Dateline: Kotor, Montenegro

As unsexy as it might be, any time we discuss topics such as residency and citizenship applications — including economic citizenship — we have to discuss the necessary evil of paperwork. I’ve had to deal with it, and you’ve had to deal with it. Anyone who’s committed to getting a second passport will have to deal with it at some point.

Paperwork is just part of the second passport deal.

Now, the main economic citizenship programs most people look at, particularly in the Caribbean, require a good deal of paperwork. Yes, there are second passport programs like Cyprus and Malta in Europe that require less documentation, but they also come with a much bigger price tag.

Is it worth doing a little more paperwork to save $800,000? I’d say so.

If an economic citizenship isn’t worth 1 million+ to you, then you’re likely looking at the Caribbean’s economic citizenship. That’s fine. Just recognize that anything in the Caribbean tends to take longer, whether it’s economic citizenship or opening a bank account. However, they will request more documents, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will take longer to get your second passport.

Economic Citizenship Paperwork Guide 

More important than anything else: You’ve got to be on the ball.

One of the reasons I no longer recommend Central American residency programs (residency, notan economic citizenship or a second passport) is that they require so much paperwork that a lot of people just give up. Not only are countries like Panama very bureaucratic and inefficient, but they just ask for so many documents.

It’s much easier for the average person to get residency in Europe, where such a residency can give them many more benefits. In Panama, on the other hand, you have to order FBI reports and various different documents just to get residency. And it’s the same thing for economic citizenship. But the motives for getting residency versus citizenship can often be very different.Which means all that paperwork is worth it if you get a relatively affordable economic citizenship out of the deal.

Do the calculation and figure out what your return on investment will be for your second passport. If it’s worth it to you to pay more for a second passport that requires less documentation, go for Malta or Cyprus. If not, here’s what you will need for most economic citizenship programs in the Caribbean.

1. A Police Report

No matter where you’re from, you are going to need a police report. If you’re a US citizen, that means getting an FBI background check. This can be a time-consuming process. Plan accordingly.

In fact, one of the biggest challenges to the whole paperwork process is timing. Most of the required documents need to be 90 days or less old when submitted. Oftentimes — when you’re trying to order an FBI report — you will get behind. You’ll get one document, but then 90 days will go by and the first document will expire just as you’re getting your FBI report.

You need to be aware of this challenge. Create a strategy that will help you get your paperwork in order as it is needed. For example, work on the documents that will take the most time first (like your FBI report). So that you won’t be redoing other, shorter steps that have expired once the more time-consuming documents are finally ready.

2. Bank Reference Letters

You’re going to need to contact your bank, and this is why it’s important to have an offshore bank account. Because, again, if you’re a US citizen, most US banks won’t provide the kind of reference letter these countries want.

Some private banks might give you a reference letter, but you have to have the right US bank account

Having an offshore bank is important because many offshore banks — especially Asian banks — are much more familiar with issuing reference letters. When I went through the process myself I got a bank reference letter from my bank in Singapore (which, unfortunately, no longer opens accounts for foreigners). 

But it was pretty easy. They asked me what the letter needed to say, they were very helpful, I paid $20 and the letter was at my door very quickly.

So, if you only have a US bank account, one thing to do before pursuing an economic citizenship may be to step back and get an offshore bank account first.

3. Personal and Professional Reference Letters

You will also need personal and professional reference letters from people who are your friends and colleagues. If you are applying with a spouse you will usually need two personal reference letters per person from two different people.

The person who writes the letter must have known you for at least five years. The letter should contain information about the person writing it, as well as the information concerning your character. You will also need one professional reference letter.

4. Family Documents

If you’re married, you’re going to need to provide proof of your marriage. This, of course, means producing your marriage license or certificate and, depending on the country, having it officially translated into the country’s official language.

If you have children who are participating in the process you will need to show their connection to you as well. Usually, a birth certificate will suffice. (You will likely need to provide your birth certificate too.)

Many of the documents mentioned will need to be apostilled. An apostille is a certificate issued by a designated authority that essentially makes the document valid internationally. With an apostille, your marriage license, birth certificate, and other documents become foreign public documents.

Usually, you should obtain an apostille from the government entity that issued it — whether on the state or federal level. For instance, if you were born in Texas, but currently live in New York, you will need to send your birth certificate to Texas so that the proper authorities can apostille the document.

Overseas Real Estate Investing 

Before you think that the paperwork is done, consider whether you want to take the overseas real estate investing for economic citizenship route. For the longest time, Dominica — which is the second-longest-running economic citizenship program in the world — owned the donation option. They just wanted $100,000, plain and simple. However there are options out there for overseas real estate investing and Dominica eventually adopted a similar program.

A lot of people like the idea of getting something for their money. Particularly when they’re told that in a number of years (generally five) they can sell their estate and cash out. 

Is It Worth It?

Back in 2012 when I was first considering getting economic citizenship I read the book Emergency and interviewed its author, Neil Strauss. He had gone down to St. Kitts and Nevis then chose to go with the overseas real estate investing of $400,000 for their economic citizenship program. Unfortunately, the lawyer eventually ran off with his money.

The first lesson I learned from Neil’s experience is that working with a western intermediary is a good idea. Often with real estate overseas, working with a western intermediary is a bad idea because it just adds on extra expenses. If the word “American” is in the name of the company, it’s a ripoff. 

But in the case of economic citizenship, you will want an intermediary who understands your deal because people in the Caribbean can be a little slow and you never know what can happen.

The second lesson was that the real estate investment offers in these programs are of very low quality. 

