On Being Recognized as an Italian Citizen


During the months of planning for our move to Italy, I discovered that I was, under Italian law, actually an Italian citizen.

Under the law of the United States (and, as it happens, the Roman Empire), citizenship is a matter of geography.  If you are born in the United States,  you are a citizen of the United States, regardless of the citizenship of your parents. In some European countries, however – including Italy – citizenship is a matter of ancestry.  If your father or mother was an Italian citizen when you were born, then you are an Italian citizen, regardless of where you were born.

My grandfather emigrated from Italy to the United States in 1912.  Since my father was born in 1917, before my grandfather became a naturalized American and renounced his Italian citizenship in 1924, that means my father was an Italian citizen (although I doubt he ever knew that).  And that means I have been an Italian citizen since birth, although until recently I didn’t know that either.

Since this type of citizenship operates automatically, and not by choice, under US law I can “recognize” my Italian citizenship without giving up my US citizenship.

As you might imagine, going through the recognition procedure requires collecting quite a lot of paper — not all of it easily obtained decades after the events.

I thought locating my grandfather’s Italian birth certificate would it be difficult, but it turned out to be surprisingly easy.  Although he was born in a tiny town in the Abruzzo, a forward-looking city administration had actually put its old documents online, which meant they were easily searchable.

My father’s birth certificate was more problematic.  Although he was born in the US, his birth certificate was filled with spelling errors, including my last name.  My father was born at home and my grandfather likely went to the city records office to obtain a birth certificate.  My grandfather spoke English with a heavy accent, and county clerks in any event didn’t know much about Italian names in those days.  I was told that I could have the document corrected if I could provide a baptismal certificate.  Using Google, we located a church in the Arthur Avenue area of the Bronx which appeared to be only a few blocks from where my father was born.  Sure enough, they were the right church — they provided my father’s baptismal certificate, which spelled my last name correctly, and we were then able to get the city of New York to issue a corrected birth certificate.

As it turned out, though, I couldn’t change my father’s first name. My father was christened Antonio although he went through life as Anthony.  Apparently teachers in those days didn’t have much patience for “foreign” names and arbitrarily changed them to something more “American” – something that thankfully wouldn’t happen today.  We were able to resolve that problem, too, by getting an “also known as” certificate from the state of Florida, where my dad lived for the last 30 years of his life.

We also needed to provide a copy of my parent’s marriage certificate.   That wasn’t so easy either.  My parents hadn’t had a church wedding – all I knew was that they had eloped.  An older friend suggested I try the records of Elkins Park, Maryland, which she said had been a favorite destination for eloping couples in the 1950s.  Bingo.

After we collected all the documents, we had to have them verified using apostilles (basically an international notarization form) and then translated.  We took these documents to the vital records office here in Ascoli, where the woman in charge reviewed the documents, then sent request letters out to the various Italian consulates in the US verifying that they had no contrary information.

This whole process took months.  Once my application was approved, though, things moved amazingly quickly.  I went down to City Hall and had my birth and marriage “registered” in the town records.  The town hall used special oversized paper which hasn’t changed much since the Middle Ages (although they use printers now instead of pen and ink).  Within a week, I had a new Identity Card, identifying me as an Italian citizen, which basically entitles me to live (and work) anywehere in the EU.  My new status also enables Ted to apply for a “carta di soggiorno” (essentially, a [ermanent green card which doesn’t have to be renewed every two years).

Why did I do this?  There are no tax benefits — Italy taxes legal residents essentially the same as Italian citizens.  The main benefit is administrative.  Like many European countries, Italy is now tightening up its requirements for foreign residents.  Non-residents have to renew their permessi di soggiorno  (visas) every two years, and the language requirements and hard to define “integration” requirements seem to be getting tougher.  We could most likely pass the current tests, but who knows what new requirements may be coming down the pike? And it is easier not to have to worry about dealing with the Italian bureaucracy any more than is necessary.  This way, we can come and go as we please.

And I now have two passports!  I feel like an international money-launderer.