Sportello Unico per l’immigrazione

This post is for American citizen scholars trying to acquire a visa to spend up to a year in Italy with (or without) their family. You may only want to read it if you are planning to study for more than ninety days in Italy, or are curious about Italian bureaucratic intricacies.

The visa process can be confusing and obscure (mostly because is it hard to find the exact steps to follow), so if our experience helps anyone else with their academic work in Italy, we will be glad of it. We ourselves have had plenty of help– from our neighbors (also on sabbatical in Italy this year), from contacts in Italy, from Italian consulate personnel, and from others online; we thank them all. We will try to take this question-by-question. Note that we are not completely done with this process yet, since we need to get residence permits in Italy to allow our children to stay with us long-term, and information about that will come in a second post to this blog. Accordingly, we make the disclaimer that this was our individual experience, and cannot claim expertise about what anyone else may encounter (i.e., please don’t blame us if your situation doesn’t exactly follow our script). Comments for improvement are welcome, and I’ll make edits as appropriate.

QUESTION 1: WHEN SHOULD ONE START THE PROCESS?
If possible, at least six months in advance. There’s a whole series of requirements, and several periods of waiting. It would be extremely difficult to accomplish too close to departure. While the formal submission of visa materials to the consulate cannot occur prior to three months before departure for Italy, it may take a good portion of the three months before that to get one’s documents together properly.

In addition, it may be necessary to travel to Italy 4-6 months in advance to acquire many of the necessary documents for the visa application and to prepare for life in Italy; I spent a week in Perugia 6 months before our intended departure date in order to sort out a rental agreement, for my codice fiscale (like an Italian Social Security no.; it can be calculated here), for a letter of invitation from an academic institution, for an Italian bank account, for school enrollment for our kids, and for an Italian SIM card for my phone.

For the codice fiscale, be sure that they calculate the number based on the name as it appears on your passport. When I first got my codice fiscale, they did not include my middle name in the calculation of the code. I was able to use that codice for everything (visa, permesso di soggiorno, etc.) except when it came time for the certificate of residency in Perugia (the last thing I had to do). Then I was told that it had been calculated incorrectly and I needed to get a revised one. Because Italians do not generally have middle names, and middle names often appear on U.S. passports, make sure that the codice matches the passport. Here is the algorithm for calculating the codice (in Italian).

QUESTION 2: FOR WHAT KIND OF VISA SHOULD ONE APPLY?
Oddly, this was not easy to figure out, despite the foreign office’s front page for visas (in Italian and English). It seemed we might have the ability to apply for any one of several visas: ‘elective residence,’ or ‘independent research work,’ or ‘study’. It took several emails and calls to embassy personnel to get a clear answer that the two adults should apply for study visas (the kids are a different issue; see below). The Detroit Consulate lists a telephone service for information (at $2.50/min.), which was notably unhelpful. We found that direct communication with the consulate, by email (waiting anywhere from 24 hours to 2 weeks for a reply) or telephone during the one hour/day listed on the website were the most effective methods of getting specific information.

  • If one is staying for 90 days or less for ‘tourism, missions, business, invitations, participation in sports events, or study,’ no special visa is necessary (see the list of countries that have this exemption for Italy).
  • Any stay between 90 days and 1 year requires a national visa (Type ‘D’). This is what we got. The Type D visa can be single- or multiple-entry (request the latter unless you are positive you won’t be leaving Italy until the end of your stay), and allows travel in other Schengen countries for up to 90 days during any six-month period.
  • There are 21 types of entry visa for which one could apply (Inter-ministerial decree no. 850 of 11 May 2011):
    “…adoption, business, medical treatment, diplomatic, sports competition, invitation, independent work, subordinate work, mission, family reasons, religious reasons, re-entry, elective residence, research, study, airport transit, transit, transport, tourism, working holiday, volunteer work.” But the list in Italian has 13 major categories and multiple sub-categories; this can be confusing.
  • The key to our applying for a study visa was getting an official letter of invitation from an Italian academic institution inviting us to join them for our sabbatical year (and having the dates of that year indicated clearly on the invitation). We are grateful to the Dept. of Historical Sciences at the University of Perugia for providing us an invitation.

