Last updated: May 7, 2017
Dateline: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
One of the biggest concerns I hear from US citizens looking to get a second citizenship is that they will be able to return to the United States to visit. For many people, the idea of not being able to return to their place of birth is scary.
The truth is, there are several options that make obtaining another citizenship worthwhile even if you intend to live in or spend time in the United States after getting it.
If you’re reading this, chances are you understand at least some of the reasons for having a second passport. Having dual nationality or even multiple citizenships means that no one government can shut down your freedom to travel or control your life.
Second citizenship for US dual citizens
It is possible for US citizens to maintain other citizenships so long as they enter and exit the United States using their US passport. You can obtain citizenship through your ancestry (such as in Ireland or Italy), through a residency program and subsequent naturalization (such as Panama), or by making a donation to an economic citizenship program (such as in St. Kitts or Dominica).
Merely obtaining a second citizenship doesn’t mean you are no longer a US citizen. The United States does recognize dual citizenship. So long as you carry a US passport, you can obviously enter and exit the United States whenever you please, and you will also continue to be responsible for filing taxes and reporting your foreign bank accounts, as well.
For Americans who prefer to keep their US passport and have no intention of renouncing their citizenship, the best second passport is one that is easy to obtain, even if visa-free travel options aren’t as great. In this case, the US passport will always be available for travel while the second passport will serve as a “Plan B”.
US citizens – even dual nationals – must still file and pay US income tax on their worldwide earnings and investments. As mentioned, merely having a second passport doesn’t invalidate the tax and filing requirements of this US passport. Each country will still consider you ITS citizen.
Traveling to the US after renouncing US citizenship
Increasingly, I am hearing from folks who want the best of both worlds: the ability to renounce their US citizenship without giving up the ability to visit family and friends in the United States.
This is inherently tricky; even as record numbers renounce their US citizenship, there is a remote possibility that the government can bar a former citizen deemed to have expatriated for tax reasons from entering the country again.
The US government rarely if ever enforces that clause, partially because it would involve even more bureaucracy and partially because most people don’t come out and say “I’m renouncing to avoid paying taxes”.
On top of that, you can’t simply renounce US citizenship and then come back full-time. As a best case scenario, anyone spending 183 days per year on US soil must pay taxes and comply with all resident and citizen regulations.
If you do plan to renounce US citizenship but want to return to visit later, you will fall into one of two camps: someone who needs a visa, or someone who doesn’t.
Unlike here in Malaysia, where practically anyone can visit as a tourist, the United States is one of the most difficult countries in the world to visit.
In fact, only Canadians can simply show up at the border and ask to be let in. Even those with “visa-free” access to the United States must complete an online pre-clearance process called ESTA, which costs $14 and is good for a couple years. (Other countries, like Canada, are now copying this, essentially imposing a soft visa requirement on citizens of even “the best” countries.)
For many of the people I speak to, the second passport they qualify for does NOT allow for visa-free travel to the United States, simply because so few countries can enter without a visa.
If you renounce citizenship on a passport that falls into this camp, you will need to make an appointment at the US Embassy where you legally reside and apply for a visa like everyone else. This usually costs about $300 per person and is non-refundable if you are denied.
As someone with friends from places like China, I can tell you this experience can be anything from tolerable to downright insulting. In fiancee visa cases, for example, there are occasional stories of immigration officials requesting sex in exchange for granting a visa. In most cases, officers range from blase to rude.
Attorney friends of mine say the key to getting a US visa is a lack of “immigration intent”. In other words, it should be clear you have no intentions of settling down in the US and that you are a bona fide tourist.
A single guy living the nomad lifestyle might have trouble proving a lack of immigration intent, as officials would argue he has no ties keeping him somewhere else and might decide to become an illegal immigrant by overstaying his tourist visa.
If you want to avoid the song and dance of applying for a US tourist visa – even for merely transiting through a US airport – you’ll need to obtain a second passport from a country that is a member of the Visa Waiver Program.
Traveling to the US under the Visa Waiver Program
There are 38 Visa Waiver countries (39 now that Poland is approved) that are allowed to visit the United States for tourism, business, or merely to transit. These countries are:
Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.
Additionally, the United States is currently reviewing several “road map” countries with low visa refusal rates for possible inclusion within the next few years. These countries include: Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Israel, Romania, Turkey, and Uruguay.
If you can obtain a passport from a Visa Waiver country, you’ll enjoy excellent visa-free travel around the world as well as the ability to visit the United States.
Only US citizens must be admitted upon arrival; even foreigners who pass ESTA may be denied at their port of entry, but while my European friends tell stories of cranky immigration officers, they are always admitted.
Second passports from Visa Waiver countries
Let’s review all of the Visa Waiver Program countries in which obtaining citizenship is reasonably possible. This list does not consider countries that offer citizenship by marriage.
Australia. While I feel that Australia is just as bad as the US in terms of jingoism and declining freedoms, skilled workers in high demand may be able to obtain residency in Australia, where the naturalization period is four years.
Belgium. While immigrating to Belgium isn’t cheap, it is possible to do so by starting a small business OR proving that you have a substantial net worth; usually $1-2 million does the trick, although they’ve been more difficult as of late. You will need to have an actual residence in Belgium during your entire residency period, but don’t need to spend all of your time there. Five years from the date your residency starts, you may apply for Belgian citizenship so long as you can speak French or Dutch.
