I’m an unapologetic francophile. I knew from the moment I could choose a foreign language in school that it would be French. I majored in French in college and I spent a wonderful junior year living and studying in France. I planned to return to live there after college graduation, but life intervened and over the years I’ve settled for visits as often as possible.
So several years ago, one dreary November Sunday afternoon in upstate New York, I began to dream of living and possibly even working in France after retirement. I started researching ways we could obtain a visa for more than the 90 days a tourist visa allows. Our older son Andy said, “don’t you remember that I’ve researched Granddad’s roots? We can apply for Italian citizenship through him!” That propelled us into a three-year quest for an Italian passport.
Like so many Europeans, Paul’s paternal grandfather, Roberto, emigrated to the US in the early 20th century. Roberto met and married an American woman and they had Paul’s father. As luck would have it, Roberto, the “ancestor” as he was called during this process, renounced his Italian citizenship, but only after the birth of Paul’s father, therefore keeping the Italian bloodline intact. This enabled us to begin the process. If Roberto had renounced his citizenship before Paul’s father was born, that would have been the end of the story since the bloodline would have been broken. It’s called “jus sanguinis”, or law of blood. We had lucked out.
This is a photo of four generations from 1966. Roberto is holding our son Andy and Paul and his father are standing.
We both had day jobs that kept us busy, so we knew we needed help for this project and we set about researching how to make it happen. We stumbled upon a company, ICAP, Bridging Two Worlds, that leads people through the process and assists with the paperwork. And paperwork it was; I thought the French were bureaucratic; they’re neophytes compared to the Italians! We needed birth, death and marriage certificates from Roberto on down the bloodline as well as my birth certificate and our marriage certificate. As Paul was previously married, we also had to get his ex-wife’s birth certificate and their divorce papers. That didn't seem to make any sense since since his ex-wife wasn't part of the application process, but we did as we were told.
I took the lead on the project and Paul offered moral support. I ordered all the US certificates. This wasn't difficult because it could be done online, but since there was so much back and forth, I kept a spreadsheet with dates of request, receipt and cost. ICAP obtained Roberto’s birth certificate from Italy and the naturalization paperwork from Ellis Island. All documents not already in Italian had to be translated into Italian. All US documents also had to have an apostille which is an internationally-recognized official seal from the state from which the document is obtained confirming its authenticity. We had a few phone calls with Mark, the principal of ICAP. At the onset we learned that we weren’t applying for citizenship, we (actually, Paul) were already Italian citizens and always had been. Who knew? We just had to prove it. Months into the process, it began to feel like a part-time job - without the salary.
This is a screenshot of a small portion of the spreadsheet.
I don’t have a drop of Italian blood, so the other stroke of luck was that I could piggyback on this process because we were married prior to 1984. I don’t know what I would have had to do if we had been married after 1984, or even if I would have been eligible, and I didn’t ask.
Since we live in New York State the consulate that governs us is in New York City. Once we had all the required documents, had them translated and apostilled, it was time to make an appointment. Little did we know that the wait time was nine months! So wait we did. Finally the day came to present our papers. The Italian consulate is located in a lovely old brownstone on Park Avenue. The official we dealt with (and who we would come to know over the course of the next couple of years) was a polite and engaging gentleman who was very good at his job.
He gently pointed out that Roberto’s death certificate indicated that Roberto was widowed and divorced. After Roberto’s first wife died he remarried then divorced. We had completely ignored that little detail. So back he sent us to collect more documents. This was a bit thorny because Paul had a vague recollection of where his grandfather’s second wife was born, but nothing more. We searched but kept coming up with nothing. Once again ICAP came to the rescue; they found her birth and death certificates and their divorce certificate.
Another nine months before the next meeting. By this time I was convinced that the Mr. Nice Consular Official and his colleagues actually do not want people like us claiming citizenship, and this bureaucracy is a tactic to discourage people like us. So we dug in deeper. After all this time and now a fairly sizable amount of money, they weren’t going to discourage us!
