SHARE
COPY LINK
For members

EMPLOYMENT

Not just teaching: The jobs you can do in Italy without speaking Italian

If you hope to find work in Italy but haven't (yet) mastered the language, we spoke to people who've already done just that to find out what the options are - and how difficult it really is.

Not just teaching: The jobs you can do in Italy without speaking Italian
Teaching and, increasingly, working remotely for foreign companies are two popular ways for English speakers to make a living in Italy. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Finding work in Italy can be daunting, especially if you don’t speak Italian. But some people have made the move and managed to secure employment without fully grasping the language.

Those with aspirations of living in Italy are often hit with a reality check when trying to find work in a country well known for its sluggish economy and high unemployment rate.

While Italy consistently features highly on travel destination lists, building a life here is a different story. In fact, foreign residents have ranked Italy one of the worst countries for working abroad and finances yet again in a new survey.

According to the latest figures, Italy’s unemployment rate of 9 percent is above the EU average and one of the highest in the bloc, behind only Spain, Greece and Lithuania.

With these bleak figures, Italy might not seem an attractive place for English speakers to call home – especially as they may also face language barriers on top of a tumultuous job market.

But many people do still manage to make it work, despite the economy and their lack of fluency in Italian.

Some professions are ‘universal’

Italy has been rated the worst in Europe for English language skills. Therefore, learning Italian is certainly helpful to get by in the country and integrate, but it also means a native-level of English is highly valued.

From transferring to Italian offices with an international company to setting up your own business, foreign residents in Italy are finding ways to navigate the difficulties associated with moving to a new country without having a high command of the language.

READ ALSO: Job-hunting in Italy: The Italian words and phrases you need to know 

Jess Morton came to Italy from New Zealand when she was 18 years old. She worked in equestrian tourism, which entails handling and riding horses with tourists.

She came for the horses and the job, in fact, not necessarily because she’d dreamed of moving to Italy.

“This is one job you can go anywhere with, as the language of horses is universal,” she said.

“You can travel wherever you want. It’s a lifestyle career. As long as you know how to ride, as long as you know how to handle horses, there’ll always be a demand,” she added.

There are plenty of opportunities in this line of work, according to Morton. She herself has worked in Rome and is now based in Tuscany. Friends of hers work in Salerno and Sicily without knowing the language.

READ ALSO: 

Ten years since moving here, however, she has built up her Italian language skills after meeting a partner and having a daughter.

“It’s important to learn the language of where you live. You have to start somewhere, though. Not speaking Italian might put people off at the beginning, but you have to figure it out as you go,” said Morton.

Even though she didn’t speak Italian initially and it didn’t hinder her at work, she does admit that, over time, learning the language improves all aspects of life.

“Relationships will only get better as you speak the same language. It changes your whole experience. Also the way you see the country changes, as things make sense that didn’t at first,” she added.

Her profession is one that allowed her to get going in Italy, form a routine and meet people without having studied Italian. But learning it is inevitable eventually, you just have to “be brave enough to start”, she said.

She also found that, if you stay in Italy, you’ll need to build up your language skills to be taken seriously.

The city of Milan is the most popular place for foreigners to look for work in Italy – but it’s far from the only option. Photo: MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

“You need to know technical language in this job for dealing with vets, for instance. So, language becomes important. Also, it’s a male-dominated career, so you’re not only coping with language problems, but also the perception of women,” she said.

“In those moments, you really do need the language to get through what you want and how you want it done. Otherwise, you can get taken advantage of. Speaking Italian shows you know what you’re talking about and that you’re not just here for a holiday gig,” she added.

Choosing Italy for its lifestyle now and learning the language later

In contrast, Andrew Findlater and his wife wanted an adventure and they pondered various destinations across Europe. They chose Italy due to its “quality of life, weather and standard of food” and took the plunge to move in 2018.

Italy ticked a lot of boxes for them and seemed an attractive choice. Although he hadn’t ever studied Italian, Findlater wasn’t put off, as he noted that it shared the Latin root with English and reasoned it would be easier to learn than languages like Hungarian, for example.

He found a job at an international school in Ferrara, Emilia Romagna, transferring his skills as a primary school teacher.

“Not knowing Italian is not a problem in a true international school, as English is the lingua franca,” he said.

READ ALSO: Will Italy really pay you to move to its ‘smart working’ villages?

