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.

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Visas and residency: What you’ll need for retirement in Italy

Retiring in Italy is a dream for many, but before it becomes a reality there are some bureaucratic hoops you’ll have to jump through.

Visas and residency: What you'll need for retirement in Italy

Italy’s warm climate, lower cost of living and relaxed pace of life all make it appealing to retirees – as do financial incentives such as a flat tax rate for pensioners.

So what exactly do you need if you want to retire in Italy?

Regardless of where you’re from, the first things you’ll need are a valid passport, proof of sufficient means of income, proof of medical insurance and proof of accommodation.

READ ALSO: Eight pitfalls people need to avoid to make the dream move to Italy

This is just to start with, though, and depending on your particular set of circumstances the overall bureaucratic procedure involved ranges from straightforward to challenging.

The criteria are obviously different for people from the EU and for those from outside, but both groups still have to complete a number of processes before they can obtain full long-term residency in Italy.

EU/EEA nationals

Moving to Italy for retirement is a lot easier for citizens of countries within the European Union (as well as the European Economic Area) who benefit from the right to freedom of movement.

There’s no need for a visa and, while there is always paperwork, some parts of the bureaucratic process are more straightforward and there are fewer fees to pay.

It’s a requirement to register as a resident at your local Anagrafe (Registry Office) and obtain a certificato di residenza (residency certificate).

Besides your application form (which may not always be available in English), you’ll be asked to submit documents including proof of accommodation and evidence that you have sufficient economic means to support yourself and any dependents. Read more about this requirement here.

Once you’re officially resident, you can also choose to register with Italy’s national health service, though this is not free – it means paying an annual registration fee if you’re not working. See more details about who can register and how the process works here.

Non-EU nationals

Those coming from outside of the EU often find that the road to retirement in Italy is not such an easy one, mainly because of stringent visa rules.

Many people do it every year regardless, but they’ll likely tell you it takes time, patience, and money. It also helps to do your research and get started early.


If you’re from a non-EU country such as the UK, USA or Canada you will need a visa and for most retirees the most appropriate option will be an elective residency visa (ERV).

The ERV doesn’t allow applicants to work or run a business but rather to live off their savings or passive income, making it a suitable choice for pensioners – full details here.

You’ll need to apply for your ERV at the Italian consulate in the country and city nearest to where you are legally resident.

EXPLAINED: How to apply for an elective residency visa to move to Italy

In theory, the minimum required income for the ERV is around €31,000 per person per year, or €31,000 plus around 20 percent combined income for married couples, though experts warn that requirements vary enormously by consulate and appear to be getting stricter.

Other requirements include proof of suitable accommodation in Italy and proof of health insurance, and many consulates also require a letter of motivation.

Legal experts advise anyone starting the process to be careful and thorough – the rejection rate for the ERV is high and the exact requirements are not always clear.


Once you have your visa and you’re in Italy, you will need to apply for a permesso di soggiorno residency card

This permit will be valid for one to two years, after which you can renew it. After five years, you become eligible to apply for a permanent residency permit.

This is a major milestone for many international residents, as it brings with it the right to work in Italy, if desired, and having it simplifies many bureaucratic processes.


You’ll need to be aware that legal residents (and others classed as tax residents) are liable to pay Italian income tax on all worldwide income, though pensions may not be taxed and you should be protected from double taxation under Italy’s bilateral agreements with the US and other countries.

Italy famously has a seven percent flat income tax rate for people moving to certain regions with a foreign pension, but anyone planning to take up this offer may want to seek professional advice as it is subject to restrictions and a complex claims process.


When applying for an ERV, you will need to show proof that you already have health insurance that will cover you in Italy.

READ ALSO: Which foreign residents have to pay for healthcare in Italy?

In the past many British citizens used their EHIC (European health insurance card) to cover them in the gap between arriving and getting residency status, but this is no longer allowed.

Once you’re resident in Italy, you can choose to register with Italy’s national health service by paying a fee in proportion to your income.

Please note that The Local cannot advise on specific cases. As the process will vary depending on your personal circumstances, anyone who is unsure of the requirements is advised to contact their nearest Italian consulate and/or a qualified immigration law specialist.