Moon Living Abroad in Italy
Making the Move
© John Moretti, from Living Abroad in Italy.
Used by permission of Avalon Travel. All rights reserved.
"Italy now requires fingerprints for all non-EU citizens—Americans, Senegalese, Norwegians, etc.—when they sign up for a stay permit. Especially after the events of September 11, 2001, authorities have become more serious about stamping out illegals. One of the latest suggestions to hit the streets is an ID card with a magnetic strip that houses all kinds of personal information, from criminal records to residency status."
When planning a move to Italy, the first thing to pack is patience. Navigating the local culture is going to take time. The good news from the bureaucratic front, however, is that recent laws have streamlined at least part of the paperwork. For example, Italian employees no longer need to have what was known as a libretto di lavoro (work card) to be hired. It was deemed redundant as of January 2003, and is now a thing of the past. The bad news is that those same laws, drawn up in part by the immigrant-unfriendly Northern League, have tightened restrictions on foreigners. For example, Italy now requires fingerprints for all non-EU citizens—Americans, Senegalese, Norwegians, etc.—when they sign up for a stay permit. Especially after the events of September 11, 2001, authorities have become more serious about stamping out illegals. One of the latest suggestions to hit the streets is an ID card with a magnetic strip that houses all kinds of personal information, from criminal records to residency status.
Once upon a time, lots of Americans lived in Italy for long periods of time without ever announcing their presence. It’s illegal, but it happens, and in all candor, Italians are much less worried about Americans overstaying their welcome then other nationals from outside the EU. Don’t take this as an open-ended invitation. I have seen at least one American forcibly sent packing after her illegally procured job as a tour leader in Rome marched her past a group of policemen, who were paying unusually close attention to immigration laws that day. The penalties for overstaying your visa have become harsher, and you’d only be doing yourself a disservice by ignoring them in the long run. Once you’ve hacked through the bureaucracy, including multiple trips to the consulate, you will have many more freedoms and benefits than those who preferred to risk it and lived their lives in near-paranoia.
If you think it would be a lot more convenient just to become an Italian citizen, you are in luck if you have an Italian grandfather and you were born after 1947. Otherwise, you can qualify are if you are married to an Italian, have Italian parents, or have lived in Italy legally for more than 10 years.
In the end, remember that mastering Italian bureaucracy is a lifelong pursuit. (Many have even turned it into a career.) You will constantly have questions about the fine print of laws on permits, visas, and residency, and will need to keep abreast of changes. There are a number of resources that can help you. The best one I have found to date is The Informer website, www.informer.it.
Visas and Permits
"If you’re planning a six-month vacation, you should consider the short-stay permit. A three-month permit can be renewed for an additional three months. But beyond six months, you are required to apply for a long-stay permit in Italy, the infamous permesso di soggiorno. Before you can apply for your permesso, you will need to have obtained the appropriate visa from the Italian Embassy or local consulate in the United States. "
All 15 signatory countries of the Schengen agreement, which includes Italy, allow U.S. residents to circulate freely within their borders for a maximum of 90 days at a time. If your vacation fits into that category, all you need are a passport and a plane ticket. But Italy still has its own immigration laws, and even those Americans planning to stay for as little as two weeks are required, in theory, to apply for a stay visa within eight days of their arrival. Few people bother with the formalities. There are literally millions of Americans who come every year for two-week vacations in Italy with no paperwork other than a passport.
If you’re planning a six-month vacation, you should consider the short-stay permit. A three-month permit can be renewed for an additional three months. But beyond six months, you are required to apply for a long-stay permit in Italy, the infamous permesso di soggiorno. Before you can apply for your permesso, you will need to have obtained the appropriate visa from the Italian Embassy or local consulate in the United States. There are weeks, perhaps months, of footwork on that front to be done at home before you leave. Some cases have been known to drag on for more than a year.
There are 12 types of visas in all, ranging from airport transit to sports-related, some easier to obtain than others. Americans looking to live, study, or work in Italy are most likely to apply for one of three types: a residency visa, a student visa, or a work visa. Different documentation is required for each, so check with your local consulate or the Italian Embassy’s website (www.italyemb.org) before you make an appointment. All visas will require a passport valid for at least three months past your application date.
Student visas are relatively easily obtained, provided you have been accepted to an Italian or Italy-based university and can provide proof of financial independence during that stay. Many American-sponsored programs will handle your visa requirements for you.
At last count, there were more than 360 American programs in Italy, and other Italian universities meant for foreigners. The best known among the latter are the Università per Stranieri in Perugia, and the programs in Siena and Urbino.
If your program is more self-styled, you’ll need to do the paperwork yourself. Be sure to bring to the embassy or consulate a letter of acceptance to an Italian university, proof of health insurance, and bank account information (it can be your parents’ account) that shows you have enough money to live on once you’re there.
