The Mediterranean nation of Italy consists of the distinctive ‘boot-shaped’ mainland peninsula, the large islands of Sicily and Sardinia, and a number of smaller islands and archipelagos. Mainland Italy shares land borders with France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia to the north, as well as the enclave microstates of San Marino and Vatican City which sit within the country itself.
For a place which lay at the heart of the ancient Roman Empire, modern Italy has a surprisingly short history. In fact, the country as it is known today only came into existence in 1861 after the unification of the various city-states which preceded it. As a result, many Italians identify as closely with their regional identity as they do with their national identity – although the majority take great pride in both.
There is plenty to see and do in Italy, from historic towns and cities, museums and cultural sites to diverse entertainment events. To experience the real Italian lifestyle though, you need to get out and socialise like the Italians do – sharing meals with family and friends, supporting the local football team and shopping anywhere from local markets to top fashion houses. Football is by far the biggest sport in Italy, but cycling, tennis and motorsports attract huge crowds too. Winter sports are common in the northern Italian mountains, while the coastline further south lends itself to watersports.
Food and drink
Perhaps the mostly widely interpreted style of cooking in the world, Italian cuisine means many things to many people. However, at its heart are simple, fresh ingredients – typically between four and eight in each dish. Don’t be deceived though, there is no lack of variety in Italian cooking. These ‘simple dishes’ number in their hundreds, and each region has its own style too. Among Italian favourites are pasta dishes, risottos, various meats, fish and seafood, and of course the world-famous pizza – all followed by gelato ice-cream desserts! Italy is a nation of wine producers and beer drinkers, although good quality coffee is always on the menu too.
Italian is both the official language and the most widely spoken in Italy, with an estimated 95% of the population identifying themselves as speaking it. However, Italy also has a many legally-recognised minority languages including French, German, Greek, Croatian, Albanian, Catalan, Slovenian, Sardinian, Franco-Provençal, Ladin, Friulian and Occitan. English is a common second language, but it is still spoken by less than half the population.
Like many aspects of Italian life, the climate shows clear divide between north and south. The northern regions of Italy reach up into the famous skiing mountains of Europe and these areas experience real extremes of temperature from harsh winters to warm, humid summers. The south of Italy is more arid, with hot summers and mild winters. In the centre of the country you find a more temperate environment with less changeable conditions.
Safety and security
Italy is considered a safe place to live and work, although tourists are sometimes targeted by petty thieves and fraudsters so vigilance is always prudent. Although the country’s longstanding issues with organised crime are yet to dissipate entirely, they are unlikely to impact noticeably on foreign visitors. While uncommon, natural disasters such as earthquakes do occur in Italy, so it is worth knowing the local emergency numbers and drills. The country also boasts several active volcanoes, including Mount Etna, so air travel can occasionally be disrupted during periods of volcanic activity.
The Italian education system is administered by the Ministero dell’Istruzione, dell’Università e della Ricerca, commonly known as MIUR. School is compulsory in Italy between the ages of 6 and 16, and with the exception of private schools and some international schools, it is free to all children regardless of their nationality. However, with lessons normally taught in Italian, many expats prefer to send their children to an international school where they can study in their own language. Those who choose to enter the state-school system can expect five years of primary education followed by three years of lower secondary school and between two and five years of upper secondary school.
The school year in Italy runs from mid-September to the end of June. The hours spent at school can vary from region to region, and in some parts of Italy there are regular school classes on Saturdays. Universities typically run two semesters, beginning the year in September/October and ending in July with a break in January.
Italy is home to around a hundred higher education institutions, including some of the world’s most historic universities. The University of Bologna was founded in 1088, making it the oldest in Europe and part of a proud academic tradition in Italy. Italian higher education institutions can be broadly categorised as:
Università statali – state-run universities which make up the majority of higher education institutions in Italy
Università non statali – private universities that are not run by the state but which have been approved by the Ministry of Education and whose qualifications have the same value as those of state universities
Politecnici – technical universities specialising in subjects like engineering or architecture
Università per stranieri – literally a ‘university for foreigners’, these enable non-Italians to study the country’s language, culture and literature
Università telematiche – institutions that provide online distance learning to state-accredited programmes
Scuola superiore – a type of autonomous specialist graduate school
Most universities in Italy receive at least some state funding, but also charge tuition fees. Universities are free to set their own fees within the confines of a legal maximum and minimum. Generally speaking, course fees are equitable or slightly lower than the rest of Europe, but private universities will cost more to attend. Most universities offer scholarship schemes that are open to both Italian students and foreign nationals, and some regional authorities will also assist with funding.
