In this article, we’ll look at the different UAE residence-by-investment programs (Golden Visa) and visa options available to foreigners in the UAE and discuss the pros and cons of each one.
As a country with significantly more expats (nearly 90% of the population) than natives (nearly 12%) and a burgeoning population in an arid desert climate, unique is probably the word that best describes the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
It most definitely is a country that has learned what its strengths and weaknesses are and has played to the strengths.
Investors and entrepreneurs are often drawn to the glam of Dubai. However, the main reason why so many move to Dubai is because of its tax-friendly regime. However, the most recent development, the introduction of the 9% corporate tax rate, means it may not be the best option.
UAE isn’t tax-free anymore. So, moving there or opening a business there now, more than ever, requires holistic offshore and tax planning. That’s where we come in.
From billionaires and celebrities to everyday entrepreneurs, we’ve helped over 1,500 successful clients create their Plans, grow their wealth, and increase their peace of mind.
Want to move to UAE? Want the alternatives? Contact us. Want to move out of UAE because the tax regime is working against you rather than for you? Set up a call with us right now, and we’ll let you know your best way out of the whole mess. Whatever your situation, we can help you. All you need to do is reach out to us.
UAE – Country Overview
The UAE is a federation of seven emirates, consisting of Abu Dhabi (the capital), Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm Al Quwain.
While each Emirate offers unique settings and options, the main ones that attract expats are Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
As you can read about in our expat guide, Dubai is more focused on the entertainment lifestyle, while Abu Dhabi is a bit more “old money,” traditional, calmer, and not so busy. You can find what suits you best.
The UAE has structured its foreign relations in a way that draws support and commercial cooperation from around the world. Its friendly, collaborative outlook and outreach make it a good ally.
It has one of the largest oil reserves in the world, but it has worked to diversify its economy so as not to have all its eggs in one basket. Its low-tax, business, development, and entrepreneur-friendly policies draw people from all over the world.
The creation of thriving cities in the desert, with a very western friendly vibe, has also drawn people from all over to a region of the world usually seen as restrictive and repressive. It’s an excellent example of a predominantly Islamic state balancing its religious view with an open and expanding economy.
Why the UAE?
Well known as an expat hotspot, the United Arab Emirates offers several unique and desirable residence-by-investment options. In 2018, they made several changes that have improved their residence program. Previously, only two-year permits were offered. Now, with the right skill set or investment amounts, they offer 5 and 10-year visas.
They also used to stipulate that a foreigner could only own 49% of a company and had to partner with a UAE native that owned 51% of the company. But they now allow for 100% foreign ownership of companies and offer long-term residence permits for those looking to start a business or who have significant business experience.
The UAE strives to create an atmosphere friendly to investors, entrepreneurs, and those with specialized talents. We have previously discussed why the UAE is a tax-friendly country for high-net-worth expats.
The weather might be a concern for many, with its well-known dust storms and miserably high temperatures in the summer months, but Dubai especially has created an atmosphere of high-tech living, yacht parties, fine dining, lavish apartments, and all the comforts you could desire that significantly make up for the bad weather.
As previously mentioned, the UAE knows that its strengths lie in creating an atmosphere friendly to investors, developers, and entrepreneurs – not in a beautiful landscape, plentiful and various natural resources, or a large, highly trained workforce. It knows it needs to reach outward to draw people in. Its expat and business-friendly policies and programs definitely reflect that.
So, let’s dig in to discuss what some of the residence options are.
UAE Golden Visa – Residence by Investment in the UAE
It should probably be stated upfront that the UAE rarely, if ever, grants citizenship. Currently, there is a circulating proposal in the government that would allow for citizenship to be granted to foreigners who meet some pretty unrealistic requirements.
It would be a long process and require you to learn Arabic and give up all your other passports, but it may become an option.
But for now, if citizenship is your goal, you should look elsewhere.