QUESTION 3: TO WHOM DOES ONE APPLY?
In the United States, Italian visa applications are submitted and approved through regional consulates in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, New York, and San Francisco. Each regional consulate has jurisdiction for various states and counties; there are also adjunct offices in those states and counties which can facilitate the process. This is the full list of regional consulates, their jurisdictions, and adjunct offices. It is important to visit the web site of each individual regional consulate and follow their instructions as best as possible. We also got acquainted with a consular officer at an adjunct office, so we did not have to travel to Detroit (which has jurisdiction for Indiana), but simply visited Indianapolis.

QUESTION 4: WHAT MATERIALS DOES ONE NEED FOR A STUDY VISA?
This list comes from the Detroit Consulate; confirm the details from that site, or the site for your regional consulate.

Also remember: a full set of documentation is required for each person (adult and child) requesting a visa, though it’s more complicated than this for the kids (see more below). Each person applies separately, though the whole set of documents can be sent to the embassy in one package. Whenever possible, get documents stamped, sealed, or notarized.

  • FOR ALL VISAS:
    1. A valid passport with an expiration date 90 days beyond the expiration date of the visa being requested;
    2. A copy of the valid passport (the picture and signature pages);
    3. A completed Visa ‘Type D’ Application Form for every member of the family (PDF, in English);
      – DON’T SIGN IT YET; the form needs to be checked over and a signature witnessed by a Consular Officer (at a consulate or an adjunct office; the Indianapolis Vice-Consul did this for us);
      – Make sure to PRINT the information on the application;
    4. One passport-sized photograph, signed on the back;
    5. A self-addressed and pre-paid U.S. Postal Service Express Mail Envelope to return your passport (w/visa). You may need to include more than one of these depending on the number of persons in your family;
    6. A self-addressed, stamped blank envelope (or a piece of paper with your email address) for the consulate to use if they need more information or documents from you;
    7. Proof of medical insurance demonstrating coverage of at least 30,000 euros to unlimited coverage (a copy of your policy statement or an official letter describing coverage from the insurance company or your employer);
    8. (A cover letter explaining your intent for the visa and listing every document (in order) in your application. Explain clearly that you will not seek employment in Italy. This letter is not strictly required by the rules, but we found it useful for us, and recommended by our consular officer)
  • FOR STUDY VISAS (often listed as a ‘student’ visa; it’s the same whether you are a student or professor):
    1. A letter of acceptance into an academic program in Italy, or a letter of invitation from an Italian academic institution for the period of stay (exact dates of study) requested for the visa.
    2. Affidavit of financial support, in two parts:
      1. Signed and notarized affidavit of support (PDF).
      2. Additional documents for financial support: official bank letter with balance amounts, most recent account statements, retirement account balances, or anything else that shows you will be fully supported during your time in Italy. In particular, you will need an official letter from your university (such a provost) or employer stating and explaining the amount of your financial support (salary plus any expenses) for a sabbatical year (state the dates), and that you will return to your job in the U.S. after the sabbatical. The whole point of this is to prove to the Italian state that you will be financially self-sufficient during your stay.
    3. Affidavit of insurance coverage, in two parts:
      1. Signed and notarized affidavit of coverage (PDF);
      2. The proof of medical insurance coverage listed in no. 7 above for ‘All Visas’.
    4. Round-trip airline ticket. You have to purchase your RT ticket by the time you apply for the visa; since you cannot book a flight more than a year in advance, if you are staying in Italy for nearly a year, you will have to put in a ‘dummy’ return date that you change (for a fee, of course) later. In that case, the consulate knows and accepts that you can’t have a return date on your ticket that matches your actual intended return date.
    5. Proof of lodging. This can be a signed rental agreement or academic enrollment letter that states the address of residence in Italy.

QUESTION 5: WHAT ABOUT CHILDREN?
This has been, by far, the most difficult issue to figure out. We are still not completely clear on how this works, but will update this post as we find out. (A related difficult issue might apply to a spouse who is not applying for a study visa.) We were told specifically by the Consulate that each of us would apply separately for a Study Visa, and that our children should travel to Italy on a 90-day Tourist Visa (which requires no paperwork). Once in Italy, we would all go to the police station and apply for residence permits, and somehow this would allow our children to remain legally in Italy with us, and perhaps even move in and out of the country with us (though we are not sure about that yet).

