The Permesso di Soggiorno: The quest in Italy for an immigrant’s holy grail
Did you remember that popular optical illusion drawing of dozens of staircases that appear to go up and down but, at closer look, they really don’t go anywhere? Regardless of how many steps you take, no matter what direction you’re going, they keep leading back to the same place. In actuality, that drawing really isn’t an optical illusion.
It’s the blueprint of your average Italian government office.
They should sell that same drawing at the airport when you move here. Except there would be signs scattered about the drawing reading, “Immigration office,” “Postal Service,” “Internet.” That way people would be warned when they arrive what kind of a bureaucratic maze this place is. You want to feel like a confused mouse trying to find the piece of cheese in the middle of a scientific experiment? Come live in Italy for a while.
I am approaching a year in Rome and I have an announcement to make. Not many immigrants can write this but I’m about to do it.
I beat the system. I did it. I accomplished the seemingly impossible. I became a legal resident of Italy with nary a glitch, stumbling block, delay or argument. I did the Italian bureaucratic equivalent of slaying a dozen lions in the Colosseum and defeating the Lazio soccer team in Stadio Olimpico. I feel like I should don my old gladiator tunic and start cutting gorgonzola cheese with my ax.
I am Bwana.
The source of my joy is a little 2 x 4-inch plastic card. It sits next to my laptop like a Bernini sculpture. It’s a Permesso di Soggiorno. That’s Italian for resident’s permit. It allows me to stay in Italy, legally, for another year. I no longer have to worry about a government paddy wagon hauling me into the back with a bunch of squatting West Africans and Albanians and deported in the hull of a slow freighter.
I picked it up Tuesday morning, ending a process that took only two months. Keep in mind Italy is as famous for its non-functioning bureaucracy as it is for its pasta. The amount of red tape in this country could wrap around the Colosseum and make it look like a Christmas present. Getting legal in Italy is torture, and the Permesso di Soggiorno is the government’s version of waterboarding.
I will describe the process in three steps. I am leaving out one other step because, in my case, I didn’t smuggle in a gun from Eastern Europe and shoot up an entire immigration office.
1. Post Office. When entering the dark, murky realm of legal Italian residence, research is a must. I found a terrific source in an American named Rick Zullo. He’s a long-time Rome resident who is kind of the godfather of Rome bloggers. In his Rick’s Rome website (http://rickzullo.com), he wrote a terrific, funny and accurate three-part blog about how to acquire a Permesso di Soggiorno. The link (http://rickzullo.com/il-permesso-di-soggiorno-a-k-a-the-holy-grail/) should be emblazoned above Baggage Claim in every airport in the country.
He starts with a warning that is cleverly disguised as a piece of advice: “Pretend that you are Indiana Jones and you are searching for the Holy Grail while evil forces conspire to foil your plans.”
In keeping with the Indiana Jones theme, Italy’s post office represents that room full of writhing snakes. Bitter, bedraggled, serpent-headed government drones fight with frustrated, angry Italians who attack the officials like baseball managers after a blown call at the plate. Inevitably, while waiting in line with a number in my hand, I will see an Italian turn heel and storm out but not before turning over his shoulder and muttering, “Vaffanculo.” (Go fuck yourself.) Great theater in Rome does not end on stage.
Into this snake pit I began my quest. On Sept. 16, I walked in carrying a sheath of papers just slightly thinner than the Naples phone book:
* Copies of every page of my passport. Yes, even the blank ones.
* The eight-page Permesso form with 112 points (Yes, 112) of reference, including a long list of different types of Permessos available.
* Photo copy of my financial statements.
* Verification of my health coverage.
* Four photos.
* Lots of cash. (This is Italy which, financially, remains a Third World country. It’s where credit cards used for anything government related are greeted with puzzled expressions usually reserved for hieroglyphics on the wall of an Egyptian tomb.)
My postal clerk was more pleasant than most. In other words, she didn’t have an open bottle of grappa and a hangman’s noose on her desk. She took my materials, my 100 euros and explained that, yes, I could work part-time with the type of Permesso I chose. I told her that the Italian consulate in Chicago told me I need a specific work visa for employment. Considering one branch office of the Italian government has no earthly idea what another is doing, I was not surprised when she looked back at me like a child staring at her first asteroid.
