Milan is a very attractive city that has it’s own charm distinct to Rome, and it’s a very popular tourist destination and business hub in it’s own right. But is English widely spoken there, to the extent that you could actually live there long term without speaking any Italian? Is it possible to get by living in Milan only speaking English?
It is possible to visit and even live in Milan as an expat only speaking English, since it is a very international city with English very widely spoken. It may even be possible to work there without knowing much Italian if placed there by a multi-national company. However, learning some Italian is always recommended to integrate more easily.
Milan definitely has more of an international feel than other Italian cities, and along with Rome, which does allow you to get away with using more English and not needing as much Italian. However, regardless of the city in Italy that you want to live in, it’s always still advised to learn at least basic Italian to get by easier.
Let’s look at the issue in detail, covering some different scenarios.
How Widely Spoken Is English In Milan?
As a very international city and a key business hub in Italy and Europe, Milan does receive a lot of English speakers every year. On a normal year, it receives several million foreign visitors each year, with the UK a key tourist market. Plus it’s a key market for some international businesses, which we’ll cover further below.
Therefore the city is well equipped to receive English speakers, and therefore English is very widely spoken there, especially in the central parts. It has much higher levels of English proficiency than Italy as a whole for example, which still has quite a low percentage of English speakers at around one third.
Go to Milan, and that ratio probably jumps up to around 50% or more in the central parts. Here’s an overview:
- You should have no problems ordering food in most places in the center; they’ll know enough English to take your order.
- English will be spoken in most tourist shops
- English also spoken in train stations, and signs often in English as well as Italian.
- English also spoken at the airports in Milan, since it’s an international travel hub.
- Buses more hit and miss, but often spoken as well.
- No problems speaking English in hotels as well, since it receives a lot of international visitors on business and leisure trips.
- If in doubt, look for a younger and/or well educated looking business person. Most will speak English in the central parts of Milan. Older people less so.
- Outside of the central parts, English will be less spoken, but still more than most of the rest of Italy.
Therefore, for short term trips to Milan, you’ve got absolutely no problem only using English. Millions of English and American tourists have gone there, and there’s never been any reported language barrier issues. You don’t need Italian for short term visits there, although having a few basic words always helps with the locals and it’s pretty much impossible not to pick up the basics anyway, even if you’re not really trying.
Can You Live In Milan Without Speaking Italian?
The general region of Lombardy to which Milan belongs in the north of Italy actually has quite a large expat resident population of around 1 million people, with roughly around 200,000 of those coming from English speaking countries. Not nearly all of these expats will be fluent in Italian.
Therefore, it is demonstrably possible to also move to Milan longer term without speaking Italian, and get by only speaking English, since many expats already do this.
However, I also have a friend who lives in Milan, and he confirmed the usual point that it is still advantageous to learn Italian if moving there, both to help with settling in and meeting people (opening up work and social opportunities).
But the great thing about Milan, along with those other international cities like Lisbon and Barcelona, is that there’s no real pressure to learn Italian right away, since English is so widely spoken you can get by with just that for the time being once you’ve fully relocated there.
You can do all the basic things you need to, such as get shopping, order food, go out and use transport, without really needing much Italian as much as you might in smaller and less international Italian cities. And then you can learn Italian at your own pace in your own time.
Everyone has a different style and temperament, but this is the type of foreign city I’d prefer to move to, where you can take one thing at a time and there’s no urgent need to learn another language on top of the already general stress of moving. In Milan, you can take things more slowly and use English in your initial few months there, whilst you’re getting your bearings.
Can You Work In Milan Only Speaking English? (Without Italian)
Again, the answer to this question for many European cities is usually no, but Milan has such a strong international feel to it, and the answer again is often yes:
It is possible to work in Milan only speaking English and without much Italian, since it is a key international hub where many Western companies are based or do business. Therefore there are many opportunities for English speakers to work there on placements. Working for an Italian company however, Italian language skills will be required.
As far as Anglo-centric international companies that conduct at least some business in English that are based in Milan, or do a lot of business there, there’s loads to choose from, and too many to list here. Deloitte, Amazon, PwC, KPMG, IBM, Google, Oracle, Apple, Cisco and Dell are just some examples (see here for detailed list). If you have the right CV and skills set, you can definitely land a job in Milan that requires little or no Italian.
However, for smaller Italian business, you will need Italian to work for them, even in a city like Milan. They’re very unlikely to take on people that only speak English, since you’re not going to only be conversing with English speakers even somewhere like Milan. You’ll need to interact with local people as well who might only speak Italian. Some companies may take you on if you only have basic Italian, on the proviso that you’re continuing to learn and improve your proficiency as you go along.
Another in-between solution that might only require a small level of Italian is teaching English as a foreign language to Italians (at some kind of British School or TEFL style course). This work famously doesn’t pay very well, but can be a route into the Italian workforce if you only know a bit of Italian, since most of your lessons will be conducted in English.
Can You Study In Milan Only Speaking English? (Without Italian)
Much like fellow north Italian city Bologna, the news for being able to study in Milan speaking only English is also quite positive:
It is possible to study in Milan only speaking English, since the University of Milan does offer some undergraduate and post-graduate degree programmes that are taught entirely in English.
