How to obtain an official document in Italy or The Three Cents Runaround

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Most of the time, obtaining an official document in Italy is not a straight-forward or quick process. Depending on what you need, it could be a quick or very frustrating process. Recently I needed to get a "Certificato Penale" (penal certificate) for work purpose, to show that I have not committed any crimes. This is a routine document which I have been getting once a year for the past several years. So I am familiar with the procedure and expect it to be a fairly easy process. Yet the bureaucracy in Italy still does not fail to surprise me after all these years.

Marca da bollo example Italian tax stamp
"Marca da bollo" or tax stamp in Italy

Almost all the fee-based government documents require a "marca da bollo" or tax stamp to be placed on the document itself. Unlike in the U. S., generally you cannot pay at the office. Instead you must purchase this with cash at a nearby tobacco shop. On Sunday, I searched for the court responsible for issuing this type of document in my area on the web and found the cost: 16 + 3.84 = 19.84 euros. I recall that was what I paid last year. I went to the tobacco shop and got the exact amount. After getting home, on court¡¯s web site, I find out that now I am able to reserve my penal certificate before going there so that it will be ready and I can avoid the hassle of filling a form when I get there.

The office is open from 9:00 to 13:00 Monday to Friday. So I went there Monday morning with the stamp duty and my on-line reservation receipt. I arrived at the court¡¯s document section and explained to the lady what I am there to do. She looked at my receipt and tax stamps and said: You are three cents short. I was taken aback. I told her that I followed the amount on the web site (see the screen shot) and make exactly the amount required. She said that they raised the price by 3 cents and cannot process it unless I add another tax stamp.

Certificato Penale costo
A copy of the web site after I obtained my document, still showing 16 + 3.84 euros


It would not have been a problem if I had cash in euro on me. I did not have any, which is my fault. I had some U. S. dollars (from my work) which I thought about exchanging at the post office in front of the court. So I went to the post office and inquired if they could exchange foreign currency before I spend much time in a queue. The employee confirmed it and I took a number. However there were at least twenty five numbers before my turn so I decided not to wait and try to get some money from the ¡°bancomat¡± ATM which is just outside.

In front of the ATM, there were two Italian old men trying to withdraw some money and talking about it. After few minutes they gave up empty-handed, they said to us who were in line that the machine is out of service for withdrawal. Needing the money, I decided to give it a shot but to avail. I had no other choice at the moment so I decided to ask if one of the old men could give me 3 cents to make a tax stamp. He promptly gave me 5 cents. I thanked him and went to the nearby tobacco shop.

I entered the tobacco shop and asked if I could make a tax stamp for 3 cents. The employee said "We cannot, because the smallest amount you can buy is a 20-cent stamp." I told him that the ATM does not work and I had to just beg someone for five cents, but he said "there is nothing I can do."

bancomat fuori servizio - Automatic Teller Machine out of service
ATM out of service (representative photo)

Increasingly frustrated, I head back to the court and came up to the window. No one was at the desk, so I called for someone to come. A middle-aged man came to the window and listened to me as I explained the predicament. Perhaps finding it as absurd as me, he went to his desk and came back to the window, and said "Here are 15 cents, now go and get that 20-cent stamp". So I thanked him and went back to the tobacco shop. This time I was able to get a 20-cent tax stamp.
I headed back again to the court. This time, the first lady came back to the window and I explained my ordeal to her. She just kind shrugged it off and explained that they increased it by 3 cents since last year. How the web site is not updated, that is beyond either of us.

In the end, I got my document stamped and I told her to thank that man who gave me 15 cents to avoid me making another trip to the court another day. In the mess of the bureaucratic hell, this emplyee made a difference. Even though it was a negligible amount of money, my faith in humanity was lifted by this small gesture. It was a compassionate act when too many others would have just reacted with indifference.

The Italian government recently has been pushing to minimize the use of cash and increase electronic payment by passing various laws. Yet, they still rely on an arcane system of buying tax stamps for official documents in the 21st century. They are utterly not equipped to take cash or card payment. Yet without taking the lead and set an example, they want to force the rest of the society to minimize cash usage at the same time requiring people to pay cash for tax stamps. This is the irony of life in Italy.

Sample Certificato Penale
Final document




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