So you want to live abroad?
I get it.
You want that kick-ass expat life, filled with every single beautiful film or Instagram image you’ve ever seen of Italy. You’ll have it all – fast paced city life with gorgeous vespas zooming by driven by gorgeous people, and the sweet rolling hills of the countryside. You’ll step out onto your balcony with views of the sea and step down into the clean cobblestone streets to shop Italian designers.
We’ve all been there, in the world of dreams. Unfortunately, that’s not Italy. Or at least, not all of it. You can have your slice of la bella vita, but remember that once you’re here, life goes on. Seasons change, responsibilities come and go and same with tax time. Being an expat – that oh-so international sounding word – doesn’t mean that you can just stop adulting.
You still have to adult, only now you have to do it in another country, in another language and with the furious, ridiculous, nonsense Italian bureaucracy.
Welcome to Italy!
Oh it’s not all so bad. Look at this:
That said, there are some things you can do to help yourself out before showing up at your new doorstep on dirty cobblestone streets, after narrowly avoiding death-by-Vespa and being judged by each and every designer shopkeeper you pass.
Because you could either fill a suitcase to the brim, buy a one-way ticket and fly to Milan with a tourist visa and no plans beyond that…
…you could learn from my mistakes and prepare yourself before your move.
Whether you’re moving to Italy or any other place abroad, there are some general things to learn before you go, and a few more that you’ll need to know as soon as your there.
Get the list as a printable pdf checklist here!
What to Know Before You Get Here:
Call 112! and how to say help in the local language
So you’re in a new place and completely alone. You’d be less alone if you had actually studied a thing or two about how to get help when you need it. Hopefully while traveling you won’t ever need more help than a tourist information booth can give you, but when you move abroad the things you know from a lifetime of lessons and TV and lectures might not be true anymore. When there’s an emergency in Italy screaming “call 911” won’t help you much. People will likely scurry past you with a wide berth. Instead, you’ll have to call 112 if you’re hoping for a bit of professional help. (Luckily for you, this is a pan-European telephone number, and will connect you with a police station from anywhere in Europe.)
On that note, learn how to ask for help if you don’t already know the language. If someone steals your person you can scream aiuto! and potentially get help, instead of screaming help! alone like an idiot. Plus it can really come in handy when you’re looking for something in that strange grocery store, pharmacy or any other new institution you’re now expected to navigate.
Actually, just print out all of these useful Italian telephone numbers and keep in a safe place: Italian Emergency Telephone Numbers
Memorize your new address
This is self explanatory. I know you have plenty of new information in your head, but this is one you can’t skip over.
Update your contacts with country area codes
Take plane time to update all your phone contacts. You’re in Italy now and you’ll have to add the country area code to all your numbers to get the call out. The area code for the United States is +01 or 001 (both work). Italy’s is +39 or 039.
Choose an emergency contact in country
At school you have to fill in emergency contacts. While flying, at work, even in doctor’s offices. So why wouldn’t you have one in your new home? Yes, of course you’ll always consider your sister, mom or bff your emergency contact, but there are now many things that that person won’t really be able to help you with while you’re abroad. Find someone, anyone, who you can write down who’s located in the same town as you.
Study the country’s background
How liberal is the country? How conservative? What about your new town specifically? I’m not saying you need to know every aspect of a country’s politics, but some general background might help. On that note, a general background of the country’s history as well. What wars has it fought in? What international groups is it a part of? What internal conflicts has it got? (In the case of Italy, I’d say bureaucracy and the famous north vs south divide.)
Learn some basic laws
Most study the country’s culture to not commit any cultural faux pas before moving abroad, but take it a step further to inform yourself about basic country laws. You’ll learn more as you go, but already having a base level of information will protect you further.
Here are some that come to mind for Italy: You can drink on the street, but not in glass bottles. Many people do anyway, but you’ll be more likely to be stopped if you’re walking and drinking rather than sitting calm and immediately throwing your bottle away after. Another that isn’t so obvious is the law to have winter tires or chains in your trunk with you at all times. Speaking of cars…
Study basic traffic signs
If you’ve taken the driving test, you’ll have already studied all of the street signs. If not, you’ll need a basic idea to avoid any illegal or uncomfortable situations. Basically, arrows tell you exactly where you can go and in what direction. Right turn on red isn’t legal and speed limits are told in round signs with a red trim. Considering it can feel nearly impossible to find parking in certain areas of Italy it will also help you to know that blue lines are paid parking only, yellow residents only and white lines are free parking!