Canada. Canada isn’t actually a Visa Waiver program as Canadians have exclusive privileges among foreigners to enter the United States. If your parents are Canadian, you can apply for Canadian citizenship on that basis. You can also invest C$800,000 in a provincial government investment program such as Quebec’s in order to obtain residency. After four years of residency – 75% of which you must be physically present in Canada – you can apply for naturalization.
Chile. If you have six months to spend on the ground, Chile is an interesting option. You can become a resident by showing yourself to be self sufficient, or by running some form of small business in Chile. Once approved, you must spend 183 days in your first year physically present in Chile… just enough to be deemed tax resident. Thereafter, you only need to spend one day per year to keep your residency active. After five years, you can apply for Chilean citizenship.
Estonia. If you are an entrepreneur and don’t mind the cold, Estonia is a decent option. The Estonian government aims to be the least bureaucratic country on earth and welcomes foreign investment; corporate taxes on undistributed profits are zero. By starting a business with a low-five figure sum, most westerners can obtain Estonian residency. The downside is you must stay in Estonia six months per year in order to apply for Estonian citizenship after eight years. While you might get away with living in a nearby European country, you’d still have to pay tax to Estonia as a tax resident.
Greece. Greece offers a citizenship by descent program to those with Greek ancestry, although the government has made it nearly impossible for foreigners to be naturalized as of late.
Hungary. Ethnic Hungarians can apply for citizenship by descent, which is explained here. Hungary offers a residency by investment scheme by which any foreigner can invest 300,000 euros in government bonds to obtain Hungarian residency. Because there is no fast track status for these investors (and because the Hungarian government is nuts), it is often better for westerners to start a small business in Hungary at 1/20th the price. Either way, residents are eligible to apply for citizenship after eight years provided they speak Hungarian. You can learn more about Hungarian residency for entrepreneurs here.
Ireland. If you have parents of grandparents who held Irish citizenship, you can apply for Irish citizenship by descent; the process is straightforward and affordable. Otherwise, you may start a business by demonstrating the ability to invest an amount ranging from 75,000 to 300,000 euros (depending on the type of business) in your Irish company. Doing so entitles you to a residency permit, and you may apply for Irish citizenship after five years of tax residency in Ireland. Investors with 1,000,000 euros or more may purchase real estate or government bonds in lieu of starting a company.
Italy. If you have ancestors (even great grandparents) who held Italian citizenship and did NOT renounce it at any point, you qualify to be an Italian citizen. The process is more bureaucratic than Ireland, but is relatively straightforward. Alternatively, you can obtain a residency permit to live in Italy by showing a mid-five figure bank balance and apply for naturalization after ten years.
Latvia. Latvia allows foreigners to become residents in one of the three ways, and apply for Latvian citizenship after ten years of residence. You may choose to purchase real estate valued at 250,000 euros or more, make a 300,000 euro term deposit in a Latvian bank, or start or invest in a Latvian business that generates substantial jobs and tax revenue. You can learn more about Latvian residency here.
Lithuania. Lithuania has a rather complicated citizenship by descent program, which you can learn about here. It is also possible to start a business and be naturalized in the future, although dual citizenship is unlikely.
Malta. Malta offers a citizenship by investment program which involves a donation to the government and purchase of real estate and government bonds, with a total investment of around $1 million. A one-year residency period is required before Maltese citizenship is granted. You can learn more about Malta citizenship by investment here.
Portugal. Investors who buy 500,000 euros of Portuguese real estate can receive a residency permit for one year, followed by permanent residency for five years. Minimal time on the ground is required for the first few years. After a total of six years, residents may apply for Portugal citizenship. You can learn more about Portugal’s “Golden Visa” residency program here.
Singapore. Skilled workers and directors of Singapore companies may apply for permanent residence after one year on the ground, provided they were in Singapore for 183 days of that year. While Singapore PR is becoming harder to obtain, it is possible to apply for Singapore citizenship after approximately seven years living in the country. While Singapore is a wealth haven, resident entrepreneurs and employees will be required to have Singapore source income which is subject to tax. You can learn more about Singaporean citizenship here.
South Korea. If your parents are Korean, you may apply for South Korean citizenship even if you previously gave it up when the government forbade dual nationality. Foreigners can make a mid-six figure investment in Korea in order to obtain residency, and then apply for citizenship after five years. You can learn more about South Korea residency by investment here.
Spain. While Spanish citizenship offers excellent visa-free travel, I wouldn’t wish Spanish residency on my worst enemy. My friends who have gone through the process to be naturalized in Spain have said the same. If you insist, you can invest 500,000 euros in real estate, OR start a small business, OR simply show you can support yourself. That said, the tax requirements are just as bad for Spanish residents as they are for US citizens. It’s not worth ten years of torture.
The bottom line is that visiting the United States isn’t an automatic right for any foreigner, and will be harder for those who renounce US citizenship on a passport from Panama, Paraguay, the Dominican Republic, or any other country that does not have Visa Waiver status.
Most citizenship by investment programs (or “passports for sale”) are not Visa Waiver members; only Malta offers this benefit to those willing to pay around $1 million for the privilege. Cyprus, where a hefty real estate investment get’s you the world’s fastest second citizenship, may also have this privilege soon.
As of 2017, the European Parliament has recommended that US citizens be required to apply for visas to enter the Schengen Area as punishment for the US not allowing all EU citizens in. I doubt that the recommendation will actually be enacted, and I don’t think the US government will cave to the pressure and let citizens of Cyprus, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria in… but it’s possible.
If you wish to renounce or relinquish your US citizenship, make sure you know what you are getting into if Disney World or family visits are in your travel plans.