Could you reclaim your heritage with Italian citizenship?

It's no exaggeration to say that Italians helped build America. Today, about 18 million Americans claim Italian descent, representing about five percent of the US population. If you're one of them, you may have a vague idea of your family's origins but how much do you really know - and are you eligible for Italian citizenship?

Could you reclaim your heritage with Italian citizenship?
The devastation of two world wars brought a wave of Italians in the 20th century, looking for a better life. Photo: Getty Images

Italian migration to North America has been going on for a very long time, for a variety of reasons. Here, we look at what brought these Italians to the ‘New World’ and reveal the grounds by which their descendants may claim dual citizenship and a strong Italian passport. . 

Right from the start

Many think that Italian migration to the US began in the 19th century. That was the start of mass migration and it might be at that stage that your ancestors arrived. However, you might be surprised then to learn it’s been happening for almost 400 years.

Pietro Cesare Alberti, a sailor from Venice, is widely believed to be the first to migrate to North America from the Italian Peninsula. He settled in what is now New York in 1635 and farmed land near what is now the New York Stock Exchange, in the Financial District.

Several Italian migrants would contribute to the struggle for independence, supplying funds or arms to the Colonial forces. One of these migrants, Fillipo Mazzei, made an indelible contribution to American history when he wrote in a political pamphlet, “All men are by nature equally free and independent” – a phrase his good friend, Thomas Jefferson, borrowed for the Declaration of Independence. 

Seeking a better life

While some Italians took up the offer to fight for the Union against slavery in the Civil War, it wasn’t until the last 20 years of the 19th century that Italians would arrive in the millions, constituting the largest wave of migration. 

The arrival point for many of these migrants was the processing station at Ellis Island in New York. The records and photographs of these arrivals have been placed online and provide an invaluable resource for Italian-Americans researching their heritage.

This massive surge in Italian migration was prompted by several factors. Foremost was a severe disruption in regional economies, and a rise in political violence caused by the unification of Italy. With a new life presented to them across the Atlantic, many – particularly in the south of the country in places like Sicily, Calabria and Puglia – took the opportunity for a more stable existence, enabled by Padrone who would arrange travel (albeit often unscrupulously).

Upon their arrival in America, many of these migrants would make their home in New York, but even more would settle in cities along the length of the East Coast. As subsequent migrants would arrive in the United States, they would travel to where they already had relatives in Philadelphia, Boston. Others traveled inland to the industrial powerhouse of Chicago. Most of these cities still have a ‘Little Italy’, a cluster of restaurants, stores and churches catering to a community that has thrived for generations. 

Not only would these new Americans find many successful, still-existent businesses in American cities on both coasts – Bank of America and Planter’s Peanuts among them – but they would bring their skill at growing oranges and lemons to several rural areas of the United States, including California.

It may seem a long time ago, but under Italian law, many of the descendants of those arrivals are eligible for Italian citizenship under the law. As long as the right documentation is supplied, citizenship by descent is a very real possibility.

Want to explore your Italian roots? Find out how a team of experts can help you trace your family’s history and apply for citizenship by descent 

From the ashes

Two devastating world wars in the 20th century would lead to a second great wave of migration, as Italians sought to leave the ruins of their homes and seek the same life the generations before had taken up.

Unlike the first wave of Italian migrants, many postwar migrants had professional backgrounds, and their influence on American society was immediate and long-lasting. Far beyond what some consider the Italian contribution to American life – great food, wine and coffee – Italian ingenuity and expertise reached every aspect of society, from politics to science and literature. It also revolutionised the American entertainment industry, with several cinematic titans including Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola emerging.

With improved record-keeping and centralisation of records over the latter half of the twentieth century, it’s often even easier for the descendants of these postwar migrants receive Italian citizenship by descent

Find your roots

For decades, it was hard to know where and why your Italian ancestors left their homes. However, with the advent of the internet and online genealogy services, it’s much easier to find that tiny Sicilian village or sleepy Tuscan town that a great-grandparent left behind, looking for a better life.

Italy is now a beautiful, modern nation, with a cultural history the envy of many others. Regional identities are still strong and tradition and local cuisine dominate daily life. A few weeks soaking it in is often enough to inspire people to reclaim their heritage and take up Italian citizenship.

Italian citizenship has many benefits. Not only does it give you the right to live and work across Europe, but it also grants you access to a world-class health system. It can also be passed on to your children, a tangible link to their family’s past. 

So, what if you could?

The good news is that Italy is exceptionally generous when granting citizenship by descent – an Italian great-grandparent is often enough, providing they were alive on March 17, 1861 – the day Italy became a unified nation – and have documentation that states so.

