Race to Invest: Foreigners rush to secure ‘Golden Visas’ before EU shutters the programme

Portugal’s ‘golden visa’ program, which offers residency and a path to citizenship to foreigners willing to invest in the country, is coming to an end. The programme began in 2008 to help plug budget deficits with residency-for-sale programs, and at least 10 other European countries have since followed suit. In exchange for a minimum investment of €50,000 in Latvia or up to €1.2 million in the Netherlands, investors are granted the right to live and work in the country for three to five years, after which they may apply for citizenship. The programme has seen substantial investment from China, with Chinese nationals accounting for more than 90% of Ireland’s applications since 2012. However, the programmes have led to accusations of gentrification and pricing residents out of the housing market. Ireland has already shut down its scheme, and Portugal’s and Greece’s are winding down. Immigration consultants have reported a surge of interest in Spain and Greece as a result.

Europe’s ‘Golden Visa’ Programs Are Dying Out as Housing Costs Rise

By Evelyn Yu, Henrique Almeida and Morwenna Coniam*

On a sunny Tuesday morning in the town of Grândola, an hour and a half south of Lisbon, Sandy Chen steps out of an Uber and braces herself for the five home viewings she’s lined up for the day. As Chen walks down a quiet street in the town of 14,000, dogs bark and elderly residents, alerted by the noise, emerge from their homes to check out the visitor. “If I buy a house here, I might be the only Chinese person in town,” she says.

Chen, a retiree originally from Tianjin in northern China, is racing to find a property before Portugal slams the door on a program offering residency and a path to citizenship to foreigners willing to invest in the country. In 2021, Portugal narrowed the restrictions on its 11-year-old “golden visa” scheme for people who invest €350,000 ($383,000)—simply buying a home counts—and spend at least seven days per year in the country.

Then, two months ago, amid growing discontent about soaring housing prices, the Portuguese government signaled that it would terminate the program as soon as Parliament debated and passed revised legislation—probably in the next few weeks. But if Chen were to sign a contract and submit her application before lawmakers voted, she might still get a visa allowing her to live and travel freely in the European Union.

Grândola’s historic center. Photographer: Luís Filipe Catarino for Bloomberg Businessweek

In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, Portugal and at least 10 other European countries sought to plug budget deficits with residency-for-sale programs. With no European Union-wide rules, eligibility requirements varied dramatically: The minimum investment starts at €50,000 in Latvia; in the Netherlands, it’s €1.2 million. In exchange, investors typically get to live and work in the country for three to five years and are then allowed to apply for citizenship.

The EU has long pressured governments to terminate golden visa schemes on the grounds that they’re anti-democratic and can serve as a means for dirty money to enter the region. “European values are not for sale,” Didier Reynders, the EU commissioner for justice and consumers, said last year. Now, with most European countries back on stable financial footing and facing increased domestic opposition to the idea, some popular places for applicants are becoming less welcoming. Ireland shut down its scheme on Feb. 15. And Greece says it will double its investment threshold to €500,000 in several key locations including Athens. As the Portuguese and Irish programs wind down, immigration consultants say there’s been a surge of interest in Greece and Spain.

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Europe-wide statistics are hard to come by, but the available evidence suggests a substantial majority of people taking advantage of the programs are from China. In Ireland, which granted residency in exchange for a €500,000 investment to buyers with personal wealth of at least €2 million, Chinese nationals account for more than 90% of the 1,727 applications approved since 2012. In Greece, they represent nearly 60% of 12,818 golden visas over the past decade. In Portugal, the figure is almost half of the 11,758 permits granted since 2012. Before their country’s invasion of Ukraine last year, many Russians applied, and the number of Americans seeking the visas has surged in recent years.

Grândola Photographer: Luís Filipe Catarino for Bloomberg Businessweek

The programs did bring money into European property markets—about €3.5 billion a year from 2016 to 2019, according to the European Parliament. And in Portugal, a 2015 revision of the law was designed to spur improvements to the housing stock by reducing the investment threshold by a third for applicants purchasing a home in need of renovation. That was a big reason why, of the five viewings that Chen scheduled in Portugal, four of the properties were more than 30 years old.

In Lisbon, these policies, combined with the lifting of rent controls and a robust campaign to draw tourists, have been transformational. Cais do Sodré, once a gritty waterfront district of narrow streets lined with brothels, now overflows with tony hotels, short-term rentals, gourmet restaurants and luxury boutiques. Along the main artery, a 133-year-old fish and farmers market has been converted into a food hall that attracts an estimated 4 million visitors a year.

But one person’s rejuvenation is another’s gentrification, and climbing home prices have fueled perceptions that wealthy golden visa holders have priced out residents. In Lisbon, the average cost of residential property has tripled since 2015, according to real estate website Idealista. In Athens, average home prices have jumped 48% in the past five years, government data show. In Dublin, they’re up 130% since 2012, the government says.

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The rising prices have triggered protests where marchers air grievances about golden visa programs alongside their opposition to gentrification, Airbnb-type rentals and the lack of affordable housing. In Lisbon, hundreds took to the streets on April 1, throwing stones and bottles at police. In Athens, demonstrations against gentrification and real estate speculation have been a fixture of the urban landscape since 2019, when a government seen as favorable to foreign investors took office.

There’s been a backlash even in countries that grant relatively few such visas. Spain, where citizenship can be acquired for €500,000 and 10 years of residency, issued only 136 golden visas in 2022. Yet it’s not unusual to hear grumbling about their effect on the housing market. “It’s easy for some gentlemen to come and request a residence permit and buy a house with a half-million euros,” Íñigo Errejón, leader of Spanish political party Más País, told news outlet Cadena SER in February. “It looks almost colonial.”

Portugal’s Alentejo region, where Grândola is located. Photographer: Tinker Street/Gallerystock

Yet market data suggests golden visas have scant influence on property values. In Ireland, just a few hundred visas are issued every year, in a market that saw 60,000 residential transactions in 2022. “The scheme had very little impact,” says Ronan Lyons, an economics professor at Trinity College Dublin. Properties bought via Portugal’s program represent roughly 0.3% of the country’s 300,000 annual real estate transactions, according to the Agency, a real estate brokerage. “That’s not enough to affect anything,” says Ayres Neto, managing partner of the company’s Portugal office.

People who work with the programs say any backlash will be temporary. Countries around the world have long seen the benefit of attracting skilled, wealthy immigrants willing to fund new businesses, says Nuri Katz, founder of citizenship-by-investment-services firm Apex Capital Partners. “This is unlikely to change,” he says. “While they may be reformed, they will not be terminated.”

By the end of her day in Grândola, Chen had narrowed the choice to two places. One was a single-story green and white house on a property dotted with orange trees; the other was an abandoned four-bedroom home with a two-acre garden that had been empty for at least a half-century. If Portugal extends a grace period to the final round of golden visa investors, she’ll likely close on one of the two. And if she misses that window, she’s optimistic about eventually getting a visa somewhere. “When the next financial crisis comes and they mess with public finances again,” she says, “they’ll reopen the golden visa schemes and let us invest.”

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