The best citizenship by investment programs

If you’re a high net worth individual in need of a fast second passport, citizenship by investment may be right for you.

Last update: August 5, 2017

Dateline: Andorra la Vella, Andorra

It would take you at least 20 years to get citizenship here in Andorra. Here, where residency rules are relatively straightforward, naturalization is extremely tough to come by. In fact, it’s one of the most grueling naturalization timelines on earth, behind only San Marino and Liechtenstein.

Spain, where I’ve been spending the month, isn’t much better at 10 years, plus four more for bureaucracy. For those who want a fast second passport, there are only two options: be lucky enough to have certain European lineage, or fork over some cash.

Citizenship by investment is a process whereby wealthy individuals can obtain a second citizenship extremely quickly in exchange for an investment or donation. These so-called “economic citizenships” are valuable to two types of people:

  • US citizens who wish to quickly renounce their citizenship. Pragmatically, renunciation requires a second passport, and if you’re a high-earner, the cost of an economic citizenship might be far less than the tax and compliance costs of remaining American.
  • Emerging world citizens losing opportunities. Chinese and Arab citizens are the largest investors in citizenship by investment programs. The wealthy in these and other countries can afford the cost in exchange for the greatly increased travel benefits.

There are other people looking at paying cash for citizenship; I’m seeing a lot more South Africans looking at these programs as the rand plummets and wealth grabs near.

There are also nationalities that are restricted from doing business in certain countries and would benefit from a quick passport for business opportunities. Israelis, who are banned from about a dozen countries, are an example of this.

Before we cover the best countries, let’s establish a few definitions…

The difference between residency and citizenship by investment

If you’re not a US citizen, you don’t need a second passport to reduce your tax obligations; a second residency will likely do the trick in your case. That doesn’t mean that having another passport is a bad idea, as I believe more countries will make it hard to escape their tax net in the future. However, you probably don’t need a passport six months from now.

Economic citizenship is for people with a pressing need to have another passport now, be it for tax reasons, business, or travel.

Residency by investment is not the same as citizenship by investment. Golden Visa programs like those in Portugal and Spain will eventually yield a second passport, but it will take at least six years.

Other countries like Panama offer a Friendly Nations Visa that streamlines residency requirements, but also requires years for naturalization… and has no 100% guarantee of paying off in the end.

These second residency programs are great for tax residency or for a future Plan B passport, but they are merely creating yet another path to residency, with citizenship being the future benefit of residency.

The best citizenship by investment programs

For our purposes, we will consider programs that offer anyone the chance to become a citizen of the country within approximately one year or less. Countries with longer wait times, or that offer subjective naturalization to people who “fit the bill”, such as Austria does in extraordinarily rare cases, are excluded.

Bulgaria

Some claim that Bulgarian citizenship is possible after just one year, but in reality, the program takes two years and is not nearly as straightforward as some might suggest. Also, if the European Union were to fall apart, I imagine Bulgaria would be the first country to get bounced out.

VERDICT: I may change my mind on this one later, but for now I’d skip it.

Cyprus

Ironically, Cyprus is the country Israeli goods often travel through on their way to be sold in the Arab world.

Cyprus is a member of the European Union and, until recently, offered the fastest naturalization I’ve ever heard of: just 57 days. Now, the process will take up to one year as the EU cracks down.

You can obtain Cyprus citizenship with an investment of €2 million in real estate, government bonds, a bank deposit in a Cyprus bank, or investment in a new company; this amount was reduced in late 2016. Cyprus citizenship was always pricier than other options, but unlike most other programs, you can invest rather than donate, meaning you might expect to see most of your money back after a few years. ( I have recently published a video discussing Cyprus citizenship while having a vacation there with friends and colleagues.)

You may remember that Cypriot citizenship was originally offered to wealthy Russians who lost millions in the country’s banks. That’s something to be mindful of, considering the minimum investment period for your millions is three years. One other caveat: you must own a €500,000 home in Cyprus forever.

VERDICT: Cyprus offers EU citizenship, but not Schengen area access. If you were planning to start a company or buy a seaside villa in the seven figures, consider it. Otherwise, skip it.

Malta

Unlike Maltese residency which is a more simple process ( especially with Global Resident Programme), there’s a lot of conflicting information out there about how to get Maltese citizenship, partially due to some earlier vagueness from the government.

Malta is the only citizenship by investment program that sells access to both the European Union AND the borderless Schengen Area. Considering that, Malta is almost immediately a better deal than Cyprus for many people.

