Passports for Sale: Why We Should Worry about Golden Visa Programs

In 1984, the government of the small Caribbean island state of Saint Kitts and Nevis had a bright idea for attracting foreign capital: the country would grant permanent resident status to any foreign national who invested a sufficient amount in the country. The idea caught on, and now dozens of countries around the world—including not only small island states, but also major developed economies like the United States and the United Kingdom—have so-called “golden visa” programs. Golden visa programs have proven especially attractive during times of economic hardship, as demonstrated by the spread of these programs across Europe in the wake of the 2008 recession. These European programs are especially notable, as getting a visa in one country in the Schengen visa zone provides access to the other 25 as well. Some states—including EU members Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Malta—even offer investors outright citizenship, rather than simply residency status, in exchange for sufficiently large investments. And due to pre-existing visa waiver agreements, these “golden passports” may allow access to other countries as well. Those with Maltese passports, for example, can travel to the US visa-free.

According to a recent Transparency International-Global Witness report, in the last decade alone, countries with these sorts of programs have “sold” (that is, traded for investment) more than 6,000 passports and nearly 100,000 residency permits. Yet these policies have always been controversial, and are becoming more so. Canada terminated its golden visa program in 2014 (though it continues in Quebec). Last June, the Trump Administration demanded that Congress either terminate or reform the US investor visa program. And the UK abruptly announced it would suspend its program on December 6th, although it reversed course six days later.

Part of the reason for the growing disillusionment with golden visa programs is that their supposed economic benefits haven’t lived up to expectations. Rather than stimulate economic growth and job creation, the investments used to qualify for golden visas are often passive, such as government bonds or real estate. In Portugal, for example, 95% of total investment has been in real estate—6,141 investments compared to just 12 in employment creation. Real estate investments not only offer limited benefits, but may also distort housing markets. In the US, investments have been, in the words of US Senator Chuck Grassley, funneled towards “big moneyed Manhattan interests” rather than “direct investment to rural and high unemployment areas.” Hungary even managed to lose money on its program—$221 million—as it offered investors discounted bonds that were then fully repaid after five years with an additional 2% interest.

But the bigger problem with golden visa programs is their potential to both facilitate and stimulate corruption and money laundering. This problem, which was highlighted both by the TI-Global Witness report mentioned above, as well as another report from the European Commission, takes several forms. Continue reading