The Italian Post. Know Its Limits.
The Italian Post is a mixed bag.
If you live in Italy, on some days you might find yourself exclaiming “I can’t live with it!” But, in the next breath you’ll be reminding yourself that you can’t live without it. This post isn’t meant to be harsh or critical about this essential Italian public service. It’s simply meant to be pragmatic and to advise you, based on my personal experiences, how to work with The Italian Post to your best advantage. I also have recommendations for alternate “mail” services to give you greater peace of mind.
L’Ufficio Postale, or The Italian Post Office, is an essential part of life in Italy. However, its workings are a bit behind the times.
In the past several years The Italian Post has been trying to spruce up its image and bring its services into the 21st Century. A modern logo, a proliferation of Posta Italiana bancomats, and updated computer systems have helped. But, sadly many of its services still don’t meet my threshold of expectations––which aren’t incredibly high.
I’ve featured the classic Italian Post logo above, which is rarely found now. I’ve done this in part to comment that L’Uffico Postale still has a foot stuck in a bygone era.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of kind and helpful people working at the post office, so this isn’t a commentary on the quality of the people. My heart goes out to them because they’re endeavoring to make the best of a challenging system.
So, let’s get down to brass tacks and some practical advice.
Here’s what The Italian Post does reasonably well:
Sending and receiving letters within Italy and the EU.
My experience is that sending and receiving letters (and small packages) via the post is dependable. I’ve been in Italy for five years and I cannot recall a single instance in which I have sent something within Italy and/or the EU and it hasn’t been received in a timely manner. The same goes for receiving. I’ve received numerous Amazon orders from the UK and from Germany through The Italian Post without issue. Legal documents mailed to me within Italy also have arrived without a problem.
Receiving letters from the States.
This is true most of the time, and that’s pretty much when correspondence is sent through regular international mail. But, here are two caveats:
- If the sender registers the letter or correspondence, don’t be surprised if it goes into a black hole of “processing” here in Italy. Just recently, an envelope containing a credit card was sent to me through registered mail. It languished for a solid three to four weeks before showing up (and because of the international “connection” I wasn’t able to pinpoint the envelope’s whereabouts). I panicked, thinking someone had taken my credit card, and subsequently, I had the company issue me another card and I paid to have it delivered by FedEx.
- If your correspondence seems to include something of substance, something other than a few pages of paper, don’t be surprised if it gets held up. International packages are a big red flag, and often times you’ll find yourself paying some sort of duty based on the post’s valuation of the contents. This can take a long time. If you want to receive something of importance or value, go with International FedEx or DHL. Even though they also may hold packages to collect duty, the whole process happens more expeditiously, and you aren’t you are left in a black hole of unknowing.
This is a pretty simple affair, which is why so many people take care of their bills at The Italian Post. A minor fee is levied for the transaction (be sure to keep your receipts and file them if needed for future proof of payment).
Fortunately, more and more companies are making it easy to set up automatic debits to one’s bank account, but easy is relative to past abilities. Forms have to be filled out and all sorts of personal documents and information may be requested, and a lot of people are comfortable with that. Another option is a “bonifico” that you can pay through your bank account, which involves the input of a lengthy IBAN number and other details. So, I find it understandable that people opt to round-up their bills and spend time at the post office getting them paid.
And, tabaccherie are equipped to handle receiving payments for most bills. They charge a slightly higher fee than the post office.
Some bills can be paid using your Italian debit card. Others require cash. I haven’t quite learned the parameters on this one.
The Italian Post has its own banking system and bancomat. You can withdraw money from your account or another bank, which is convenient if you discover you need to pay bills using cash at the desk.
Vast numbers of older Italians collect their pensions in cash at The Italian Post. During the first part of the month don’t be surprised when you see long queues and you subsequently find yourself sitting and watching stacks of bills being carefully counted out by the offical, and recounted by the recipient. A sizeable number of Italians put their trust in “cash in hand.”
Yearly Permesso di Soggiorno renewal applications.
You can’t avoid the post office when submitting your initial and renewal permesso applications. Once you have completed your application and triple-checked that you’ve included all necessary documentation, and once you have the required marca da bollo in hand, you’ll show up at the post office. Only certain windows handle these so be sure to know which is correct. The representative will visually scan the application, affix the marca da bollo, and then collect the application fee. Be prepared with cash. When I was making permesso applications I wasn’t allowed to use a debit card.
