Sinking your feet into Italian soil

Steps to take when being a tourist is not enough

Robert Nordvall
September 8, 2006

Many tourists, seduced by the beauty and lifestyle of Italy, fantasize about living here either temporarily or permanently. How does one do it?

First, a dark secret: Although Italy is concerned about illegal immigration from some countries, if you arrive as a tourist from a nation that is not seen as an immigration problem, you most likely can just stay.  As long as you remain under the radar of the Italian bureaucracy, it’s very unlikely that an official will come knocking at your door. Your stay, nevertheless, becomes illegal under Italian law after the time allowed for tourism expires (usually 90 days), and it is impossible to guarantee that you won’t be ‘discovered’ by the authorities.  Of course, you cannot enjoy the privileges of a legal resident, such as obtaining a driver’s license or registering a car, but clever folks often find ways around these limitations.

Still, for the sake of convenience—if not for that of legality—most people living here eventually search out more permanent status. The first step in that process is obtaining a visa to stay in Italy that must be issued in your home nation by an Italian Consulate or Embassy. There are several different types of visas: for work, for study, or simply to reside here, and so on. The time and documentation required to obtain these documents differ by type.  Unfortunately, you cannot simply apply for a visa on a short visit home and then pick it up on your next visit.  You are required to stay in your home nation long enough to complete the entire process.  (I’ve been told that a smart and expensive Italian lawyer may be able to simplify this process, but I can’t verify this claim.)  In many countries Italian Embassies and Con-sulates have websites listing specific visa requirements.

After arriving with your visa, you must apply for a permesso di soggiorno at the local Questura. This is the ominous Italian building that often has a large crowd of foreigners in front of it, waiting in line to apply for or pick up their permesso.  There are specific days and times during the week when this office processes permessi.  It is wise first to check the schedule and to ask exactly which documents are needed in your particular city – even if it is a national form the document list may not be the same at all offices.  Be prepared to arrive early and return more than once to get your form filed.  The permesso is not permanent and must be periodically renewed.

The next step you may take is to get your residenza obtained from the Comune. Upon application, expect police to come to your house to verify your residence there. Once you’ve achieved residenza you can also apply for a carta di identitá – a useful document that can replace your passport as a form of identification (but not for travel outside the country). Another minor advantage of the carta is that if you are not an EU citizen, you ordinarily do not qualify for discounts at museums and churches, but the clerks at these places often don’t check the nationality on a carta di Identitá and give the discount to anyone presenting one. Also, if you are not otherwise registered at your local ASL office, you can join the Italian national health system for the payment of a reasonable yearly fee.

Most residents stop at this point. Going from resident to citizen status is far more complicated. Many people qualify for citizenship on the basis of their Italian ancestry. The complete list of requirements can be found on A foreign citizen married to an Italian can apply for Italian citizenship six months after the marriage if living in Italy. Other non-EU foreign citizens can apply after 10 years of residence (the Prodi government plans to introduce a law in Parliament to lower this to five years). Citizens of European Un-ion nations can apply after only four years. Foreigners serving the Italian State have the right to apply after five years.  The application for citizenship is made to the mayor of the Comune where you live and goes to the Minister of the Interior. The list of documents you need for is available at the Prefettura.

This certainly is not an exhaustive statement of citizenship rules; anyone considering this option should look at websites with Italian citizenship regulations (many of which are only in Italian) and consider consulting an attorney. Not surprisingly, the citizenship process often requires much patience, but if you don’t have a lot of patience, you don’t want to live in Italy anyway!


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