Since talking to Neil I’ve talked to half a dozen other people who have looked at the real estate options at these various projects in St. Kitts and Nevis — including one person who actually bought it. I’ve also talked to some of the folks who are involved in projects down in Dominica (although there aren’t very many). 

The general consensus? It’s not worth it.

Quality, Supply, And Demand

People might think that because I’m developing properties in Georgia, Montenegro and elsewhere that I would like the option of real estate investing in exchange for citizenship. There’s just one small difference: quality. 

Everything that I’ve learned from all the people I’ve talked to and my own research is that these properties down in St. Kitts and Nevis just aren’t attractive. Everyone I talked to is just appalled at how bad it is. And in Dominica, it appears to be the same thing so far.

Sure, you can pay an extra $120,000 – $150,000 and instead of just donating the money you get a house. But if you’re counting on the idea that you can resell the property five years down the road, you’ll discover just a little too late that it was a terrible investment. There are and definitely will be more people doing programs like this, but the demand won’t be enough.

Not enough to outpace supply at least.

The inventory in these countries is growing quickly and there are other programs popping up with new pitches every year. The number of people interested in comparison to the programs available isn’t going to keep up. Besides, your real estate will be used, not brand new. A new buyer might as well buy poor quality new real estate instead of poor quality old real estate. No one is going to want to buy your approved real estate from five years ago when the supply of new properties is so abundant.

Plus, they’ll know you just want to dump it. Any buyer will easily see that you just want out. How are you going to make that kind of sale?

Can You Make Real Estate Investing Work?

On top of the fact that the building projects in St. Kitts and Nevis just aren’t very nice, there are a lot of newer projects that they are trying to make a little bit nicer. The catch? You only get access to the property for a month out of the year. It’s basically a timeshare. You pay $420,000 into a $5 million condo and you get a month’s worth of access each year.

But the only way I see a real estate purchase of $420,000 being worth the second passport on one of these islands is if you plan to live there full time. St. Kitts and Nevis is tax-free — including on income tax — so you could live there full time and that would be fine. Just understand that everyone I’ve spoken to who’s looked into real estate investing for a second passport in these countries has said it wasn’t worth $400,000. If you’re not committed to living there full time, there are just too many better options out there to justify investing your money in Caribbean real estate.

You can trust their citizenship programs, but the real question is whether or not you can trust these countries’ economies. Do you want government bonds from countries that have huge debt-to-GDP ratios? Do you really think you can spend more now on a real estate purchase and get more out later? You don’t know more than the developers and you don’t have the inside track like the developers do.

You will not get that money back. I can almost guarantee it. Instead of pouring your extra money into real estate developments in Caribbean countries, keep the money and invest it elsewhere.

An Unnecessary Investment

As much as I like real estate, my approach to overseas real estate investing for economic citizenship is that it’s unnecessary. I’d much rather be doing the deals I’m doing in Georgia where I can buy a hotel building for $75,000. I’d rather do properties on the beach in Montenegro where I’m looking at a whole portfolio of properties and it’s barely $100,000. That’s what I would do with the extra money instead of suffering the opportunity cost of buying overseas real estate in these economic citizenship programs.

The only time I would do real estate investing for economic citizenship is with a program like Austria’s. It basically requires you to impress them enough by investing inordinate amounts of money in the country. I would also not rule out overseas real estate investing to obtain residency in certain countries. I don’t particularly care for Latvia, but Ireland’s program that combines real estate investment and government bonds is actually attractive. 

For economic citizenship, however, overseas real estate investing to get a second passport is generally a bad idea. That’s what I’ve learned and that’s why I’m not doing it. I’m putting my money somewhere else.

Pushing Through The Citizenship Paperwork

I don’t spend time in the United States anymore. However, it is where I was born and so when I went through the process of applying for economic citizenship I had to return to put everything in order.

In fact, even if you have already renounced your US citizenship, if you were born in the United States you will most likely need to return. Most of these countries with economic citizenship programs are going to want paperwork from the United States. And that doesn’t just apply to US-born citizens, these countries will want documentation from wherever you were born.

For example, I had a client who was born in Bulgaria. After moving to the US she renounced her Bulgarian citizenship because, at the time, Bulgaria did not allow dual citizenship. However, she’s now looking to go somewhere else and the country she has chosen told her they needed some documents from Bulgaria. So, even though she is no longer a Bulgarian citizen, she had to go back to Bulgaria and track them down.

Be Prepared to Stay Put

If you want the process to be easy, be prepared to stay in one place. Hopefully, that place is your home country. For most people, our home country is the country that we’re a citizen of, and in many cases, it’s the country that we’re living in. If that is the case, stay put until you have all the documentation in line.

Numerous people who are looking into economic citizenship look at it as their get-out-of-jail-free card from where they’re living. And it can be… you’ll just need to stick around for a while to make it all possible. 

If you’re trying to get US documents apostilled, it’s a lot easier to do so while in the US. If you’re trying to get an FBI report, it’s a lot easier to use a chandler from a US location. They can come and take your fingerprints and expedite the entire process. It’s much harder when you’re overseas to get some of those documents — it’s slower and often requires more steps.

If you’re worried about disqualifying yourself from the FEIE, consider staying in Canada and only crossing the border when necessary. Similarly, if you’re a nomad from the Northeast, stay in Vancouver and cross the border. If you’re from Cleveland like I am, stay in Toronto and just come over when you need to. Just prepare to be stationary for a while.

The moral of the story: Be prepared to hunker down a little bit until the paperwork is done. It will be easier for you and you’ll thank yourself in the end.

Andrew Henderson
Last updated: Oct 6, 2021 at 9:22AM