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Golden visas are a chance for expats for those lucky enough to have the money to buy a new life in another country.
The visa is designed to attract talent and wealthy investors – and in return, offers residence and citizenship rights.
Golden visas are available in 26 countries around the world, from the USA and the UK to the tiny Caribbean islands of St Kitts and Antigua.
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Golden Visas Explained
A golden visa gives permanent residency rights to expats and their families willing to invest, start a business or buy property.
They started nearly 50 years ago with cash-for-passport deals put together by the governments of small island nations in the Pacific and Caribbean.
Half a century later, they are big businesses around the world.
How many golden visas are issued and who takes them up is a closely guarded secret. Still, the International Monetary Fund reckons more than 100,000 China expats take up the majority.
Despite their popularity, golden visas have triggered criticism from some governments, claiming they have little economic advantage and promote tax avoidance.
The Three Types Of Golden Visa
Investment as a test or qualification for residency or citizenship is a double-edged sword.
Many expat families regard a golden visa as an opportunity to grow their wealth. Others see the visa as a chance to avoid a high tax environment or escape from an unstable economy with their money intact.
Typically, investment programs demand expats place a sum of money on deposit or start a business in their new home country.
Golden visas typically come in two types:
Residence by Investment (RBI)
Most golden visas offer instant residence rights, generally in return for buying property or putting a sum of money up for investment. Some extend to giving expats taking up the offer a new passport.
This is frowned upon in the European Union as a residency visa or passport allows expats to travel freely in the Schengen Zone – a borderless free movement area within the EU.
Citizenship by Investment (CBI)
Citizenship is a valuable prize for expats, and a golden visa sets a price that makes it a commodity rather than a goal.
Many expats with golden visas hold two passports.
The Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) argues this potentially allows tax abuse by permitting expats to move their financial assets to low-tax countries without spending a significant amount of time there. This, says the OECD, allows them to flout tax reporting rules, like the Common Reporting Standard (CRS).
Cost Of A Golden Visa
The amount of money needed to qualify for a golden visa program is well beyond the reach of ordinary expats.
The cost ranges from US$100,000 in the Caribbean republic of Dominica to £2 million in the UK.
Typically, the larger the investment, the shorter the waiting period to become a citizen and gain a passport.
Out of the most popular golden visa nations, Latvia, Greece and Thailand set the qualification bar at the lowest. Expats can enter the Thai program for $15,000 for a five-year residency visa.
Among the most expensive are the Czech Republic and New Zealand, where a golden visa costs NZ$3 million.
Top-Ranked Countries Offering Golden Visas
The OECD reckons one in four countries offer more than 100 golden visa programs to expats.
The ‘top tier’ programs attracting the most expats have an industry ranking based on official statistics but are still at best ‘guesstimates’.
Here are some of the schemes that top the unofficial rankings:
An RBI golden visa with Schengen Zone access across Europe. Expats get a residence visa that is renewable every five years.
To join, expats must invest To join, expats must invest €250,000 in property and invest €400,000.
As a European Union state, Malta’s golden visa scheme includes visa-free Schengen Zone travel.
To qualify, expats must place €250,000 on deposit in government bonds for at least five years with a non-refundable application fee of €30,000. The rules also demand expats buy a property worth at least €320,000 or rent a home costing a minimum €12,000 a year.
The USA has several visa programs, but the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program is a fast-track route to citizenship for expats who can afford a $1.8 million investment into a business that creates at least 10 new jobs.
The money must stay invested until permanent residence is granted after four years.
Portugal’s golden visa is often ranked as one of the most popular in Europe.
To get the visa, expats must bank €1 million or stake €350,000 in Portuguese businesses or support the arts with a €250,000 investment.
Expats must buy a home valued at no less than €500,000.
In return, a 12-month residence permit renewable for two 24-month periods requires the expat to visit Portugal at least four times across the five-year visa timescale.
Read more about living in Portugal.
Like the USA, Britain runs several investor immigration programs that offer indefinite leave to remain in the country. The investment must be at least £2 million.
Citizenship follows spending five years living in the UK – this can reduce to three years for larger investments.
Need Help with your Finances?
Malaysia has a two-tier golden visa program – for those aged above and below 50 years old.
Applicants need to prove income and have between US$85,000 and US$125,000 in the bank.
When residence is approved, expats must buy a home and keep a healthy bank balance.
Canada sets several tests for expat residence permits, including demonstrating at least five-years managing a business, investing CND$1.2 million for five years and showing a personal net worth of CDN$2 million.
Australia actively welcomes expat investors and runs special RBI schemes to attract wealthy families.
The routes are business innovation or business investment schemes.
The details are complicated but expats can find out more about Australia golden visas on the government web site.
The government in Cyprus has introduced more rigorous checks on golden visa applicants after an EU crackdown on the scheme.
A €300,000 property purchase gives a residence permit, and visa-free access to more than 150 countries without expats having to visit Cyprus.
For expats looking for long-term residence certainty at a bargain price, Thailand’s Elite Residence Program offers five to 20 years of residence after a four-month application period. Perks include a personal assistant managing VIP services on the national airline. Joining the program costs US$15,000.
Tax And Golden Visas
The controversy surrounding golden visas is centred on the potential for tax avoidance.
Some programs in low-tax countries like Panama are viewed with suspicion.
The point at issue is someone’s tax residence changes when they join a golden visa program and because they may hold two or more passports, this could frustrate inter-government financial reporting that aims to pinpoint offshore tax avoidance.
The current OECD blacklist of dubious golden visa programs covers 15 countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Malta and Cyprus.
Golden Visa FAQ
Golden visas are aimed at encouraging global citizens to invest in their economies.
Restrictions arising from civil unrest, terrorism and unstable political environments are why high-net-worth families from emerging economies are looking to pay significant sums to short-circuit residence and citizenship requirements.
For expats seeking to find out more about golden visas, here are some answers to the most asked questions about the schemes.
Golden visas are fast-track routes to residency and citizenship offered by governments in return for significant investment in jobs, business and property by wealthy expats.
The application procedures vary between countries and are subject to change at short notice. The best way to find out about a specific golden visa is to talk to an embassy or consulate office for the country where you wish to move to
According to the International Monetary Fund, most golden visa applicants come from China, while the statistics also suggest the programs are popular with wealthy Russians.
With more than 100 golden visa programs on offer worldwide, choosing the best scheme is complicated. Although each country publishes details of its residency and citizenship visas, they are not listed as ‘golden visas’; most online lists come from commercial organisations that have a financial interest in promoting the schemes.
According to data published by the IMF, the EU states of Malta and Cyprus give visa-free travel to more than 150 countries.
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