Once the mightiest passport in the world, the US travel document has fallen well out of favor. Between COVID-19 travel restrictions and an increasingly worrying political situation at home, US citizens who can afford it are trying to become something more than US citizens. They’re scouring the world, looking for the simplest way to procure another passport. But to be able to do so is an immense privilege afforded to few.
In general, the more powerful the passport, the bigger the fee to earn it. The least expensive passport might require you to move overseas right now, or shell out millions to better the local economy. And there’s not even a guarantee you’ll be able to keep that citizenship forever. Cyprus announced this week that it would end its controversial passport sale program at the end of the month; Cyprus gave out passports so freely — giving it within six months to anyone who bought two million euros ($2,350,000) in property and “donated” 150,000 euros ($175,000) to government programs — it was later forced to strip citizenship from some recipients.
While you probably won’t find us with an Austrian passport in our pocket anytime soon, it’s still interesting to imagine the possibility. Here are 11 of the most intriguing passports Americans can acquire, and what it will cost them.
Portugal was already a hub for young Europeans seeking an inexpensive, creative, and frankly fun place to work. In many ways, Lisbon is a new Berlin, with tech start-ups based there and hip coffee shops drawing the digital nomad crowd. But outsiders from beyond the EU are also taking an interest in Portugal because its Golden Visa program promises an EU passport with a real estate investment of 500,000 euros ($587,000) — even less, if the investment is in a low-density area or into an urban renewal project — and about a one-week stay per year. But the process is slow, taking up to seven years, since first you have to apply for three two-year residence cards and bureaucracy means it can take a year just to get your first one. Oh, and you need to pass a test in Portuguese.
A few years back, Spain launched a program similar to Portugal’s, but with a catch. Like in Portugal, an investment in real property of 500,000 euros earns you resident status with the option of applying for a Spanish passport once you’ve been a resident for five years. The difference, however, is that to get the passport, you need to plan to live in Spain. This may be appealing to UK citizens who wanted to retire along the warm shores of southern Spain anyway, and who fear Brexit will take away their ability to travel freely throughout Europe. That’s in fact what makes a European passport so desirable: Citizenship in one EU member country gives you the right to live in any other EU nation.
Economists worry that selling passports to property buyers can create real estate bubbles and bypasses the chance to strengthen the economy. Enter the Austrian passport program, the most difficult passport to acquire without residing in the country. Not only does it demand a minimum investment of $3.5 million, but that money has to benefit the country — by, say, creating jobs or bringing new technology. Since such a benefit is hard to prove, applicants should factor in layers of government approvals and plenty of legal fees. But after two or three years, the effort could result in gaining the second-strongest passport on the planet.
A Maltese passport takes twice as long to get as the Cypriot passport and half the investment. A real estate purchase or rental valuing 350,000 euros ($410,000), an expenditure of 150,000 euros ($175,000) into Maltese government bonds, and an additional “contribution” of 650,000 euros ($765,000) to the government should do the trick. The fourth, loosely defined requirement is the establishment of a “real connection” to Malta. Within a few weeks of submitting the paperwork, applicants can move freely about the European Schengen zone. Given Cypress’s troubles, it remains to be seen how long this program can last. As European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said last month,“European values are not for sale.”
Turkey straddles the continents of Europe and Asia. For now, pursuing Turkish citizenship is Europe’s best bargain, in money terms, and Asia’s number one bargain, with respect to the time required. In comparison to European passport offers, it’s cheap, requiring a real estate investment of only $250,000. And it claims to take only three to four months, although technically it can be a bit longer than that. But the Turkish passport’s strength is currently ranked 24th, above Argentina but below Brazil. So perhaps you get what you pay for.
6. St. Kitts and Nevis
You can buy into the second-most powerful passport in the Caribbean, after Barbados, which allows you to travel visa-free to EU and Schengen zone countries. All that’s needed is a contribution to the islands’ Sustainable Growth Fund — with a discount if you start the process soon — of $150,000 per person or for $195,000 for a family of four. That family can include children up to age 30 or parents over 55 years old. Some other fees will be thrown in, but the whole process takes less than four months and doesn’t require a single trip there. Actually, with such a beautiful island, it’s a shame you don’t have to go visit.
7. Antigua and Barbuda
Ranking two slots below St. Kitts and Nevis — or 30th in world passport strength — Antigua and Barbuda will offer you a chance to join their rank of citizens with a $100,000 donation to the National Development Fund, a real estate investment of $200,000, and a $150,000 donation to the University of the West Indies. That will secure passports for a family of four, and for a small fee you can add more children as old as 29.
8. St. Lucia
St. Lucia’s passport ranks below Antigua and Barbuda’s in strength, and the costs of obtaining one are about the same — or $250,000 for an individual and $300,000 for a family of four. With a St. Lucia passport, you can get visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 146 global destinations.
Ranking just under St. Lucia in terms of passport strength, Grenada offers citizenship to those willing to contribute $150,000 to its National Transformation Fund or to invest at least $350,000 in real estate projects that will benefit the country’s tourist sector.
The cheapest citizenship by investment program in the world can be found in Dominica, where a $100,000 investment will get you a second passport and $175,000 will get passports for each member of a family of four. The country had intended to increase the cost for a single person to $175,000 but opted against doing so, given the current pandemic-inspired economic crisis. You’ll have to prove you’ve got no criminal record, which is good news for upstanding citizens.
You could buy a stronger passport from another Asian country. Vanuatu, for example, will sell citizenship to a family of four for $180,000, and its passport ranks 42nd in global strength of travel. Meanwhile, Thailand’s passport ranks 52nd in the ability to travel visa-free around the world. But what the Thai passport lacks in power it gains in affordability. For just $15,000, you can buy the right to live in Thailand for five years. When those five years are up, you can apply to become a naturalized citizen. Yes, there is the matter of, well, moving there. But just imagine: While other travelers only get to stay for a while in this magical country, you’d get to live there.