Q&A: Could you be eligible for Italian citizenship by descent?

Around one in 20 Americans identify themselves as having Italian ancestry. That’s more than 16 million people. If you’re one of them, could you qualify for dual citizenship – and all the benefits of being a citizen of a European Union country?

Q&A: Could you be eligible for Italian citizenship by descent?
Photos: Italian Citizenship Assistance

A large majority of Italian-Americans are eligible, so there’s every chance you could. But even if you're certain you qualify, you’ll have to prove it legally before obtaining an Italian passport – and some of the rules are a little complex.

To help you understand them, The Local presents a Q&A with Marco Permunian, an Italian-born attorney and the founder of Italian Citizenship Assistance (ICA), a network of specialist lawyers with offices in both Italy and the US.

Have Italian ancestors? Get your free preliminary eligibility assessment from Italian Citizenship Assistance

Q: Is there a generational limit on obtaining Italian citizenship by descent?

Marco Permunian: This is a question that's often asked by those interested in the possibility of obtaining Italian citizenship through their family lineage. However, it’s a common misconception that there's a simple generational limit.

To be clear: there are no generational limits as long as at least one of your Italian-born ancestors was still alive and an Italian citizen after the formation and unification of Italy in 1861.

Things become more complicated, however, if your Italian lineage includes a woman who gave birth to the next in your line of descent before January 1, 1948. In this case, you cannot apply for citizenship via an Italian consulate. This is because, prior to the promulgation of the 1948 Italian constitution, Italian-born women and women of Italian descent were unable to transfer their citizenship to their children.  

However, nowadays it’s possible to pursue Italian citizenship in such cases via the court system; a 2009 ruling by the Italian Supreme Court declared retroactively that citizenship could be transferred by a female ancestor to children born before 1948.

Q: Do I need to be able to speak Italian?

MP: No, you don’t have to speak Italian to be eligible for Italian citizenship by descent. This is because, if you’re eligible, you’ve already been an Italian citizen since your birth – and you’re simply going through a process to be recognized as such.

You’re an Italian citizen since birth because citizenship is passed from one generation to the next. For example, it may have been passed from your Italian-born great-grandfather to your grandfather, from your grandfather to your father, and from your father to you. Since your father was an Italian citizen when you were born, you were also born with Italian citizenship.

Marco Permunian. Photos: Italian Citizenship Assistance

The rules are different if you wish to apply for Italian citizenship through marriage. In this case, you do need to have an adequate knowledge of the Italian language under a law passed in December 2018. The required level is B1 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages – usually known as “intermediate”. The level must be certified by an educational institution approved by the Italian Ministry of Education or Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Get your free, no obligations eligibility assessment from Italian Citizenship Assistance

Q: What are the qualification requirements?

MP: There are a few key things to remember in order to prove your right to Italian citizenship by descent. Firstly, you need to show that the initial Italian ancestor in your application remained an Italian citizen when the next person in your line of ancestry (a child of the initial ancestor) was born abroad.

Bear in mind that whenever there’s a woman in your Italian ancestral line, her child must have been born on or after January 1, 1948. While this rule has been successfully challenged in court (as described above), consular officials are still bound by this restriction. 

You should also know that Italy has only allowed dual citizenship since 15 August 1992. That's why your Italian-born ancestor would have lost his or her Italian citizenship if he or she became naturalized in the US prior to that date. Finally, Italian citizenship cannot be passed on through any Italian ancestors who became naturalized in another country before June 14, 1912. 

Q: What documents are required to apply? 

MP: You need a number of documents pertaining to you as the applicant and your family that must be obtained from both Italy and the foreign countries where births, deaths, marriages or divorces occurred. 

The number and type of necessary documents may change case-by-case but generally they include: Italian-issued vital records regarding the ancestor, civil status documents issued by foreign countries and any naturalization papers issued by the foreign country where the Italian ancestor petitioned to become a citizen. 

Photo: Italian Citizenship Assistance

Once you’ve collected the documents, each foreign document must have a Hague apostille attached to it. The apostille is a legal certification provided by the Office of the Secretary of State of the country where the certificate is issued. 

Finally, foreign documents have to be translated into Italian. You must bring all the necessary documents to the Italian consulate on the day of your appointment.

Q: What are the advantages of taking Italian dual citizenship?

MP: Italian dual citizenship can give you many benefits and create incredible opportunities. First of all, it gives you the freedom to work, reside and study in Italy and across all the 27 EU member states without a visa. 

An Italian passport also offers many further benefits. Firstly, it gives you the possibility of travelling visa-free to 97 countries, according to the Global Passport Power Rank 2020. Second, European citizens are often prioritized over people from outside the EU in terms of many professional and educational opportunities.

Third, the process of purchasing property in Italy will be much easier and more cost-effective, both in terms of the requirements and the transactions. Fourth, you’ll have the right to vote in local, national and European elections. Fifth, the Italian healthcare system is one of the best in the world and is free of charge or low-cost for Italian citizens, plus you’ll also have the possibility of further social welfare benefits, such as education, unemployment programs and pensions. 

Think you could be eligible for Italian citizenship by descent? Find out more about Italian Citizenship Assistance and get a free, no obligations eligibility assessment.


For members


Reader question: Will my children get an Italian passport if born in Italy?

