Dateline: Vienna, Austria
These days, more and more sovereign countries are offering citizenship by investment programs to those seeking a second passport. The process is simple: invest (or, in some cases, “invest”) a six-figure sum in one of four Caribbean nations and you can become a bona fide citizen there in anywhere from three to twelve months.
On top of the long-running St. Kitts and Nevis program, in existence since I was born, the tiny island nation of Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic) offers the world’s cheap economic citizenship plan, while Grenada and Antigua and Barbuda have recently added programs of their own.
Some have complained that the preponderance of easy second citizenship options exist in the Caribbean and South America. Beyond the economic citizenship options, countries like Paraguay and Uruguay offer second residency programs that allow for naturalization in only a few years.
Quite simply, countries here in Europe have been hesitant to offer their citizenship easily. And why should they? Much of the world is clamoring for a European Union passport, much more so than they are for a United States passport.
In fact, many countries in Europe are making it harder to get residency as nationalist groups take hold, especially of countries here in central Europe.
However, there is one alleged citizenship by investment program right here in Europe. It’s so secretive that some experts claim it doesn’t exist.
That program is economic citizenship in Austria.
Long before Cyprus was exchanging economic citizenship in their slice of the EU for millions of euros in government bond purchases, Austria has held claim to a mysterious passport program for the ultra-wealthy.
Does this program exist? The simple answer is “yes”, but not in the same sense as other economic citizenship programs.
For one, Austrian citizenship by investment isn’t just open to anyone. Even if you meet the financial qualifications, you have to be deemed worthy by officials in the Austrian government. You have to be “Austrian” enough.
That’s the nationalistic governments of Europe at work. Obviously, the European Union doesn’t want just anyone to be able to get its much sought after passports, or else they’d be overrun.
However, Austria has always been a bit more nationalistic. People here are fiercely proud of their heritage and “Austrian-ness” and determined to protect it.
I first noticed this right here in Vienna three and a half years ago, when I found great difficulty in making contacts here. On my Austrian Airlines flight out, I sat next to a gentleman whose wife is Austrian; he told me Vienna has a notoriously hard social circle to crack.
That’s just how Austrians – and the Austrian government – wants it.
So while you can invest your way to Austrian citizenship, don’t expect to fly in from some country deemed “unworthy” by the locals and buy your way in.
How does the Austrian citizenship program work?
Again, there really isn’t a formal “program”, the way countries like St. Kitts and Nevis offer. There is no law that suggests step-by-step instructions that must be followed in each and every case. Here in Austria, the procedure is much more individualized.
In the absence of a specific citizenship by investment law, Austria uses Article 10, Section 6 of its Citizenship Act to allow the government to reward foreigners contributing “extraordinary merit”.
In this case, such merit involves an investor putting their money directly into the Austrian economy to create jobs and drive taxable sales. That means an investment in an active business or businesses that generate real employment. Real estate investments, bank deposits, or government bond purchases don’t count.
Above just having a clean criminal record and excellent personal references, applicants must fund their business ventures to the tune of roughly 10 million Euros.
Again, these numbers are not hard and fast as there are no formal criteria; however, several of my attorney friends tell me this is the criteria the Austrian government is looking for.
If you don’t want to invest in an actively running business, you can make a donation to a social project in the arts, education, or sports. While the 10 million Euro mark is an investment that you can expect to recoup and earn income from, the donation is just that: money you’ll never see again.
Donations should be at least 2-3 million euros to qualify, and the Austrian government must like your chosen charitable project.
Unlike other programs, Austria does not publish or disclose the names of those who acquire Austrian citizenship to any other country. It’s considered an “official secret”. That makes sense considering Austria is just about the last country in the European Union actively fighting to maintain rather strict bank secrecy.
Of course, Austria is one of the world’s most valuable passports, granting access to live and work anywhere in the European Union, as well as visa-free travel privileges to virtually every civilized country on earth.
Austria does not allow dual citizenship, which means you would be forced to relinquish your existing citizenship(s) to get an Austrian passport.
If you have several million Euros burning a hole in your pocket, are dying to obtain European citizenship, and can’t find a European ancestor in your family tree to get you citizenship for free, try Malta or Cyprus first. Their programs are codified in law, even if they are less prestigious than being Austrian.