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According to a study by the Order Sons of Italy in America, there are almost 16 million people in the United States with roots in Italy. That comes to just about 6% of the U.S. population.
But did you know that if you’re one of them, you just might be eligible for an Italian passport?
That’s right. According to Italy’s generous citizenship laws, anyone with a qualifying Italian ancestor could potentially be eligible for Italian dual citizenship. That means that you can make your pipe dream of living in Italy a reality! In this post we’ll discuss everything you need to know about qualifying for and getting your Italian passport.
How Italian citizenship law works
Italian citizenship works in a different way from U.S. citizenship. In the U.S., if you are born on American soil you are automatically a citizen regardless of your parents’ nationalities. In Italy, the opposite is true. You can be born in Italy but won’t necessarily be an Italian citizen unless one (or both) of your parents is Italian.
The two systems are called jure soli (Latin for “by right of the soil”) and jure sanguinis (“by right of the blood”), respectively.
But Italy, perhaps alone in the world, takes this one step further. You can qualify for Italian citizenship even if you are born outside Italy and have an Italian parent, grandparent, great grandparent, great great grandparent, or even further back. There are no generational limits as long as you qualify.
In other words, once you’re in you’re in.
All it takes is Italian citizenship to be passed from parent to child once in your direct line of ancestry for that same Italian citizenship to pass on to you. Generally speaking, if you qualify you could be an Italian citizen already and not know it.
How to qualify for Italian dual citizenship
Here are the main rules:
- Your ancestor must have been alive—anywhere in the world and not yet a citizen of another country—on or after March 17, 1861. Before this date, there was no such thing as Italy. Thus, if your ancestor died or became a citizen of another country before March 17, 1861 s/he was never technically Italian and couldn’t pass on Italian citizenship.
- If your ancestor became American it had to have occurred both after the birth of his or her child and after July 1, 1912.
- If your ancestor never became American, you automatically qualify.
- This is a special rule. If there is an Italian woman in your direct line, she must have had her child on or after January 1, 1948, for you to apply at your Italian consulate. If her child was born before that date, you must hire an Italian attorney and petition the Court of Rome for citizenship. Before January 1, 1948, Italian women could not pass on citizenship to their children (except for rare circumstances). However, in 2009 the Italian Courts ruled this law unconstitutional. Despite this, the law has not yet changed so you’ll have to take it to court instead of applying through the Italian consulate which is the normal route.
Practical examples of who qualifies
Confused? Don’t worry. Here are some hypothetical examples of people who qualify.
- Giovanni was born in Italy in 1906. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1926 and had his son, James, in 1928. Giovanni then became an American citizen in 1930. Because James was born before his dad became American, James qualifies for Italian dual citizenship along with his spouse, his children, his children’s children, etc.
- Maria was born in Italy in 1927. She came to the U.S. in 1930, never became an American citizen, and had two children, Rose and David. Rose was born in 1949 but David was born in 1947. Rose, her spouse, and all of her descendants qualify for Italian dual citizenship and can apply through the consulate, but David, his spouse and his descendants are a 1948 case and must apply through the Court of Rome.
- Giacomo was born in Italy in 1922. He came to the U.S. in 1950, became an American citizen in 1955, and had a son Marco in the U.S. in 1956. Marco, his spouse, and his descendants do not qualify for Italian dual citizenship because he was born after his Italian father became an American citizen.*
*There is a little-known loophole here. Any foreign woman who married an Italian man before April 21, 1983 automatically became an Italian citizen upon the date of marriage. If Marco’s mom married Marco’s dad before this date and Marco was still an Italian citizen at the time of their marriage, then Marco could actually qualify through his non-Italian mom who automatically became Italian when she married Marco’s dad. And even more interesting than that, Marco’s mom’s automatic Italian citizenship survived Marco’s dad’s own loss of Italian citizenship. Cool, right? If you fall under a case like this, check for the loophole!
How to apply for your Italian citizenship
Remember that if you qualify, you’re not actually applying for Italian citizenship. You’re merely seeking legal recognition of the Italian citizenship you’ve held since birth. In order to do this, you must do the following.
First, gather your documents
Basically, you will need to recreate your family tree so the Italian officials can verify your claim to Italian dual citizenship. This is done by obtaining various birth, marriage, death, and naturalization records. As a general rule, you’ll need the following at minimum:
- Your ancestor’s Italian birth certificate;
- Your ancestor’s naturalization records and marriage certificate;
- All birth, marriage, and death certificates for your intermediate ancestors;
- Your birth and marriage certificates along with your spouse’s birth certificate;
- Birth certificates for your children under 18, if applicable.
All non-Italian documents must be translated into Italian and legalized with an apostille.
Second, go to your appointment at your Italian consulate…
You’ll need to attend your Italian citizenship appointment at your local consulate. There, the officer will go through your records with you. If your claim is substantiated, you will get confirmation and then wait for processing. It can take up to 24 months for the Italian government to make a decision on your citizenship.
… Or, apply in Italy and live there at the same time (and kill two birds with one stone!)
According to Italian law, people qualifying for citizenship by descent can move to Italy and apply at the same time.
Therefore, this is an excellent option if you have been dreaming of making the move but until now have felt it was impossible. If you qualify for Italian dual citizenship, you can move to Italy, elect residency, and then file your application in your comune of choice.
You do not need to live in the comune where your ancestor was from. Once you file your application you can obtain a permesso di soggiorno in attesa di cittadinanza (permit to stay while awaiting citizenship) which will allow you to live in Italy legally until you are a citizen. At that point, you will no longer need the permesso di soggiorno and can allow it to lapse.
If you have a “1948 case” you must file in court
Remember how we discussed the 1948 rule above for women passing on citizenship?
If you fall under this “rule,” you can neither apply at your consulate nor directly in Italy. Instead, you must hire an Italian attorney to represent you in the Court of Rome. You do not need to be present in Italy and you can add on all of your family members to your case.
Since 2009, these cases have become routine and although Italian citizenship is not guaranteed for “1948 case” applicants, there is a fairly good chance you will be successful.
How much it costs
If you file at your consulate, it only costs 300 euros. If you file in Italy, your application may be free (some comuni will apply a small fee, while the vast majority do not). If you have a 1948 case, you have the added cost of hiring an attorney which can vary from 2,500 euros to 7,000 euros. Family members can split the fees for a 1948 case.
Additionally, you must factor in the cost of obtaining all your vital records, translations, and legalizations. If you wish, you can hire an Italian dual citizenship company to put together your entire application from start to finish for an added fee.
How long does it take?
Once you hand in your application, the Italian government has 24 months to process it. Consular applications will usually cut it close to 24 months, while applying in Italy can be as quick as 2 months, start to finish (though generally, six to ten months is a more conservative estimate).
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