Obtaining Italian citizenship is not a simple matter even if you are born here, as there are many obstacles to overcome. This is what you should know about the complex process of naturalisation.

Reader question: Will my children get an Italian passport if born in Italy?

It is natural that people who are settled in Italy would want their children to have Italian citizenship.

Unlike many other countries, however, merely being born in Italy doesn’t mean the person is Italian.

If their parents were born abroad and still hold foreign passports, children will not obtain Italian citizenship at birth. 

This may sound unfair to someone coming from, say, the United States, but Italy doesn’t (in the vast majority of cases) recognise so-called “birthright citizenship” (jus soli) which would automatically grant an Italian passport to anyone born here.

Even kids who have lived here their entire lives and consider themselves to be Italian will have the same nationality as their parents and will continue to be considered foreigners by the Italian state – until and unless they become naturalised.

Some Italian politicians and political parties, particularly from the Democratic Party, are pushing for a relaxation of the rules, however at present they remain in place. 

Who is entitled to an Italian passport at birth?

Children born to Italian-citizen parents, or at least one parent who is Italian, will be automatically considered citizens of Italy by a process known as “acquisition by descent”, or jus sanguinis.

READ ALSO: How British nationals can claim Italian citizenship by descent

This applies as much to children born abroad as it does to those born in Italy.

A foreign child adopted by Italian parent(s) is subject to the same rules.

What happens if both parents are foreign nationals?

There are several scenarios to consider if you would like your child (or future child) to be Italian.

If you don’t have children yet but have a permit that allows you to permanently reside in Italy, you could apply for naturalisation after living in the country for a set number of years.

For most foreigners, ten years is the minimum length of time they will need to have lived in Italy before they become eligible to apply for citizenship through naturalisation. That period is reduced to four years for EU nationals, and five years for refugees.

READ ALSO: What’s the difference between Italian residency and citizenship?

If you become naturalised before the child is born (even if you still retain the citizenship of your former country), then he or she will be automatically Italian at birth.

If the child was born before the parent naturalised, they still automatically become an Italian citizen at the same time as the parent does – provided they are under the age of 18 and living with the naturalised parent.

“It is irrelevant that the birth occurred before or after the submission of the application for citizenship,” Giuditta De Ricco, head citizenship lawyer at the immigration firm Mazzeschi, told The Local.

Those children whose parents become Italian citizens after they turn 18, however, will need to file their own citizenship application.

For children born in Italy to foreign parents, the requirements are strict: they must reside in Italy ‘without interruption’ until the age of 18 and submit a statement of their intent to apply for citizenship within one year of their eighteenth birthday.

However, children who were born in Italy, moved away, and moved back as adults can apply for citizenship after just three continuous years of legal residency in the country – so being born on Italian soil does have some advantages when it comes to acquiring citizenship.

The Italian Air Force aerobatic unit performs on April 25, 2020, Italy's 75th Liberation Day, over the Altare della Patria monument in Rome.

The Italian Air Force aerobatic unit performs on April 25, 2020, Italy’s 75th Liberation Day, over the Altare della Patria monument in Rome. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

What happens if the parents are of different nationalities?

If the child’s parents are of different nationalities that are treated differently by the Italian state (if, for example, one parent is French and the other American), the child will be subject to the least stringent applicable naturalisation requirements. 

This means that if a child has one French and one American parent, they will be subject to French (EU) rules and eligibility periods when applying for naturalisation as an Italian citizen.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Can I have residency in Italy and another country?

A French parent can apply for Italian citizenship on their own behalf after four years of residency in Italy, and “minor children will be automatically Italian, once the parent takes the oath,” confirms De Ricco.

Usually all that’s required is that the parent produces the children’s birth certificates, although in some cases children will also be asked to attend the oath-taking ceremony with their parent.

Bear in mind that it’s important to consider whether the child’s country/ies of origin allow for dual or triple citizenship, and if not, whether you would be willing to renounce your child’s citizenship of another country in order for them to obtain Italian citizenship.

What if I moved to Italy when my children were already born?

If two non-citizens move to Italy when their children were already born, naturalisation is the means through which they may be able to gain citizenship. 

In recent years some Italian parliamentarians have proposed a ius culturae basis for citizenship – that is, acquiring citizenship via cultural assimilation, on the understanding that children quickly adapt to the culture of their country of residence.

A bill put forward by Democratic Party MP Laura Boldrini would allow children under the age of ten who have lived in Italy for at least five years and completed one school year to apply for citizenship, as well as those who arrived in Italy under the age of ten and have lived continuously in Italy up to the age of 18 (and submit their statement of intent before they turn 19). 

This bill has yet to pass in Italy, however, so there are currently no such fast-tracks in place for foreign minors born outside of the country.

What about citizenship for the third generation?

Italy is particularly lenient when it comes to awarding citizenship to foreign citizens with Italian ancestry.

Anyone who can prove they had an Italian ancestor who was alive in 1861, when Italy became a nation, or since then, can become an Italian citizen via jus sanguinis (provided the ancestor in question did not renounce their citizenship).

And this leniency also extends to those who prefer to become citizens through naturalisation – if you had an Italian parent or grandparent, you just need three years of legal residency in the country to acquire citizenship in this way.