Ever had a dream where you’re running and running but can’t seem to arrive anywhere? Your surroundings are as unclear as the reason that you’re running and the more you realize it, the more anxious you become, the more out of breath.
That’s how trying to navigate the Italian visa system feels.
Each and every North American expat living in Italy has a similar story of confusion, frustration, dead ends and wasted time. Some were forced to get creative, others lied, many, like me, simply got married to put an end to the bureaucratic headache.
The biggest difficulty, I think, is that there doesn’t seem to be clear step-by-step instructions about how to obtain a visa for Italy. The rules change. The offices shrug off work to the office next door. Time limits are whatever they happen to be and the mix of paper and computer documentation seems to be invented anew each day.
I’ve written more than one article about obtaining a visa to come and live in Italy, and it’s never gotten any easier to explain.
Editors want a step-by-step itinerary, each clearly explained, each clear cut. And rightfully so! Their job is to help their readers, not confuse them with turn around explanations and dead end links.
The problem is, there is absolutely nothing clear about Italian bureaucracy. There are no steps to take that are consistent, correct or even minimally clear. Each and every story of a visa gained is different from the last. Each similar only in its confusion.
I’ve heard of people who have stayed here for years with an expired visa. Others who were “hired” as their boyfriend’s parents cleaning lady. I know people who were able to transfer their study permit into a work permit. Some proved they had enough money to live here without working (either a retirement visa, if you’re retired, or a residency visa, if you’re simply rich and unemployed.) The vast majority just got married…
I want to scream at the editors: there is no step-by-step! There are no clear dates, time limits or reasons! The Italian visa system is archaic and arbitrary. It is what it is.
The simplest of the Italian visas to obtain is a student visa. Others that exist are family heritage visas, retirement residency visas and of course, a work visa. Each need to be obtained first, before you can then claim your permesso di soggiorno, the permit-of-stay that is essentially your Italian green card. Once you have that, you’re more or less good to go. With a permit of stay you can live and work in Italy with no problems. You can partake in its health care system, drive on its streets (with an Italian driver’s license, of course) and stay in the country as long as you want. There’s just one little problem:
It’s nearly impossible to get an Italian work visa.
They do exist. Those searching can apply for either a subordinate work visa, meaning you already have an employer who will sponsor you, or an insubordinate work visa, meaning you’re on your own.
The problem with the first is that you need an employer to sponsor you. This means that you’ve found someone to hire you, fill out the paperwork and pay. It also means you are the lucky unicorn who has gained an actual contract, which basically doesn’t exist in Italy anymore. (Today’s Italy is scraping together a living with project or time-based contracts.) The problem with the insubordinate work visa is that you’ll have to do all of the above on your own. Plus, there is a quota for each.
In summary: unless you work for a multi-national corporation sponsoring your move abroad, you’re not likely to get an Italian work visa.
Instead, what most people do is apply for one of the other visa options then work to transfer that to a permit of stay (permesso di soggiorno, in Italian). A study visa allows you to stay in the country and work up to 20 hours per week legally for as long as you’re studying. I’ve heard of many universities then offering students the chance to transfer their visa into a work permit-of stay, effectively allowing their students to live and work in Italy. Usually this means that they invite workers of the Questura, or the Italian central police station that manages these things, to the university and do it all internally. It’s by far the best and easiest way to be able to legally work in Italy, besides marriage.
In any case, it’s easier to obtain a work permit of stay after you’re already here legally and have begun to understand Italy and the Italian work situation. Maybe you can find a job and convince a company to hire you – a much easier prospect once you’re already in the country.
When it comes to something as systematic as a visa and permit of stay, you’d think that there would be clear instructions, hard and fast rules, but there aren’t. Things change month-to-month, let alone year-by-year and it’s confusing and complicated. Just pack your patience and consider it an introduction to Italy’s bureaucracy.
Benvenuti in Italia!
Check here for more information on how to get a visa to live in Italy:
Overwhelmed by the struggle? Don’t be too afraid, it is possible to live and work here:
How to Survive Italian Bureaucracy
Teaching English in Italy: An Irreverent Guide
Loving Italy, Imperfections and All