Should you meet the requirements and provide the relevant documents, you can receive Italian citizenship and have the right to settle, vote and participate in Italian life. As mentioned earlier, Italian citizenship also grants you the ability to reside in Europe permanently, without the hassle of renewing visas and other bureaucracy. 

This is an increasingly popular choice – so much so that consulates often have waiting lists. However, there is another option, involving applying directly to Italian courts. This is where organizations such as Italian Citizenship Assistance (ICA) can bypass the queue and help obtain your citizenship more rapidly.

While obtaining the right documents can be a difficult task, involving many visits to small towns, services like ICA can also do the hard work when it comes to applying for Italian citizenship by descent, making the process easier and stress-free.

Reclaiming your birthright doesn’t have to be hard. Let Italian Citizenship Assistance streamline the process for you

Member comments

  1. I emailed ICA several times back in 2020, requesting help in filing my Jure Sanguinis claim in Italy. They responded that “due to our current workload” they could not help me. I a follow-up email some months later, but received no response. I still have the email chain from my encounter with ICA if anyone from The Local wants to look at it.

  2. I’m contracted with ICA right now with their executive turn-key service. My “1948” case is assigned to a specialist who really knows her stuff. We have a monthly Zoom call and email as needed. So far so good.

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How long do Brits in Italy have to wait to apply for citizenship via residency?

British nationals who were resident in Italy before the end of 2021 have kept some pre-Brexit rights. But does this extend to applications for citizenship through residency?

How long do Brits in Italy have to wait to apply for citizenship via residency?

Question: “I have been able to remain resident in Italy under the post-Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. But does that make any difference to our status when it comes to Italian citizenship applications via residency? How long do we have to wait before applying if we moved here before Brexit – does the EU or non-EU timeframe apply?”

UK nationals living abroad have faced years of uncertainty and confusion about how Britain’s exit from the European Union would affect their rights and status in their adopted countries and how these changes would affect their long-held plans for life abroad.

At this point, the major questions have been resolved: British nationals who moved to Italy before December 31st 2020 have their residency rights protected under article 50 of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA), and, for the many situations in which Italian bureaucracy demands all third-country nationals must produce a residency permit (permesso di soggiorno), we have the post-Brexit carta di soggiorno to fill the gap.

But there are some situations in which the rules may remain unclear, and the timeframe for eligibility for Italian citizenship via residency is one of them.

READ ALSO: The three ways to apply for Italian citizenship

EU nationals can apply for citizenship via the naturalisation route after just four years of legal residency in Italy, while non-EU nationals must wait a decade before they become eligible to apply. 

Sadly for anyone who moved to Italy as an EU national before later losing that status, the terms of the WA don’t make a difference in this scenario.

“Unfortunately, any British citizens applying for Italian citizenship post Brexit need to demonstrate 10 years of legal residence and not 4 years as before (as EU nationals),” confirms citizenship lawyer Aleksandra Broom at the Rome-based firm Oliver & Partners.

As The Local reported back in 2020, British nationals became subject to the non-EU requirements for citizenship applications as of the Brexit deadline.

This was due to the fact that citizenship rules are set by each national government and were therefore not subject to the provisions under the EU-wide WA.

Is there a quicker way to apply for Italian citizenship?

While the minimum waiting period for most non-EU nationals hoping to apply for citizenship by naturalisation is ten years, there are some limited exceptions to this rule, including that:

  • Residents who have an Italian parent or grandparent can cut the waiting time to three years.
  • People born in Italy to foreign parents can apply after three years’ legal residency as an adult.

Italy’s laws around naturalisation are complex and eligibility depends on your personal circumstances, so if you think one of these exceptions may apply to you it’s advisable to consult a legal professional.

READ ALSO: What are the benefits of having Italian citizenship vs residency?

Some people may find they are instead eligible for Italian citizenship via marriage, which you can currently apply for after two years of legal residency in Italy; or citizenship via ancestry, without necessarily having lived in Italy at all. Find out more about these options in this separate article.

If other routes aren’t open to you, and your only option is to wait ten years before applying for citizenship via residency, prepare in advance and ensure you’ve got your paperwork ready to go when the time comes: many who apply for Italian citizenship find that gathering the required documentation – including passing a language test – can take several months, or longer, depending on how much time you’re able to devote to the process.

Once you’ve applied, the Italian government has up to three years to approve or deny your request. However, citizenship experts report that there have been cases in which it took as little as one year.

See more information in The Local’s Italian citizenship section.

Do you have a question we may be able to answer? Get in touch and let us know.