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What’s the difference between Italian residency and citizenship?

As a foreigner in Italy you enter a complicated world of bureaucracy, but one question we are asked a lot is the difference in status between residency and citizenship. Here's an overview.

What's the difference between Italian residency and citizenship?
What rights do Italian citizens have that residents don't? Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Broadly the difference is this: citizenship gives you a lot more rights but is consequently harder to secure.

Here’s a look at how the different categories work.

Non-resident visitor

This category covers everything from people having a long weekend in Rome to second home owners.

Depending on where you come from you are allowed to stay in Italy for a certain period (for most non-Europeans this limit is 90 days) without becoming a full-time resident of the country.

READ ALSO: How British second home owners can spend more than 90 days in Italy after Brexit

The upside of this is that there’s no paperwork, but you don’t have any legal status or right to stay in the country – or enter it if the borders close again.

You also won’t have access to healthcare if you need it while you are here so will need to make sure you are covered via health insurance or – for EU citizens – the European Health Insurance Card.

Residency

This means that you are officially allowed to live in Italy. The requirements for being an official resident of the country vary according to the country that you come from and your circumstances.

Citizens of EU countries and those within the Schengen zone benefit from European freedom of movement, which means they are entitled to move to Italy to live and work. This freedom is not completely unlimited – there are conditions around criminal records and minimum income level – but is fairly generous.

EU nationals who plan to stay in Italy permanently must register with their local town hall within three months of moving here. It’s not an immigration procedure but an administrative one: even Italian citizens have to do it if they’ve been living abroad, though it’s easier for them since registering as a foreigner requires jumping through extra hoops.

You will need to show that you are in a position to support yourself without state welfare – whether it’s by having a job, relying on a family member or spouse in Italy, or showing you have enough savings to get by. You’ll also have to demonstrate that you have health coverage, either because you qualify for national health care or you have private insurance.

READ ALSO: Who can register for national healthcare in Italy?

People who are not citizens of an EU or Schengen zone country – known as third country nationals – have even more hoops to jump through before they can become residents.

For most non-Europeans, moving to Italy involves first getting a visa in your current country, then applying for a residency permit, known as a permesso di soggiorno, once you arrive. The visa process can be both complicated and expensive, and varies depending on your reason for coming to Italy. Find out about different types of visa here, and read one American’s first-hand account of the process here.

Since January 1st 2021, UK nationals no longer have the rights of EU citizens and will have to apply for a visa to live in Italy. Find out more here.

Brits who were already resident in Italy before the Brexit cut-off on December 31st 2020 should apply for a residency card to show they qualify to keep their rights to live and work here. You can apply at your local police headquarters, without needing to re-register your residency. Find more information here.

DEALING WITH BREXIT:

Once you have your residency in place, you will have access to the Italian healthcare system and other services, and your right to stay or re-enter Italy from overseas are protected.

You will also be expected to pay tax in Italy, including on income earned abroad.  

Third country residents can stay as long as their permesso di soggiorno is valid. You will have to renew your permesso every two years or less, demonstrating each time that you still meet the conditions set out in your visa – for instance, you’re still enrolled or school or university if you’re on a student visa, or you’re still employed if you have a work visa. 

After five years you may be able to apply for a long-term residency permit without an expiry date, but you’ll need to meet certain conditions like having a minimum income and passing a language test.

READ ALSO: ‘How I got an elective residency visa to retire in Italy’

If you commit certain types of crime you can be removed from the country, while other crimes will mean getting a new visa or permesso becomes more difficult.

EU citizens have the right to vote in municipal and European elections (but not parliamentary ones), while non-Europeans have no voting rights.

Certain types of jobs are reserved for Italian citizens only, while others – especially within public administration – are reserved for EU citizens only. Non-citizens cannot run for parliament, but EU citizens can stand as candidates in local elections.

Citizenship

This is the ultimate guarantee of your rights in Italy and once you have become an Italian citizen you are, on paper at least, exactly the same as Italian people who were born and bred here.

You are entitled to stay here for the rest of your life, even if you commit a serious crime, and you can pass your citizenship on to your children. You can also leave the country for as long as you want and return to live without having to ask permission.

You’ll also be guaranteed free access to the Italian healthcare system for you and your dependents, even if you don’t have a job. 

You are entitled to vote and – in good news for those with political ambitions – you can stand for any type of public office including parliament.

But the flip side of this is that citizenship is not easy to obtain.

READ ALSO: How many foreigners does Italy grant citizenship to?

Italy’s rules are more generous than many other countries’ when it comes to allowing people to claim citizenship via ancestry: you can apply even if you only have one Italian ancestor several generations back.

But you’ll need to provide official certificates of birth, marriage and death for every relative between you and them to prove the line of descent, and your claim is usually wiped out if anyone in the chain renounced Italian citizenship before passing it on to their children. 

If you don’t have Italian ancestors then the most common ways to obtain citizenship are through marriage to a Italian person or through residency. 

In either case you need to fulfil a number of criteria, including having lived in the country for 10 years if you’re a third country national or being married to your Italian spouse for three years (two if you live in Italy and one if you have Italian children), as well as a minimum level of the Italian language.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about taking Italy’s language test for citizenship

It’s not a quick process – the Italian state gives itself up to two to four years to process applications – and involves a lot of paperwork. If original documents are in English you have to have them officially translated, notarised and legalised, for a fee. There are also fees just to submit your application.

Find out more about applying for citizenship here.

If you satisfy all the requirements and once your paperwork is all processed you will finally have to swear allegiance to the Italian Republic in a special ceremony (and make sure you say it right). 