University education in Italy falls in line with the Bologna Process, which was designed to standardise the system for awarding degrees in Europe. As a result, the main course structures are similar to those at other universities around the continent. Most teach predominantly in Italian, but some offer courses in English. The application process can be confusing for foreign nationals, so it’s best to contact the university directly for advice.
The field of academic research is well established in Italy and there are many channels to locate opportunities and secure funding for your work. For more information, visit the Research Italy website.
Primary and secondary education
Italian primary schools and lower secondary schools largely follow the same curriculum, with the subjects and time spent in each lesson mandated by MIUR. However, when students reach upper secondary school, they select one of three types of school:
Liceo – a traditionally academic institution focusing on theoretical study
Istituto tecnico – combines academic theory with practical application, usually with a view to entering a professional career after further study or work experience
Istituto professionale – a vocationally-orientated school teaching practical courses which can enable students to go straight into work after the minimum three years of attendance
Within these categories, schools tend to specialise towards a particular academic area, so Italian students may make career-defining decisions relatively early.
Preschool and childcare options
Although it is not compulsory, every child in Italy aged between 3 and 5 is entitled to a place at a state-run kindergarten or preschool. With private nurseries and childcare a costly alternative, uptake is high and many resident foreign nationals see this period as a good time for their children to learn some Italian before deciding whether they should attend state school or international school.
Compared with much of Europe, Italy appears to be quite a cheap place to live, but all things are relative. Like any country, Italy has a degree of variation in the cost of living, with cities more expensive than the countryside as a rule. The north/south divide is evident again, with southern Italy generally cheaper than central and northern areas, although wages and employment opportunities are usually better in these areas so the standard of living overall may be similar.
Although there are no restrictions on foreign nationals purchasing property in Italy, the property market has been unstable in recent years and many expats have been cautious about committing to a mortgage in the country. If you do decide to buy an apartment or house, be aware that the various transaction and notary fees can add up to between 10% and 20% of the property’s value. The majority of people who relocate to Italy rent their accommodation, at least in the short term. In the past, local authorities were allowed to cap the maximum rent that landlords could charge, but this practice has now ceased with the aim of encouraging people to rent out vacant properties – so expect to negotiate on price.
When you first take on a rental agreement in Italy, be prepared for a hefty initial outlay. Deposits can be anything up to three months’ worth of rent, and if you find your property through an estate agent you may have to pay another month’s worth as a fee.
Property owners in Italy are responsible for paying the municipal property taxes. These taxes are calculated based on the value of the property and the rates for that location. If you are renting a property, check whether or not the landlord intends to pass this cost on to you.
To set up utility services in Italy, you must have a tax identification number. Electricity and gas suppliers have been deregulated, so it is possible to change your provider to get the best tariff. Some regions may also have a choice of water company, but this is less common. If you are renting a property, remember to check with your landlord if any utilities are included in the rent. For internet and phone connections there are many companies competing, so it’s not difficult to get a good deal, but it is worth checking the coverage before committing as service quality varies significantly.
Italy operates a television licensing subscription to subsidise the state-owned Radiotelevisione Italiana, commonly known as RAI. Many expats are surprised by this as the RAI channels also broadcast adverts. As well as the Italian broadcaster, a range of national and international satellite channels are available.
Healthcare and medical costs
Italy has a comprehensive state healthcare system, the Servizio Sanitario Nazionale (SSN), and the good news for foreign nationals moving to the country is that it is often possible to access the same level of care as Italian citizens at the same subsidised rates. This will depend on your nationality, residency status and the duration of your stay in Italy, but if you are eligible then register for an SSN card through your local healthcare authority. Consult the InformaSalute guide for further details. If you are not eligible for SSN care, it is recommended that you take out private medical insurance to prevent costs spiralling in the event of ill health.
From the fashion houses of Milan and Florence to local, family-run businesses in rural hill towns, Italy has no shortage of amazing places to shop. Although the top level outlets can be expensive, there are bargains to be found if you venture away from the main shopping areas. It often pays to compare prices between shops – be prepared to haggle too. For food and groceries, markets can be a good alternative to superstores.
In Italy, value-added tax is charged at three levels in line with European tax agreements. As of 2014, the standard rate is 22%, but a reduced rate of 10% applies on hotel and restaurant bills, pharmaceuticals, some public transport prices and admission to cultural events. Foodstuffs, medical bills and books carry a tax of just 4%.
