As the Middle East and African refugee crisis intensifies, having the right passport can be a matter of life and death.
The lucky few can now invest in a programme giving them a passport to a better life, as long as they have sufficient means at their disposal and pass the strict due diligence rules.
European and Caribbean countries are providing residency and citizenship to the wealthy and talented few, in return for investing in their property markets, buying government bonds or simply making a donation.
The buyers – typically citizens from the Middle East, China and Russia – are signing up to protect their wealth, give their family a better life, escape political troubles or to enjoy visa-free travel.
Next month, Dubai will host the ninth annual Global Residence and Citizenship Conference, run by Henley & Partners, a leading specialist in this field.
“We are living through a time of great uncertainty, mostly because of geopolitical instability. Citizenship by investment can act as a life insurance for citizens should they require it,” says Marco Gantenbein, the managing partner of Henley & Partners Middle East.
Foreign citizenship can also aid pension planning, he says, as many of the schemes come with an investment opportunity
Agencies and brokers with offices in Dubai will help you choose the right scheme and process your application.
Armand Arton, the chief executive and president at Arton Capital, which specialises in investor programmes for global residence and citizenship, says the number of people applying for citizenship by investment programmes has doubled in the past five years.
The schemes are not necessarily relevant for Emiratis, as UAE citizens already benefit from what is now the most attractive passport in the Mena region, after the authorities signed an agreement with the EU in May giving them visa-free travel to more than 100 countries, including the 26 Schengen area states.
Plus, the UAE doesn’t allow its citizens to hold dual citizenship, although they can access residency programmes such as the Portuguese Golden Residence Permit, according to Mr Gantenbein.
For those who do want new citizenship, Mr Arton says no single programme is right for everybody. “For some people, speed is important. If you are trying to get out of Syria, you can’t wait two years,” he says, adding that others just want a simple application process or visa-free travel in the widest possible number of countries.
Many schemes give you freedom of travel throughout the Schengen area, a group of 26 European countries (the UK is the notable exception) that have abolished passport and immigration controls at their borders.
Here are some of the schemes, starting with the most expensive.
The Cyprus Citizenship by Investment Programme, launched in May 2013 to raise funds after the local banking crisis, is one of the quickest ways to get residency or citizenship in the EU.
Cost: You can get full citizenship and a passport by investing at least €5 million (Dh20.8m) either in state bonds, local real estate and other developments, or local businesses. Or you could invest €2.5m in a collective investment scheme, providing the total value of the plan is at least €12.5m. Applicants also need to buy a Cypriot residential property for at least €500,000, and maintain this after being granted citizenship.
Criteria: This is a flexible plan with no need to live in Cyprus, provided you arrange your investments correctly.
Benefits: Citizenship gives you a Cypriot passport and the freedom to work, travel, and live anywhere within the EU. You also have visa-free travel in more than 150 countries, although Cyprus doesn't belong to Schengen.
Mr Gantenbein recommends Cyprus to clients because it offers EU citizenship within three to five months, requires basic documentation and offers high approval rates.
The Malta Individual Investor Programme (IIP) is aimed at wealthy and talented people and their families wanting the benefits of EU citizenship from a Schengen member.
Cost: The main applicant has to make a €650,000 contribution to Malta's National Development and Social Fund. They must also pay a further €25,000 for their spouse and each child under 18.
There is a further €50,000 charge for dependent children aged 18 to 26, or dependent parents. Plus there are diligence fees of €7,500 for the main applicant, €5,000 for spouses, adult children and parents, and €3,000 for children aged between 13 and 18. You must also invest €150,000 in government-approved financial instruments, held for at least five years.
Criteria: Applicants must retain a residence in Malta for at least five years, either by purchasing a property costing more than €350,000 or leasing with a minimum annual rent of €16,000. Malta has capped the scheme to a maximum 1,800 total applicants. By June this year, there were 620 applicants.
Benefits: Malta offers full citizenship for life, which can be passed on to future generations by descent.
The Golden Visa scheme is a fast way to gain full residency of Portugal with visa-free travel throughout Schengen.