That being said, the UAE does offer several exceptional and valuable programs for residency through investment with one of the following options:
- Make a public investment of at least AED 2 million (10 years)
- Invest in real estate properties of at least AED 2 million (5 years)
- (For Entrepreneurs) Set up an innovative business (5 years)
- Be a person of outstanding specialized talents (10 years)
- Outstanding Students (5 years)
Residence by Public Investment
The first option is to make a public investment of at least AED 2 million (~$544,508) in one of the following categories:
- A deposit of at least AED 2 million in an investment fund inside the country
- Establishing a company in the UAE with a capital of not less than AED 2 million
- Your investment must not be on loan.
You must also submit proof of medical insurance and a letter from the Federal Tax Authority stating that you pay the government at least AED 250,000 annually.
This type of investment will allow you to apply for a 10-year Golden visa. The long-term visa can include your spouse and children, as well as one executive director and one advisor. It can also be extended to include business partners on the condition that each partner contributes AED 2 million.
Foreign Investors may apply for a multiple-entry permit for a six-month period while working to set up their long-term visas.
Residence by Real Estate Investment
If you are looking to gain your residence permit through the purchase of real estate in the UAE, there are a few requirements.
First, you must buy a property that is in a freehold area designated by the UAE. These are the only properties that can be considered for your residence application.
Second, your real estate investment must not be for less than AED 2 million (~$544,508). This can be under joint ownership with your spouse or with a company/group, but your personal investment portion must be at least AED 2 million.
You may combine more than one qualifying property, but again, the total payment must reach the AED 2 million mark. There have been recent amendments that allow some commercial properties to be considered towards your AED 2 million requirements if they are located in a freehold area and if they are in your name and not your company’s.
In addition, in a case where you previously purchased a property, and the value has risen above AED 2 million, this will not qualify you for residency. The UAE will only consider the price of your investment, not just the property’s current value.
The money must be paid in full. Moreover, if you plan to take a loan to purchase a property, you can only acquire it from specific local banks approved by a competent local entity.
It also cannot be a gifted property. You must show that you have made the purchase.
Once you have met the requirements, this type of Golden Visa will be valid for a five-year period and can be renewed. The property rights in most UAE regions allow foreign ownership for 99 years, with a possibility to renew your residence permit as long as you maintain the requirements and have a clean record.
Residence Through Company Formation
The UAE offers many different advantages for startups and entrepreneurs depending on your qualifications and type of business. There are three types of companies that you can set up.
First is the offshore company, very similar to an international business company (IBC), the kind you would find in the Seychelles or Belize.
Your second option is a free-zone company. It’s more expensive, but there are close to a dozen free zones around the UAE that each offer a chance for you to start a 100% foreign-owned company. You will also have more flexibility in how you run the company and more flexibility with banks, but you’re limited to being fiscally in one of the different free zones.
With the free-zone company, not only do you get a bit more flexibility, but you also have the potential to get a tax residence certificate as well as a residence permit and other benefits.
There are certain rules that you will need to follow to keep your residence active. You don’t have to be there all the time, but you do have to check in a couple of times a year. It’s becoming a bit nit-picky.
The downside is that you need to have some kind of office. At a minimum, you will need to get a hot desk at a co-working space. So, generally, you are looking at somewhere in the five figures to get that setup. If you’re looking for an ultra-cheap residence or offshore solution as an entrepreneur, this is not your best option.
The third company you can set up is the traditional onshore company – a civil company. This is something that most people aren’t going to do. Most expats favor a free zone company as the onshore company will bring with it more complexities in regards to local UAE laws, etc., but you can have your office wherever you want, and you can be based wherever you want.
For most people who live the Nomad Capitalist lifestyle, it’s more hassle than for what it is worth.
This category includes those having an existing project with a minimum capital of AED 500,000 or those who have the approval of an accredited business incubator in the country.
Professionals with entrepreneurial experience are eligible to apply for a business visa to set up their own businesses in the UAE. Applicants can easily submit official documents of their projects through the UAE website to obtain the Golden Visa.
This type of Golden Visa is valid for five years, with the option to renew. While setting things up, the entrepreneur is allowed a multi-entry visa for six months, renewable for another six months. The long-term five-year visa includes the spouse and children, a business partner, and three executives.
Residence for a Person of Outstanding Specialized Talents
The UAE also offers a 10-year renewable Golden Visa option for people with specialized talents. This includes researchers and specialists in the fields of science and knowledge, such as doctors, scientists, and inventors, as well as creative individuals in the fields of culture and art.
