So You Want to Visit Italy (Or Better Yet, Move There). Here’s How

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Image by Dagny Walter from Pixabay

Visiting Italy

In recent days, the EU has authorized the equivalency of the “Covid Certificate” from the U.S. to the Green Pass issued by countries within the EU. Despite this decision occurring late in the usual travel season, there will undoubtedly be a significant uptick of travel in the fall. September and October are still relatively warm and pleasant months to enjoy Italy. 

The most significant aspect of this change is that it allows travelers with such a certificate to avoid the previous requirement to quarantine for five days – a length of time that would seriously spoil enjoyment of a vacation. More details about testing and other matters will soon emerge, but those are not as inconvenient as sequestering in a hotel room.  However, just as with the Green Pass, use of masks inside restaurants, theaters, and other public places will be required and enforced. Businesses can receive hefty fines if they allow mask-less patrons inside and so they strictly enforce the rule. There is no tolerance for the anti-mask point of view common in America. No mask – No admittance.

In a sense, this creates two classes of people: Those who travel with restrictions and those who can travel with fewer. Surely, there will be heated words exchanged at various check points, wherever they may be. Americans are not used to having their freedom of movement curtailed. On the other hand, U.K. citizens experienced a dramatic change overnight on December 31, of 2020 when the final stage of Brexit occurred and their freedom of movement within the EU ended. Already, many Brits are bristling at their new restrictions – to no avail. 

Regardless of the decision by the EU, travelers are cautioned to check with airlines as they have their own standards and procedures. There will still be hurdles to cross, just not as many.

On a personal note, it will be nice to receive family members and friends as guests after the 18-month social incarceration, so to speak. However, difficult it was for residents and businesses, it was a necessary set of measures to staunch the multiple waves of the pandemic. Two people we knew here died from COVID; another has permanent damage to her lungs.

Moving to Italy

Many people in the Puget Sound area have had a long-standing interest in, if not an affection for, Italian culture. They dream of one day having a house in Italy for holidays. Or, like us, they plan to move altogether. However, there seems to be considerable confusion about the options available.

First, let’s clear up a couple of common misconceptions. Anyone can buy property in Italy; one does not need to be a citizen or even a legal resident. However, without a specific visa, one is limited to staying a maximum of 90 days in a 180 period. After that time, its necessary to the leave the Schengen Zone (essentially, most of Europe) altogether for at least 90 days. Therefore, it not possible to take a year “sabbatical” and live in Italy. Three months is it. Which works for a summer-long stay, certainly.  But year long stays? Not possible.

From Canadian friends, some Americans have heard of the “Working Holiday Visa,” that allows a visitor to stay in Italy for 6 months, possibly with an extension, and engage in some type of work. That visa is available only to people from a handful of countries having special bilateral agreements with Italy. The U.S.A. is not one of them. So, as Brits would say, that’s right out.

What about working in a vineyard – that romantic idea of assisting in the fields of some amazing little- known winery, helping with the annual crop and enjoying the wines being produced.  Also not possible. Italy does issue visas for seasonal agricultural wok but only to a very short list of countries. The U.S. is not on that list.

There are a growing number of “digital nomads” who can work anywhere where there is high speed internet. While some countries offer a special visa to those types of workers, Italy does not. Indeed, any type of work, even remote work, within the country by people from outside the EU requires a Work Visa. Ah, now we are getting closer to the actual options – limited as they may be.

Trying to work in Italy in any form without a proper work visa, runs a high risk of being caught. The penalties are not light: A heavy fine, deportation, and being barred from entering the country for years. Moral: Don’t try it.

So. How does one legally live in Italy? For Americans who are neither eligible for Italian citizenship by bloodline nor married to an Italian citizen the options are essentially three. These are all issued by the Italian consulate serving your home country address. For people in Seattle, this is the one in San Francisco. They have a website that lays out the options in detail. This is a Cliff’s Note’s style summary: 

Student Visa: 

One must be first accepted into a program in Italy and show the letter of acceptance. Arrangements for living quarters must be demonstrated. A Student Visa is good for the length of the program. There is no age criterion, so in theory one could be 50 and a student. Note that some people have used this in the past as a ruse for extended tourism by signing up for a language course and then not attending classes. While we were waiting for our appointment, we saw one applicant rejected because she did not have a full academic curriculum attached to her application.

Work Visa:

There are various types of work visas, all controlled by a quota issued each year by the immigration agency. According to ISTAT, the national agency that keeps data, Italy now issues only about 2500 Work Visas annually for all categories.  This is a massive reduction from just a decade ago. One reason for this is the persistently high unemployment rate, especially for younger people. Most of these visas go to professionals in specialized fields of medicine, technology, and academia for which there is a shortage and who have been invited by Italy-based organizations.  Its easy to do the math to see how low the chances are of working in Italy.

Elective Residency Visa:

This visa is mainly, but not exclusively, used by retirees. That is because it does not permit work in any form. Moreover, the consulate requires a minimum “passive income” in the amount of at least 30,000 annually from one of three sources: pension, Social Security, or an annuity. Savings and investments are not counted. This visa is also intended for people who intend to permanently relocate to Italy. 

I know, something seems to be missing. What about people between the typical student age period of 20’s and the typical retirement age of 60’s. To put it bluntly, there is really no path. A joke often told here is that it would be easier for someone to come over for 90 days and find an Italian to marry, than to get a visa, Most people simply have to wait to fulfill their dream. Indeed, most middle-age Americans we have seen here are either associated with the military or are simply on vacation.

The descriptions above are pretty abbreviated. For each, the consulate requires a multitude of documents, including income reports, tax returns, bank statements, and an FBI background check (which the applicant has to separately arrange for) and others. Its an arduous process that takes a number of months. It’s also good preparation for what is in store for the newcomers they arrive here. The Italian bureaucracy makes the visa process seem like a picnic.

However, we can attest that – despite the confusion, frustration, angst, miscommunication, and misunderstandings along the way — it is all worth it.

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Mark Hinshaw is a retired architect and city planner who lived in Seattle for more than 40 years. For 12 years he had a regular column on architecture for The Seattle Times and later was a frequent contributor to Crosscut. He now lives in a small hill town in Italy.

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