How to survive Italian bureaucracy


Although Dante didn’t know it at the time, he perfectly described the labyrinth of Italian government offices and bureaucracy when he wrote ‘Abandon hope all who enter here’.

Italian bureaucrats would appear to love red tape and have invented official papers and stamps for every possible occasion and purpose. Just finding the right office is a challenge and when you finally locate it, it’s invariably closed (many offices open on a few days per week for a couple of hours only). You even need documents to obtain other documents and the laws governing the issue and use of these documents are frequently incomprehensible.

For example, in what other country can your birth certificate be printed with varying information, on two kinds of official paper, have varying costs, and expire if you fail to renew it? Once you have the correct documents, they must be officially translated and numerous copies made. Wander into any post office, police headquarters or government office and you hear a chorus of stamping and banging while long lines of confused Italians pray that they’re in the right place and the right line for the document required. If all this bureaucracy is bewildering for Italians, just imagine how it is to foreigners!

The situation isn’t helped by the fact that the Italian judicial system is based upon a simple law: La Legge non ammette l’ignoranza – The Law doesn’t admit ignorance. Laws have been created to govern everything under the Italian sun, but there’s no official process of communicating or explaining them to the general public. This leaves the responsibility of gathering information entirely to the individual with little or no help from the state.

A plethora of documentation is necessary to obtain a visa, stay, residence or work permit. Unfortunately, not all the official information explaining how to obtain this documentation is readily available or interpreted in the same way, making the tortured road to obtaining visas and permits fraught with dead ends and U-turns. Due to the difficulties in conforming to Italian laws and documentation, there are official ‘document agencies’ which can obtain documents and make applications on your behalf (listed in the yellow pages under certificati, agenzie).

When dealing with Italian bureaucracy, try to remain composed and polite (even when you feel like strangling the person behind the counter) and if your Italian isn’t excellent take someone with you who’s fluent (most officials speak only Italian). Never take anything for granted where Italian civil servants ( servitori civili) are concerned, and make sure that you understand all communications. If in doubt have someone translate them for you.

Since February 1999, many official documents have been abolished and substituted by a simple auto-certification, usually written on a printed form ( modulo) available in public offices. However, local officials may not be aware of this and you may be asked to provide documents that are no longer required. The good news is that the government is trying to reduce bureaucracy and provide more access to information, particularly via the Internet, e.g. www.governo.it .

This article is an extract from Living and Working in Italy from Survival Books.

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