This visa advantage extends to your spouse and children. All categories are required to have a valid employment contract in a specialized priority field in the UAE.
Granting a visa is subject to the following conditions as specified on the UAE government website:
- Scientists must be accredited by the Emirates Scientists Council or holders of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Medal for Scientific Excellence.
- Creative individuals in culture and art must be accredited by the Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development.
- Inventors must obtain a patent of value, which adds to the UAE’s economy. Patents must be approved by the Ministry of Economy.
- Exceptional talents must be documented by patents or scientific research published in a world-class journal.
- Executives must be owners of a leading and internationally recognized company or holders of high academic achievement and position.
- Doctors must submit an approval Letter from the Ministry of Health and Prevention in the UAE to practice the profession of medicine.
- Scientists must submit a letter of recommendation from the Emirates Council of Scientists or a letter from the Secretariat of the Mohammed bin Rashid Medal for Scientific Excellence stating that the applicant has been awarded the Medal of Scientific Excellence.
Residence for Outstanding Students
Lastly, there is also an option for a five-year Golden visa for an outstanding student. To qualify for this residence permit, you must be an outstanding student with a 95% minimum grade average in a public or private secondary school.
You can also qualify as a university student within and outside the country, having a GPA of at least 3.75 upon graduation.
This long-term visa also allows you to bring your family.
The Application Process for UAE Residence
The UAE has worked to make the residence application as simple as possible for expats. With more than 80% of their population coming from other nations, it has been in their interest to make the process as quick and streamlined as possible.
It is possible, once you arrive in the country, to visit one of their ‘typing offices’ where they have people who fill out all the paperwork for you and work with you to get all the specific requirements met and submitted.
Most passports allow you to travel visa-free into the UAE and stay for 30 days. For citizens of the countries that need to acquire a visa beforehand, once you arrive in the country, you then have either 30 or 90 days to procure your visa, depending on your country.
If you are seeking a residence permit as a public investor, real estate investor, or talented professional, the UAE will grant you a six-month, renewable, multiple-entry visa in order to complete all the requirements for the permit.
If you prefer to start the registration before arriving in the UAE, there is also the option to do much of the application process online.
If you are applying specifically to Dubai, they have their own portal for residence applications through the General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs (GDRFA) Dubai.
To apply for any of the residence permits, you must first pass a medical examination to show you are medically fit and free from communicable diseases.
You must then pass a security check and apply for an Emirates ID card.
If you are applying for a real estate investment residence permit, you must provide the title deed, contract of sale and purchase, a passport copy of the property owner, your current visa, and passport-sized pictures. Your six-month, renewable, multiple-entry visa will come in handy here for being able to find and purchase your property before you apply for the permit.
If you are an outstanding student or person of specialized talents, you will be required to submit paperwork showing that you meet the specific requirements listed in the visa descriptions above.
If you are applying for a business residence visa, the process is a bit more involved, but they have moved much of the application online. You can apply and submit your business proposals and paperwork online. Each region will have different initial capital requirements, and the different types of businesses will require specific paperwork. You can find all the details in our ultimate guide about setting up a company in the UAE.
Once the criteria are met, your application will be processed. This can take as little as three weeks but usually around four to six weeks.
A residence visa will be issued to a foreigner once they have met all the requirements for their specific type of visa and are already inside the country. It can be for a period of five or ten years.
Residence Permit Renewal
Most residence permits can be renewed if the in-country requirements are met and you have a clean record. You must renew within 30 days of the expiration of your permit.
There are daily fees for staying in the UAE after your permit has expired, so be sure to start the process of renewal with enough time to process it. If you will not be in the country when your permit expires, it is possible to renew up to six months in advance.
In order to renew, you will need to have the following:
- a sponsor with a valid residency permit
- passed another medical fitness test for those above 18
- an insurance card (mandatory in Dubai and Abu Dhabi)
- a renewed identity card issued from ICA, or an original receipt that you have registered with ICA to get a renewal.
