Obtain documents (generally, vital records) from Italy for your ancestor(s) (or yourself, if applicable) who were born there.
Required: Birth, Marriage, and Death Certificates / Extracts – Estratto/i di Nascita, Matrimonio, e Morte
You will need a birth certificate or baptismal certificate for at least one ancestor from Italy (your LIRA), which could be yourself. You may also need a birth certificate for that person’s spouse, if he or she was born in Italy and your consulate requires it. You must request an estratto di nascita in formato internazionale. This means, “birth extract in international format” and contains information such as place of birth, parents names, and more. This is not to be confused with a certificato di nascita, which does NOT contain the necessary amount of information the Consulate requires.
One can obtain these certificates by writing to the comune (in Italian, of course) and requesting them; one does not need to demonstrate a need or prove that one is related to a person named on the certificate. See below on how to contact your comune.
Required: Marriage Certificate (if marriage occurred in Italy), Death Certificate (if returned and died in Italy)
You will require an estratto di matrimonio as well for your LIRA if their marriage occurred in Italy. Occasionally, you may need a death certificate (estratto di morte) from there if your ancestor returned to Italy and died there or if the 1st spouse of your LIRA died in Italy before your LIRA immigrated.
Usually Not Required: Certificates of Citizenship
Some consulates also require that you submit a certificate of citizenship or a certificate of residence. The former states that someone was a citizen of Italy; it is necessary (in the cases where it is requested) because mere birth in Italy is usually not sufficient to confer citizenship – one must have an Italian parent. The certificate of residence may be requested by a consulate because you are to have your documents registered in the last comune in which your LIRA lived, which is not necessarily the comune in which he or she was born. To date the only consulates that have been known to ask for these certificates are Montreal, which demands both, and Miami, which used to ask for a certificate of citizenship but no longer does.
Requesting Vital Records
These birth, marriage, and death records can be obtained from the Stato Civile or Anagrafe office of the comune at which these events occurred. One can obtain these certificates by writing to the comune (in Italian, of course) and requesting them; one does not need to demonstrate a need or prove that one is related to a person named on the certificate. See below on how to contact your comune.
When one requests a vital record from a comune, one usually receives an extract (estratto) of the original record. The extract will be a form filled in by hand or typed by a clerk based on the original record that they have on file. Only basic information is included – e.g., name, name of parents’, date of birth – much less information than is found in the original record. At the bottom of the certificate will be a signature and seal of the comune. Some certificates are in “international format,” with everything written in several different languages, including English and French. Unlike vital records from outside Italy, Italian records do not have to be in long form.
Birth certificates will often have marriage details of the person in question at the bottom in a notation. If the person had more than one marriage (say, because of the death of the first spouse), only one marriage will be listed, and it could be either one. Despite having this notation on the birth certificate, a separate marriage certificate is usually required by the consulates. Moreover, such a notation can potentially cause problems for you if the person listed is different from the spouse on the marriage certificate that you submit, requiring you to explain the discrepancy and produce further documentation about a previous or later spouse who is not your ancestor and has nothing to do with your claim. But even in the case where such a discrepancy is present, consulates sometimes ignore it, so it wouldn’t necessarily cause such difficulties.
In order to request such a certificate, one should contact the comune, by letter, email, fax, or phone. The comuni have generally responded better to fax or snail mail than to email, but it varies by comune. There are templates available for constructing such a letter. Generally you will need to know your ancestor’s name, approximate birth date or at least year, and parents’ names. If you are unsure of some of this information you can give them your guesses or date ranges, or just leave the information out. However, if your request is not specific enough, they may tell you they can find no records even when the records are there, so it pays to have as much information as possible about your ancestor before requesting a certificate.
It may take weeks or even months to receive a response from a comune, by email or post, or you may not receive a reply at all. If one method of contact fails (after waiting a couple months), it usually is a good idea to try again with a different one. If you know someone, such as relative, in the comune, it often is easier if that person goes to stato civile and orders the certificate in person. The certificates themselves are free, but some comuni require payment for the sending of the certificate, which is generally done by snail mail. This cost is usually no more than a few euros, which you can pay with a few Euros in the mail. It usually is best to wait until receiving a request for payment before sending it, although some members have reported not receiving any response until they included such a payment while others have reported sending money and having it returned to them. Your mileage may vary.
Important Note: Posta Elettronica Certificata (PEC) Email Addresses
Italy has its own special system for emails that are sent in an official capacity called PEC (Posta elettronica certificata) – literally translated as certified electronic mail – that cannot be emailed by a normal email address. Imagine PEC as the equivalent of a certified letter in the US from a legal point of view. You may receive mail for your requests from these PEC addresses, but you may not write to them directly. You can tell an address is usually a PEC address by seeing “pec” in the domain of the address (ex: @palermo.pec.it) or some other format. It is possible to receive a PEC email address, but it requires having an Italian Tax Code (Codice Fiscale) to receive one. It is recommended to email a non-PEC address with your request.
The Comune doesn’t have my records?
