Before you read this, please remember the phrase “Don’t shoot the messenger.” Ok?
If you are American and planning on moving to Italy and becoming a resident, you’ll need an Italian driver’s license. If you’re from the EU, you’re home-free, as your license will be good here – though the polizia will tell you that you need to have it converted, which is a fairly easy and straightforward process. Not so for Americans. No agreement exists between Italy and the U.S. and in Italy, you are starting at square one, which means you are treated the same as an Italian high school student getting his/her first license.
The good news is that during your first year of residency, you can continue to drive using your U.S. driver’s license, as long as it is paired with an International Driver’s license, so be sure to take care of that before arriving in Italy. This buys you a year to plan to drive legally while going through all the steps related to getting your Italian driver’s license. That is a very good thing since you won’t feel as though you have a metaphorical shotgun pointed at your head.
In the spirit of full disclosure, there are a fair number of American expats who have been residents for more than a year, yet have not gotten their Italian driver’s license. I can understand why people would want to avoid the time commitment and expense associated with this rather lengthy process, so I can’t say I blame them. However, they are rolling the dice. If you are stopped here in Italy (random road checks are happening more and more), and the polizia see from your car registration papers that you are a resident* and you don’t have an Italian driver’s license, you’re in a heap of trouble. I can’t say exactly what they would do, but not allowing you to continue to drive is one of the possibilities.
Also, and this is a BIGGIE if you are involved in any kind of accident, and you don’t have your Italian driver’s license (after a year) any car insurance you have is null and void. In short, you personally will be responsible for all damages, and you may face some additional penalties and legal ramifications. You don’t want to find yourself in a situation that could affect your residency status in Italy.
Some Americans find a “workaround” by always driving someone else’s car, and only showing their U.S. passport and U.S. driver’s license. But, the person who is lending the car is taking a risk.
My advice, plan to tackle this when you move to Italy. I gave myself 9 months so that I could study at my leisure. The manual (which like the written test is only given in Italian) is easily 3x the size of any driver’s manual in the U.S. and it covers more topics than you would have thought possible. But, it is an immersion opportunity for the language. Every little bit helps.
My good friend Elizabeth and I were in scuola di guida, driving school, together. Having a good buddy to go through the process is a great help. I know she and I talked each other “off the ledge” several times. But, we both now have our Italian driver’s licenses and we couldn’t be prouder – or more relieved.
*You can’t own a car (new or used) in Italy unless you are a resident.
An important disclaimer: These are simply my opinions and observations based on my experience of getting an Italian driver’s license and buying a car in Italy, and are in no way meant to be a substitution for your own research and decisions in how to proceed.