Dateline: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Central and South America are often noted as the easiest countries to get citizenship, and for good reason.
Programs like Panama’s Friendly Nations Visa program allows for almost any westerner to become an instant permanent resident of the country and apply for naturalization after five years.
Other countries also offer easy immigration programs for anyone with a nominal income or savings; from Nicaragua to Paraguay to even Guatemala, the Americas are a flexible place for getting a second citizenship.
One other country has a history of being an easy country to get citizenship: Uruguay.
Located deep in South America, Uruguay is a relative bastion of economic freedom, especially when compared to regional neighbors like Argentina and Bolivia. Banks in Uruguay are of good quality and while opening a bank account has gotten harder, it is not a bad place to deposit cash.
In fact, Uruguay doesn’t even feel like South America; beach towns like Punta del Este go crazy in the southern hemisphere’s summer months as rich Brazilians and Argentines flood the beaches just as the jet-set elite flood Monaco in European summer.
Benefits of a Uruguayan passport
Due to its close historical ties with Europe, Uruguay not only feels a lot like Europe, it has some of the benefits of a high-class second passport.
In fact, Uruguay and parts of Santiago, Chile are among the few places in South America that feel most “civilized”. Of course, with the feeling of living in Europe comes the downside of a higher cost of living.
For that, the Uruguay passport is a rather good travel document, allowing the customary passport-free access to all of South America and MERCOSUR as well as visa-free access to Europe’s Schengen Area.
For four years at the beginning of the century, Uruguay citizens even enjoyed “visa-free” access to the United States via ESTA. The fact that Uruguay has among the highest incomes per capita in the Americas helped make that possible.
A Uruguayan passport no longer grants such access, but with very high visa approval numbers, Uruguay is once again a “roadmap country” being considered for visa-free access to the US again.
In short, Uruguay has a good passport. Add that to a friendly tax regime and you’ve got a sure-fire winner for your second passport… or so you’d think.
How to get second citizenship in Uruguay
The road to Uruguay citizenship starts the same way the road to other Latin citizenships does: getting second residency and letting the hourglass sift away.
Second residency in Uruguay is relatively straightforward; anyone with a decent monthly income can qualify, although the minimum amounts are higher than in Central American countries due to the higher cost of living.
Once residency is obtained, you are expected to relocate to Uruguay. Uruguay immigration officials are more strict about this than other countries like Panama; they actually want to see you living there.
Married couples are at an advantage when obtaining residency in Uruguay, as “families” are invited to apply for naturalization as soon as three years after residency is obtained. Single residents must wait five years to apply.
That puts the Uruguay residency program on par with Panama, Nicaragua, and many European countries in terms of wait time for single filers, and on par with Paraguay for those who are married or have families. In fact, Uruguay is among the fastest ways to get a second passport.
But no so fast.
Uruguay imposes steep physical presence requirements that countries such as Paraguay do not. My contacts who have Uruguay residency tell me that they were expected to spend at least 9-10 months in the country in their first year.
That means any business trips, trips to see family, or leisure travel must be jammed into two months in the first year. On an ongoing basis, Uruguay Immigration expects you to be physically present in the country for at least six months.
Applying for Uruguay citizenship requires that you show proof that the country is your center of life. This proof can border on the arcane, as judges and immigration officials have requested library cards, receipts from doctor appointments, or proof of country club memberships.
In short, Uruguay is NOT the place to fly in, get a cedula, and come back every once in a while before applying for naturalization.
In fact, it may not be the place to obtain a second citizenship even if you’re willing to live there. There is no doubt that Uruguay has some beautiful cities and is a charming place to live, but recent accounts have suggested that not even those who have obviously made the place their only home can become Uruguay citizens.
I know of two accounts in which families have spent several years in country – foregoing leaving for worry of having their citizenship prospects diminished – only to be turned down by judges and an immigration system that used circular logic on them.
Sadly, Uruguay is not the best country to get a second passport. Yes, the requirements are relatively straightforward and anyone of even modest success can meet them.
The challenge is that Uruguay has started to develop a reputation for not naturalizing foreigners who ask for it based on the guidelines. And if you’re Chinese or Arabic, forget it; you’ll never become Uruguayan.
I frequently tell people that you can’t view any residency program as a guarantee of future citizenship. Countries can change their laws at any time. They can also do what Uruguay appears to have started doing, which is to simply not enforce their law in a way that works against you.
If South America is a place you’d like to live, but you want the comforts of home, obtaining residency in Uruguay may not be a bad idea. It is possible to live there full-time and still pay no tax on worldwide income for your first five years, making it a great flag to plant as your primary residence in many cases.
If you’re seeking a passport, however, you’d be better off in Chile if you’re willing to spend time on the ground, and Panama, Paraguay, or elsewhere if you’re less flexible.