The date of the second appointment finally arrived. We again presented our increasingly thick file of documents. Great news - this time he told us that everything was in order and that he would pass the file on to his supervisor for approval! Once we were approved, we would be notified and could apply for our passports.
After a couple of weeks, we were informed that the supervisor noted that Roberto actually embarked from Switzerland and not Italy on his voyage to the US. Had he renounced his Italian citizenship prior to leaving Europe? Another emergency call to ICAP. They again saved us, proving that all was in order.
Soon after that we received the letter we had been waiting for; we were bona fide Italian citizens!
We made the journey to Park Avenue for the third and final time to apply for our passports. The waiting room must have been the parlor of the original home; high ceilings, beautiful woodwork. So imagine our surprise when we saw the type of photo booth you’d find at the local county fair! Yep, for passport photos. So I closed the curtain and clicked away, discarding the first few (10? 20?) until I finally took one that was halfway decent. The bench was a little low for me, so the photo was taken at an odd angle, but no one seemed to care. Paul wears transition lenses, the type that darken in the light, so his photo looks like he’s a card-carrying Mafioso! That was a Monday. Four days later, on the Friday before Thanksgiving week, our Italian passports arrived in the mail. This was three years after first starting to dream about it that dreary November day.
Something that never occurred to me was how my name would appear on my passport. Instead of my married (Italian) surname, it's my maiden name. Evidently that's standard in Italy.
The entire bulging file of documents now resides in the town hall of the village of Fabbrico, province of Reggio Emilia in the region of Emilia-Romagna, Roberto’s birthplace. The Italian government regards us as citizens living abroad; occasionally we receive ballots to vote in various regional or national elections. I have since abandoned the idea of working in France - or anywhere in Europe - but it’s nice to know we could if we wanted to and nice to know that we can stay in the European Union for more than 90 days. And Paul loves using the Schengen line when we arrive in Europe! I’m also learning Italian. I understand about every fourth word, but Italians are very patient and I love trying to speak their language with them. I should say our language! No country will ever take the place of France for me, but we now consider Italy the mothership to which we love to return as often as possible. It’s a nice feeling.
This is the municipal building in the tiny commune of Fabbrico, Reggio Emilia, where Roberto was born, where all our documents reside and from where we are considered Italians living abroad.
I’m proud that we persevered and didn’t become discouraged; we certainly could have. We’ve steered friends through this process and at least two of our children are following through. I wish all of them buona fortuna and remind our children that we’ve done a lot of the heavy document lifting!
The experiences of our friends who have done this in different parts of the US have differed from ours and seem to have gone faster, so I think the process is very consulate-specific. I'm sure the NY consulate is inundated, possibly more than any other one in the US.
If you had told me, a girl of English, Welsh and Scottish ancestry growing up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio that I would one day be an Italian citizen, I would have laughed at you. It’s another reminder that life can take you in many different directions and you never know what’s around the next turn!
Italy isn't the only country that offers the possibility of a second passport; Travel & Leisure recently posted an article about obtaining dual citizenship.
Ciao, and buona fortuna!
➜ Top Tips
Eligibility through an ancestor is not the only way to obtain a second passport. If you have the financial means, some countries allow the purchase of a passport through residence and investment in their economy.
Eligibility for Italian citizenship and the process to claim it varies by which ancestor you're claiming and by the gender of the ancestor.
Make sure you research well to determine if you're even eligible before you start the process.
Have patience! Obviously, we can only speak for an Italian passport, but I assume it's not a short process for any country.
Don't try to do it yourself, or at least be open to hiring a company to assist if you hit a brick wall. We were very happy with the company we chose, but there are a number of others; do your research.
Be organized; there will probably be a lot of documents and there was a lot of back and forth for us, so keeping a spreadsheet was invaluable.
Check and double check details on documents. The more you do and the more detailed you are, the faster the process will go and the less frustrating it will be.