As a country with significantly more expats (80% of the population) than natives (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.
The UAE is a federation of seven emirates, consisting of Abu Dhabi (which serves as 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 the 6th largest oil reserve in the world, but it has worked to diversify its economy so as to not have all its eggs in that basket. Its no-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 one example of a predominantly Islamic state balancing its religious view with an open and expanding economy.
In this article, we’ll look at the different residence and visa options available to foreigners in the UAE and discuss the pros and cons of each one. It should give you a good idea of whether the United Arab Emirates could be a smart financial and personal move for you.
Plus, you can always get help from our team here at Nomad Capitalist to design a holistic plan to see where and how the UAE fits in. Get in touch today.
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 only 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 starting in 2019, 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 continues to create an atmosphere friendly to investors, entrepreneurs, and those with specialized talents. We’ve written extensively about the UAE – we’ve rated it as one of the best countries for high-net-worth expats as well as one of the most livable countries with no income tax.
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.
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 that meet some pretty high requirements.
It would be a long process and require you to learn Arabic and give up all your other passports, but surprisingly, it may become an option. Check out our video to get more of the details. We will keep you posted as things develop.
But as for now, if citizenship is your goal, you should probably look elsewhere. It’s not something they currently do.
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 10 million
- Invest in real estate properties of at least AED 1 million
- Startup a business/entrepreneur
- Be a person of specialized talents
- Outstanding student
Let me walk you through the requirements you must meet for each option:
Residence by Public Investment
The first option is to make a public investment of at least AED 10 million (US$2.72 million) in one of the following categories:
- A deposit of at least AED 10 million in an investment fund inside the country
- Establishing a company in the UAE with a capital of not less than AED 10 million
- Partnering in an existing or a new company with a share value of not less than AED10 million
- Having a total investment of not less than AED 10 million in all areas mentioned, on condition that the investment in sectors other than real estate is not less than 60 percent of the total investment.
Your investment must not be on loan and you must keep it for at least three years.
This type of investment will allow you to apply for a 10-year residence 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 10 million.
Investors from abroad may apply for a multiple-entry permit for a six-month period while working to set up their long term visa.
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 to count for your residence application.
Second, your real estate investment must not be for less than AED 1 million (US$272,242). This can be under joint ownership with your spouse or with a company/group, but your personal investment portion must be at least AED 1 million.
You may combine more than one qualifying property, but again the total payment must reach the AED 1 million mark. There have been recent amendments that allow some commercial properties to be considered towards your AED 1 million requirement 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 1 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 as no loans or payment plans will qualify. It also cannot be a gifted property. You must show that you have made the purchase.
Third, your real estate must be habitable and complete. Buying land or a property under construction will not count towards your residence permit.
Once you have met the requirements, this type of residence permit will be valid for a two-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.
If you’re willing to invest a bit more there is also an option to increase your real estate investment to AED 5 million and receive a five-year residence permit. Again, there must be no loan for the investment and you must retain the property for at least three years.
Residence for a Startup Business/Entrepreneur
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 that you would find in the Seychelles or Belize. This is the traditional zero tax, don’t tell us anything, we’ll leave you alone and all the rules are thrown out type of business.
That’s very attractive to a lot of people, but it is not very well-respected throughout the world. It would be entirely for exporting or selling your services outside of the UAE. If you can deal with those restrictions, it might be a reasonable option.
Your second option is a free-zone company. It’s a bit 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 probably 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 the business visa to set up their own businesses in the UAE. Applicants can easily submit official documents of their projects through the UAE website for obtaining the Golden Visa.
This type of residence permit 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 Specialized Talents
The UAE also offers a 10-year renewable residence option for people with specialized talents. This includes researchers and specialists in the fields of science and knowledge such as doctors, scientists, inventors, as well as creative individuals in the field 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 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 a high academic achievement and position.
- Doctors and specialists must meet at least two of the following conditions:
- a Ph. D. degree from one of the top 500 universities in the world (refer to the UAE government website for a list of qualifying universities)
- an award or certificates of appreciation in the field of the applicant’s work
- contribution to a major scientific research in the respective field of work
- published articles or scientific books in distinguished publications in the respective field of work
- membership in an organization related to the field
- a Ph. D. degree, in addition to 10-year professional experience in their field
- specialization in areas of priority to the UAE.
Lastly, there is also an option for a five-year 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. There is a list of countries needing to acquire a visa beforehand which you can find here. For citizens of the countries on this list, 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. You can use their eChannel website to register and start the application process.