However, where he works, students are 90 percent Italian. “Students have families going back 300 years in the city. They are rooted to the place of where they’re from. Therefore, to understand the children sometimes and understand where their mistakes are coming from, it would be useful to learn Italian,” he added.

Although Italian skills aren’t a requirement for carrying out his job, learning the language as he goes has helped.

He said his comprehension skills have improved over the past three years, but he still struggles with speaking, which can cause some issues with staff and parent meetings.

When talking to parents, a translator is provided. Developing Italian skills has never become essential then, but a translator doesn’t necessarily make communication easy.

“I understand what’s being said at this point, but I can’t respond in a certain way in Italian that’s respectful and gets your point across. When I listen to what the translator says, I think, ‘that’s not what I wanted to say’. They perhaps missed out positive points,” he said.

“You can lose a lot of the nuance and understanding with parents, which can lead to problems. You can be alienated from a lot of things that are usually essential as a teacher,” he added.

The Brexit effect

Although other team members can – and do – speak English to him, it’s easy for Italian to be reverted to as the default when the majority of staff are Italian. He noted that this is a shift since Brexit, as the school seems to value English native speakers less and has stopped recruiting from Britain.

With that, comes a lower British influence in the staffroom and now he finds himself in “delicate social dynamics” where he can’t join in with the jokes in Italian.

It’s a balance understood by reader Sarah (who asked us not to use her real name). She also moved to Italy from England in 2018. Her husband was offered a job in computing in Milan and she managed to find work as a nanny.

Neither of them speak Italian fluently and they both get by in their roles mainly speaking English.

Your job might not require Italian – but bureaucracy does

The British-born nanny looks after a four-year-old boy and the parents would like him to grow up speaking English, meaning she could move to Italy without needing to learn the language. In fact, the emphasis is on her speaking English above all.

Even though she’s qualified and has over 10 years experience in childcare, she noted that a lot of families she’s met really value having English as your first language, with qualifications being less important.

Although English is her asset, she too notes that over time, learning Italian has become important. “Some situations arise where I wish I had the skills to communicate more effectively,” Molloy said.

“It also stunts my interactions with his parents. They don’t seem to mind that we don’t have in-depth conversations but I would like to be able to chat to them more at hand-offs,” she added.

READ ALSO: ‘Smart working’? Here’s what you need to know about going self-employed in Italy

Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images via AFP

WhatsApp seems to be an essential tool, bridging the linguistic gap, as it allows her to “share photos and stories on important information”.

As for her husband, he works with a multinational team and mainly speaks in English so isn’t finding too many snags in his IT job.

There are times he finds Italian meetings “frustrating”, though, as he can’t pick up the nuances of what’s being said. To overcome that, there is an Italian member of staff on hand to help prevent miscommunication.

Sarah admits she was “naive” about the process and thought she’d have become fluent just by living here – something she now understands is challenging for adults.

Even though she can cope well in her job, she said she found the bureaucracy arduous without speaking Italian.

“After a certain amount of frustration and tears we would have happily paid through the nose to hire somebody to come with us to all our initial appointments for the doctor, bank, registering residency and so on, who could translate and argue for us on our behalf,” she added.

That’s sometimes part of the package if you get a contract in Italy. For Andrew and his wife, they didn’t need to speak any Italian to register and set up.

“We were fortunate, as we had someone assigned from the school who held our hand through it all and took us to the government buildings to sort out our codice fiscale (tax code), rental agreements, open bank accounts, get ID cards and so on,” he said.

“Our landlady’s son spoke very good English and helped us too. Language wasn’t really an issue – it was more the bureaucracy itself that was complicated,” he added.

Living in an English bubble

For others, working in Italy has been a gradual process. Matthew in Turin first came to Italy five years ago and spent time freelancing in both the UK and Italy.

When Brexit loomed on the horizon, he went all in and began to live in Italy full time before the immigration process for Brits got even trickier.

He now works from home remotely, collaborating with clients across the world, including in the UK and Canada.

READ ALSO: How Italy’s ‘forfettario regime’ could slash your freelance tax bill

As his work is solely conducted in English, he can even sometimes forget he needs to speak Italian at all. “Sometimes after work I walk out onto the street and forget where I am”, he said.

As he doesn’t need Italian for his job, he says his language skills are “passable”, but that he can interact on an everyday basis without too much difficulty, adding that “you can’t expect people to be able to speak English to you”.

Even though he doesn’t need to speak Italian to make a living, he said it’s still “absurd” not to learn Italian if you live here. Admitting he gravitated to English speakers at the beginning, he can now join in with Italian conversations, even if he doesn’t get all the subtleties every time.

