Rome: How I Became a Legal Resident

Ostia Antica ruins, located just outside of Rome. Alexandra Tunney photos.

Getting a Visa to Live in Italy Legally

Lago Bolsena, one of Italy's many beautiful places. John Henderson photos.
Lago Bolsena, one of Italy’s many beautiful places. John Henderson photos.

By John Henderson

Do 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 Rome airport when you move here as I did on Jan. 11. 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 living 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 the Olympic Stadium. I feel like I should don a 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.

It ended a process that only took 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.

Permesso di Soggiorno, the treasured and hard to get card that shows you're legal living in Rome.
Permesso di Soggiorno, the treasured and hard to get card that shows you’re legal living in Rome.

If any of you readers have any interest in moving to Italy, cut and paste this blog for future reference. I will describe the process in three steps. I am leaving out one other common step because, in my case, I didn’t smuggle in a gun and shoot up an entire immigration office.

Learning from Rick

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, he wrote a terrific, funny and accurate three-part blog about how to acquire a Permesso di Soggiorno. The link should be emblazoned above Baggage Claim in every airport in Italy.

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 bad Italian words too descriptive to repeat here. 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, in this were:

* 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.

* Passport.

* 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.

John and some of his fellow expats enjoying drinks in Rome.
John and some of his fellow expats enjoying drinks in Rome.

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, the cross-town soccer 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.

John and his friend Penny in beautiful Rome.
John and his friend Penny in beautiful Rome.

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 two weeks 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.

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