Getting Nowhere (Importing a Car, Part 2)

If I lived in Rome or Milan, I would by no means want a car. The traffic! The parking! Why drive when public transit is absolutely capable of getting you from A to B with little other hassle than looking at your watch? When telling our car import story to friends back home, we are often asked why we would want or need a car in Italy. I find this a bit amusing. Sure, in the movies Italians walk and ride Vespas 24-7, but consider for a moment a bit of daily life:

  • Limits of public transit –  Trentino Trasporti runs twenty urban bus lines and the Sardagna tramway, for which I pay 221 euro annually for unlimited rides. However, service is hourly after 20:00, stops entirely at midnight, and most lines run only hourly on Sundays and holidays. Transit strikes strand us in Povo, our small town above Trento, since we can walk down but not back up.
  • School drop-off/pick-up –  Our daughter’s nursery school is a twenty-minute walk each way, partly without sidewalks. In rain or snow or sub-zero temperatures, twenty minutes can become a grueling and even dangerous trek with a stroller.
  • Building Friendships – We’ve met a wonderful Italian-American family who live part-time 25 minutes north of us and part-time about 45 minutes away, outside of Soave. Juggling train schedules and car seats and having to be picked up at the station makes visiting them an inconvenience to everyone.
  • Exploring the Region – Many historical sites, castles, the Dolomites, lakes and other wonders of Trentino-Alto Adige cannot be accessed without a car. With everything closed on Sundays and limited bus service, it would be nice to get out of town for a daytrip once in awhile.

Having a car, while not exactly necessary—we’ve been here 14 months without one, after all—would be convenient and add to our quality of life. Why, then, are we walking despite having had a car in our garage all this time? If you read yesterday’s post, you already know the answer:  Mr. Motorizzazione. He was and is the single pathway to registering a foreign automobile in Trento, and he’s made it clear that we are not moving forward.

We haven’t had a face-to-face meeting with him since that visit last April. My Italian wasn’t up to the task, so we asked a friend to call on our behalf. Life moves slowly in Italy, so it took a month just to get him on the phone. Then, when our friend explained how he himself had registered an American car in neighboring Bolzano, the Trento official suggested that something illegal had taken place in that transaction because, “It cannot be done.”

The setback of being twice told that there was no way to register our car would have been easier to take if we’d been able to drive in the meantime, but remember our California license plates had been stolen, so we weren’t going anywhere until this got settled. We were undeterred. There were other steps to be taken, surely. We made phone calls, wrote emails and posted on expat forums. No one we contacted was willing to take on the case of an American car needing Italian license plates.

If you think your home Department of Motor Vehicles is a disaster, if you’ve waited for hours at a California DMV and left wanting to stab yourself in the eye with one of their ballpoint pens or strangle yourself with the little chain it’s attached to, consider this:  Italy’s motorizzazione is such a tangled nightmare that there are agencies, called pratiche automobilistiche, set up specifically to process registration renewals, smog checks and license fees on your behalf. Trento has a single DMV and, according to the phone book, nearly twenty pratiche automobilistiche.

Every few weeks, a new wave of optimism would hit me. I’d decide I had the solution, or that we hadn’t tried hard enough in previous attempts. One night I wrote, in Italian, to every pratiche automobilistiche in Trento for which I could find an email address, briefly stating our case and asking if they could handle the registration for us. E-mail is not a preferred means of business communication in Italy, which is why I wrote to ten companies that night. I didn’t get a single response. Not one.

We appealed to Italian friends and neighbors for connections and advice. They all expressed concern, but none held the slightest hope that our car could be registered once the DMV employee had made up his mind that it couldn’t. I don’t know which angered me more, that this single official could refuse to do his job at the price of our vehicle, or that no one around me was surprised or much bothered by it.

Several suggestions rolled in, however. One neighbor knows a used car dealer in Serbia who would buy the MINI from us. Another neighbor has a friend who could register our car in Germany. Both of these options were risky and costly, and the German offer, while tempting, is of questionable legality.

It took half a year at least for the following realization to sink past my American assumption that everything would work out in the end:  We are never going to get Italian license plates for our car.