If the comune does not have a civil record, it is possible that a Catholic church there has an ecclesiastical one. For births, this would be a baptismal record, whereas for marriages it would be a church marriage certificate. These are acceptable to consulates as substitutes for the civil records. In order to substitute a church record for a civil one you need to submit to the consulate a letter from the stato civile stating that they do not have the record in question. When using a church record in place of a civil record the priest’s signature also has to be authenticated by the diocese with their signature and stamp as well.
Some records are also available from state archives (Archivio di Stato). One would contact them as one would a comune. Some comuni were badly damaged during World War II and their records were destroyed. For these one may be forced to rely on archives or church records. If the person for whom you need this certificate is not actually in your line (such as the spouse of your LIRA), a consulate is more likely to be understanding if you can’t locate this record from such a comune – in this case just get a letter from the comune explaining why they have no such records.
The Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) has records, both civil and ecclesiastical, copied from Italian comuni. Some of these records are online, at http://www.familysearch.org, but they have many more records on microfilm that you can view at one of their Family History Centers. These are the actual original records, which contain a lot more information than the extracts, although they can be hard to read. Generally such LDS records cannot be used for your application, except in rare cases when the certificate in question wasn’t really that important to begin with, but they can be used to verify that a comune has a record for an ancestor, to find information that one would need in order to request a certificate, or to determine whether a certificate that one has obtained from a comune has an error.
The Extract I Received from the Comune Has an Error
If you find that a certificate that you have received from Italy may contain an error, or may be for the wrong person, you can contact the comune, point out the error, and request a new one. It is not that common to find that information was mistranscribed when creating the extract. If you have access to LDS records, this can be a good way to verify whether the information in the extract that you’ve received reflects the original record. It also sometimes happens that information in a marriage record differs from that in a birth record – in this case one can point it out to the comune, and they can perhaps write you a letter acknowledging the discrepancy in their records, which you can then show to the consulate. Be warned, though, that we have never had a member who was able to amend a record in a comune.
My ancestor’s birthday in Italian documents mismatches my US (other foreign) documents…
Another type of document that you may need from a comune is a so-called a positivo/negativo letter. This is usually a letter from the comune indicating that nobody else by the same name as your ancestor was born in that comune during the specified year. You may need to span multiple years in the letter depending on the degree of the discrepancy.
Words of caution regarding birth date discrepancies of Italian-born ancestors:
Some of our members have discovered that the person they had identified in Italian records was the wrong person; not the ancestor with the same name that they had been searching for based on US documents. This is probably more common than most realize. A strong clue that this may be the case for you is if your ancestor consistently used a birth date on US documents that is different from that which you found on Italian birth records. It is important that before you pursue corrections to conflicting info on US documents and other preemptive moves, you verify with the comune in Italy that you actually have birth info for the correct person. This isn’t always straightforward; it can be helpful to have a researcher/genealogist assist in working with the comune. Here is why:
Italian tradition is that the first male son is named after his paternal grandfather and the first female after her paternal grandmother. Many of our families were quite large in the 1800s to early-1900s, sometimes having 12 children or more! The parents of those children would have had many grandchildren named after them.
Take, for example, Giuseppe Capone, born in 1865. Giuseppe had 10 children starting in 1884, each born 1-2 years apart, 8 of them sons. These 8 sons all had children as well, each eventually having a son, all born between 1900 and 1910. (2 even born the same year!) Each of these 8 first grandsons to Giuseppe all inherited his name. They were a tighly-knit family, all born and living in Salerno. One of these Giuseppe Capone grandsons headed to the US at age 19. But, which one???
This is where the conundrum comes. Unless you have documentation confirming this immigrant Giuseppe Capone’s parents and other very specific information to differentiate him from his 7 cousins with exactly the same name, and birth dates all within 10 years of each other, you have little hope of determining which was which. Hopefully the comune will have notes in the records indicating which Giuseppe left the country and which others stayed behind, but a simple request for birth records may not yield this kind of research on their part. In fact, you as the requester probably have no idea these 8 Giuseppe Capone existed. The comune, also being none the wiser, unless they happen to stumble upon the fact that there are several others, may just send you birth info for the one they happen to find first.
It can be quite arduous for the comune to fetter-out the details of a case like this. It can take many hours of research across numerous indexes and handwritten records. This is why it can be helpful to have a researcher assisting. Also, cases like this are not uncommon. In fact, my own family has a tale much like this, in which my GGGGF had numerous children with many grandsons bearing his name. An intrepid family member constructed an elaborate family tree some 30+ years ago, connecting many supposed US and Italian ancestors. This was shared with many of them. Unfortunately, she made one mistake–she had the wrong Giuseppe in one spot along the way! She was using a cousin of my true GGF, born less than 2 years apart from each other. As you can imagine, that one error changed everything dramatically.
The moral of the story is that if you have inexplicable discrepancies in birth dates between US and Italian documents, do more research. A good researcher can save you from complications down the road. Minor birth date discrepancies often pass through consulates unquestioned, but when the paperwork is eventually sent to the comune to register your recognition, if it is through the wrong person, the comune will likely catch it.