9 Things Your New Boss Wants You to Know Before Interning in Italy

by Danielle DeSimone

So you’re about to embark on an internship abroad in Italy and you think you’re all set. After all, what more is there to Italy beside pizza? (Hint: it’s not ALL about the pizza…although, yes, there is a lot of pizza). Interning abroad in Italy is an incredible opportunity to set you apart from the pack and lead you to a lifelong, international career that requires a little homework.

Canal in Venice, Italy

Venice by day

Photo credit to Michelle Dugger

However, if you want to take full advantage of your Italian internship, don’t expect to show up on your first day in your best Prada shoes and be an immediate success - you’ll want to know a few pointers first. No matter if you’re looking for internships in Italy for international students in Rome, Florence, or one of its many other beautiful cities, here are nine things your new employer probably wants you to know before you board that plane.

 1. You’re probably not going to get a paycheck.

Paid internships are very hard to come by in Italy, so a vast majority of your internship work abroad will mostly be compensated by the invaluable experience of interning in Italy and perhaps a free espresso now and then from your nice boss. Your employer will want you to know this before you arrive because if you cannot financially support yourself while in Italy, you will not be able to complete your internship - you have to have a place to sleep and food to eat, after all.

If you are interning while studying abroad in Italy, this may not be as much of a problem for you, as you will have already made financial arrangements. However, for those who are moving to Italy simply to intern there, you may have to find a second job. Luckily, many interns and English-speaking international students can find work in Italy on the side by tutoring Italians in English, or even teaching in local schools. If you have a TEFL certification, you will be in even higher demand (and you could possibly charge more for your tutoring services as well). For those rare internships that do pay, the stipend varies by region, however recent laws have set the bar at an approximate minimum of 300 Euro a month. Be sure to ask your internship provider if there is paid compensation and budget accordingly.

The Colosseum in Rome, Italy

The Colosseum in Rome, Italy

Photo credit to Davis Kendall

2. You have to have your document ducks in a row.

Italy, despite its relaxed culture of hours-long meals and riposos (afternoon naps), means serious business when it comes to documentation. Your new internship boss/supervisor will expect you to know all the ins and outs of what documents you need to live and work in Italy. This is mainly because if you arrive without a visa, or with the wrong visa, you will not just be fined - you will not be allowed to complete your internship.

Regardless of whether or not your internship pays you, you will also need a codice fiscale (a tax identification number) to do anything from opening a bank account, to signing a lease on an apartment, to receiving payment for work. Ask your internship provider for instructions for acquiring a codice fiscale (they are sure to have had experience in helping other interns acquire them).

It is also extremely important that you have extensive documentation from the business or organization with which you will be interning, such as an official offer letter or a detailed outlining of your internship role and duties. Carry these documents with you when you arrive in-country and always bring copies with you in your wallet; Italian authorities often check international visitors’ documentations, even when passing them on the street. Don’t be alarmed! This is standard procedure. You can learn more about the required visas and how to apply for them by contacting the Italian Embassy, through GoAbroad’s Embassy Directory. 

3. You must dress to impress.

You should aim to dress professionally in any internship in any country, but in Italy, how you dress and present yourself matters even more. Italians pride themselves in dressing up in their day-to-day lives. Even walking to the grocery store is a chance for locals to strut their stuff down the cobblestone streets, and you will almost never find Italians wearing sweatpants or leggings in public.

When working in a professional setting, expectations may be even higher, particularly if you are interning in the fashion industry. Before packing your suitcase, be sure to contact someone at the office where you will be interning and ask about the dress code, so that you are completely prepared before you even arrive. Keep your hoodies at home, invest in some black boots, and do as the Romans do – your professionalism will not only impress your boss, but will also keep you looking sharp and confident, surrounded by a room of coworkers and clients dressed at the same caliber. Always be prepared to put your best foot (or leather, heeled shoe) forward when interning in Italy!

4. It’s La Dolce Vita (sort of).

Italy has a reputation for having a slightly less rigid culture, with long meals and relaxed hours. Don’t let this Italian lifestyle make you think that the business or organization you are working for is any less professional - you should still take your internship very seriously, as your co-workers certainly do. Attack assignments from your employer head-on and don’t exploit your office’s relaxed schedule simply because you are caught up in the beauty of la dolce vita.

View of Cinque Terre, Italy

Hiking the beautiful Cinque Terre

Photo credit Mallory Olita

5. Thick skin is required.

What are the two topics of conversation that are always best avoided at family reunions and in the office? Politics and religion. What are two topics of conversation that Italians love to discuss? Politics and religion. Don’t be surprised if the Italians in your office bring up subjects of conversation that are typically avoided in your home country, particularly in office environments. Learn to politely debate on controversial topics, as you’ll find that they are discussed often.