The process is one echoed by many English speakers moving to Italy: it’s okay to come here with not much grounding in Italian at the beginning, but then the need to learn the language becomes obvious.

Photo: Annika Gordon/Unsplash

‘Going backwards to go forwards’

Stephanie Rubinato from the US has been living in Treviso for three years. After trying the teaching English route, she decided to go solo and set up her own video production company.

She now creates online videos for businesses and mainly deals with clients in the US so she can operate without struggling through Italian at work.

However, she does also deal with an Italian creative agency and has noticed how she wants to up her language skills, specifically to work on her grammar, in order to better express herself with Italian colleagues.

Though not easy, Rubinato believes it is worth it: “It felt like a long road to get here but I’m so passionate about what I do now.”

“Taking the time to really learn how I could bring my skills here in Italy and build a career has been so rewarding,” she said.

Even though most expressed regret at not having learned Italian before arriving, they all agreed being here is the true education, which will eventually help you settle in to the true Italian culture.

“I really found that pushing yourself out of your comfort zone helps you learn a language, as it sticks in your head so much more than a classroom setting.”

“You’ve got to make mistakes and you can’t want to be perfect straight away. It’s like going back to being a child, but you have to go backwards to go forwards,” said Morton.

The unanimous message seems to be, ‘go for it’. Findlater added, “I regret the Britishness of worrying and not grasping the nettle, it’s better to just get involved.”

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

WORKING IN ITALY

Remote workers: What are your visa options when moving to Italy?

Italy does not (yet) have a special 'digital nomad' visa - so what other options are available to freelancers and remote workers? Here's what you need to know if you're planning a move.

Remote workers: What are your visa options when moving to Italy?

Italy has announced that a new visa option for ‘digital nomads’ or remote workers is on the way for non-EU nationals wanting to move to the country.

Though the government is yet to give details of how the application process will work, it’s hoped that the new visa will mean a far easier route to a new life in Italy for the growing number of people who can work from anywhere with just a laptop and an internet connection.

READ ALSO: What do we know so far about Italy’s digital nomad visa?

The idea of swapping a spare bedroom office in colder climes for a new life in Italy is proving especially tempting in combination with the country’s growing number of discount home purchase or rental schemes aimed at repopulating remote, rural villages.

While it is possible for many non-EU nationals to spend up to 90 days in Italy without any visa at all, those wishing to work legally while here must apply for a visa and work permit

And the current visa options available are not always viable for self-employed freelancers and remote workers, immigration law experts say, due to the strict quotas and requirements involved.

Here’s a breakdown of the other visa options available at the moment for those hoping to make the move to Italy.

Self-employment visa

The self-employment visa, or visto per lavoro autonomo, is the permit that most non-EU freelancers would probably expect to apply for when seeking to move to Italy for work.

Successful applications, however, are rare.

So rare, in fact, that Costanza Petreni, a senior immigration consultant at the immigration firm Mazzeschi, says she actively discourages clients from taking this route.

READ ALSO: Working remotely from Italy: What are the rules for foreigners?

“We have so many clients asking for this type of application, because in the absence of a digital nomad visa there’s almost no other option. But what we tell them is it’s extremely hard and uncertain,” Petreni says.

The visas are released in annual quotas, via Italy’s decreto flussi, on a first come, first served basis. For the last few years, including in 2022, only 500 have been made available each year.

Petreni says one of the main issues they face, however, is less a lack of available permits than the absence of clear guidance from consulates as to exactly what documentation they need.

A common obstacle, for example, is that the consulate will require the applicant to be registered with the relevant professional body or guild for their profession – but won’t specify which one they have in mind.

READ ALSO: How many people does Italy grant work permits to every year?

If you work remotely, can you just move your life and laptop to Italy?
Just 500 self-employment visas were released by Italy in 2022. Photo by Persnickety Prints on Unsplash

In Italy, membership of such bodies is standard, but in most other countries, it tends to be only very established professions that even have their own guilds or royal societies – making this a significant stumbling block for many applicants.

“Even for photographers, they’d say, well, you need to register with the relevant body; but there isn’t one, that’s the problem,” says Petreni.

She says the process can sometimes be a little easier for those who are already in Italy on, say, a study visa.

That’s partly because those who are already present in Italy and applying to convert their existing residency permit into a work permit come under a different quota, with more spaces available (7,000 in 2022).

