A growing number of cash-strapped governments are offering a path to permanent residence or even citizenship to wealthy individuals willing to invest a significant sum in their economy. Immigrant investor programs date back to the early 1980s, but there has been a sharp rise in number in the past few years as states navigate their way through a fragile economic recovery and seek a greater financial dividend from migration. In the past two months alone, new programs have been introduced in Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, Malta, the Netherlands, and Spain.
Immigrant investor programs offer applicants immediate permanent resident status, citizenship, or a temporary residence permit that usually has a path to permanent residency subject to certain requirements. "Citizenship-by-investment" programs offer immediate citizenship in exchange for a one-off investment; these are currently offered in St. Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, and Dominica, with Malta recently announcing plans to launch its own program in the near term. Most immigrant investor programs, however, offer investors a temporary residence permit, with a path to permanent residency after two to five years; investors must generally maintain their investment during this period, and may be subject to certain residence requirements and, in some cases, job-creation quotas.
Different Requirements, Different Statuses
While some countries impose residence requirements that encourage applicants to settle for the long term, other programs barely require investors to set foot on their territory. Foreign investors can maintain their status in Hungary without visiting the country at all, and investor programs in Spain, Latvia, Portugal, and Ireland only require one visit per year.
So far, the Chinese have been the biggest consumers of these programs, which have also proved popular with wealthy individuals from South Korea, Russia, and the Middle East. Many investors view the programs as a way to establish their families permanently abroad — particularly in popular destinations such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Others see them as an insurance policy — a way of keeping their options open in the face of political or economic uncertainty at home. And some participants rely on the programs to open up opportunities for visa-free travel, sidestepping restrictions that their fellow nationals face. (A key benefit of several of the European programs is more automatic access to the European borderless travel area known as the Schengen zone.)
Investment thresholds and criteria vary substantially between programs. For example, Latvia requires an investment of 25,000 lats ($48,000) into a small company, while France grants a ten-year residence permit to applicants who can make an investment of at least 10 million euros ($13.6 million). Investors may not have to invest in a specific business. Many countries offer one or more simpler options, such as purchasing government bonds or making a cash donation to a national development fund. In some countries, applicants can qualify for a residence permit simply by purchasing property for their personal use. In other words, countries are using residence programs not just to boost direct investment into local economies, but also to provide government revenues and, in some cases, simply to admit wealthy individuals in the hope that they will spend money, pay taxes, and perhaps set up businesses in the destination country.
Investor Program Transparency
As more states introduce immigrant investor programs, concerns have been raised about a lack of transparency and accountability. Many countries are reluctant to release data about their applicants, government-directed investments, or decision-making processes. Critics suggest that these programs require greater regulation and more stringent checks to verify the origins of the invested funds and to monitor the investor programs. Others have raised concerns about political interference as investors with connections pull strings to push their applications through the process. Grenada, Belize, and Ireland have all suspended economic citizenship programs in the past, following revelations of these programs' misuse. (Grenada launched a new investor program this year and Ireland did so in 2012.) In several countries, critics have argued that investor programs have failed to provide clear economic benefits — simply pushing up high-end house prices in locations that give visas to property owners, or providing businesses with investment funds that can be withdrawn after just a few years.
It is likely that the number of immigrant investor programs will continue to grow, as more states seize the opportunity to raise additional revenue and encourage high-value migration. The form of these programs remains experimental, with some generating significant income while others have lowered investment thresholds to attract more applicants. As the programs become more popular, calls for increased regulation and transparency may grow, particularly with the growth of citizenship-by-investment programs that often attract criticism for "selling passports." One thing is clear: demand for investor visas is on the increase. In the United States, take-up of the EB-5 visa doubled to 7,641 in 2012 from 3,463 in 2011, and is soon expected to hit the annual quota of 10,000 for the first time in its 23-year history. With growing wealth in emerging economies, investment in securing residence and travel rights abroad may prove a more popular course for some as they pursue new economic and educational opportunities for themselves and their families.
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Der Spiegel. 2013. EU Immigration: Only the Rich Are Welcome. October 8, 2013. Available online.
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Wall Street Journal. 2013. Chinese Investors Get Picky Over U.S. Visa-for-Cash Deal. March 19, 2013. Available online.
---. 2013. Australia Attracts Chinese Multimillionaires. May 6, 2013. Available online.