Rent on 1-bedroom apartment in city centre – €564.34 (≈£419.28) per month
Rent on 1-bedroom apartment outside city centre – €435.95 (≈£323.89) per month
Price of apartment in city centre – €4,217.94 (≈£3,133.72) per square metre
Price of apartment outside city centre – €2,533.11 (≈£1,881.97) per square metre
While the stereotypes of Italian roads being chaotic and the Italian driving-style rather aggressive is not entirely unfounded, road transport in Italy is in fact relatively safe. This is due in no small part to the quality of the major roads, in particular the autostrada – the toll road network that covers much of the country. However, the Italian love of automobiles means the number of cars is very high, so urban driving and especially parking can be quite stressful.
Foreign nationals relocating to Italy with licences issued in the EU or European Economic Area are allowed to drive on their own licence indefinitely. Some non-EU countries have reciprocal agreements with Italy which enable their citizens to drive for up to 12 months before exchanging their licence for an Italian one, but other nationalities will be required to change immediately. In Italy, you drive on the right, and people must be aged 18 or over to take the wheel. The maximum speed limit is 130kph (≈81mph), and there are several mandatory items which must be carried in your vehicle, including your licence, insurance and registration documents, a red warning triangle, and a high-visibility jacket.
Taxis in Italy are usually painted yellow or white and can be pre-booked or found at authorised taxi ranks. It is less common to hail a taxi in the street, although some drivers are willing pick up such passengers. All authorised taxi companies operate on a meter system but the fare rates are often set by local authorities, so they should be fairly consistent. Be aware that you may be charged extra for luggage, night carriage, travel on public holiday services or travel outside city limits.
Buses and coaches
Buses and coaches can be a great way to access some of the more remote areas of Italy where trains and trams would struggle to reach. Intercity coaches are run by several service providers, many of which also link Italy with other European cities by road. Local public bus services are very reasonably priced and usually depart from near municipal landmarks such as the railway station or town square.
The Italian railway network is extensive and there are local, intercity and high-speed links as well as international services around Europe. The network is owned and maintained by the state-run company Rete Ferroviaria Italiana. The majority of services are run by Trenitalia, although there is some competition. The quickest and most modern way to travel is the high-speed train, which covers much of Italy – from Turin to Salerno – with further extension planned. However, local trains are much cheaper and more cost-efficient.
Trams and underground rail
There are metro systems in Rome, Milan, Naples, Genoa, Catania, Brescia and Turin, while several other cities have trams or light railway systems designed for commuters.
As a popular tourist destination and busy commercial centre, Italy has a large number of international and domestic airports. The largest international hubs are Rome Leonardo da Vinci Fiumicino Airport and Milan Malpensa Airport, but most regions also have a big commercial airport of their own. Although there are domestic flights in Italy, the rail network is much cheaper and the modern high-speed system can also compete on journey times. Italy’s flag carrier is Alitalia, although it faces tough competition from other international airlines and budget carriers.
Other ways to get around
A popular destination for Mediterranean cruises and a maritime commercial centre, Italy has some of the busiest shipping lanes in Europe. Ferries run regularly to international ports as well as the Italian islands of Sicily and Sardinia, while hovercraft and hydrofoils are in some cases the only way to reach Italy’s many smaller outlying islands. Certain cities also have their unique travel quirks, most famously the water taxis and gondolas of Venice.
Under Italian labour laws employees can work a maximum of 40 hours per week as regular hours, but some roles are exempt from this legislation. Paid overtime is permitted beyond these hours, however if workers regularly exceed an average of 48 hours per week the employer may be required to explain to the authorities why such hours are necessary. The working day varies enormously, with some companies working regular eight-hour days and others observing a more traditional split day with a lunch break of two or three hours.
All full-time employees in Italy are entitled to a minimum of one day off each week and annual leave of not less than four weeks per year. Sick leave is also an entitlement for employees, and parental leave allowances are generous. Employers are obliged to offer pregnant employees a minimum of two months’ leave prior to and three months after their due date.
Italy has a number of national and regional public holiday dates. In addition to the 12 national holidays on the Italian calendar, the local patron saint’s day is usually a regional public holiday. Typically, offices and some shops close for the festivities and depending on the event a range of municipal celebrations may be held.
Public holiday dates
New Year’s Day: 1st January
Epiphany: 6th January
Easter Sunday: 21st April
Easter Monday: 22nd April
Liberation Day: 25th April
Labour Day: 1st May
Republic Day: 2nd June
Assumption Day: 15th August
All Saints’ Day: 1st November
Immaculate Conception Day: 8th December
Christmas Day: 25th December
Boxing Day: 26th December
Visas and eligibility to work
Freedom of movement and labour within the European Economic Area means that citizens of many European countries can enter Italy without a visa and are free to live and work there indefinitely, subject to obtaining their ‘permesso di soggiorno’ (permit to stay) after 90 days. This normally requires proof of financial resources and EU health insurance (EHIC) to be presented at the local town hall or police station. Depending on the purpose and length of visit, Italy also has a visa waiver system for citizens of eligible countries, but people of several nationalities require a visa. Typically, non-EU citizens who wish to work in Italy will require a visa, residence permit and work permit. If you are unsure about your visa requirements, consult the visa checker on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation website.