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.
Once the criteria are met, your application will be processed. This can take as little as three weeks, but usually more around four to six weeks.
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. Through their website, 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, but in general, the steps are:
- Determine the type of legal entity
- Choose a trade name
- Apply for a business license
- Choose an office space
- Get pre-approvals
- Register your business
- Get your license
The paperwork required for business visas usually consists of:
- Completed application form
- Business plan
- Copy of existing trade license/registration certificate (if you are an existing company, applicable for a local company only)
- Colored passport copies of the company’s shareholder/s and the appointed Manager/Director for the new company
- Specimen signature of the company’s shareholder/s and the appointed Manager/Director for the new company
- 2 years’ audited financial reports for a corporate entity or certificate of reference from a personal bank of the individual shareholder
- NOC from current sponsor (for individuals)
- Unit title deed
- Letter of Intent
- Registry Identification Code Form (RIC) for Manager/Director (Original and notarized)
After getting initial approval, you will need to pay registration and license fees. The fees depend on the type of license required. Then, you need to submit:
- Completed application for registration
- Board Resolution appointing Manager/Director (Notarized and attested)
- Power of Attorney given to Manager/Director (Notarized and attested)
- Memorandum and Articles of Association (Notarized and attested)
- Specimen signature of Manager/Director (Notarized and attested)
- Passport-size photo of Manager/Director against a white background
- Share capital information
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 one to three years, though long term residence permits for five and 10-year periods are available. See the investment descriptions above for which investments qualify for the different permit periods.
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 will expire it is possible to renew up to six months in advance.
In order to renew you will need to have:
- 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, and 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, businessmen, 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 here.
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 no 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.
Quick, streamlined process for residency. With more than 80% 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 not serious requirements to live in the country to maintain your resident status. At 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 even 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
Weather. The UAE suffers from terrible weather conditions – it’s a desert. It’s always hot, but almost unbearable in the late summer months when average temperatures are around 113℉. There are incredible wind storms that last for days. These storms not only decrease visibility but can even cause breathing difficulties and bring the airport to a standstill. 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, we have a list of the fastest countries to get citizenship and another list of over 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. For many, this will be every two years.
UAE Residence by Investment FAQs
Although this article is a comprehensive guide to UAE visas, you may still have some questions.
And if your question isn’t listed in this section, please leave a comment below and we’ll do our best to respond to you.
Is the weather as bad as everyone says it is? 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) and the humid southeastern wind known as Sharqi (i.e. “Easterner”) can create extreme dust storms that can close the airport and require you to stay indoors for days.
Also, while it doesn’t rain often, when it does it usually comes in torrential bursts which often cause flooding.
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.
Can I take my spouse and children? 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.
Do I need a business partner for investing in a business? Before 2019, the answer to this was yes. Prior to 2019, the UAE only allowed for 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 is in the Middle East. Is it safe, especially for US citizens? 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.
While areas like Deira and Bur Dubai should be avoided, the crime rate is much lower than in many other countries in the region. 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.
As an Islamic state, are foreigners subject to Sharia law? 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. There have been cases of fines, deportation, and imprisonment of foreigners for not complying with laws, but that happens in other countries as well.
Women do not have to wear a burka, headscarf or veil, but covering your shoulders, knees and neckline is always taken as a gesture of respect toward the cultural values of the region. 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 a 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.
Are Abu Dhabi and Dubai the only places that foreigners can live/visit? 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.
What are the demographics of the UAE? The UAE’s demographics are quite unique. Emirati nationals make up only 11.6% of the population. Most of the population is composed of South Asian nationalities with India (≈27%) and Pakistan (≈12%) being the countries with the most expats living there.
Other Arab and Iranian nationalities make up about 18% of the population and then 12% comes from other nations such as Western countries, East Asians, and Africans.
The UAE has a very young population with less than 2% in the over 65 age bracket. The other interesting demographic measure is that there are significantly more males than females (2.56:1), especially for ages over 25 where it’s closer to 4.5:1.
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 that they don’t have wealth in 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. These show the UAE’s continued dedication to making their country a place where you can be treated best.
While the summer weather may encourage you to leave for several months, they have worked to create indoor conditions and entertainment to escape the heat.
If you feel this country could be right for you, our team can help you figure it all out and help you structure a holistic plan for going where you’re treated best – get in touch today.