Cost: Applicants need to invest €500,000 in real estate to gain residency, plus taxes on top. This was recently reduced to €350,000 in specified districts targeted for urban renewal or buildings to renovate older than 30 years.
Criteria: The Golden Visa is valid for one year but can be extended for two-year periods. You can seek permanent residency after five years and apply for Portuguese citizenship after six. You must supply proof of income and accommodation, financial independence and a basic understanding of Portuguese.
Benefits: Paul Williams, the chief executive of the foreign citizenship specialists La Vida Golden Visas, says: "Residency gives you freedom of travel throughout Schengen, citizenship gives you a European passport, allowing you and your family to travel, work, live and study anywhere in Europe."
The Spanish Golden Visa scheme, launched in 2013 to attract foreign capital, has been a “flop” so far, says Mark Stucklin at the website Spanish Property Insight. “It is seen as too bureaucratic and unattractive compared to other schemes, but has recently been tweaked.”
Cost: Applicants must invest at least €500,000 in Spanish property. Tax, stamp duty and legal fees add another 10 per cent.
Criteria: Spanish residency gives you freedom of travel throughout Schengen and the right to work in Spain. You must renew your visa every five years.
Benefits: Mr Williams says Portugal remains the more attractive scheme. "You cannot get full Spanish citizenship until you have been resident for 10 years. That is why Portugal has been issuing a couple of thousand golden visas a year compared to around 100 in Spain."
The Hungarian investment immigration programme is the most popular EU scheme.
Cost: Applicants must invest at least €300,000 in government residency bonds, with their capital returned in full after five years (without interest). In return they get permanent residential status. They must also pay non-returnable processing costs of around €60,000, making this one of the cheapest residency programmes of all.
Criteria: Processing time is fast, giving temporary residence within three to four weeks. You can apply for permanent residence after six months, provided you are renting or have bought a property in the country. There is no obligation to live in Hungary. You can later apply for citizenship. "The language requirement for citizenship is likely to be waived next year and the length of time to wait for permanent residence shortened," says Mr Arton.
Benefits: The flexible visa can cover the whole family with no obligation to live in Hungary. "Hungary is a member of Schengen giving you visa free travel in most EU countries," adds Mr Arton.
Bulgaria offers citizenship for two years in return for investing about €510,000 in government bonds or companies, or double that amount for fast-track applications. Montenegro is launching its programme next year.
Antigua & Barbuda
This twin Caribbean island state offers one of the newest schemes. Designed by Henley & Partners, it was introduced in 2012.
Cost: Applicants can either donate US$200,000 to the Antigua National Development Fund, invest $1.5m into an eligible business or $400,000 in a government-approved real estate project. The applicant government fee is $50,000, $50,000 for a spouse and $25,000 for each child (below 18 years), plus processing fees on top.
Criteria: Processing is quick; you may get a passport within two to three months. This lasts for five years but can be renewed for a small fee. You don't have to attend an interview but must spend a minimum of five days in Antigua during the first five years, recently reduced from 35.
Benefits: "It gives you visa-free travel in more than 130 countries including the UK, Schengen and Canada," says Mr Arton.
St Kitts & Nevis
Launched in 1984, this twin-island Caribbean country offers the oldest programme of all.
Cost: Families can gain citizenship by investing $400,000 or more in government-approved real estate. You have to hold your property for at least five years but can sell it afterwards (the next buyer qualifies for citizenship). Alternatively, you can make a non-refundable donation of a minimum $250,000 to the Sugar Industry Diversification Foundation. There is a $50,000 applicant government fee via the real estate route (plus $25,000 for a spouse and $25,000 per child below 18 years), processing fees, passport fees and due diligence charges.
Criteria: Application time is four to 12 months. There is no requirement to make a visit during the application.
Benefits: Successful applicants get citizenship for life, which may be passed on to future generations, and don't have to live on the island. Families also get a passport allowing them visa-free travel to more than 120 countries worldwide, including Schengen and the UK. Mr Williams says nearby Dominica offers a cheaper option of citizenship and a second passport for a $200,000 investment in real estate. And Grenada, recently revived its citizenship programme with a minimum investment of $350,000 in government-approved real estate project, plus fees.
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