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For members

EUROPEAN UNION

How Europe plans to ease long-term residence rules for non-EU nationals

Non-EU citizens living in the European Union are eligible for a special residence status that allows them to move to another country in the bloc. Getting the permit is not simple but may get easier, explains Claudia Delpero.

How Europe plans to ease long-term residence rules for non-EU nationals

The European Commission proposed this week to simplify residence rules for non-EU nationals who live on a long-term basis in the European Union.

The intention is to ease procedures in three areas: acquiring EU long-term residence status, moving to other EU countries and improving the rights of family members. 

But the new measures will have to be approved by the European Parliament and the EU Council, which is made of national ministers. Will EU governments support them?

What is EU long-term residence?

Non-EU citizens who live in EU countries on a long-term basis are eligible for long-term residence status, nationally and at the EU level. 

This EU status can be acquired if the person has lived ‘legally’ in an EU country for at least five years, has not been away for more than 6 consecutive months and 10 months over the entire period, and can prove to have “stable and regular economic resources” and health insurance. Applicants can also be required to meet “integration conditions”, such as passing a test on the national language or culture knowledge. 

The EU long-term residence permit is valid for at least five years and is automatically renewable. But the status can be lost if the holder leaves the EU for more than one year (the EU Court of Justice recently clarified that being physically in the EU for a few days in a 12-month period is enough to maintain the status).

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: How many non-EU citizens live in European Union countries?

Long-term residence status grants equal treatment to EU nationals in areas such as employment and self-employment or education. In addition, EU long-term residence grants the possibility to move to other EU countries under certain conditions. 

What does the European Commission want to change?

The European Commission has proposed to make it easier to acquire EU long-term residence status and to strengthen the rights associated with it. 

Under new measures, non-EU citizens should be able to cumulate residence periods in different EU countries to reach the 5-year requirement, instead of resetting the clock at each move. 

This, however, will not apply to individuals who used a ‘residence by investment’ scheme to gain rights in the EU, as the Commission wants to “limit the attractiveness” of these routes and not all EU states offer such schemes. 

All periods of legal residence should be fully counted towards the 5 years, including those spent as students, beneficiaries of temporary protection or on temporary grounds. Stays under a short-term visa do not count.

Children who are born or adopted in the EU country having issued the EU long-term residence permit to their parents should acquire EU long-term resident status in that country automatically, without residence requirement, the Commission added.

READ ALSO: Why it may get easier for non-EU citizens to move to another European Union country

EU countries should also avoid imposing a minimum income level for the resources condition but consider the applicant’s individual circumstances, the Commission suggests.

Integration tests should not be too burdensome or expensive, nor should they be requested for long-term residents’ family reunifications. 

The Commission also proposed to extend from 12 to 24 months the possibility to leave the EU without losing status, with facilitated procedures (no integration test) for the re-acquisition of status after longer absences.

A person who has already acquired EU long-term residence status in one EU country should only need three years to acquire the same status in another EU member state. But the second country could decide whether to wait the completion of the five years before granting social benefits. 

The proposal also clarifies that EU long-term residents should have the same right as EU nationals with regard to the acquisition of private housing and the export of pensions, when moving to a third country. 

Why make these changes?

Although EU long-term residence exists since 2006, few people have benefited. “The long-term residents directive is under-used by the member states and does not provide for an effective right to mobility within the EU,” the Commission says. 

Around 3.1 million third-country nationals held long-term residence permits for the EU in 2017, compared to 7.1 million holding a national one. “we would like to make the EU long-term residence permit more attractive,” said European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson.

The problems are the conditions to acquire the status, too difficult to meet, the barriers faced when moving in the EU, the lack of consistency in the rights of long-term residents and their family members and the lack of information about the scheme.

Most EU member states continue to issue “almost exclusively” national permits unless the applicant explicitly asks for the EU one, an evaluation of the directive has shown.

READ ALSO: Pensions in the EU: What you need to know if you’re moving country

This proposal is part of a package to “improve the EU’s overall attractiveness to foreign talent”, address skill shortages and facilitate integration in the EU labour market of people fleeing Ukraine. 

On 1 January 2021, 23.7 million non-EU nationals were residing in the EU, representing 5.3% of the total population. Between 2.25 to 3 million non-EU citizens move to the EU every year. More than 5 million people have left Ukraine for neighbouring states since the beginning of the war in February. 

Will these measures also apply to British citizens?

These measures also apply to British citizens, whether they moved to an EU country before or after Brexit. 

The European Commission has recently clarified that Britons living in the EU under the Withdrawal Agreement can apply for a long-term residence too.

As Britons covered by the Withdrawal Agreement have their residence rights secured only in the country where they lived before Brexit, the British in Europe coalition recommended those who need mobility rights to seek EU long-term residence status. 

These provisions do not apply in Denmark and Ireland, which opted out of the directive.

What happens next?

The Commission proposals will have to be discussed and agreed upon by the European Parliament and Council. This is made of national ministers, who decide by qualified majority. During the process, the proposals can be amended or even scrapped. 

In 2021, the European Parliament voted through a resolution saying that third-country nationals who are long-term residents in the EU should have the right to reside permanently in other EU countries, like EU citizens. The Parliament also called for the reduction of the residency requirement to acquire EU long-term residence from five to three years.

READ ALSO: COMPARE: Which EU countries grant citizenship to the most people?

EU governments will be harder to convince. However, presenting the package, Commission Vice-President for Promoting our European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas, said proposals are likely to be supported because “they fit in a broader framework”, which represents the “construction” of the “EU migration policy”. 

National governments are also likely to agree because large and small employers face skill shortages, “especially in areas that are key to our competitiveness, like agri-food, digital, tourism, healthcare… we need people,” Schinas said.

The article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.

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