Navigating the Bureaucracy: How Can I Work Legally in Italy?

Living in Italy is very different from being a tourist in Italy, in large part because of Italian bureaucracy. I have worked legally in Italy in a couple different jobs: first as a tour guide, and then as an expat. This post is about how I navigated the bureaucracy in order to work legally in Italy when I was a corporate expat. I was a US employee, sent to Italy in the role of Southern European Operations Manager. I had a US salary and all sorts of awesome benefits like a phone allowance, a car allowance, tax preparation services, and flights home. But even though I arrived in Italy with a job, I didn’t actually have the permission to work legally in Italy. This article is about the hoops I had to jump through in order to get to that point — which I did, eventually.

Anyone who wants to work legally in Italy needs to start with three things: an Italian work visa, a codice fiscale (fiscal code), and a permesso di soggiorno (literally translated as permission to sojourn). My story about getting these items is written as I experienced it, so any errors or omissions regarding the process are my own. I should also add: this was the first time I was going through this process but the 4th time I had moved to Italy, and I already spoke fluent Italian. I cannot fathom navigating this process without being able to speak Italian.

Senso unico small

My new job in Italy started at the beginning of April, 2000, and the relocation process had been set in motion the previous November: KPMG in Sweden (because I was moving from Stockholm) had talked to KPMG in Italy about my work visa, my permesso di soggiorno, and my codice fiscale. Since my relocation from the US to Sweden just 18 months earlier had gone so smoothly, I assumed that this relocation would work in pretty much the same way. Little did I know, not much had been done beyond the phone call.

On my first day of work in Italy, I went to my new office with nothing other than the permission to apply for my permesso di soggiorno. Until I got things sorted out, I was officially on a business trip. Even though I had the support of a big organization behind me, nobody but me could execute the actual application process.

I was overwhelmed, but I started with baby steps: figure out step 1 of getting my codice fiscale, step 1 of getting my work visa, and step 1 of getting my permesso di soggiorno. Each process seemed to involve forms, copies of umpteen documents, and visits to government offices. I started making lists, making phone calls, and putting together paperwork. (See my tips on dealing with Italian bureaucracy, below).

 

Success with my Codice Fiscale

The thing I got first — with no work visa and no permesso di soggiorno — was my fiscal code or codice fiscale. It was a simple form. I did a small victory dance and got my hopes up that the process wouldn’t be as painful as it seemed. It was nice while it lasted.

 

Getting my Italian work visa

I diligently gathered all the paperwork I needed for my Italian work visa, making trips to various government offices in the middle of my work day as needed. I was lucky that I had an HR department in the US to send me everything that was required: letters from my American boss, letters from my Italian boss, letters from my previous Swedish boss, letters from the Corporate HR department guaranteeing that I was employed and would be paid, and various forms that needed to be filled in. I submitted everything within about a week, and waited.

Three weeks later, I still did not have a straight answer on the status of my work visa, except that it was “in process”. (In hindsight, it’s amusing that I thought three weeks was a long time to wait). Finally, after several conversations with the consulate in Vancouver, we discovered that while I had submitted the correct paperwork, I had to apply for an Italian work visa from outside Italy. The next step was to go to Canada and apply from there, and then return to Italy with a valid work visa.

A month later, I made a trip to Vancouver, and returned with my Italian work visa in hand. Hooray!

But I was still not allowed to work legally in Italy.

work legally in Italy, permesso di soggiorno

 

Getting my permesso di soggiorno

When I returned to Italy from Canada, I was triumphant. I was still living in a hotel (finding an apartment was another time-consuming thing that I had to deal with personally – during work hours – and I simply hadn’t had the time to tackle it) but I had a codice fiscale and a work visa! I just needed to get my permesso di soggiorno by going to the Questura (local police office) in my neighborhood within 8 days of my return. I gathered together the required documentation, checked the Questura opening hours, told my boss I’d be gone for the rest of the day (he completely understood), and I was off.