Unlike Cyprus, Malta requires a government donation in addition to the typical fees present with all programs. The donation is €650,000 for the main applicant, plus €25,000 for a spouse and each minor child. Adult children up to 25 years old and dependent parents may be added for an additional €50,000 fee per person.

In addition to the donation, you must also invest €150,000 in Maltese government bonds — or occasionally Maltese stocks — for a period of five years. Lastly, you must purchase a home for €350,000 or more, or rent or enter a five-year lease for at least €16,000 per year. After that, it takes one year to issue your Malta passport.

VERDICT: I’m not bullish on Maltese real estate, but I’m not running for the hills, either. If you can comfortably kiss €650,000 goodbye, this is a great program.

Now, let’s move out of Europe and into the Americas…

St. Kitts and Nevis

St. Kitts and Nevis runs the original economic passport program, in operation since I was born in 1984. Other Caribbean programs have copied it, and the program has enjoyed a lot of success up until now.

The requirements are simple: you can donate money to the government’s Sugar Fund, or you can buy “approved” real estate. The donation is almost always the better option, as the real estate is vastly over-priced and, as some clients have told me, not even very nice.

The real estate investment is $400,000 and up, and there are many providers ready to sell you everything from a shack to a timeshare in a five-star hotel. You can technically re-sell it in several years, but you won’t get your money back. The real estate option involves extra government fees.

The donation route involves paying $250,000 for a single applicant, up to $450,000 for a family of eight. There are fewer government fees than the real estate option because you’re already paying the government for nothing in return. Whichever option you choose, the whole process will take about six months.

VERDICT: St. Kitts and Nevis used to be the only game in town, but it has lost its luster since losing visa-free access to Canada in 2014. There is nothing wrong with it, but it has become overpriced compared to similar programs.

Dominica

Dominica is the lowest-priced passport “for sale” on earth, ever since Belize ended its $40,000 program years ago (it just goes to show you that passport prices are going up very quickly). The price was supposed to go up by $75,000 in 2016, but they later retracted the price increase.

Dominica recently started offering a real estate investment option, but like other programs, the real estate is overpriced; and, unlike other programs, there are very few options as of now. My general advice is to make the donation and walk away.

After years with limited travel potential, Dominica recently received visa-free access to Europe’s Schengen Area, making its passport power nearly equal to that of St. Kitts and Nevis. Dominica is now a very good passport for travel. It takes four to six months to become a citizen.

Dominica does require economic citizens to speak “basic English”, which I believe is pretty straightforward. After all, you’re reading this. If you are a citizen of Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Sao Tome Principe, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, or Yemen, you’ll be subject to special scrutiny.

VERDICT: If you’re seeking a “budget passport” and don’t require a European citizenship, Dominica is one of the best value options available.

Antigua and Barbuda

Antigua started its citizenship program in 2012 with a unique requirement: citizens must live there for 35 days out of the first five years. That requirement isn’t exactly tough, as you could knock it out with a month-long vacation to celebrate your new passport, but it is a requirement nonetheless. With Malta having a similar but more rigorous requirement, I expect to see more of this in years to come.

Antigua’s investment options are pretty standard fare for Caribbean passports and range from a $250,000 donation to the government to a $400,000 real estate investment to a $1.5 million business investment. The only interesting alternative is that you can invest only $400,000 into a business if join a group with other applicants investing at least $5 million collectively.

The other option is a “Redeemable Preferred Share Offer” at a real estate project on the island, in which investors give up any capital appreciation (of which I would expect none to begin with) in exchange for a small fixed return. However, the project got off to a rocky start and I wouldn’t count Antiguan property developers as being among the safest bets.

The one benefit of Antiguan citizenship is that it still offers visa-free travel to Canada. If you are Canadian and obtaining a second passport as a Plan B, Antigua is worth looking at. St. Kitts lost its access to Canada in 2014, while Dominica and St. Lucia never had it.

VERDICT: Unless easy travel to Canada is a requirement for you, Antigua doesn’t offer much new to get me excited. That could change as new real estate options are rolled out.

St. Lucia

St. Lucia offers the newest citizenship program in the Caribbean, and their requirements were originally a bit more stringent. While St. Lucia originally required you to have a net worth of at least $3 million, they dropped that requirement in 2017. They also dropped the required donation for citizenship significantly, with the donation option now costing a mere $100,000 (the same as Dominica).

The best option in most Caribbean passport programs is to make a donation, although St. Lucia also allows you to invest in real estate or start a business. If you choose the donation route, the amount for a single applicant has been lowered to a mere $100,000 as of 2017, tying it with Dominica as the least expensive usable citizenship program.