Residency visas also require proof of independent income. It is, in fact, the operating principle behind this kind of visa, which does not allow you to work in Italy. You must prove that you have enough money to support yourself through the length of your stay, independent of any salaries you may be receiving at the moment. You also need to show either ownership of a home in Italy or a rental agreement. Plus, you will be asked to provide your criminal record, or proof of lack thereof. This can be tricky if you don’t have a record, which, of course, is what the authorities are hoping for in the first place—thus creating a Catch-22 with no immediate solution.
The family visa is for immediate family (spouse and/or children) of someone already working legally in Italy. If that person is an EU resident, the paperwork is quick: All you need is a letter from your spouse and the marriage certificate. You will also need a nulla osta (“no obstacle”) document from the local police headquarters if your spouse is a not an EU resident but legally working there, plus any children’s birth certificates if they are coming, too.
If, on the other hand, your spouse is still in the process of obtaining a work permit, you will need additional paperwork, such as proof of suitable family housing. In general, it is always easier applying for such residency once your family member has the job.
The work visa is the most difficult to obtain. It is divided into three subcategories for the following types of applicants:
- performing arts work: for musicians in a planned concert series, actors in a planned film, etc.
- dependent work: for those employed and paid by an Italian company
- independent work: for freelancers, such as programmers and consultants
There are a limited number of such independent work visas afforded to Americans every year, and experience has shown that they disappear within a few hours after the quota is announced. The major challenge in landing a work visa is that you must have letters from the company saying it intends to hire you, or else bring you on as a consultant. This would be an unusual windfall for someone not already living in Italy.
In order to solve this paradox, many Americans arrange job contacts while on shorter vacations in Italy, and then fly back to the U.S. to straighten out their visas. Keep in mind that you should not overstay your three-month visit or your renewed six-month permit to be successful with this approach. For even more time, some people choose to sign up for a bona fide course in Italy, and then apply for a student visa. Many people manage to parlay the student permit into a work permit once the course is over.
Again, finding an employer who is willing to file the paperwork for an American has become more difficult recently, as there are new quotas set for foreigners allowed to fill Italian jobs. If you manage to qualify, you need to have your employer send the Labor Ministry a letter that says the company intends to hire you. When that has been approved, the Ministry will issue a nulla osta document to police headquarters. The company will also send you a work contract to present to the embassy or consulate, along with proof of Ministry approval, for your visa.
Again, only after you have the visa and are in Italy do you apply for the corresponding permesso di soggiorno. For student visas, you apply for the permesso di soggiorno per studio; the permesso di soggiorno per dimora is for those with a residency visa; and the permesso di soggiorno per lavoro is for those with a work visa.
All of the permits are obtained at the local questura (police headquarters). There, you will be asked to fill out an application, which includes three passport photographs plus a marca di bollo (a sort of administrative tax stamp available at the post office). You will also need some proof of health insurance.
If you are applying for a residency permit or student permit, the bureaucracy ends there. In the case of the work permit, upon presenting your visa, police headquarters will provide you with an interim work permit that is good for 90 days. In the meantime, acquire a codice fiscale (tax ID number), which you can do at the ufficio delle imposte dirette (local tax authority), to be found in the town’s municipal buildings. It is an important card, as you will also need it for all kinds of purchases, such as a cell phone, a car, or a moped, and when opening a bank account. The documents you will need to show for the codice fiscale are limited to a passport and sometimes a stay permit, although many Americans are not asked for the latter, especially in small towns. The card will then be sent to you by mail.
The final step is to present your signed work contract to the local employment office, the Ispettorato Provinciale di Lavoro, for final approval of your application. (Ironically, that office represents the Labor Ministry, which issued the “no obstacle” document in the first place.) Once you have all those documents—the temporary permit, the codice fiscale, and the approval of the labor office—the questura will then award your efforts with the permesso di lavoro, available in two-year or five-year permits, or else the time period specified on your work contract, if any.
If you lose your job before the permit expires, you will need to find another one quickly. Recently passed legislation now gives employees just six months to land another job, or else the permit becomes void, whereas previously they could ride out its duration.
There is a legal alternative to the job hunt if you care for more time, though it’s not entirely convenient. Once your work permit is up, you can apply as an independent worker for the permesso di soggiorno per lavoro indipendente, provided you have all the necessary skills.
Moving with Children
The thought of moving to another country with children can be daunting, but thousands of foreign couples raise their families in Italy and usually have positive things to say about the experience. Public education is very good, recreational opportunities abound, and most of all, family—and children in particular—is the number-one priority for Italians. Kids will never want for attention.
Public schools are often at their best at the first two levels: the scuola materna, for three to five-year-olds, and elementary school, which in Italy runs from first to fifth grade. Elementary school students commonly study Greek and Latin, while recent reforms have made English and computer classes compulsory. In general, parents feel that students start to receive less attention as they progress into scuola media (middle school), liceo (high school), and beyond, culminating in a university system where professors are rarely found in class, much less available for counseling.
