By Moustafa Daly
While the concept of golden visas or residency by investment traces its roots back to the Canadian investor program that was launched in the mid-1980s, it is European programs that have cashed in on it the most.
Most EU programs were launched in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, with countries seeking creative ways to attract foreign funds and talent to their economies. From Greece, Cyprus, to Spain and Portugal, EU countries raced to cash in on their powerful passports, advanced infrastructure, and high quality of life, all seeking to provide competitive golden visa routes to foreign investors who are seeking mobility and convenience.
Most EU golden visa programs witnessed success, with Portugal and Greece’s programs in particular becoming the continent’s most attractive due to their favorable terms and relatively low investment thresholds, attracting thousands of foreigners seeking to leverage the programs to their advantage – seeking them either to retire in those countries or to simply establish new home-bases for them and their families.
Surge in RCBI program applicants in Europe
Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, which grounded the global aviation industry and led to an unprecedented closure of national borders to foreigners. The pandemic, coupled with the Russian war on Ukraine, was a wake-up call to many, bringing about the realization that even if one has a powerful passport and visa-free access to most world countries, a second passport or residency would still come in handy should the world face another crisis of the same magnitude as Covid-19.
This has led to notable expansion in the European continent’s golden visa programs, with interest peaking throughout the world in the search for second passports in the EU and otherwise. For many European countries, this constituted a turning point at which many countries began contemplating their programs and seeking to limit them so as to avert increasing housing prices or misuse of their programs by foreigners that seek to subvert travel restrictions imposed on certain nationalities.
This has led countries like Portugal and Ireland to halt their programs earlier this year, and other countries like Greece (and possibly Spain) to increase the investment required to qualify for the programs in an attempt to narrow down the pool of applicants.
Nevertheless, interest in golden visa programs is at an all-time high, and the numbers of golden visas issued across Europe are on a consistent upward swing. But what are the EU programs’ investors seeking the most and why?
We bring you a guide on the number of golden visas issued across the EU’s most active golden visa programs.
Greece’s residency by investment program draws global investors
Greece is one of the more popular routes to an EU residency by investment, having launched its golden visa program in 2013 as the country began its recovery from a prolonged financial downturn. With a €250,000 real estate investment threshold, among other routes, the program quickly proved to be an investor favorite, attracting thousands of applications since its launch. More specifically, the golden visa was granted to a total of 28,767 main applicants and dependents between 2014 and 2022 – one of the continent’s highest figures. In 2022, 2767 golden visas were issued in Greece, nearly double the 2021 figure of 1525.
In early 2023, the Greek government announced that the investment threshold would be doubled in tourism areas like Athens and Santorini, while remaining the same in less popular areas. The announcement sent interest in the program to new heights as investors are seeking to take advantage of the cheaper threshold before it expires in July, 2023.
In January and February of this year, a record number of 1446 applications were submitted, with 576 golden visas issued in the same period – with the trend expected to continue throughout the year to potentially make it the year with the highest golden visas issued on record – but that remains to be seen.
The golden visa of Spain
Also launched in 2013, Spain’s golden visa program is also one of the continent’s most successful programs despite the relatively high investment threshold of €500,000.
To date, around 31,269 golden visas have been issued to main applicants and their dependents, many of whom have now upgraded to permanent residencies. Applications peaked in 2019 before taking a downward trend caused by the pandemic and subsequent restrictions placed on Russian nationals applying to the programs – seeing that Russian applicants have been the second biggest group of golden visa applicants, constituting about 25% of total applications up until Spain moved to cut off their access shortly after the breakout of the war in Ukraine.
In 2022, only 136 golden visas were issued to real estate investors in Spain – however this trend is likely to be reversed in 2023 as competition from Portugal’s program will soon end as the country halts its program, leaving Spain’s program, along with Greece, as main contenders for golden visa supremacy in Europe – particularly with the latter also hiking investment threshold to €500,000 in popular areas.
Recently, even Spain is also considering potentially ending its golden visa program after a leftist party proposed the measure to curb high property prices. But steps are yet to be taken in this direction.
Malta’s programs still going strong in Europe
Since 2015, the small Mediterranean nation of Malta has been running one of Europe’s most attractive residency programs, and arguably its most controversial. For a €600,000 investment, foreigners can obtain Maltese residency with a route to citizenship within three years. Increasing the investment to €750,000 would shortcut the wait to just 12 months to obtain citizenship.
Up until 2022, over 5300 families were granted Maltese permanent residency under the program – with the exact number of visas issued not specified. In 2022, 780 applications were approved by Malta. However, with the relatively straightforward and hassle-free route to citizenship, the program attracted much scrutiny from EU officials who lambasted it for providing a route to EU citizenship in exchange for funds, lacking what the bloc’s commission described as a genuine link to the continent and possibly providing a backdoor for individuals with suspicious backgrounds to bypass strict EU citizenship requirements.
This has led the EU to take Malta to court in late 2022, and it remains to be seen the impact the court case would have on the program and its offerings… but as it stands, the Maltese permanent residency program continues to be one of the easiest and most popular routes for foreign investors to EU residency and citizenship.
Portugal’s successful program coming to an end
Last, but definitely not least, is Portugal’s golden visa program – the continent’s most popular and sought-after program. Despite the fact that the program has been effectively suspended by the government this year, with the full suspension forthcoming after a parliament vote, it remains an attractive option for investors before the full suspension which is expected to happen at some point in mid to late 2023.
To date, as per government numbers, 11,921 golden visas have been issued to main applicants since the program launched in 2013, as well as 19,433 dependents – for a total of 31,354 – making it, along with Spain, the biggest program of its kind on the continent, with Greece a close second. In the first quarter of 2023, the government approved a record high number of 386 golden visas for main applicants.
With the program soon coming to a close, there have been media reports about sustained interest of investors seeking to make it before the program ends, but the exact figures are yet to be made public for the period following March 2023.
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