However, we needed to compile all the materials for each of our kids that we would need as if each of them were applying for a visa. This included getting apostilles for our marriage license and our children’s birth certificates. Basically, this means getting long-form versions of these official documents (most can be ordered online from state governments), and then taking the long-form official documents to an office that issues an apostille, which affirms that the signatures and persons listed on those documents are in fact valid (basically, it vouches for the public officials who attested to your marriage or birth, etc.). By the Hague Convention of 1961, this makes such apostille-d documents acceptable in a foreign country that is a signatory to that Hague Convention (which Italy is). (Apostilles are not valid in their country of origin.) In other words, the local police official in an Italian town can be confident, by the apostille, that the birth certificate you present to them is valid.

But that local Italian police official might not know English, right? Right. So you need to get the entirety of the apostilles (every single word) translated into Italian, and have that translation certified as accurate by the Italian consulate. This took about a day and a half. We did this by using Italian Google Translate  (and then tweaking the translation). We also ran the translations past a professor of Italian at our University who was kind enough to look them over and write a brief letter attesting their accuracy. As we found out, however, the specificity of technical terms for these sorts of official documents is such that neither Google, nor us, nor our professorial colleague could express in Italian all of the proper terminology.

Because of the changes that needed to be made to our translations, the Consulate instructed us to send them a postal money order to cover the costs of confirming the translation (it was $108 for three birth certificates and a marriage certificate). We did this; when the documents were returned to us, we found that the legal officer at the consulate had made many corrections to the Italian and then initialed those corrections so they would be acceptable in Italy. We were amazed and impressed by this level of service (they could just have sent the documents back to us and told us to do them ‘correctly’). Our neighbors, applying for the same sort of visas, contracted their translations with a person who commonly does this for the Consulate, for an additional fee.

So how does one get their kids over to Italy with them, especially if both parents have valid study visas? This question touches on two other  issues: a ‘ricongiungimento familiare‘ (‘family reunion’) visa, and a ‘nulla osta‘ (a document stating that there is no ‘bar to entry’ for the family members). Neither of these is particularly clear to us at the moment, and from what we understand, we can only take care of them after we arrive in Perugia. We were made somewhat hopeful when we found a Ministry of Interior webpage that addresses kids accompanying their parents on various (including study) visas:

4. Procedura per familiari al seguito:
Per favorire la coesione e l’unità familiare, ove tu sia titolare di visto di ingresso per lavoro subordinato, collegato a contratto di durata non inferiore a un anno per lavoro autonomo non occasionale, ovvero per studio o per motivi religiosi, è consentito l’ingresso al tuo seguito degli stessi familiari con i quali è possibile attuare il ricongiungimento. Per i familiari al seguito, si applica la medesima procedura prevista per il ricongiungimento ed è necessaria la stessa documentazione. Ai fini della richiesta del nulla osta puoi avvalerti di un procuratore speciale.

In other words, to protect family cohesion and unity, when one has a (study, or the other listed types of) visa, entry is permitted for the accompaniment of the same family members with whom the reunion is to be implemented. There seem to be special protections for children under age 14:

If you reside legally in Italy you can have your children included in your residence permit and/or that of your spouse provided they are under the age of 14.

And indeed, on the application form for the Permesso di Soggiorno, kids under 14 can be listed on the form of the parent, which is a relief! The process begins through the local Sportello Unico per l’immigrazione, which we shall be learning about soon; basics of the process are described on this page in English. We are required to present ourselves at that office within 8 days of arriving in Italy. Part of the nulla osta – ricongiungimento familiare process seems to be online now, but it is not clear how it works, exactly–some of the types of nulla osta seems to apply only for those staying in Italy for more than one year. At least there are online sites and fora such as Insiders Abroad, Expats in Italy, and Rick Zullo’s blog, where others share what they’ve learned.