Italy operates an income tax system based on five income brackets with corresponding tax rates, and deductions are made directly from your wages. Generally you will be considered a tax resident once you have stayed Italy for more than 183 days during a calendar year, although depending on your nationality, residency status and income sources, this may vary. To pay tax in Italy you will require a tax identification number, which can be applied for online through Fisconline (service available in Italian only) or through a local tax office. This free number is required for opening a bank account or renting accommodation, so it is important to sign up as early as possible. The tax year in Italy runs from January to December, and you may be required to complete a self-assessment tax return.
Pensions and benefits
As well as tax, workers in Italy make national insurance contributions from their wages. These are intended to cover the cost of pensions and other benefits such as family allowance and unemployment benefit. Normally if you contribute to the Italian social security system for any length of time, you will be able to access benefits there. However, some countries have different agreements with Italy allowing citizens to continue contributing to or accessing benefits in their home country, particularly when they are working in Italy temporarily.
Discrimination at work on the grounds of disability is explicitly prohibited by the Italian constitution and there is a quota system to help encourage equal opportunities. Disabled people may have the opportunity to access funding for vocational training to help them find work.
The family-run business is a fixture in Italy, and even some of the country’s largest multinational corporations are owned by a single family. Italian businesses are typically hierarchical in nature and decisions are made from the top down. In larger organisations, senior middle management may make more direct decisions but will seek authorisation from above before rolling out their plans. As a result, decision making can be quite slow.
The roles of employees in Italy tend to be quite strictly defined, with individuals taking responsibility for their own actions and results rather than those of the whole group. Managers will usually maintain the status quo, assigning tasks to the appropriate people within the bounds of their job description. Employees are usually willing to trust their manager’s judgement and carry out tasks without questioning them, so it is not always common for senior staff to consult members of the wider team in a decision.
Status is important in Italy, so Italians will show deference to people according to their age and social standing. Titles are frequently used as a form of address, even between people who are already acquainted, so use formal terms until invited to do otherwise. If you are not sure of the correct title, use ‘Signore’ to address male contacts, ‘Signora’ for married female contacts or ‘Signorina’ for younger or unmarried women.
With the prevalence of family firms, many Italians prefer to do business with people that they know. This means it can take a long time to develop successful working relationships in Italy. However, face-to-face communication can go a long way towards building bridges and if you can get a recommendation from an Italian partner then business may become easier. Hospitality is expected in business so an invitation to lunch or dinner may also present a good opportunity.
Fashion is a major part of Italian culture and business contacts are inevitably judged by appearances. Presenting yourself appropriately will always help your cause, so try to be smart and stylish. Men should wear good-quality business suits and shirts, while women might choose an elegant suit or sophisticated business dress.
Italians respect politeness, so it is important to find the balance between being friendly and open and being respectful. When you first meet people, shake hands with them. As a relationship develops, you may find that you are embraced.
Despite their slightly undeserved reputation for being rather time fluid and leisurely, Italians don’t like to have their time wasted. While meetings may not run completely to plan, you should make an effort to be punctual and prompt, even if your contacts are not. Project timelines are perhaps more of a concern, so make sure you account for the lengthy decision making processes in Italy.
Italian business people are often outgoing and expressive, so meetings can be very lively. Small talk is commonplace, so perhaps ask about the local history or sports teams – football is an obvious choice but always goes down well. Don’t be surprised if conversation turns to family as Italians are usually proud of their relations and happy to talk about them. Meetings are often lengthy as topics will often be passionately debated. Try to be logical about your argument, but an emotional connection can help to persuade. Bear in mind that final decisions may not be made until after the meeting, so you need to make a lasting impact.
There can be something of a north/south divide in terms of business culture in Italy. The north is considered more of a modern business hub, and people can be very direct and impatient in their approach. The south has less of a bustling nature, people have a more leisurely attitude in life and this is reflected in their business dealings.
Italian remains the major business language in Italy, although some multinationals do require employees to speak English as well. For people moving to the country to work, bear in mind that the majority of jobs will require at least a working knowledge of Italian. Contrary to popular belief, large sections of the population don’t speak English, and it is not uncommon for people to require document translation for business dealings.