Wednesday, June 1, 2011

How To Become a Legal Alien

One of the bureaucratic headaches for every foreigner living in Italy is the acquisition of the Permesso di Soggiorno, Permission to Stay. Every non-citizen who enters Italy as a visitor must register with the police. If you come as a tourist and stay at a hotel, your passport is examined when you register and the information is shared with the police. Technically, when this takes place, you have a permesso valid for ninety days.

When I first came to Rome, the registration process was a nightmare. To begin with, every foreigner had to go to the same office. There were no appointments and there was no place to sit. You took a number and waited, with all your paperwork, for the first available clerk. The paperwork required photocopies of your passport, an application form, photos, and a tax stamp available at the tobacco shops. If the weather was cold or rainy, you just had to put up with it by standing around outside.

In those days, when all the paperwork was in order, you received a date for returning to pick up the permesso. That involved the same wait without an appointment. The same standing around outside. The permesso of that era was a primitive document with one of the photos stapled to it. The whole process could take so long that the expiration date loomed by the time you received the official document.

The process has become less difficult in recent years. Rome is divided into twenty administrative districts, each called a municipio. All bureaucratic paperwork—car registration, identity cards, etc.—is done at the municipio level. Now the permesso is processed at this level, too. The quest begins at the post office where you pick up a “kit” with a long application form, instructions, and a mailing envelope. You complete the form, photocopy your passport and documents showing that you have housing and financial support and take it back to the post office along with a hefty fee and photos.

After a couple of months, you receive a letter ordering you to appear at the local police station at an appointed time. You have an appointment! The police clerk checks over all your documents then fingerprints you. The fingerprinting includes not just the tips but also the full fingers, and finally the complete palms. A fortune teller could have a field day with those palm prints. The clerk also fingerprints you electronically (just the tips). When everything is in order, the clerk tells you that when the permesso is ready, your name will be posted on a notice board outside the police station. The first time I did this, it took seven months.

The new Permesso di Soggiorno is a smart card which has all your data, including the electronic fingerprint, embedded. Your electronic fingerprint must match the one embedded for the permesso to be released. Once you have it, it’s valid for two years. Mine expires in October. My passport expires in February. To renew the permesso, I must have at least two years remaining on the passport, so I must renew it before October. However, since I’m traveling to the U.S. in August, I’m waiting until I return to Italy to renew my passport. I fully expect the permesso to have expired before I get a new one.

And so it goes.

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