dottor Rossi
    • Egregia Dottoressa Rossi

Conversely, if you’re writing to someone that you’ve seen before but have no relationship with – as in you might have said hello to them but you’ve never had a conversation with them – your best option would be Gentile (courteous) or its superlative Gentilissimo (often abbreviated to Gent.mo).

Finally, the least formal option is Caro (Dear), which you should only use when writing to someone you’re already well-acquainted with (for instance, a colleague or a university tutor). 

READ ALSO: How to use your Italian ID card to access official services online

Remember: these adjectives must match the recipient’s gender (e.g., you should use Gentilissima for a woman and Gentilissimo for a man).

Titles

Italians love their titles, so you should always try your best to get them right in your emails. Failure to do so might result in your recipient pointing out your mistake – which, from personal experience, is not very nice. 

Here’s a list of the most common Italian titles and their abbreviations: 

    • Any man with an undergraduate or postgraduate degree, and male doctors: Dottore (Dott.)
    • Any woman with an undergraduate or postgraduate degree, and female doctors: Dottoressa (Dott.ssa)
    • Male professor/lecturer: Professore (Prof.)
    • Female professor/lecturer: Professoressa (Prof.ssa)
    • Lawyer: Avvocato (Avv.)
    • Architect: Architetto (Arch.)
    • Man with no degrees: Signore (Sig.) – equivalent of Mr
    • Woman with no degrees: Signora (Sig.ra) – equivalent of Ms

Opening sentence 

In the opening sentence, you should always state your name (Mi chiamo plus name and surname) and explain why you’re writing. 

If you’re the one initiating the exchange, you can use: 

    • Le scrivo in merito a [qualcosa] (I am writing about [something])
    • La contatto in riferimento a [qualcosa] (I am contacting you in regards to [something])
    • La disturbo per […] (I am troubling you to […])

Gmail inbox

Italians love their titles, so you should always try your best to get them right in your emails. Photo by Stephen PHILLIPS via Unsplash

If you’re replying to an email instead, you could start with: 

    • In risposta alla sua precedente mail, […] (literally, ‘in response to your email’)

As you might have noted, all of these expressions refer to the recipient via third-person pronouns (le, la). This is known as ‘forma di cortesia’ (polite form) and must be used in all formal exchanges.  

READ ALSO: How to register with the anagrafe in Italy

All pronouns and adjectives referring to the recipient, and all verbs the recipient is the subject of, must be used in the third person, as in the following case:

    • Le sarei molto grato, se mi mandasse il suo numero di cellulare.
    • I’d be really grateful if you could send me your mobile number.

The above rule applies to all parts of the email, from the opening statement to the sign-off.

Man typing on laptop

The third-person ‘polite form’ is an essential part of Italian formal emails. Photo by Burst via Unsplash

It’s also worth mentioning that the original forma di cortesia requires the writer to capitalise the first letter of all pronouns and adjectives referred to the recipient.

    • La ringrazio per il Suo interesse e Le auguro una buona giornata.
    • Thanks for your interest. I wish you a good day.

That said, modern Italian is gradually moving away from this practice, with capitalisation surviving in very few isolated contexts. Notably, it is advisable that you capitalise the above-mentioned forms when exchanging messages with lawyers, government officials, law enforcement authorities or high-profile public figures.

Body

Write your message in Italian much as you would a formal email in your own language. Be pithy but clear and exhaustive. Just don’t forget about the forma di cortesia.

Signing off

Once again, there are multiple ways to sign off but these are generally the safest options as they fit nicely into any type of message, regardless of its content or recipient:

    • La ringrazio per la sua gentile attenzione / il tempo dedicatomi (Thanks for your kind attention / your time)
    • Resto in attesa di un suo cortese riscontro (Kindly looking forward to your reply)

You can follow either one of the above expressions with Cordiali saluti (Kind regards) or Cordialmente (Sincerely). 

Finally, as you would in other languages, end with your full name and any contact details that you might want to share with the recipient.

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