Before I pushed my luck, I walked out with a date for my next appointment.
2. Questura. On Oct. 10, I made the long trek to the Questura, another name for a police headquarters. It’s in a scruffy warehouse area on the northern edge of Rome. On the way to the office from the train station I walked by a huge seafood plant. I arrived at the Questura self-conscious that I smelled like herring.
I took a seat in a packed waiting room as we all stared at an electric board waiting for our names to appear. Mohammod. Husan. Adebayo. Oni. Wang. Popescu. I looked around and I was the only North American in the room. Most immigrants come to Italy to save their lives. I came to eat pizza. I have no need to work. To the Italian government, I was as rare as an antidote for cancer.
That’s the impression I got when my name appeared and I walked down a hall into a room full of anxious immigrants staring across desks at bored immigration officials. My clerk leafed through my papers. I like watching officials when they see my financial statements. Their eyes open wide and suddenly the list of questions they usually ask gets shredded. I have saved well. I never have to work again. My clerk didn’t say much. He basically just stamped “APPROVED” on my form and I spent the next 10 minutes kidding him about his loyalty to Lazio, rival to my A.S. Roma. I walked out with an important date.
Nov. 25. That’s the day I’d get my Permesso di Soggiorno.
3. Commissariato. This commissioner’s office is located just up the street from the Colosseum. Potted plants on the building’s balconies made it seem more welcoming, more relaxed than the gray monoliths I visited before. Only the European Union and Italian flags gave it away.
I walked into an empty narrow hallway where a smiling guard ushered me immediately to a second-floor office. Waiting for me was a relaxed, middle-aged man with a blue, long-sleeved T-shirt and narrow glasses. I asked about a picture of an Italian female swimmer on his wall.
“Oh, that’s just a colleague’s daughter,” he said with a smile and wave of his hand.
In Italian I told him I was a sportswriter and covered swimming in the Olympics.
“You were a sports journalist?” he said, turning away from my file. “What a great job.”
That was the extent of the bureaucratic red tape. He handed me my Permesso di Soggiorno in a plastic sheath. He showed me the number to call in case it gets stolen. That was it. I walked away with my prized Permesso after 10 minutes. I was shocked. I still am 24 hours later.
“ITALIAN BUREAUCRACY!” I exclaimed with a big smile, my arms wide open to the clerk. “So what’s the big problem?”
He laughed. He probably doesn’t get that reaction very often. He shook his head and said, “Life isn’t easy in Rome.”
“I know,” I said. “But I don’t work. I’m retired.”
“Ah, then you have a great life!”
“Yes. But Romans are no longer happy.”
“No. It is difficult to work.”
I did find one glitch, however. I noticed my Permesso expires Sept. 15. That’s one year from the day I applied for my Permesso, not one year from the day I received it. I actually handicapped myself by applying too early, fearing it would take months instead of weeks. The Italian bureaucracy’s efficiency actually short-changed me a bit.
No matter. I’m a legal Italian resident. SALUD AL’ITALIA! La dolce vita just got sweeter.
November 28, 2014 @ 7:21 am
Hey John, thanks for the shout-out! You’ve conquered Everest and you should be very proud…many have tried, few have succeeded!
November 28, 2014 @ 8:06 am
I couldn’t have done it without your blog. That truly was a life saver. My Italian friends know nothing about it and my few expat friends have been here so long they don’t remember what they did the first time. Plus, your blog was fun to read. Nothing funnier than making fun of a government.
November 28, 2014 @ 7:57 am
Ciao John – Complimenti del tuo PdiS! Thanks for sharing — this was an amazingly informative and exciting article to read. I’ll be following these same steps sometime in the “hopefully” near future. My only question was your comment about applying too early. Isn’t there a strict “apply within 8 days of arrival” for the PdiS? Just curious what you meant when you said you handicapped yourself by applying too early. I can’t wait to read further articles about your Italiane avventure!
November 28, 2014 @ 8:05 am
Don’t worry about applying after you arrive in Rome. I was told if I apply 16 days before my current year-long visa runs out, I’ll be fine. Once you apply and pay the fees they give you a yellow receipt which serves as proof of residency until you get the official card. I’d heard so many horror stories about how long it took I didn’t wait until January when my current visa expires. I applied in September. Little did I know that the clock starts ticking when you apply, not when you receive the card. That’s why I said I handicapped myself by applying too early.