Private schools are not necessarily the best place to send a gifted student. Run for the most part by religious orders, they tend to cater to those with short attention spans or disciplinary problems. That said, there are a number of private schools with highly regarded curricula, where a top-flight education costs top dollar.
The third possibility is a private English-language school, which is a very popular option among expatriates and Italian families alike. There are British, American, and international schools in the major cities, some with better reputations than others. (A comprehensive listing of those schools is available in the English yellow pages at www.intoitaly.it.) One occasional lament from parents, however, is that there are so many Italian students in these academies that classes can sometimes move slowly to accommodate non-native speakers.
The most trying period for parents in Italy will usually coincide with their children’s toddler years. There are almost always waiting lists to enroll your child into a public nursery school, and so candidates are assigned priority by a points system. It takes into consideration your financial status, your occupation, and whether there is a grandmother at home to watch over the kids, among other things.
For this reason, private nursery schools are also in high demand, and many middle-class or upper-middle-class families will find that a private nursery school tuition will cost the same as public one; count on about €400 ($520) per month. Naturally, the price increases the longer your child stays though the afternoon, though some mothers and fathers find that the money spent for the post-nap activities is a preferable alternative to babysitters.
Many working couples and single parents rely on foreign au pairs, as a lot of them are native English-speakers themselves. Luckily for those young women, there are international standards for how much they are paid and what they are expected to do at the home. Those that live with the families can expect a monthly stipend of about €450 ($585), their working hours are limited to a half day, and they should not be asked to do any cleaning unless there is a specific agreement about such chores.
A housekeeper, on the other hand, will often charge somewhere around €750 ($975) per month. Because most of the housekeepers are also foreign women, often from the Philippines or Eastern Europe, the authorities keep a close eye on the sector for illegal immigration. Those found hiring illegal help can now face fines of up to €5,000 ($6,500). There are an estimated 100,000 immigrant women working as housekeepers in Italy, and polls show that about three percent of Italian children are raised by an immigrant nanny.
Moving with Pets
There are no visa restrictions on pets, but they will be expected to have a clean bill of health from the vet and have had a rabies shot between one month and 12 months before departure.
Cat owners will find kindred sprits in Rome, a city where felines roam free and have a fan club of so-called gattare looking after their needs. In fact, you might even consider adopting one of the many stray cats, making a furry friend and helping to solve a growing problem at the same time. There are also many stray dogs in Italy, but those lucky enough to have owners enjoy a pampering unlike anywhere else in the world. In the cities, they are paraded around in small jackets and occasionally hats, carted here and there on subways and to those restaurants that accept them, of which there are many. Pet owners in Rome have even founded what they call “Bow Wow Beach,” where canines frolic with their ilk and splash out the dog days of summer in the Mediterranean waves.
It is paradise for those puppies lucky enough to live in the countryside, but bringing a dog to Italy may not be a wise idea for those planning to live in a city. For one thing, police have started handing out long-overdue fines to dog owners who don’t clean up after Pippo on the street. More importantly, many apartment buildings have laws against keeping pets, which could restrict your options drastically in what has lately been a seller’s market in Rome and Milan.
What to Take
So, what should you take to Italy? The best answer: as little as possible. Shipping large and heavy things like furniture will be very expensive. Pound for pound, it can cost about as much as an airline ticket for a human being. For example, shipping a standard UPS Worldwide Express 25-kg (55-lb.) box from Vermont to Milan runs about $200.
Many apartments for rent are fully furnished or at least equipped with the basics, like a bed, dresser, refrigerator, and often a washing machine. Unless you’re planning to buy a house and absolutely must have your zebra-striped sofa, there really is no need to bring it. Between Arezzo’s famous antiques and the contemporary furniture of Milan, there is a heavy temptation here to buy something local. Similarly, bringing clothes to Italy is like taking cheese steaks to Philadelphia. Even if you don’t describe yourself as a fashionista, chances are you will have bought a partial wardrobe after only a few months in Italy. The quality is good and the prices are relatively low.
One thing that is less expensive in the U.S., however, is any sort of sporting goods. That includes just about everything, from fishing poles to running shoes to, believe it or not, bicycles. Bear in mind, though, that renting skis and snowboards costs much less in the Alps (as low as €20/$26 per day for the whole kit) than in the Rockies, and renting them in situ is a lot more convenient than hauling them around in a car or train.
By all means, take along any expensive electronics, such as a laptop computer, as they are also pricey in Italy. You should pack them with your carry-on luggage: If you have them sent separately, you could incur a 20-percent import duty, which is a large figure when you’re talking about computers.
These days, there are scant few things that you cannot find in Italy or order via the Internet. One of them is a decent bagel. (There’s one business idea.) So, the best packing advice I can offer is: When in doubt, leave it out.
The English yellow pages website in Italy (www.insidersabroad.com) has a comprehensive list of shipping companies with English-speaking staff.