I often receive enquiries about how to obtain Italian citizenship by descent: my great-grandfather was Italian by birth, and then moved abroad over 100 years ago. Can I claim Italian citizenship and obtain an Italian passport? The acquisition of citizenship through ancestry, or by the law of the bloodline (jure sanguinis), is claimed out of romantic nostalgia, as a way to stay in Italy permanently, to work anywhere in the European Union or to hand down this opportunity to our children.
The national law no. 91 of February 5, 1992 regulates the different ways of obtaining or relinquishing Italian citizenship. Article 1 states that Italian citizenship is granted based on jure sanguinis, meaning that you are automatically an Italian citizen if your father or mother are Italian, no matter where you were born. The principle of acquiring citizenship by descent goes as follows: if you can prove that none of your ancestors ever formally waived their Italian citizenship (to acquire the citizenship of another country) you are theoretically able to claim your Italian blood as well. To do so, any foreigner attempting to claim citizenship based on an Italian ancestor must go back in their ancestry to the family member who was born in Italy and find out when he or she left Italy. The following steps require the applicant for jure sanguinis citizenship to locate the birth, marriage and death certificates of each child of that ancestor up to the birth certificate of the applicant.
Then comes one of the most difficult parts of the application: proving that when your ancestor’s children were born they did not waive their Italian citizenship to obtain citizenship in the country to which they moved. If Italian citizenship was waived before the child was born, the child does not carry Italian blood and citizenship cannot be claimed. If the citizenship was waived after the child was born, the Italian bloodline was not interrupted. Each nation has different offices where Italian migrants were registered on arrival in the new country. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau is a useful resource to determine whether the ancestor was still listed as a foreigner when his or her child was born in the United States. This enables us to figure out whether the child was born from an Italian parent (and therefore the Italian bloodline was continued) or his or her parent was already naturalized. This must be proven for every generation between the original ancestor who moved from Italy and the applicant. Every foreign document must be an authentic original and needs to be legalized by the Apostille procedure or at the Italian Consulate. The documents have to be translated into Italian by an official translator. If the Italian ancestor was a woman, the matter is more complex as, prior to 1948, women lost their citizenship upon marriage to a foreign person. In this case, a special procedure must be used, which may involve a trial in Italy and requires the help of a lawyer.
Although jure sanguinis is one of the citizenship applications that I manage most often for foreign clients, it is not the only way (and it’s definitely not the easiest way) to obtain an Italian passport. A foreign citizen may claim Italian citizenship based on marriage between a man and a woman (Article 5) to an Italian citizen after two years of residing in Italy (one year, if the couple has children) and after three years if residing abroad (18 months, if there are children). A de facto relationship, which is a cohabitation agreement in legal terms, does not grant the right to a permit to stay for family reasons or the right to claim Italian citizenship. If a foreign citizen enters into a same-sex civil union with an Italian citizen, which carries the legal weight of a traditional marriage, the foreigner may claim Italian citizenship based on marriage.
Citizenship can be granted to foreigners who have legally resided in Italy for at least ten years or to the citizen of an EU state if he or she has been legally residing in Italy for at least four years. Stateless persons or refugees can claim citizenship after residing legally in Italy for at least five years. Much less known, is the shortcut offered by Article 9a), whereby a foreigner whose father, mother or grandparent were Italian citizens by birth and the applicant has legally resided in Italy for at least three years. If your grandparents were Italian (even if they waived or lost their Italian citizenship) and you are currently residing in Italy, you can submit the application after three years of legal and official residency in Italy.
In case of adoption, a minor adopted by Italian parents acquires citizenship instantly, whereas an adult foreigner adopted by an Italian citizen must be a legal resident in Italy for at least five years after their adoption to acquire citizenship. Lastly, a foreigner who is employed by the Italian state and has worked abroad for at least five years may claim citizenship based on residency.
Many people think that the red tape is over once they finally obtain their permit to stay from the immigration office and that they will have access to all the services rendered to the locals. It’s not true. In order to renew your permit to stay (or request a family doctor, open a bank account, enroll the children in a school or request citizenship based on residence, just to give a few examples) you must register at the local civil records registry (Ufficio Anagrafe) as soon as the permit to stay is granted. Only after obtaining registration as a resident and with continuous possession of a valid permit to stay can you start counting the years and months needed to wait before applying for your Italian citizenship.
In certain circumstances, the public administration (Prefettura) that examines your request can ask you to prove not only that you were formally resided in Italy but also that your residence was continuous and uninterrupted. Leaving the country for holidays or for other personal or professional reasons is admissible of course, but it is important to show (if requested to do so) that Italy has been your base and that your presence in Italy has been continuous. In order to comply with this burden of proof, the applicant can show proof of having paid taxes or utility bills, enrollment of children in schools or a valid work contract.
Other documents you’ll need include updated police record certificates where you have lived, which have been legalized and accompanied by a certified Italian translation. If you are applying using the marriage route, you will need your marriage certificate issued by the relevant municipality in Italy. If you got married abroad, you will need to obtain an original copy of the marriage certificate, get it legalized and translated. If you are applying using the residency route, don’t forget to collect your income statements (CUD, Unico, tax return) from the last three years (proving a minimum income of 8,500 euro each year). In addition, remember to renew your permit to stay, or if you are a citizen of another EU country, register your stay at the Ufficio Anagrafe.
This information is intended as general advice only. Professional support should always be retained in these matters, especially if the prospective buyer is not fluent in Italian and has no experience of doing business in Italy.