Thanks for the thumbs up, John. Good luck. Let me know if you need any more help.
November 28, 2014 @ 8:15 am
Eccezionale! I’ll be applying for a Visto Elettiva Residenza thru San Francisco Consulate. One more question: did you have to have any of your documents translated to Italiano or did they accept all of your documents in Inglese? I am planning on using the same documents for my PdiS that I use for my ER Visa application. Again, congrats — reading your article made my day!
November 28, 2014 @ 8:21 am
No, I don’t believe I translated anything into Italian. I would’ve remembered giving it to my Italian tutor and paying her to translate. I didn’t do that. Good luck.
November 28, 2014 @ 8:25 am
Perfetto! Grazie e Buone Feste…
November 28, 2014 @ 8:25 am
A wonderful read, John, but I must say that it left me a bit envious. Our PdiS experience is the stuff on which the (in)famous reputation of the Italian is based. And, twice a year, EVERY year (because my wife and I arrived in Italy a few months apart) go through the process anew. I’ve written about it on my blog at http://www.souloftheheel.com but with little cathartic effect. Auguri on your success.
November 28, 2014 @ 8:44 am
Thanks for the comment, Scott. I just left one on your terrific description of Switzerland. And kudos for settling in Puglia, one of my favorite Italian regions. Where are you there? I wrote a travel story about my week spent in Vieste and Otranto. One reason I loved it was there were very few tourists. Congrats on finding Italy off the beaten path.
November 28, 2014 @ 12:59 pm
John congratulations for your new status here in Italy, I used to live in Italy for about 10 years and I know perfectly how it is, plus do the same thing every two years is terrible. Today I found your blog thanks to Rick Sullo post on Facebook, I read your article and I found it kind of funny but back to the pass you bring me some memories. http://www.cintiasoto.com
November 28, 2014 @ 11:53 pm
Thanks for the comments. Yes, Rick’s instructions were a great deal of help. I joined your blog, too. I’m a travel writer but I really need help as a travel photographer. I can NOT take pictures of people. I’ve paralyzed entire villages just pulling out my camera. Your job is a lot harder than mine is. So what did you do in Italy for 10 years and why did you leave? I hope to stay here for ever. Then again, as the Romans tell me, you’re still on your honeymoon with Rome.
November 28, 2014 @ 2:16 pm
congrats and welcome to the club! You’d think permesso’s were made of gold for all the trouble you’d have to go through 😉
November 28, 2014 @ 11:56 pm
Thanks for the comments. If you ask the North Africans selling knock-off Gucci bags near the Vatican, Permessos are made of gold.
November 29, 2014 @ 8:22 pm
John – I usually stay in Italy only 90 days or less so that I won’t have to deal with all the bureaucracy you described. As a legal resident aren’t you required to file an annual tax return? It’s my understanding that if I apply for a permesso I would be required to pay Italian taxes on the financial assets used to prove that I am financially independent. That would be in addition to my US taxes. Essentially double taxation. What has been your experience? Grazie mille!
November 30, 2014 @ 12:08 am
Italian taxes are based on how much money you make working in Italy. I don’t work. I just spend. I don’t pay taxes here — unless I was horribly misled.
Clear Horizons International
November 30, 2014 @ 5:40 pm
John – You may want to contact a tax adviser in Italy. You are probably correct that you don’t owe any Italian taxes, but you may be required to file some annual paperwork to prove that your worldwide income is not taxable in Italy.
If you live in Italy for more than 183 days in a year; you don’t live in what would be considered tourist housing (hotel, B&B, etc.); your life is centered in Italy; and you are in the Population Registry, then you must pay tax to Italy based on your worldwide income.
If one does not live in Italy for more than 183 days in a year, then tax is paid only on the income earned in Italy.
Italy’s double taxation agreement with the U.S. ensures that you will not be taxed twice on your income. Typically you receive a credit to your US tax bill for any foreign taxes paid.
Another interesting twist is that most countries only tax their residents, while the US taxes both residents and its citizens, regardless of residence.