Dateline: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Having a second passport is an important step toward personal and economic freedom. However – especially for US citizens – the goal of obtaining a second passport can sometimes mean getting just about ANY passport.
We recently discussed some of the fastest citizenships anyone can get merely by spending some time living overseas. With the exception of Russia, most of these citizenships are in South America, where immigration rules are far more open.
I see a lot of US persons looking to countries like the Dominican Republic – where naturalization is possible in just a couple of years – as an alternative to their US passport, and even as the first step toward renouncing US citizenship to avoid taxes.
However, many westerners used to traveling on high-quality passports with wide options for visa-free travel may find themselves locked in with the travel options of a lesser quality passport.
Likewise, those from emerging countries in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia may be able to obtain cheap passports in places like the Comoros Islands, but will not enhance their ability to travel… one of the biggest reasons they wanted another passport in the first place.
However, obtaining a second citizenship in a developed world jurisdiction can in some cases be nearly as efficient as those in the developing world. For westerners, the immigration process in a country like Paraguay may be relatively efficient, but that is often not the case for those from the emerging world.
Having an EU citizenship comes with additional benefits, such as freedom of movement throughout the European Union, affordable education, and other social benefits.
The challenge is, of course, that much of Europe is insolvent and has succumbed to socialist policies that make doing business and paying taxes there a real chore. Many European countries act as if you bringing your money there is them doing you a favor.
There are, however, a few relatively sane European countries that offer second citizenship to foreigners willing to put in a little time on the ground. These countries are members of the European Union, which comes with the pros and cons that such membership entails.
If you’re looking for a well-respected second passport that offers excellent ability to travel and opens doors both at immigration counters and with bankers and investors, here are five European passports you might consider…
Malta is about as close to a tax haven as Europe has. While Ireland constantly flirts with the label of “unfair tax competition” for its 12.5% corporate tax, Malta uses a 35% headline tax rate and a prompt 30% tax refund to get around such claims.
In effect, corporate taxes in Malta are 5% for most companies doing business offshore. As such, Malta offers the banking and business benefits of the European Union with a low tax rate.
Malta also offers an excellent passport for those with real money to spend. In exchange for €800,000 in various investments, plus fees, anyone can become Maltese within about 18 months. Applicants are required to maintain residency (defined vaguely) in the country for the first year and maintain a real place of residence.
After the initial waiting period, the Maltese government will naturalize you and your family – all for just shy of $1 million. Malta’s passport is among the best in the world; Malta citizens can access every single country in Europe and the Americas without a visa, save for communist Cuba and Belarus.
Not bad if you can afford it. While Malta’s budget hasn’t always been pretty, the low-tax country has shaped up its finances from budget deficits of years back.
Belgium is another country that hasn’t gone totally bonkers yet. While income tax in Belgium is high, capital gains taxes are zero. Belgium is a tax haven for investors, as was evidenced when French captains of industry fled for just across the border when France imposed 75% income tax rates on millionaires.
Belgium runs budget deficits in the low single digits and has shown some restraint on taxation. However, it is possible to become a resident of Belgium for purposes of becoming a citizen, yet not for tax purposes.
Belgium residency may be obtained by anyone with either the willingness to start a small business and hire one part-time employee or by merely demonstrating “significant means” to support themselves (usually around €1 million).
Once admitted, a Belgium resident must purchase or rent a property to live in and register with the local city hall. Once that is done, it is possible to spend only a few months per year in Belgium so long as part of that time is spent elsewhere in Europe.
After five years, it is possible to apply for Belgium citizenship, although the process could take closer to seven years for some. Anyone suggesting it can be done in three years hasn’t checked the requirements since 2013. Either way, Belgium has one of the world’s best passports, and Belgians are considered about as low-risk as they come while overseas.
Estonia got a lot of publicity for its “e-residency” program last year, although the $60 national ID card comes with few benefits beyond opening bank accounts, and does not offer any immigration benefit.
It is possible for entrepreneurs to immigrate to Estonia by starting an Estonian company, however. Estonia is widely considered to be one of the most tech-friendly countries in Europe and the world, and the country is eager for businesses to establish themselves there.
By starting an Estonian company with a minimum amount of paid-up capital, you can apply for an Estonian residence permit, which – if issued – should be renewed so long as your company shows some profits.
You will need to live in Estonia for six months each year, which subjects you to Estonian tax on your worldwide income. The good news is that taxes in Estonia are relatively low, with income taxed at 20% and your business income taxed only when you take a distribution.
After eight years of residence in the country and knowledge of the Estonian language, you can apply for naturalization and an Estonian passport. The cold weather is made up for with an extremely efficient and transparent government that isn’t known for playing games.
To Estonia’s south is Latvia, the most well-connected of the Baltic states and a country with a growing reputation for quality offshore banking. While Latvia has the region’s largest population of Russians, almost anyone can become Latvian by being a resident for ten years.
Becoming a resident requires you to start a company that creates jobs and pays a rather substantial amount of taxes every year, or purchase Latvian real estate of €250,000 or more, or deposit €300,000 in a Latvian bank.
If you have €300,000 to your name and don’t mind waiting ten years, obtaining Latvian citizenship is about as easy as it gets. Unlike Hungary which requires you to buy toilet paper government bonds, Latvia allows you to choose your own bank and deposit your own money… or buy real estate to own in your own name.
The risks of investing in Latvia are lower when compared to other country’s “golden visa” programs that give politicians ultimate control over your cash. Latvian citizenship is of excellent quality and includes visa-free travel to the United States. Latvia also passes my “small countries are better” test.
Tell anyone in the rest of the European Union that you want to become a Romanian citizen and you’ll invariably be asked: “Why?” Prejudice against Romania, which is part of the EU but not the borderless Schengen Area, is relatively high.
That said, few countries in Europe love the United States and Americans as much as Romania does. We’ve discussed how there are entire groups of people in Bucharest that may as well live in the United States considering their American English skills and jobs working with US companies.
Romanian citizenship can be obtained with as little as five years of residence. It’s possible to start a company and pay yourself less than €1,000 per month in order to keep your residency active. While few lawyers in Bucharest or elsewhere have much experience in obtaining visas for entrepreneurs, it is possible.
While Romania has a poor political history, the country is attempting to move in the right direction. Budget deficits are down, as are tax rates. Politicians are working to appeal to businesses. And unlike many western European countries that get on their high horse at foreigners, Romania is open, especially to Americans.
The truth is that Europe is one of the most open places to immigrate to, with many other countries offering various second residency programs for entrepreneurs, investors, or just anyone with cash in the bank to support themselves.
The challenge is to find a program that won’t tax you to death or bankrupt you. While Greece offers a residency program, you’d be obviously ill-advised to put so much as a dime in a Greek bank account in order to qualify, and Greek nationality is nearly impossible to obtain these days.
If you’re interested in obtaining residency and future citizenship in Europe, feel free to contact me.