Italians, especially southern Italians, also tend to be loud and expressive when they speak, oftentimes with a number of hand gestures. It is not uncommon in business for someone to clearly show their emotions (and even shout) when frustrated or trying to explain something. If your supervisor or coworkers raise their voice and express themselves in a very demonstrative manner, don’t take it personally. Just keep your cool and look past the loud voices and hand gestures to figure out what your employer is trying to communicate.

6. You should leave your smartphone behind.

Smartphones are not nearly as prevalent or popular in Italy as they are in places such as the United States or the UK, where some cell phone usage is accepted (if not expected) throughout the workday. In fact, to be on your phone while others are speaking around you can be seen as extremely rude in Italy, particularly among the older generations. If you plan on bringing your smartphone to Italy, know that many Italians rely solely on simpler, prepaid phones, and Wifi is not readily available (or nearly as reliable) as it may be in your home country.

Avoid the stereotype of the foreigner always glued to their phone, especially in the workplace, and take a break from technology for a while by leaving your phone at home. If you really feel uncomfortable being away from your phone, at least consider the “Do Not Disturb” function, so that you aren’t constantly distracted by never-ending notifications. By doing so, you’ll be showing your employer that respect their time and the work you are doing.

7. Knowing some Italian is molto necessario.

While yes, there are internships in Italy for English speakers, your employer wants you to know at least a little Italian (even if it’s not required for your internship). Despite the globalization of the world, most Italians still predominantly only speak Italian, and their English language skills may not be up to par – especially in the older generations (who, incidentally, will probably be your bosses at your internship). Having a solid base of the Italian language before arriving in Italy will allow you to perform well at your internship. This will also help you in your day-to-day life, with anything from shopping for groceries, to making friends at local coffee shops, to haggling with market vendors.

If you are uncertain about your Italian proficiency, try taking language classes while in Italy, or sign up for a language buddy program in order to practice speaking with someone your own age. Not only will you improve your Italian and show initiative at your internship, you will develop personal relationships with the locals around you. If you don’t speak Italian, but are still determined to intern in Italy, there are certainly options for you; look for companies that deal in international trade or relations, in which English is often the common ground where transactions and agreements are made.

Aside from simply being able to perform well at your internship with some language skills, by arriving on your first day with a knowledge of Italian, you’ll demonstrate to your employer and your coworkers that you are serious about making an effort and doing a good job.

Sunset in Firenze, Italy.

Breathtaking sunset in Firenze, Italy. 

Photo credit to Kellie Martin

8. Expect odd hours.

Although you will be working in a professional setting, the Italian organization or company that you are interning for may not have standard 9 to 5 working hours like you are used to. Work schedules are, of course, entirely dependent on the field you are working in, however most Italian businesses open around 9 a.m. and close at around 12:30 p.m. for a lunch break. Work will resume at around 3 or 3:30 p.m., as most Italians go home for lunch to be with their families, and will continue until 7:30 or 8 p.m. These working hours can of course change at a moment’s notice if there is a union strike or a religious holiday taking place. Learn to live as the Italians and be a little flexible with your schedule! 

9. Be sure to pack your people skills.

Your employer will want you to know that personal relationships are the backbone of Italian businesses and organizations. The lines between work and home life are often blurred, and many businesses hire family and friends as their employees. As a result, you cannot simply work with your coworkers, you must get along with them as friends as well. In business transactions, personal relationships are key, so making an effort to forge relationships with the people around you will go a long way in your efforts to succeed in your internship in Italy.

BONUS: Hierarchies are still valued and prevalent.

In some countries, interns, entry-level employees, and new-hires are a part of a collaborative work space, in which younger voices are valued just as much as older ones, and challenging the way things are done is seen as innovative and progressive. Italy is not one of these countries. Before you start your internship in Italy, it is important to know that most Italians still value hierarchy in their businesses and society. A tremendous amount of deference is expected for those with age and power.

You will still be able to contribute and be an active member of the the business or organization that you intern with, just always keep in mind that in Italy, your boss is your boss and Italians expect you to respect that.

It is important to approach your internship in Italy with an open mind, patience, and a sense of humor.

Interning abroad is an incredible opportunity for personal and professional growth, which will help you on the road to becoming a more well-rounded potential employee and an accomplished, global citizen. However, there is no doubt that Italy’s offices come with their own particular customs and challenges. If you prepare before your internship and educate yourself on the cultural norms of the Italian workplace, you will be far more likely to perform well during your internship in Italy and leave a lasting impression with your employer. Most importantly, learn as much as you can from this experience and from your Italian coworkers, both inside and outside the office!