Your appointment with the questura (the immigration police) will be scheduled by the representative. And off your application goes!
Here’s where the services The Italian Post aren’t so reliable:
Sending any type of mail to the States
Unfortunately, my experience with sending mail to the States via The Italian Post has been less than satisfactory. Maybe there is an unforeseen holdup when it arrives in the States, but I’ve sent mail from other countries with pretty consistent success.
I tell people, “Unless you’re sending a postcard, and affixing airmail/expedited postage and stickers, you in for a crap shoot.”
After my mother died, I sent thank-you notes to people in the U.S. Some took MONTHS to arrive. When I mailed a check to my sister, and when it hadn’t shown up for over two weeks, I sent another, this time registering the letter containing the check. No joke, the registered letter arrived two months later (talk about a waste of energy and money). The first letter showed up a week-and-a-half before the registered letter.
So, if you have timely and/or important correspondence going “back home”, I advise using FedEx or DHL. Sure, you’ll pay way more than you want, but you’ll be able to actually track its journey and you can be assured it will arrive in a timely fashion (if it is a package, plan for additional days in case duty needs to be paid, but FedEx and DHL usually have that covered up front when you declare the contents and value).
Shipping a package.
I once attempted to use The Italian Post to send a package to the UK. I was turned away at the desk after being told the box I had used contained a logo (I’d used a brown box with a Marlboro logo) and they would only ship boxes that were wrapped in plain paper and/or contained no logos. To see if repackaging would be worth the effort, I inquired as to the cost of shipping, and it was close to 70 euros. This wasn’t a huge package.
Dismayed, I swung by MailBoxes Etc., my new best friends, and they took the package as it was wrapped and charged me just 30 euro. I was in and out within ten minutes.
Change of address.
Unfortunately, you don’t have another option for changing your address and having your mail forwarded. You can’t do this online as you can in the States. No, you need your copies of your codice fiscale and your Identity card. Be prepared to sign seemingly endless pages of documents. You’ll pay between $30 and $40 for the service, which maxes out at a year. Be sure to renew it before it expires, at least ten days, otherwise, your unique code is irretrievable. With the code is presented at least ten days before the expiration, the post office should be able to retrieve your forwarding instructions without a full repeat of the copious paperwork. You’ll then just pay the fee.
Other pearls of wisdom for navigating The Italian Post and sending important mail:
- Time your trip to the bank to avoid known days and hours that result in a packed house. Otherwise, have a good book in hand. You’ll be waiting.
- Take a number, the right number. Most bigger post offices have a kiosk where you choose the task you want to perform. It will spit out a number for the appropriate desk. If you have pushed the wrong button, don’t be surprised if you’re sent back to the kiosk to get a correct one. Also, if you only have one or two bills to pay, usually there is an option to receive expedited service.
- For smaller post offices that don’t have a kiosk to manage the queue, be sure to learn and follow the accepted Italian protocol for securing your place in line without jumping ahead. If there are several people when you enter, it’s best to ask and identify who was the last person (they’ll usually raise their hand).
Lastly, you have a legal, registered email option through PEC
This is an important option if you want to send legal documents or make requests or communications legally trackable. This route was recently sanctioned by the government. This is an excellent option when you are setting up an appointment or communicating with the questura. They can’t subsequently plead that they never received your communication. When I was setting up my appointment for my carta di soggirono, I did so using a PEC email account (set up an account here). They responded immediately and I had a record of when they received my communication.
This is also great to use when you are involved in any sort of tussle with a company (i.e. internet providers and other services). You retain a legal trail that makes it next to impossible for them to plead that your communication was lost in the mail. Sure, you can use registered mail here, but PEC is quick and easy. It’s inexpensive (I think less than 10 euro a year). You will need your codice fiscale to set one up.
Whew. That was a lot! I hope you’ve found this above information useful if you haven’t already arrived at your own conclusions based on your experiences with The Italian Post. It certainly has its place and function, and you’ll be just fine as long as you utilize it understanding the pros and cons.