With the EU calling for member states to stop selling citizenship to investors, many countries are now looking to pull the plug or toughen requirements on golden visa schemes.
Getting the right to live and work in another country can be a long and difficult process. But that’s not always the case for those with money to spend.
Golden visas offer the opportunity for wealthy people to essentially ‘buy’ the right to residency - sometimes without even having to live in the country.
And their popularity in the European Union is growing as people look to move away from political decisions such as Brexit that may limit their rights.
With the unsettled political and social environment in the US, applications for golden visas from Americans are expected to increase. In its 2022 report, passporting firm Get Golden Visa predicted: “its busiest year yet.”
But golden visas are now gradually being phased out across Europe. Portugal became the latest country to consider scrapping the scheme in February 2023 - a move that has been fiercely criticised by the autonomous region of Madeira. Now Spain is looking to follow suit and has already proposed toughening the requirements for its own scheme.
So what exactly are these golden visa schemes and why has the EU raised questions about their safety in recent months?
What is a golden visa?
Residence by investment schemes, otherwise known as ‘golden visas’, offer people the chance to get a residency permit for a country by purchasing a house there or making a large investment or donation.
Any applicants must be over the age of 18, have a clean criminal record and have sufficient funds to make the required investment.
There are also golden passports, known officially as citizenship by investment programs, that allow foreigners to gain citizenship using the same means.
For countries in the EU, this also means gaining access to many of the benefits of being a resident of the bloc - including free movement between countries.
Why is the EU against golden visas and passports?
In 2022, the European Commission called on EU governments to stop selling citizenship to investors.
Though this is different to golden visas, which offer permanent residency rather than citizenship, the call came as part of a move to crack down on this combined multi-billion euro industry. In the wake of the Ukraine war, there were concerns that these schemes could be a security risk.
Brussels also called for countries to double-check whether people sanctioned due to the war were holding a golden passport or visa that they had issued.
In the past, the EU has also said that schemes of this kind are a risk to security, transparency and the values that underpin the European Union project.
In October 2022, the European Commission urged Albania to "refrain from developing an investors' citizenship scheme (golden passports)". Such a scheme would "pose risks as regards security, money laundering, tax evasion, terrorist financing, corruption and infiltration by organised crime, and would be incompatible with EU norms," it warns in a report.
Threats also come from outside the bloc. Also in October, the European Commission proposed a suspension of Vanuatu's visa waiver agreement due to golden passport risks. This is because the scheme enables nationals of third countries to gain Vanuatu citizenship, which then earns them visa-free access to Schengen zone countries.
Which countries have scrapped their golden visa schemes?
In February 2022, the UK government scrapped its golden visa scheme that allowed wealthy foreign nationals to settle in the country in exchange for bringing part of their wealth with them. The decision to end the scheme came as part of a move to clamp down on dirty money from Russia.
In February 2023, Ireland also axed its golden visa scheme - the Immigrant Investor Programme - which offered Irish residence in return for a €500,000 donation or three-year annual €1 million investment in the country.
Ireland had already suspended the scheme for Russian citizens in March 2022 as part of sanctions imposed on the country for the invasion of Ukraine. The following month, the European Parliament warned that the programme was vulnerable to tax abuse. The final decision to scrap the scheme was the outcome of various international reports and internal reviews.
In February 2023, Portugal's Prime Minister António Costa announced plans to end the country's lucrative residence by investment scheme to tackle property and rent price speculation. Until now, foreigners could either purchase a property or invest some of their wealth into the country - known as capital transfer investments - in exchange for residency.
Between January and August 2022, the program brought almost €398 million to the country, according to Portugal's national news agency LUSA.
The autonomous region of Madeira is not letting it go without a fight. In March, regional President Miguel Albuquerque announced he refused to end golden visas in the archipelago.
"The program has brought many high-income foreign residents to Madeira, with obvious benefits for the local economy," he said in an interview with daily newspaper Diario de Noticias, adding that the "counterproductive" scheme only benefits Porto and Lisbon. The Azores also opposes dropping the visa, according to Albuquerque.
To keep residency status, people previously only had to stay in Portugal for around seven days each year. However, these visas will now only be renewed for those who use their property as their permanent residence or who rent out their property long-term.
Which EU countries still offer golden visas and what are the requirements?
There are only a few places that still offer golden passports in the EU. One of these countries is Malta. Here the minimum investment amount starts at €690,000 and offers citizenship for between 12 and 36 months.
Many others, however, still offer golden visa schemes. Here are a few examples of exactly how much it costs to get residence by investment in these countries.
Spain launched its residence by investment scheme in 2013. Since it was introduced, government figures show that almost 5,000 permits have been issued. It, too, grants residency to foreigners and their families who invest in property in the country.
An investment of €500,000 in real estate is required to gain the golden visa, which gives the right to live, work and study in Spain. While this is significantly higher than Portugal's minimum investment, there are fewer restrictions on which property you can buy.
The visa can also be gained by starting certain types of business in Spain, holding company shares or bank deposits with a minimum value of €1 million in Spanish financial institutions, or making a government bonds investment of at least €2 million.
However, some politicians have called for an end to the scheme. In February 2023, centre-left political party Más País registered a bill to scrap or drastically amend Spain's Residence by Investment programme, saying it impacts house prices and is not beneficial to the economy.
Leader of the party Iñigo Errejon, told reporters on 8 May that a preliminary agreement had been reached with the Social Security Ministry to bring an end to the scheme.
But, Errejon said, "Spanish citizenship cannot be bought". He blamed golden visas for a "brutal" increase in house prices and residents being forced out of their neighbourhoods. Errejon also claimed that the scheme hadn't created many new jobs.
No official agreement to end the golden visa scheme has been reached but according to local media reports, Spain is already considering tougher requirements for applications. This could include upping the investment requirement to €1 million as real estate experts believe the €500,000 minimum is no longer sufficient and can't be considered the price of a luxury property.
Italy is another popular destination for those looking to get residence by investment. Introduced in 2017, its golden visa grants non-EU nationals a residence permit for two years in exchange for an investment in Italy.
The minimum investment here is €500,000 which must be done through an Italian limited country. Those holding these visas can also include their family in the application and benefit from a special tax regime.
Once those using the scheme have lived in Italy for 10 years, they can be eligible for citizenship.
Greece offers golden visas, with one of the quickest processes for gaining residency. Qualifying foreigners can get a permit within 60 days of applying.
It used to have one of the lowest thresholds for investment at just €250,000 spent on property in the country. In September, the authorities raised this to €500,000 to increase the affordability of real estate for locals. The new threshold applies from 1 May 2023.
This update will be implemented in the Greater Area of Athens, the Municipality of Thessaloniki, and the islands of Mykonos and Santorini but the €250k threshold will remain the same in other regions.
Golden visa holders aren’t required to stay in Greece to keep their visas.
By the end of 2021, the country had seen 9,500 applications for these residence by investment schemes, one of the highest numbers in Europe.