See here for a full list of undergraduate and master degrees UniMi offers on English. The main choice is in Masters degrees, but there are some good programmes there for sure. University Bocconi in Milan also have an English courses page, but it doesn’t have anything on there at present and hasn’t been updated in a while (possibly due to events of the last few years).
Therefore if you do want to continue into higher/further education, but fancy doing so in a foreign city that still has a strong international feel to it, then Milan could be one of the places to go, along with Bologna.
Again though, whilst you could theoretically interact with the University system there only speaking English, and also get by in daily life, it’s still recommended to learn Italian regardless, to help with assimilation and social life, and deal with any language barrier issues that may still come up now and then.
Should I Learn Italian Anyway If I Move To Milan?
Whilst you can get by in more circumstances only using English in Milan, it’s almost always advised to learn some Italian anyway. My friend who lives in Milan put it this way:
“My experience here is that success comes through who you know and word of mouth, so the more you network and build relationships with the locals the better your prospects”.
It’s a cliche about the Italian system that it’s about “who you know” and contacts, but I’ve had several people confirm to me that it is true and not just a cliche. Networking and making contacts is crucial in Italy perhaps more than most other countries, and to do that effectively, you need to have some Italian skills.
If you already have wealth and are moving to Milan to retire, it’s less of an issue. Having your own source of income already is also an advantage. Anything else though, and it’s better to learn Italian when moving to Milan (or anywhere in Italy for that matter), to open up more opportunities and connect with more people.
And this is especially true for dealing with the famously corrupt and slow moving bureaucratic/state system in Italy. I’ve dealt with the fringes of this myself in my stays there, and even the small taste I got was infuriating in how slow things were to move sometimes.
There’s also other “daily stuff” that you’ll encounter long term that it’s easier to get sorted if you know some Italian, like:
- General state admin/paperwork – getting your tax “codice fiscale” card/number or “permesso di soggiorno” (residence permits) or other visa stuff – It’s going to be hard to do this only speaking English. From personal experience, not many staff at these centers speak English.
- Opening up bank accounts
- Possibly getting loans, mortgages, credit cards (contracts likely only in Italian)
- Setting up mobile phone/internet contracts (only in Italian)
- Setting up utilities contracts (gas/electric/water).
- Getting your car fixed if you drive
- Getting broken AC fixed (especially in summer)
- Buying property
- Signing long term rental agreements
- Opening up businesses
- Going anywhere outside the main center of Milan, or anywhere else in Italy where English isn’t very widely spoken (like countryside areas)
Although all these things will generally be easier in Milan then other cities, and companies might be able to put you more readily in front of someone who speaks English, it’s still useful to have some Italian to help with conversing.
Some Basic Italian Phrases
Regardless of the purpose or length of your stay in Milan, it’s almost always advised to learn some Italian anyway.
See the table and video below for some key phrases to get you started.
|How are you? (formal/friendly)||Come stai/sta?||Com-eh sty/sta?|
|Fine, thanks||Bene, grazie||Beh-ne grat-see-eh|
|Please||Per favore||Per favoor-eh|
|Sorry||Mi dispiace||Me dis-piar-chey|
|Sorry/excuse me (informal)||Scusi||Scoosi|
|Do you speak English?||Parla inglese?||Parla inglay-sey?|
|Speak slowly||Parla lente||Parla lentay|
|Where's the bathroom?||Dov'e il bagno?||Do-vay eel ban-yo?|
|I'd like this please||Vorrei questa per favore||Vorrey kwesta per favoor-eh|
|Take out/eat in (for food)||Porta via/mange qui||Porta via/manje kwee|
|1/2 beers please||Uno/Due birra(e) per favore||Oono/doo-ey birra(eh) per favoor-eh|
|1/2 tickets please||Uno/Due biglietto(i) per favore||Oono/doo-ey billyetto(i) per favoor-eh|
If you’re looking for a language learning app, Mondly offers 41 languages for you to learn on any device, with plans starting from $4/month, and a free version also accessible with no signup required. It is used by over 100 million people worldwide and has excellent overall reviews with it’s easy user interface and emphasis on quick learning and progress. See our overview of the platform here.
Some Useful Resources For People Moving To Milan
Here are links to some other resources to help with common daily life issues living as an expat/worker in Milan or Italy in general:
- Milan Blogs – See EasyMilano’s blog to living in Milan for some good information on moving there. There’s another good blog here including interviews with expats there.
- Italian Classes – See here for an excellent page on in-person and online Italian classes available in Milan to foreigners looking to improve their skills, for all abilities for a reasonable price.
- Learning Italian digitally – The Mondly app we linked to above is good, but also I liked learning Italian with the more traditional Michel Thomas method, which focuses more on using verbs than on vocabulary. A different way to learn, but very practical-focused.
- Visas – Like Portugal, Italy does have a Golden Visa Program, which offers an easier path to residency than the standard routes. However, a sizeable investment into Italy is required to get it. See here for more.
- Schools/Kids – See here for a good guide for international schools in Milan. Plenty of choice but as you’d expect, prices are not cheap.
- Banking – If you’re using a foreign bank card to draw out euros at an ATM in Italy, you’re likely to get stung with high fees. See our guide on some good multi-currency card options to spend in euros for free, and also withdraw money from ATMs cheaply in Euro-using countries.
- Phones/SIM Cards – Many phones are locked and won’t accept foreign SIM cards. For getting a working local SIM card and number in Italy without spending loads of money, see this article.