QUESTION 6: HOW DOES ONE PROCEED WITH ALL THE MATERIALS?
Collect the documents listed above (remember not to sign the Visa Application Form), and arrange an appointment with the Consulate for your area, or a consular officer at a branch office.  Bring all materials and persons to the meeting. In our case, we did not fill out every blank on the Visa Application Form until we got to the meeting, since we weren’t sure about what we should put down, and other colleagues who had made an error in the application form had had their visa application rejected (and they had not left themselves sufficient time to re-submit). Here are a few specific questions on the Visa Application Form, and how we answered them:

21. Main purpose(s) of the journey:  X Studio/Study
24. Number of entries:  X Multiple
28. Nulla Osta: left blank (we’ll come back to the issue of the Nulla Osta…)
31. Put down the address where you will be living in Italy
32. Put down the name, address, phone, fax, and contact person’s information for your sponsoring organization (e.g. academic institution)
33. Cost of traveling and living…covered by:  X Myself; X Cash; X Prepaid travel expenses; X Other (sabbatical pay from university). Multiple answers are fine here.
Page 3 is to be left blank unless you are a EU citizen
Page 4, Date and Place of Signature, in the presence of the consular officer, who affirms and signs the document.

After the consular officer saw that we had everything and had signed what needed signing (and they advised we provide a few more supporting documents, which took another week at home) they sent us back home to mail the packet directly to the Consulate.

We made a back-up copy of every piece of paper, just in case. We sent the packet off to the Consulate. In about three weeks, we had our two study visas, and the Consulate also returned all the materials for the children, which we will need for the Nulla Osta and the Permesso di Soggiorno (Residence Permit), processes that occur at the local office of the Polizia di Stato, or ‘Questura’.

One thing that’s clear is that we need to get entry stamps in our passports when we arrive at Fiumicino (sometimes the officials stamp them, sometimes they don’t; we will need to insist).

QUESTION 7: ARE THERE ANY PROBLEMS WITH AIRLINES RELATED TO VISAS?
Potentially yes. We had been warned by a colleague that if the airline sees that the adults in your family have long-term visas but your children do not (and the return date on the ticket is past 90 days), the airline, even at the check-in desk, might insist (saying they need to follow regulations) either that the children stay behind until they get long-term visas (which, as explained above, is not possible for Italy), or that you change your ticket return date to less than 90 days (necessitating another $200-per-ticket change beyond the one you will need since you had to book a round-trip ticket prior to the visa application!). One colleague, flying on Lufthansa, and facing this situation, found a sympathetic agent who switched their return date to less than 90 days, and then as soon as they checked in, switched it back to the original return, for no charge! But there’s no guarantee of that sort of kindness.

Accordingly, two months ago, we called US Airways and asked about this. The first person on the phone decided only to respond ‘by the rule book’, saying that either our kids couldn’t go with us (right…), or that we’d have to change our tickets to under 90 days, and then change them back later (each time at a cost, of course…). His supervisor was somewhat more understanding, and agreed to put a note in our reservation that said we had documentation (an email from the Consulate) that said the kids were supposed to travel on 90-day tourist visas to Italy, even though we had year-long study visas. We then had to go to the US Air desk in Indianapolis to show this email to the desk manager, who put a note in our reservation that he had seen the email. Then, we visited the US Air desk in Philadelphia (whence we are flying) to confirm with them that we would not encounter any problems when we checked in. The helpful agent eventually found a colleague who knew the procedures for Italy and understood our Catch-22 problem, and put a final note in our reservation that said we were OK to travel as-is. These conversations were probably worth the hassle if we avoid a last-second drama over whether our kids can get on the plane with us.

So that’s Part 1 of the saga; Part 2 will be explained once we get to Italy and start the Permesso di Soggiorno (and Nulla Osta?) processes that will make us legal residents of Italy for the next 11 months.

Our hope is that we won’t have to worry about the nulla osta at all once we are in Italy, and we’ll just have to get our Permessi di Soggiorno in order for us and our kids to be legal residents for the year. We’ll see!

UPDATE (19 Aug. 2013):
– At the Airport check-in: the agent didn’t mention the issue of visas at all. Whether that’s because we had arranged for the notes on our reservation or because she didn’t look is unclear. I’d rather be prepared, though.
– At the border: the immigration officer stamped our passports and zip, we were through.

On the whole, it was uneventful, which was just fine by us. Now for the Permesso di Soggiorno.