You can be born into it, you can earn it, and you can lose it. Increasingly, you can also invest your way into it.
The “it” is citizenship of a particular country, and it is a more fluid concept than ever before. Go back 50 years, and it was uncommon for countries to allow dual citizenship, but it is now almost universal.
More than half of the world’s nations now have citizenship-through-investment programmes. According to one expert, Swiss lawyer Christian Kalin, it is now a global industry worth $25bn (£20bn) a year.
How much does it cost to buy a passport?
Antigua and Barbuda; from $100,000
St Kitt’s and Nevis; from $150,000
Montenegro; from $274,000
Portugal; from $384,000
Spain; from $550,000
Bulgaria; from $560,000
Malta; from $1m
US; between $500,000 and $1m invested in a business creating 10 jobs
UK; from $2.5m
Mr Kalin, who has been dubbed “Mr Passport”, is the chairman of Henley & Partners, one of the world’s biggest players in this rapidly growing market. His global business helps wealthy individuals and their families acquire residency or citizenship in other countries.
He says that our traditional notions of citizenship are “outdated”. “This is one of the few things left in the world that is tied to blood lines, or where you are born,” he says. He argues that a rethink is very much due.
The government of the Pacific island state of Vanuatu will sell you a passport for about $150,000
“It’s super unfair,” he says, explaining that where we are born is by no means down to our own skill or talent, but instead “pure luck”. “What is wrong with regarding citizenship like a membership,” he adds. “And what is wrong with admitting talented people who will contribute?”
We followed the citizenship trail to the tiny Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. Since the country introduced its new citizenship scheme four years ago, it’s seen an explosion of interest. Passports now provide the biggest source of its government’s revenues.
For many aspirational Vanuatu-passport holders, the biggest draw is visa-free travel throughout Europe.
Most foreign recipients of Vanuatu passports never even step foot in the country. Instead they apply for their citizenship in offices overseas, like the licensed Vanuatu citizenship broker PRG Consulting, based in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is one of the world’s biggest citizenship marketplaces. In a cafe at Hong Kong airport, we met the citizenship agent MJ, a private businessman who helps an increasing number of mainland Chinese obtain a second or even third passport.
“They don’t feel safe [in China],” he says of his clients. “They want access to Europe to open a bank account, to buy property or to start businesses.”
MJ says that many wealthy Chinese use a Vanuatu passport to get into Europe
Citizenship is a competitive global market, and for many small and island nations, notably in the Caribbean – the price for a passport is around $150,000. The cost of a Vanuatu passport is said to be around the same level.
A Vanuatu passport, MJ explains, is “so fast” to arrange (you can get one in just 30 days), and that helps make it a popular choice. But Mr Kalin and others caution that Vanuatu has a reputation for corruption. As a result, Henley & Partners and others do not deal with the Vanuatu citizenship programme.
However, this doesn’t stop the interest from China. A few years ago Hong Kong television channels aired catchy TV advertisements promoting Vanuatu citizenship, aimed at the territory’s steady flow of visitors from the mainland.
Demand from the Chinese market booming
With demand from the Chinese market for Vanuatu passport booming, Dan McGarry, who runs the local newspaper, says it will be hard to imagine a change in policy anytime soon.
Passport sales now account for more than 30% of the country’s revenue, according to Dan. “For a tiny country like ours this is a big deal. But we have to ask ourselves, is this what we fought for? Is this right? Is it right to sell our hard won sovereignty to the highest bidder?”
It’s a question that many countries, not just Vanuatu, will have to grapple with in an increasingly globalised world. But as Mr Kalin, from Henley & Partners, says: “Citizenship through investment, and investment migration programmes, are nothing but a reflection of a world where everything has become more fluid.”