Have you ever seen a house listing that clarifies it is suitable for citizenship in capital letters? Or heard an immigration attorney saying that you could earn a Green Card by purchasing a house? Well, all of those are a part of “golden visas” or, more accurately, “immigrant investor programs.” While it may sound bizarre, one can gain citizenship or permanent residence just by investing, in specific countries. It seems to be a win-win situation for both parties, yet they still face controversy.
What exactly is a “golden visa”?
Golden visas are primarily designed to enhance foreign investment in a country. States that would like to enhance their national economy via increasing foreign investment are very well aware of the appeal of a fast-track visa that exempts one from all the paperwork and time. As of August 2023, countries such as Türkiye, Malta, Greece, United Arab Emirates, and even the United States have developed different kinds of immigrant investor programs. More often than not, buying real estate or investing in national companies doesn’t get you further than accelerating a permanent residence application. But in some of those countries, such as Türkiye, you can even be granted citizenship. Each country has its own integrated policy and eligibility criteria. Countries usually put a minimum limit to investment amount and demand that you keep investing, be physically present in the country, or in the case of a real estate investment, that you do not sell the property for a certain while.
Why are foreign investors so important?
Foreign investors enable the direct flow of foreign currency into a country, helping the country strengthen the value of its currency compared to other countries. Among countless other benefits, they also have been proven to contribute to better innovation and industrial productivity of nations. Especially for LEDC’s (Less Economically Developed Countries), it is a great opportunity to carry the country’s economy, thereby its power and influence, to an international scale. From an investor’s point of view, the legal rights a citizenship provides such as embassy protection and voting are quite desirable.
“My country isn’t for sale!” Nationalist Values vs. Utilitarian Policies
Some natural-born citizens from countries that offer golden visas or passports are unhappy with their state’s decision. The most common complaint centers on the idea that their country isn’t necessarily up for ‘sale’. They usually demonstrated support for immigrant assimilation and integration. Usual wishes contained lingua franca (common language that is spoken in the country) proficiency, knowledge of the culture and government, and moral character from all immigrants, not excluding the ones with more money. Some states still appear to be unbothered by the lack of public approval for the programs, as they are focused on the financial benefits that outweigh the drawbacks.
Golden visas in the European Union
Since all European Union countries in addition to several others, such as Norway and Switzerland, are a party to the European freedom of movement, more commonly known as the Schengen area, the implementation of these programs is especially controversial. Freedom of movement means that anyone who holds citizenship or permanent residence from any country that is a party to the Schengen Agreement gets to work and reside — and in some cases, even vote in local elections — in other Schengen countries without any further bureaucracy. If these rights are granted to a person in one Schengen country, then all other Schengen countries must also grant those same rights to that person, even if they have not individually agreed to the program.
Portugal was the most recent country to scrap its “golden visa” program upon backlash. The EU Headquarters in Brussels called on all European countries not to implement golden visas, or at least to adopt stricter measures, as it is essentially “selling” residence and/or citizenship. Brussels’ motive is to protect the European Union's values and safeguard the organization, a concern that many people in Schengen countries share. Greece, however, still maintains its golden visa program. Some may suppose the program was introduced to help with the government debt crisis that ended a few years ago, but there have been no official statements from Greece about why they introduced and were still maintaining the program.
An easy escape from sanctions and the judicial system
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian Federation was sanctioned by many EU and NATO countries. Russian oligarchs, who are prominent holders of wealth in Russia, were found to be using the golden visa programs of various NATO and EU countries, including the United Kingdom. Golden visas allowed them to use a passport and permanent residence, different from the Russian one, which lost lots of power after February 2022. After being disclosed in the UK, the situation triggered many reactions, and countries followed with the cancellation of permanent residences. UK officials added that it was simply unacceptable for Kremlin-backed oligarchs to join UK public life. The UK law enforcement’s demand was simple: Better screening and background checks for prospective citizens and permanent residence holders, who are to obtain their papers via investment. Besides the Russian oligarchs, there were business people who earned their net worth through corruption, illegality, fraud, and organized crime. These individuals also had their visas withheld if already rewarded.
While these "golden visas" are undoubtedly beneficial for some national economies in the long run, they're still put into question. The states that allow them suffer strong criticism from their own citizens, who see how their country and identity is sold to high bidders. As a result of such backlash, the EU seems to pioneer stricter measures on golden visas, cracking down on any projects from member states: all the benefits of being a European citizen aren't for sale, especially for controversial individuals or straight-out criminals.
Edited by Melisa Altıntaş and Yağmur Ece Nisanoğlu.
“Golden Visas: Europe for Sale?” Investigate Europe, 6 Feb. 2023.
Syal, Rajeev. “Ten Oligarchs Who Used ‘Golden Visa’ Route to UK Are on Sanctions List.” The Guardian, 12 Jan. 2023.
“What Are ‘Golden Visas’?” The Economist, 21 Feb. 2023.
Xu, Xin, et al. “Too Much of a Good Thing? Prudent Management of Inflows under Economic Citizenship Programs.” International Monetary Fund, May 2015.