Living abroad is not tourism: III. The Sojourner’s Permit

IMG_20160510_180552Trip update: This week’s blog is the trip update. Besides riding between offices, I have packed a suitcase to mail ahead, packed and checked my panniers for the road. By last Thursday, all perishable food and opened containers were gone. With luck, next week I will run one last load of laundry (linens, bedclothes, towels) and sanitize the decks and countertops, defrost the refrigerator (leaving it open), turn off the electricity, water and gas, and lock the door on my way out.

IMG_20160510_180515Two weeks ago, I described the quick set of errands around Trastevere in Rome to apply for a Sojourner’s Permit (PSE – permesso di soggiorno estero) last June. That was only the first step. The second step took place in the mountaintop capital of Chieti province in September: a full interview at the Immigration Office of the Questura (Police HQ). The third step took me to the hill town of Lanciano, overlooking the Sangro River Valley, where I surrendered the Post Office receipt (from four months earlier) for the plastic PSE.

2016 Sias LogoI had to repeat those three steps again last month, when the Immigration Office at the Commissariato (local National Police Station) sent me to the patronato SIAS in Formia, stating quite clearly to see only a certain expert. It turned out that the expert was sick, and the patronato was closed. When I finally got an interview with her, she gave me a checklist of things to do and told me to come back.

State Police - Formia

State Police – Formia

When I completed the steps two days later, the patronato was closed again. I went back to the Immigration Office, and was told that using a patronato was optional and that any patronato could help (different official: different story). All I had to do was go to the Post Office, and mail off the same set of forms that I had in June. That took 45 minutes, and the renewal process was finally underway. While I was standing at the Post Office window having paid my fee, the computer spit out my appointment at the Immigration Office for the renewal interview: Friday, 13 May 2016 at 0900. Yes, that was yesterday. The process has been snagged by a snafu that probably could not happen to most expatriates and travellers: in the middle of the Commissariato interview, my codice fiscale (Tax ID number – TIN) stopped working. agenzia_entrateWith the advent of electronically filled in passports and other documents, various Italian databases have created a new spelling for my surname (HINEJR instead of HINE). The Agenzia delle Entrate (Italian Revenue Agency) needs to connect my old TIN to the new spelling. The Revenue Agency will only do this with an affidavit from the US Consulate in Naples, attesting to the fact that both surnames apply to the same person. I could not get an appointment in Naples before next Tuesday.

DSCN0450

Cicero’s Tomb

Unable to continue my interview at the Commissariato, I treated myself to a scenic ride through the mountains between Itri and Sperlonga. On my way to Itri, I saw a yellow firefighting helicopter shuttling back and forth over the hills. The fire turned out to be near a farmhouse; probably, someone let a trash burn get out of control. I had seen the helos along the coast, collecting water from the Gulf of Gaeta, but I had never seen them dumping the water.

DSCN0458The lightly travelled provincial road from Itri to Sperlonga was a cycling wonder: smooth pavement, gentle climbs, and dizzying downhills. I inhaled the heavy smell of olive oil rising out of the sun-drenched asphalt. The traffic had crushed the olives into the asphalt in the fall. The smell mingled with the smell of new flowers and the olive trees themselves. I also saw a brand new vineyard, the bright green tufts at the top of each trellis so small and bright that only the layout identified it as a vineyard.

DSCN0477

Sperlonga

Two weeks have passed since my intended departure date. I could have started the PSE renewal process a full month earlier if I had known that using the patronato was optional. Had I not grown up in this country, I would be another furious, frustrated foreigner ranting in a bar somewhere. As it is, I am enjoying the glorious sunshine of a temperate spring in the coastal resorts of Gaeta and Formia as I ride 35-40 km each day to the various offices (police, Tax Agency, Health Department, City Hall, etc.) and the Post Office. ufficio-postale-poste-italiane-960x460Always the Post Office: there are duties, fees and subscriptions to be paid at every office, but only the Post Office can accept money for the government. It’s times like this that justify the flexibility of my trip planning.

