Do U.S. Citizens Need a Visa for Italy?

By A.J. Andrews

What do I need to do to extend my stay in Italy?

Do U.S. Citizens Need a Visa for Italy?

Entering Italy doesn't get much easier than it is for U.S. passport holders. After presenting your passport to border control, you get a Schengen visa and the luxury of staying in the land of “life well lived” for up to 90 cumulative days in any 180-day period, with few, if any, questions asked.

While 90 days sounds like enough Italian vacation to test the bonds of the tightest-knit nuclear family, for backpackers, vagabonders and other long-term travelers, a 90-day stay just isn't enough for Italy, and certainly not enough for the more than 25 countries in the entire Schengen area. To legally extend your stay beyond 90 days, you need foresight and, sometimes, a little ingenuity.

Legalizing an extended stay

Italy has three visa categories: Uniform Schengen Visas (USV), which U.S. citizens get when entering; Limited Territorial Visas (LTV), which allow you to move within Italy but no other countries in the Schengen area; and National Visas (NV), which allow you to spend more than 90 days in Italy. If you want to stay longer than 90 days legally, you need to apply for a permesso di soggiorno, or residence permit, good for up to five years, depending on the purpose. After five years, residents can apply for a carta di soggiorno, or permanent residence card.

First-time visitors have within eight days of arriving to apply for a residence permit, and return visitors can wait until up to 30 days before the expiration of their USV. In addition to student and work permits, Italy offers permesso di soggiorno per dimora, for non-EU residents who want to live in Italy but not attend school or work, and permesso di soggiorno per lavoro autonomo/indipendente, for freelance workers and independent contractors. You can apply for a residence permit at any Italian consulate or embassy in the U.S. or at the questura, or the main state police station, in the town in which you intend to stay.

If you plan to apply for a permit in Italy, you need to first pick up a residence permit package at any Poste Italiane. Document requirements differ depending on the type of residence permit you seek, but, at minimum, you need the following:

  • Application and passport
  • Four copies of your passport
  • Four passport-type photos
  • A €14.62 electronic revenue stamp
  • Non-working applicants should expect to show proof of income

Overstaying your visa

If you find yourself in Italy on day 91 of your 90-day Schengen visa, you don't have to worry about the Italian version of ICE bursting through your door to put you on a plane back to the U.S. – it doesn't work like that. It catches up to you when you want to leave the Schengen area.

You might have trouble passing through border control when you try to leave the Schengen area by bus or car, and you'll definitely have trouble if you try to board a plane or take a train. Penalties range from fines to one- to three-year Schengen bans, and you can expect a lengthy exit interview that will cause you to miss your flight. Sometimes, but certainly not often enough to count on, border control might not say anything and allow you to leave unimpeded.

If you have contact with the polizia during your unauthorized overstay, particularly if you break any criminal laws, expect to find yourself on a plane to the U.S. presto. Every case is different, but either you or Italy will pay the airfare and, in some cases, the airfare of at least one polizia de stato officer to accompany you.

The more contact you have with the authorities, the greater the chance you have of meeting an officer who's just not that into you and wants nothing more than to send you home, so avoid it whenever possible.

Schengen re-entry and reset

Everyone who has approached the end of their Schengen visa has likely thought about exiting the area, spending a couple days in a non-Schengen European country and returning to reset their 90 days. It's not illegal, but it's not encouraged, either, and there's no way to know if it will work for you unless you try.

At one time, taking a brief road trip to Croatia or Montenegro and then coming back and getting a new 90-day stamp worked. But things have changed. Despite the passport-free, no-border premise of the Schengen area, Austria, Germany, France, Sweden, Denmark and Norway have reinstituted border checks, and the 22 other countries in the area have tightened controls to manage immigration. So more backpackers find themselves denied this one-time well-known secret of the road. You're on your own when you delve into this gray area of Schengen agreement.

Tips for would-be Italian residents

  • Apply for an Italian residence permit before you leave. You have far better things to do during your first week in Italy than navigating the notoriously arduous and bureaucratic European immigration system. You can apply at any Italian consulate in the U.S.
  • Learn the language. It sounds obvious, but going into your residence interview speaking conversational Italian works well in your favor. If you don't know Italian, you'll need a translator present at your residence interview.
  • The more money you have, the better. If you do have to show a financial statement, a few or several thousand dollars more than you need for your stay goes a long way in getting approved for a residence permit. If you don't intend to work in Italy or attend school, you'll naturally want enough in the bank to show you have more than enough resources to fund a long-term stay.
  • Get a lawyer. Many avvocati who specialize in immigration law assist non-EU residents in establishing residency for a fee. 

About the Author

A.J. Andrews' work has appeared in Food and Wine, Fricote and "BBC Good Food." He lives in Europe where he bakes with wild yeast, milks goats for cheese and prepares for the Court of Master Sommeliers level II exam. Andrews received formal training at Le Cordon Bleu.