Living in Italy

italy200x200Italy’s appeal for expats is not at all hard to fathom. Rich in history and boasting picturesque cities, stunning rural scenery, fine wines, great cuisine, a decent climate and a much lauded laid-back way of life, there is little doubt that those who move to Italy can expect to experience a high standard of living.

However, in spite of all the country has going for it, wide scale immigration to Italy is actually a relatively new phenomenon. It was only with the expansion of the EU, alongside a desperate need for cheap migrant workers in the early noughties, that Italy really opened its doors to mass immigration. By the end of 2011 there were estimated to be 4,570,317 foreign-born legal permanent residents living in the country – almost 3 million more than just eight years previously. Prior to this, Italy had mainly been popular among fairly well heeled expats, particularly those from the UK and the US who were keen to take advantage of the country’s many cultural riches.

Given the poor state of Italy’s current economic climate, it is strange to think that less than ten years ago the Italian government was desperately trying to bring in migrants to help fill severe job shortages in the country – the result of an ageing population combined with an extremely low birth rate. Today, Italy’s economy is in the doldrums. As of August 2012 the country’s unemployment rate was 10.7 per cent, while unemployment among those aged between 15 and 24 was a staggering 35.3 per cent!

Employment in Italy, therefore, is hard to come by and this could cause problems for non-EU residents hoping to one day make the country their home. Immigration to Italy, at least for those who live outside of the EU, is largely tied to being in possession of a work permit which in itself requires you to have a job. While EU residents do have the right to settle in Italy without having to work, providing they can prove they have the income to support themselves, a job would no doubt make the settlement process easier, especially given that the cost of living in Italy (especially in the major cities) tends to be more expensive than the EU average. For example, the country’s two largest cities, Milan and capital city Rome, were both ranked in the top 50 of Mercer’s 2012 Expat Cost of Living survey.

It is largely for reasons of employment that most of Italy’s immigrant population, at least for those who are in need of work, tends to settle in the far more prosperous northern reaches of the country; particularly its financial hub, Milan. When it comes to money and living standards, Italy has an obvious north-south divide, with southern areas generally much poorer and less developed than the northern provinces – the major exception being the centrally located Rome.

Fashionable Milan is comfortably Italy’s most populous and richest city; no great surprise then that it is home to far more foreign-born residents than any other town or city in the country. In addition to being one of the world’s leading financial centres, it is also a cultural hub and an extremely attractive city, boasting some of the country’s finest architecture to be found outside of Rome (and it’s up against some seriously strong competition) as well as a plethora of picturesque parks and gardens. Rome is Italy’s other main financial centre and, as a result, is also home to a fairly large expat population.

Of course, no matter where you plan to settle, if you are going to be looking for employment – in fact, even you’re not – the whole experience of moving to Italy will be made a great deal easier if you have a decent grasp of the Italian language first. You should also be aware that in some smaller Italian towns there will be a reluctance to hire ‘outsiders’, so if you do plan to settle away from a main urban centre, you may need to do some networking and get your face known around town before applying for jobs.

However, as alluded to in the opening paragraph, most people who choose to emigrate to Italy will be doing so more for lifestyle reasons than financial security. Italy’s ongoing economic problems do not make the country any less beautiful, the food taste worse or the weather any colder – although it should be noted that winters in some parts of northern and central Italy do get rather chilly and even experience some snowfall. What’s more, according to the World Health Organisation, Italy boasts one of the most developed and best performing healthcare systems in the world while the average life expectancy of its residents is in excess of the EU average.

It should come as little surprise, then, to learn that Italy is one of the world’s most popular retirement locations for expats – even non-EU citizens can retire to the country without the need of a job, so long as they can provide evidence that they can support themselves financially. Tuscany, famous for its glorious landscapes, cultural and artistic heritage and its culinary traditions, is a particular favourite among retirees, especially the region’s capital Florence which is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in the world and was the birthplace of the Renaissance. The fact that the weather in Tuscany tends to be fairly mild throughout the year – freezing temperatures are almost unheard of and temperatures of around 10oC are not unusual even in the winter – is another factor that appeals to the elderly.

Families who are looking to emigrate to Italy will need to consider the needs of their children when deciding on a town or city in which to settle. Although education is free for children of foreign nationals throughout the country, lessons will of course be conducted in Italian, which could cause major problems. Until your child becomes more proficient in Italian, it could be worth looking into international schools, some of which offer bilingual options where kids can eventually sit for Italian state exams as well as English and English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exams. International schools can be found in most major urban centres throughout Italy. Overall, Italy’s education system is well developed and on a par with others in the EU.

The fact is there are many well-known destinations that expats choose when moving to Italy, such as Genoa, Naples and Turin to name only a few. Ultimately, the area in which you choose to settle will rest on a number of factors, including where you can find work (if you need to), whether you’re looking for the cultural buzz of a city or the ambience of rural village and where you can afford to live. However, with the right research and preparation you can be fairly confident that your decision to say arrivederci to your old life will be the right one.

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