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Getty Images / Stefania D'Alessandro
Thousands of Americans overstay their tourist visas in Milan to work, travel, and enjoy the city’s culture, such as the piece above from design week.

It’s actually very easy for an American to work illegally in Italy

Ask someone on the streets of Milan to point out a migrant worker, and he’ll probably describe the nearest African or Romanian, not the twenty-something au pair shuttling around impeccably clad kids or the native English-speaker at his office. It’s an easy assumption to make: migrant Romanians, are expected to make up 40% of Italy’s immigrant population by 2015, and Africans, 25,000 of whom, between the start of the Arab spring and April 2011, arrived by sea, are continuously held under fire for the country’s immigration problems. But there’s another group of immigrants that are part of the city’s workforce: illegal Americans. I should know because I’m a part of it.

Though precise numbers and nationalities are impossible to pin down, three-quarters of Italy’s illegal immigrants, enter the country on tourist visas. And it’s easy enough for Americans to do: simply enter the country as if you’re on vacation and stay past the 90 days that the tourist visa affords.

Americans aren’t coming here to vend fake Prada bags in the shadow of Milan’s Castello Sforzesco or sleep on benches beneath hulking ancient columns. The ones I’ve met, in the 11 months I’ve been here, come to teach English, to mind Italian children, to fulfill an unrequited study-abroad dream. Some are professionals who came to work for seemingly legitimate companies that promised work visas but never delivered.

I moved to Italy this January to work for a Swiss magazine that maintained editorial offices in Milan; the company’s owner, I was told, couldn’t be bothered to file the worker visa application—the process is a labyrinthine, time-consuming paper trail, though less costly (around $600) than the $5,000 American companies shell out to sponsor foreign workers. Many employers want to avoid the months-long inconvenience: they must prove the necessity of hiring a foreigner over an Italian, apply and pay for the visa, and oversee arrangements between the consulate and the new hire. You cannot get a worker’s visa, permesso di soggiorno (permit to stay), easily once you’re on Italian soil, and you’ll only receive a codice fiscale (fiscal code) similar to a Social Security number, which enables you to pay taxes—but you can only apply for it within three months of arrival. These factors provide little incentive to obtain legal work once inside the country. Despite the country’s notorious bureaucracy, it’s surprisingly easy to forgo in the case of worker’s visas. The immigration officers at the airports have never checked the dates of the tourist visa stamps in my passport.

With a tourist visa, Americans can spend 90 days in a period of 180 days within the Schengen Area. This consists of over 20 countries including big players like Switzerland, Germany, France, and Italy, as well as Greece, Austria, Latvia, and others. (Notably absent is the United Kingdom.) After 90 days, Americans must return from whence they came—or anywhere outside the Schengen Area—for a minimum of 180 days before returning.

The conventional wisdom here is to circumvent the requirement: Before the 90 days are up, travel outside the Schengen (Dublin! Tunisia! Bucharest!) then return for a fresh entry stamp, hopeful that no immigration agent will add up the dates and realize that you’ve been, in effect, living in Italy for consecutive 90-day increments.

If the Italian government is lax on work visa enforcement, it is increasing cultural protections. The recently implemented “integration agreement” (accordo di integrazione) enforces a credit-based system that requires third-party nationals staying longer than 12 months to take Italian language, civics and culture classes. Its purpose? To allow foreigners to “acquire adequate knowledge of both spoken Italian and fundamental principles of the Constitution of the Republic, the organization and functioning of public institutions as well as civic lifestyle in Italy.”

Though it is expressly verboten to work off-the-books, the consequences of overstaying the friendly Schengen aren’t entirely clear, either. Everyone here has heard of the friend of a friend who was deported back to the States from Barcelona, or the au pair whose host family refused to pay an €800 fine. But there is no clearly defined punishment for those caught. Fines are the most commonly cited, though a one to three-year ban upon re-entry and even immediate deportation are other reported consequences. When I had called the Italian Consulate in New York, they said I should just leave within 90 days: “Don’t complicate your life.”

Yet life here is just the opposite. I’ve stayed here long after quitting the job that originally brought me over because I want to travel easily and cheaply. There’s arguably no better takeoff point than Milan, with its three major airports and two high-speed trains that can take me anywhere I’d like to go—within and outside of the country, with little hassle. For the promise of more adventure, albeit no passport stamps to show for it, I’m willing to take the risk.

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