Bonus: Learn stick shift before you come
Not only is it a super useful skill to know, but will help you immensely while abroad. Most cars are stick shift here anyway.
What to Do Once You Arrive:
Get an Italian SIM card/number
If you’re moving abroad, you’ll want to get a phone and number in the country that you live in or risk paying exorbitant roaming fees non-stop. And ignore international calling plans with a U.S. carrier. Italian plans are 1/16 of the price you typically pay in America. So either bring an unlocked phone over to Italy (ask your current carrier what that means if you don’t know) or buy a phone here and then get an Italian SIM card. you can easily buy a SIM cards at any of the major Italian carriers such as Wind, TIM or Tre, once here in Italy. Prices are typically around 10-15 euro per month, with some carriers offering options to call abroad as well.
Get a driver’s license
You can legally drive in Italy on your U.S. driver’s license for up to a year after your official residency. Though I’ve met more than one expat who still uses an updated U.S. driver’s license to this day, claiming that a police officer has no way of knowing how long you’ve been in the country, I don’t recommend it. A part from the fact that if you move to a new country, you should be prepared to live by that country’s rules, I think it’s also just a dangerous game to play, risking in a huge fine or a mark that doesn’t allow you to drive in that country again.
So what you need to figure out is if your driver’s license automatically transfer to an Italian one (or the country that you’re in) or do you need to pay and retake all the tests? In Italy, driver’s licenses from Uruguay can be converted into an Italian license with a small fee and photo. From America, however, you’ll need to retake the tests first. You can either go directly to the motorizzazione and do it all on your own, but study for the written part first! Or else you’ll have to sign up at a driver’s ed school and do it through them. In that case you’re looking at 600 euro or so of fees.
Tackle the post office
Fact: going to the post office sucks. Another fact: Italian post offices are even worse. Though you do get mail delivered to your house, you can’t get it picked up from your house. Instead, you can either drop already stamped mail into red boxes found randomly throughout the town (actually, they’re almost always outside of the post office or next to a tabaccheria or tobacco shop that sells cigarettes, lottery tickets and sometimes coffee. If you don’t have stamps or need to do something a bit more extensive than send a simple post card, you’ll have to go to the post office. Bring bills and small change, all your letters already addressed and a ton of patience and read How to Survive the Italian Post Office before your next trip.
If you’re officially residing and working in Italy, then you’ll need to pay Italian taxes. If you need to pay Italian taxes, then you’ll need a commercialista, or accountant. It’s too complicated otherwise. If you’re unofficially residing and working in Italy, you’re illegal and technically shouldn’t be doing that, but here’s a post about why so many people, including Italians do it anyway: Working Under the Table and Why Everyone Does It in Italy
Look into health care costs and coverage
If you’re moving abroad, you’re going to need healthcare. After you have a legal permit in Italy and have declared your residency, you’ll need to get a health card from the Azienda Sanitaria Locale, or ASL (google one in your area). Once you have that, you’re more or less good to go. With time and help from other expats you can find a general practitioner as well as your other doctors, and you’ll learn when you need to go private and pay, and when the public healthcare system will serve you just fine. Still, it’s all so much easier if you have a general idea before a big cold or bigger medical emergency arises.
Living abroad is fun and awesome and exciting and new. It’s also difficult. (Like I’ve said time and time again). Preparing yourself for your big move with some basic background knowledge is one of the best things you can do to help ease your already difficult transition. After that all that’s left is full-time exploration of your new home! Enjoy!
Read more about building a life abroad – the good, the bad and the ugly:
How to Survive Italian Bureaucracy
What’s the Deal With Work in Italy?
Teaching English in Italy: An Irreverant Guide
Falling in Love With Italy, Imperfections and All
Round Peg, Square Hole – On Fitting in Abroad