Arriving at said Questura with a stack of documentation, I was told that the next available appointment was in 20 days. After kicking up a fuss, I was allowed to take a number and wait with the other foreigners. Two hours later my number was called, and I discovered that I didn’t have the correct documentation after all. My photos were the wrong size, and I was missing a payment and one more letter from my company. I left, went to complete the remaining items, rearranged my schedule again the next day, and went back to the Questura to wait two more hours in line.

When I handed in my permesso di soggiorno application package – finally complete, I thought – the government official said that processing time would be four months. Unless, of course, I had to leave the country before that. In which case it would take only five days. I couldn’t wait four months. As someone with a Canadian passport, I was not allowed to stay in Italy, even “on a business trip”, more than 90 days.

Well of course I needed to leave the country in the next four months, I said. This was where I took advantage of working at a large company and having a travel department: I went back to the office and my boss’ assistant bought a refundable plane ticket to France for me and printed it out. The next day back at the Questura, after another 2 hours in line, I happily submitted the complete and correct documentation with the airline ticket as proof that I needed to leave the country soon. Back in the office, my boss’ assistant canceled the plane ticket and got a refund.

Italy vs europe bureaucracy

Five days later, my permesso di soggiorno papers were ready. But I couldn’t get them.

I’m trying to write this story to convey the details of the process I went through, and hopefully I’m describing it clearly. But what may not be as clear is how incredibly stressful all of this was. My then-boyfriend (now husband) was still living in Sweden, I’d been living out of a suitcase in a hotel for more than a month, and I was adjusting to a new city, a new job, and new coworkers. In my state of stress, I had lost the claim slip for my permesso di soggiorno. I looked high and low and I could not find it anywhere, but I knew the permesso di soggiorno would have my name and photo on it, so I figured that maybe I could pick it up with just my ID.

I checked the opening hours, told my boss where I was going, and headed back to the Questura in hopes of being able to pick up my documents. But the plan to use just my ID didn’t work. I needed the claim slip, and the woman behind the counter refused to release the papers to me. I would have to fill out a form (of course!) declaring that I had lost my claim slip. I filled out the form and took it upstairs to submit it in a different office, where there was another line and more forms to fill out, submit, and get stamped. Then I went back downstairs with my new forms declaring that I had lost my permesso di soggiorno claim stub, waited in line again, and: success!

At last, I had a valid permesso di soggiorno in hand! (see image above).

But, the woman added, wasn’t I living in a hotel? When I found an apartment and my address changed, I’d have to come back and get a new permesso di soggiorno at the Questura closest to my new address.

As they say in Italy, pazienza. Patience.

I could finally work legally in Italy.

Next: I needed a bank account, an ID card, and la residenza.

 

Tips for dealing with Italian bureaucracy

  1. Expect that you will have to follow a process that may not make any sense. Just follow it. Don’t try to bribe anyone, that is from the movies and doesn’t work. However, if you have any connections at all, no matter how tenuous, to someone who knows someone who knows someone who is involved in something related to the process, it definitely doesn’t hurt to ask whether they can help you.
  2. Expect that you will need to fill out lots of forms, and that you will need to make copies of these forms. Don’t expect the place where you pick up or hand in the form to have a copy machine available for you to use.
  3. Expect to have to personally physically visit various government offices with extremely limited and inconvenient opening times. For example, the office where you need to pick up a form may be open from 10 to noon and then 2 – 4 pm, and closed on Tuesdays, or maybe just closed every second Tuesday.
  4. Don’t expect any help from the clerk behind the desk if you don’t understand something, don’t speak Italian, or can’t meet a deadline or get the right paperwork. They don’t really care.
  5. However, do expect that your Italian friends and colleagues will completely understand what you are up against in dealing with the Italian bureaucracy. Remember, this is where they live and what they have been dealing with their entire lives. Don’t stress if you have to miss work to get this stuff done. Your Italian friends can commiserate, even though they can’t help you.

 

Senso Unico photo by Sanjay, Diagram of Italian bureaucracy from the absolutely hilarious video Italy vs. Europe


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