St. Lucia offers a few benefits for families, namely that the donations and fees are reasonable, and that they allow dependent parents to be included in the application. Historically, the easiest way to become a St. Lucian citizen was to invest $500,000 in government bonds, which must be held for five years.

If you prefer to purchase real estate, the minimum is a mere $300,000. Again, I recommend avoiding such “approved real estate”. I also recommend against the business investment option that requires $3.5 million and the creation of three jobs; qualified entrepreneurs could find better countries to give them citizenship with that kind of investment.

VERDICT: Now that St. Lucia has reduced its donation to a mere $100,000, it’s a worthy competitor to Dominica for value-conscious westerners who want a passport further off the radar for its economic citizenship program. Definitely worth considering.

Vanuatu

I recently spent a week in Vanuatu and am sure that the country offers the world’s most confusing citizenship by investment program. It was interesting how, three days after arriving on Vanuatu soil, a group of local experts had invited me to their boardroom to ask what I thought of their passport program. My review was not good.

There are various donation options and even the most seasoned of expats with their ear to the ground don’t really understand how they work. Basically, you can expect to spend about $250,000 when you count the government donation and agent fees payable to a local ni-Vanuatu.

Vanuatu passport are the only economic citizenship that offer visa-free travel to Russia (compared to Grenada’s visa-free access to China), and also offer the standard access to the United Kingdom, Ireland, and more recently Europe. However, they are not good for travel to most of the Americas or even Australia in their own backyard.

VERDICT: I like Vanuatu and see potential for frontier market investors and on-the-ground residency seekers, but the passport program is overpriced and overly confusing.

Turkey

In January 2017, Turkey introduced an economic citizenship program in an effort to prop up their beleaguered economy. This was shortly after the Turkish lira plunged to an all-time low against the US dollar and ongoing acts of terrorism had driven Istanbul real estate sales to fresh lows. In an effort to woo investors again, Turkey’s government decided to offer citizenship to millionaire investors.

The cheapest way to get a Turkish passport is by purchasing property totaling $1 million in value (dollar-to-lira exchange rates are determined at the time of sale). This property must be held for three years to maintain citizenship. Personally, I feel that Turkish real estate hasn’t taken enough of a beating despite everything that has gone on in the last year, but you may be able to find some values.

Alternatively, you can invest $2 million into a capital expenditure, or merely deposit $3 million in a Turkish bank. Again, these investments should be held for three years. I’ve long been watching term deposits in Turkey, and I’m glad that I never pulled the trigger. However, you do not have to deposit money in liras in order to qualify, meaning you can earn a little interest on your $3 million and withdraw it in three years.

If you are a large employer, you can also obtain Turkish citizenship by creating 100 jobs. This is a much more aggressive requirement than other neighboring countries, so I imagine few people will be taking them up on this option.

VERDICT: Turkey’s program is interesting in that, like Cyprus, you stand a decent chance to get your money back and even turn a profit on its economic citizenship offering. I expect this program to be popular among Gulf investors who have historically been bullish on Turkey as a safe haven, however the mediocre value of a Turkish passport does not make this an interesting program for western investors.

So…

What’s the absolute best economic citizenship program? As with anything else, it depends on your needs. For most people I work with, a fast-track residency program is better than “buying” citizenship outright, but if you’re in a hurry, I’d focus on Malta, Dominica, and St. Lucia, or…

Other economic citizenship options

The programs here are “off the shelf” options available to pretty much everybody, save for the Iraqi citizen who most countries will subject to extra screening.

Depending on your situation, there may be other options. Do you have a business that can create local jobs? Are you a real estate investor willing to invest in a large project? Are you a US citizen?

If you want a nearly 100% guarantee of getting citizenship in 4-12 months, the programs above are best for you. If you prefer to invest less — or if you believe you have other benefits you can bring to a country besides just a checkbook — there are a few of countries that offer conditional economic citizenship.

If you are an entrepreneur or investor looking for other legal alternatives, feel free to contact me for help.

The key to getting a second passport is making sure you do so legally, so it’s important to avoid scam-my programs that avoid paying off corrupt officials. Any citizenship program you take part in should be referenced in that country’s laws; if the person promoting a program can’t show you the legal basis for your citizenship, steer clear.

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Andrew Henderson

Andrew Henderson

Andrew has been internationalizing since 2008, and has learned what works and what doesn't work when it comes to reducing taxes, increasing personal freedom, and creating wealth. Click here to work with him personally.
Andrew Henderson

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