The PSE is a crucial document for any foreigner, anywhere. Even tourists have one: it’s the stamp in their passports, which serves as both a visa and a Sojourner’s Permit (for three months). Different countries have different rules for the Sojourner’s Permit, but the three steps for an Italian one are typical:

  1. Application. In Italy, this is done at designated Post Offices (at the Amico window). You must do it within eight days of arriving in country. What you are doing is mailing your application for a PSE to the Questore (Chief of Police) of the Province where you will be living. This will be the same place that is on your visa application, at least for the initial PSE. In my case, I moved after six months, so I sent my first application to the Questura in Chieti and the renewal one to Latina. You must remember to save the receipt paperwork that the post office clerk gives you. It’s not written down anywhere, but later, when you are trying to pick up your physical permit at the Police Station, they will need that receipt from the Post Office. It proves that you yourself paid the fee for the PSE.
  2. Interview. At the Post Office, or by email/text/SMS soon thereafter, you will receive a date and time to appear at the Questura (or the local Commissariato in large towns like Formia) for a formal interview. Because this is the beginning of a long relationship with the Italian government, they need to see you in person. At the interview, an official goes over all the paperwork, quizzes you about your reasons for being here, ascertains what your level of Italian understanding is. You may be required to take “integration courses” during your first year, and certify at renewal time that you have “integrated” into Italian society by learning the laws, culture, and the language. The Police will also take all your fingerprints and palm prints, and make you wait while they run an extensive check on you. If you are not in the databases in Italy, Interpol, the NCIC in the US or who-knows-where-else, you will be free to go. If you or any close relatives are in the database, the interview will at least be longer. Italy has stern laws against associazione a delinquere (roughly, consorting with criminals) and associazione mafioso (connections to organized crime), so you or your relatives could pop out of the database just for being connected in some way with a convicted or indicted criminal. You may not even be aware of the connection, or that the acquaintance has a record. I had a clean record and no Italian relatives, but just sitting in the hall waiting made me remember every petty thing I did behind Suor’Ambrogina’s back in elementary school.
  3. Delivery. You will get an email/text/SMS that your permit is ready to pick up at the local Commissariato, with a time and date. This will be another interview, short enough to be done at the window. The police official will take the original Post Office receipt for your application (remember that?) and give you a credit-card sized photo ID that looks like a driver’s license. It has an RFID data chip in it, so it comes in an RFID protection sleeve. You may get a lecture about keeping it in the sleeve. I do that – or use an RF-opaque wallet, which travel goods stores sell to protect credit cards and other chip-enabled documents.

That’s it. My biggest problem (and it could be yours, too) was the scheduling of interviews with the Questura. I had travel plans last summer and this summer, and they did not fit the dates and times that came to me at all. The Police have a leeway of about 60 days on either side of an expiration date to reschedule, and in both Chieti and Formia, I found them to be very accommodating. But I still had to work my travel around the need to be in town when the interviews were scheduled. If you are going somewhere to stay (work, study, family, etc.), this won’t be as much of an issue.

While it all looks like the same paperwork, in fact, the renewed PSE takes on a different role: I no longer need a visa to travel to Italy; and thus, to ride around the Schengen Area. I am a resident of the European Union. No one will ever notice at the Schengen Area border, because the Passport Control officers will swipe my passport with everyone else. But I do not need to go back to an Italian Consulate: I just need to be sure not to leave Italy for more than six months continuously, and to keep my US Passport up to date. Also, the new PSE will be good for two years. My next PSE (in 2018) should involve a few minutes at the Post Office and a short interview at the Police Station. IMG_20160507_171757Of course, there could be new laws or new officials in the offices, creating snafus, but that is why I live in such a pleasant place to be stuck.

Each renewal is an opportunity for the Police to double check that I have not broken any laws, and that I am still meeting the requisites for my immigration status. As long as I still have the same residence and no criminal record, each renewal will be routine. After a certain number of renewals, I could apply for a Sojourner’s Card, which is analogous to the American “green card”, in that it has a much longer expiration date, and, ostensibly, could be used to support an application for citizenship (not in my life plan).

This concludes the series on establishing a residence abroad. When packed into three articles, it looks like a painful process of endless, frustrating, and confusing steps with a staggering number of strange bureaucracies. However, this process began more than a year and a half ago for me, when I first contacted the American Consulate in Philadelphia. The steps have been comfortably spread out on the calendar.

IMG_20160423_155154 (1)There are millions of expatriates living in Europe. Most do not speak the local language (at least at first). There are many resources online and in person to help smooth the way, and to avoid (or recover from) the inevitable bureaucratic bumps along the way. Italians use the Latin word iter to describe a bureaucratic procedure. It means “journey”. If you decide to become more than a tourist, I wish you buon viaggio!

Next week, another sea story. I look forward to your comments and questions.

Smooth roads and tailwinds,

Jonathan

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