It’s also because once you’re in Italy, it’s your local prefecture, rather than an Italian consulate, that handles the application process – and in Petreni’s experience, dealing with the prefecture can be simpler.

“In theory, the requirements are the same whether you convert your permit or whether you do a one-time visa application for self-employment. But the authorities checking are different.”

One key difference, she notes, is that prefectures will generally be able to tell you whether they have any spaces left in their quota and whether it’s worth filing an application as a result, whereas consulates typically won’t share this information (“I don’t know if they know”).

READ ALSO:

She warns, however, against assuming that entering the country on a study visa and then converting to a self-employment visa is a silver bullet, as success is by no means guaranteed.

“If I were proposing this to a client, I would have to be very careful in managing expectations, so that after one year of a study permit they don’t become very cross that they didn’t convert it,” Petreni says.

How to work remotely in Italy.
Moving to Italy on a study visa may smooth the path for those hoping to apply to work there as a freelancer. Photo by Hannah Wei on Unsplash.

Intra-company visa

If the barriers to obtaining a self-employment visa are so prohibitively high, what other options are out there?

One alternative that Petreni will sometimes suggest to clients is the Intra-Company Transfer (ICT) work permit.

This entails setting up an Italian branch of a foreign-headquartered company, which she says can work for clients who have “even a small company in the US or UK”.

In this case, the worker would be applying for a visa not as a freelancer but as the employee of a foreign company that has posted them to Italy. The visa has a five-year duration (as opposed to the self-employment visa, which is valid for an initial period of two years).

One of the advantages of this visa, says Petreni, is that it’s outside of the decreto flussi, and therefore not subject to quota limits.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to get an Italian work visa

“This is an option we have proposed, and it has worked in many cases,” she says.

“The problem is that it’s quite hard financially, and tax-wise, so it’s not for everyone… you need to put quite a bit of money in the Italian branch and have it running, so you have your yearly taxes, and you need to show that the parent company is reliable.”

“We will suggest having €20,000, €25,000 for an intra-company at least, just to show that it’s in good standing order.”

'Not just extra paperwork': What it's like moving to Italy after Brexit

An ICT work permit might be a viable option for some remote workers looking to move to Italy. Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP

The EU Blue Card

The EU Blue card, introduced via an EU directive, is another option Mazzeschi sometimes proposes to potential clients.

Those coming to Italy on the card must earn a minimum salary of €24,789.93 and have a three-year university degree at minimum.

This scheme allows an Italian company to locally hire highly qualified non-EU nationals, and again operates outside of the decreto flussi quota system.

READ ALSO: ‘Not just extra paperwork’: What it’s like moving to Italy after Brexit

In this case, instead of setting up an Italian branch of a foreign company, the applicant registers a company under Italian law. Checks on the company will be stricter than they are for an intra-company office. 

“They want to see that the Italian company has the funds to hire a non-EU employee,” says Petreni. “For that option, we suggest at least €50,000 share capital for the Italian company.”

“It’s usually someone who already has a company running abroad, and then they decide whether to do the intra-company or the EU Blue Card. But for self-employees, the most-used option would be the intra-company, when they can do it.”

What type of visa will you need to move to Italy?

The EU Blue Card could be the best option for some would-be Italian residents. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Petreni says that people considering applying for the EU Blue Card often want to know whether it allows the holder to move around freely and work anywhere within the EU once they arrive.

It’s not quite that simple, she says – in the beginning you can only work from the country where the company you’re working for is based –  but holding the card can facilitate the worker’s move to a different EU country.

In the case of Italy, someone who has worked in another country in the European Union for eighteen months can move to Italy and apply for an EU Blue Card permit to work for an Italian company within one month of arriving.

Final tips

To the average freelancer just wanting some mobility, these two latter options might sound somewhat daunting.

For those who want to attempt a self-employment visa application in spite of the challenges involved, Petreni has some advice: contact your consulate to get as much information as possible before starting the application process.

“See if they have very specific requirements, because the information is not clear and it can be discordant for self-employment options, so it’s very important get in touch and see how the consulate is and what kind of answer they can give.”

“Self-employment is a bit of a jungle, it’s crazy,” says Petreni.

Find more information on the Italian Foreign Ministry’s visa website here.

Please note that The Local is unable to advise on individual cases. For more information on visa applications, consult the Italian embassy or consulate in your country or an immigration law professional.

SHOW COMMENTS