The following documents are needed:
- online application or application through a registered typing office for renewal of residency permit signed by the sponsor, whether public sector, private sector company, or personal sponsor
- original passport of the sponsored
- photo of the sponsored
Those sponsoring their families (spouse, children, parents, siblings, relatives of first and second degree) must present:
- a copy of the husband’s/wife’s employment contract or company contract for investors
- a salary certificate from the employer stating the employee’s monthly salary
- a legalized marriage certificate
- a registered tenancy contract
- latest utility bill.
Once these requirements are met, it takes up to three weeks to process, and then your permit will be renewed for the time period specified for your type of visa.
The Pros and Cons of UAE Residence
The UAE has many qualities that attract people from all over the world – thus, the 80% expat population. It has worked to draw the attention of tourists, investors, business people, and talented scientists and artists. However, there are some things to consider when deciding if the UAE is a good fit for your lifestyle design. We’ll discuss the pros and cons of UAE residency below.
The Pros of UAE Residence
One of the top 10 freest markets. The UAE has made our list of the freest markets in the world. Oil revenues and strategic planning for tourism and business growth have allowed the UAE to have low-income tax while providing a diverse and stable economy heading in a good direction.
Expanding economy and good policy. As an entrepreneur, it’s always smart to look for places that are not only expanding and looking to grow but are putting in place the policies that will make that happen. The UAE has done a great job of creating and continuing to adapt in order to have an atmosphere that treats entrepreneurs and businesses well.
A quick, streamlined process for residency. With nearly 90% of its population coming from other countries, the UAE regularly issues residence permits. A permit can be obtained in as little as three weeks, though more often, the process would take four to six weeks.
Few in-country living requirements and easy travel. For the UAE residence permit, there are no serious requirements to live in the country to maintain your resident status. At a minimum, you must visit at least once every 180 days or twice a year. It has also constructed a state-of-the-art airport, and travel to and from the UAE is quite easy from almost anywhere in the world.
Caters to the expat lifestyle. While it is always a best practice to respect the local culture, the UAE has done a great job of maintaining its cultural and religious policies while also being more loose and lenient on its cultural policies with regard to its expat population. It has more of a Western culture feel than most other Middle Eastern countries. It has developed a good middle ground between exotic and Western creature comforts. It’s well-used to foreign influence, and English is widely spoken. It also offers great shopping, fine dining, and excellent entertainment. Dubai, specifically, is known for its great nightlife.
Safe for expats. Dubai is one of the safest cities to live in for expats. It has worked to create a safe atmosphere for women wanting to travel in the Middle East. They offer pink taxis just for women, with women drivers. For more specifics on this, check out our guide for expats living in Dubai.
Great offshore banking options. With your residence permit, you will have access to the UAE’s priority banking. Not only will this be a great option for diversifying your finances, but it will also open up regional opportunities not available with banks outside of the region.
Diverse Economy. The UAE has been very cautious in diversifying its economy so as to not rely solely on oil. Having done so, it will be better equipped to adjust once its oil reserves are used up, if worldwide oil needs change/fluctuate, or if there is another economic depression. It has done a great job diversifying so it can adapt.
The Cons of UAE Residence
As mentioned above, one of the biggest downsides to the UAE …the weather. The UAE suffers from terribly hot weather conditions – it’s a desert. It’s always hot but almost unbearable in the late summer months when average temperatures are around 113℉. If you don’t mind staying indoors and darting from one building to the next to avoid the heat, or if you plan your travels in the summer months, then it can be manageable.
Expensive. If you’re looking for an inexpensive option for residency, this is not it. The UAE caters to a high net-worth expat market and has a relatively high cost of living. Their residency program is more expensive than other programs.
No citizenship option. The UAE does not give out citizenship. At least not yet. You can easily live there on renewable residence permits, but even if you are there for decades, don’t count on it leading to citizenship. If citizenship is what you’re seeking, check out the fastest countries to get citizenship and 20 countries with no taxes where you can get citizenship.
Must renew residence visa regularly. While the UAE has worked to streamline the process for expats, and there are options for longer-term visas, it is still quite a process to submit all the paperwork for renewal.