It took even longer for friends and family in the States to believe us. We got a lot of, “But did you try…?”  “But why don’t you just…?,” almost as if we had merely thrown our hands in the air and not made a serious attempt to register the vehicle. This “But did you think of…?” reaction got me so wound up that for awhile I refused to discuss the car at all. With anyone. When J wanted to discuss what our next steps would need to be—in other words, how to dispose of our now-useless car—my heart would race and I’d have to leave the room.

It isn’t over-stating things to say that, for me, the car has become a symbol of the single worst aspect of Italy. The day-to-day lives of Italians are wholly dependent on the interpretation of laws as left to the whims of public employees. If a motorizzazione employee decides not to process your car registration, you no longer have a drivable car.

On the other end of the spectrum, there were many obstacles to getting our daughter enrolled in public nursery school, and we cleared them with surprising efficiency and patience while speaking very little of the local language. This earned us the respect of the Servizi all’Infanzia employees, a fact that I partially credit for G’s amazing ascent from #20 on a waitlist to having a spot in the comune’s newest and nicest asilo nido.

I think that this system—where life is a vicious test of how important your friends and enemies are—skews in people’s favor just often enough for them to look the other way when they or a neighbor or a complete stranger are wronged by the same system. Italy has been this way for so many generations that it’s part of the cultural psyche. An Italian will shrug it off:  this is the way things are; nothing can be done. And so nothing changes.


About JGR

I'm a writer and college instructor traveling the world with my husband and two young daughters. After eight moves in eleven years, in 2014 we decided to plant new roots in Fort Collins, Colorado. Time to buy bicycles and teach the girls how to ride!
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5 Responses to Getting Nowhere (Importing a Car, Part 2)

  1. Dana says:

    “The day-to-day lives of Italians are wholly dependent on the interpretation of laws as left to the whims of public employees.”

    I’ve seen that play out from the tax office in my community in a grand way for many friends and colleagues: Opps, we incorrectly assessed the tax on your home purchase– here’s an updated estimate (or bill) with interest and penalties. Pay soon, the meter is ticking.

    I kid you not. It has been a nightmare for many people with unexpected tax bills between 10 and 25,000 Euro. I’ll tell you more some time.


  2. Bob Schnick says:

    I was so frustrated going through something similar in Italy after getting my car here. The agent I hired was not much help, and every employee at the motorizzazione gave a different answer. In my frustration and hopelessness I came across your blog and it just made me even more enraged. Then I found this meticulous guide by another American who successfully imported his car. It was everything that the Italian official motorizzazione web sites should have but did not. I am sorry for your trouble, but for those who are in my shoes, here it is:

    • JGR says:

      Thank you, Bob! That’s a very helpful link. When we first entered our local motorizzazione, I came with a full list of what was required per the law and I offered those to the employee in charge of imports and license plates. He couldn’t have cared less. And when Italian friends called to speak with him on our behalf (our Italian was very limited when we first moved), he was perfectly clear that he had never done this kind of import before and had no intention of learning how. It was an eye-opening lesson on a key difference between American and Italian bureaucracy and rule of law.

  3. Re Artù says:

    “An American car cannot get Italian plates. It cannot be done.”?
    This statement alone make me shake my head. As an Italian citizen who was repeatedly posted abroad and every time brought back to Italy cars registered abroad, I can tell you that this statement is totally untrue.

    When confronted with this kind of attitude, the first thing to do is ask for the employee’s full name (public employees in Italy are bound by law to wear a name tag or be identified in some other way), and then ask to speak with his “dirigente”. It would be useful to have a printout of the directions on the website stating what is needed to register an imported car, which doesn’t say anywhere that US registered cars imported to Italy cannot get Italian license plates.

    Also, once it was discovered that the original license plates were stolen, the shipping company itself must have filed a report with the Belgian police. Since your shipment was insured, and all the consequent troubles and headaches stemmed from the theft of your license plates, you should have filed an insurance claim right when you found out that the plates weren’t on the car anymore.

    I agree with you that Italian public offices are hardly examples for efficiency and fairness, but what happened to you goes beyond incompetence and laziness, and calls for seriously thinking about pressing criminal charges against the “Motorizzazione” employees for dereliction of duty, and a lawsuit for damages incurred for being not able to use your own car legally imported in Italy.

    • Ro from The Travel Captain says:

      Re, the fact that you’re an Italian citizen completely changes the process for you, it is 500x easier. I am an American facing the same exact issues so the statement in the posts are not untrue at all!

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