No longer tax-free zone. Tax reforms are gradually appearing across the Gulf, and the UAE’s tax-free status has been slowly evolving since 2018, when it introduced the 5% value-added tax. The new 9% corporate rate applies to income above 375,000 dirhams or $100,000, and contrary to what many previously thought that free zone companies would be exempt, the latest Ministry of Finance data appears to suggest otherwise.
Is UAE Residence by Investment For You?
Decades ago, the leaders of the UAE began to structure their country in a way that would lead to foreign investment and involvement.
Knowing they don’t have wealth in the beautiful scenery, natural resources, or a highly skilled labor force, UAE leaders play to the country’s strength of offering a free market with no income tax and favorable business and investment opportunities.
More recently, the UAE has really emphasized its country as a strong economy with great entrepreneurial opportunities as well as a major tourist destination. It draws millions of people each year.
With the proper skillset or capital to invest, this could be a great option for you.
If you’re looking for a safe place to take your family and a country that will not tax your worldwide income, the UAE could be a nice fit. If you’re an entrepreneur looking for a great market to get involved in, the UAE has set up the structure to allow for big opportunities for growth.
The most recent changes have led to long-term visas of five and ten years and 100% foreign ownership of companies.
But not all is perfect. For example, one of the biggest attractions of the UAE, i.e., the 0% corporate tax rate, is now gone, replaced with a 9% tax rate. So, if you’re planning to move your business to the UAE to save on taxes, there may now be more suitable options.
You may want to look elsewhere, like Hungary, an EU country with the same corporate tax rate. Or Ireland, which will happily give both an excellent corporate tax and citizenship after just five years of legal residency. As a UAE resident, citizenship is almost never guaranteed.
If you still feel that UAE could be right for you, our team can help you figure it all out and help you structure a holistic plan for living your best life. Apply to become a client today.
UAE Residence by Investment FAQ
The UAE is a subtropical-arid desert. This will make your winters nice and warm, but yes, there are some unbearable summer months. In July and August, the average temperatures are around 113°F (45 °C).
So yes, the weather can be troublesome, especially in late summer, but it also offers average temperatures in the 50s and 60s in January and February. With the proper timing, its weather can actually offer a nice warm retreat in the winter months.
Yes. All residential visas allow options for bringing a spouse and children along. There are registration and paperwork requirements that come along with that, but in general, it’s a pretty simple process to bring them along.
Before 2019, the answer to this was yes. Prior to 2019, the UAE only allowed 49% foreign ownership of companies. However, since 2019, the UAE allows for 100% foreign ownership of a company.
While it is often a good idea to partner with a local person who knows the ropes, the UAE has made its market extremely open to foreign involvement and investment. It even allows for you to bring a partner and three executives on a five-year business visa.
The UAE has worked to create an atmosphere favorable to foreigners, especially in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Dubai’s stricter laws keep crime to a minimum, creating one of the safest cities in the Middle East and one of the safest cities in the world for tourists.
The UAE and the US have good foreign relations, and US citizens are treated well. Though, as in other countries, if you choose not to follow their laws, you can become subject to fines, deportation, or imprisonment.
It bears saying that some people are hesitant about the Middle East, perhaps understandably so when all they see are news headlines. But what you will find when you actually go there is that you will always be treated exceptionally well, and it is very safe.
The UAE continues to adapt and change its laws to be more open to foreigners. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are significantly more lenient when it comes to requiring foreigners to follow their cultural and religious laws.
Women are not required to wear a burka, headscarf, or veil. However, as we have noted before, living as an expat in another country should come with great respect for the local laws and customs.
The one law that expats (and tourists) should definitely be aware of is the law on privacy. Privacy is a big thing in the UAE. Publishing private information on social media or even taking photos of someone without their permission is strictly forbidden. Doing so can be punished by a fine of up to 500,000 AED (135K USD).
Common courtesy and mutual respect are expected. Things like foul language and obscene gestures can result in a fine. Other laws and requirements are mostly what you would expect to keep society safe and orderly. So, yes, there are some differences in the laws, but the UAE has really worked to be open to foreigners and to create a very safe atmosphere for expats and tourists.
The other emirates are open for tourists and expats, but Dubai tends to overshadow all the others as the main attraction. It caters specifically to expats and tourists, and any search for travel to the UAE will yield results about Dubai.