The pandemic year left an indelible mark on the investment migration industry, and changed the fortunes (for better or worse) of almost every major residence and citizenship by investment program.
In this article, we’ve ranked the ten biggest investment migration programs in 2020, as measured by the number of approved applicants.
A note on our figures:
- For countries that record statistics on a fiscal year (rather than a calendar year) basis, ‘2020’ means the fiscal year that ended in 2020.
- Note that we have only considered residence/citizenship by investment programs; startup-, self-employed-, and entrepreneur-visas (such as the hugely popular US E2 program or the UK’s Innovator visa) are excluded from consideration.
- Because not all programs distinguish between main applicants and dependents (but, instead, report only the total number of visas issued), we have assumed average family sizes to arrive at an estimate of main applicants in isolation and substantiated our assumptions in the accompanying analysis for each program.
#10 – The Greek Golden Visa
- Main applicant approvals in 2020: 403 (-89%)
Europe’s star performer for the last several years, no program (except for those suspended by governments, of course) had a steeper decline in application volume in 2020 than the Greek golden visa, which saw approvals plunge from 3,504 in 2019 to just 403 during the pandemic year.
#9 – The Spanish Golden Visa
- Main applicant approvals in 2020: 845 (-40.5%)
Spain’s golden visa program had remained astonishingly robust even as the country endured one of the world’s COVID-19 outbreaks that saw public bureaus close and residents confined to their homes for several months. Approval volumes in H1 2020, in fact, exceeded those of the preceding, pandemic-free six months. In the second half of 2020, however, approval volumes cratered.
#8 – The Portugal Golden Visa
- Main applicant approvals in 2020: 1,182 (-5%)
Portugal’s golden visa authority, the SEF, is best-in-class in terms of the timely reporting of statistics, providing us with a richer data set than any other program, perhaps with the exception of the erstwhile Malta IIP.
In 2020 (which, in Portugal, also means the calendar year of 2020), the SEF approved 1,182 main applicants, only slightly behind the program’s 2019 performance.
#7 – The Vanuatu DSP
- Main applicants in 2020: Best estimate – 1,489 (+26%)
Vanuatu’s DSP has moved from strength to strength ever since it opened in 2017, each year raising more money than during the preceding year. Unfortunately, we still don’t have full-year figures for the number of approved main applicants in 2020, but we do have the Treasury’s full-year figures for the amounts raised through the country’s two citizenship programs in 2020, which we can use as a proxy to estimate the number of main applicants for the DSP (the larger of the two programs).
In 2020, government revenues from citizenship by investment were 26% higher than in 2019. Since there has been no change in the pricing structure, we can safely assume that the increase in revenue will have driven a more or less directly proportional rise in approvals. That is to say, the approval volume in 2020 should be about 26% greater than the 1,182 recorded in 2019, or somewhere in the region of 1,489.
#6 – The Saint Kitts & Nevis CIP
- Main applicant approvals in 2020: Best estimate – 1,500-2,500
Saint Kitts & Nevis’ CIP is the only major investment migration program that steadfastly refuses to publish statistics, a policy the program’s CIU maintains because, in their words, they consider such information a trade secret.
As a consequence, we are largely flying blind in our estimates for Saint Kitts & Nevis’ CIP. The Kittitian CIU’s reticence notwithstanding, the heads of the region’s competing CIUs have consistently made educated guesses about a total figure of between 1,500 and 2,500 approved applications annually for the last several years. There is little anecdotal evidence to indicate any significant deviation from historical trends.
#5 – The Australia BIIP
- Main applicant approvals in 2020: Best estimate – 1,768 (-39%)
Australia’s Business Innovation and Investment Program has an annual cap of 7,260 on the number of BIIP-related visas it will issue to main applicants and their dependents. Because the government only publishes the total number of visas issued under the program (which includes both main applicants and dependents), we have arrived at an estimate for the number of approved main applicants by dividing the reported total visa figure by 2.5 (rather than the customary 3 because the BIIP skews heavily toward participation from Chinese investors, who tend to have smaller families).
In each of the four years prior to 2020, the BIIP has been oversubscribed and has filled its 7,260-visa quota, implying 2,904 approved main applicants per year. Due to some of the world’s strictest border closures and suspension of many routine immigration services in 2020, however, Australia approved only 4,420 visas – or an estimated 1,768 main applicants – in the fiscal year that ended on June 30th, 2020.
#4 – The Thai Elite Visa program
- Main applicant approvals in 2020: Best estimate – 1,783 (+24%)
The pandemic had the effect of buoying the Thai Elite program for the simple reason that a large number of foreign, long-term residents who had previously been able to carry on living in the country by entering and exiting the country every few months to renew their temporary visas suddenly found themselves unable to continue the practice as borders closed. Left with few other options, many applied to the Elite program, catapulting approval figures to another record high of 2,674 applications.
Estimating a number of main applicants for the Thai Elite is a challenge because of the program’s nature; about two-thirds of applicants are single applicants and among those who bring their families, most don’t include their minor dependents in their application because, as one prominent Thai Elite provider explained, “minor dependents who enter Thailand with their elite-visa-holding parents can overstay their visas without any problems. It is the parents that need the visa.”
In light of this, we have presumed 1.5 individual Thai Elite visas per application, which implies that the 2,674 new members recorded in 2020 equates to about 1,783.
#3 – The Dominica CIP
- Main applicant approvals in 2020: 1,896 (+2.5%)
Dominica has never been in the habit of reporting any statistics at all on its CIP, but that changed suddenly in 2020 when, in a rare concession to Parliamentary questions, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit disclosed approval figures for the last three fiscal years.
In the 2019-20 fiscal year – which ended on June 30th, 2020 – the Dominica CIU approved 1,896 files, slightly more than during the previous year.
#2 – The United States EB-5 program
- Main applicant approvals in 2020: 2,577 (-30%)
Because it’s a program for which applicants qualify in stages, we’ve chosen to define the “approved application” for EB-5 as the approval of an I-526 petition, rather than approval of an I-829, because this is the point at which an investor obtains the initial residence permit in the US. We define application approvals as I-526 approvals because it is analogous to the temporary residence permits issued immediately upon golden visa approvals in countries like Portugal or Greece. The I-829 petition, by contrast, is analogous to the permanent residence permits Greece or Portugal issue several years after the golden visa approval.
Measured in this manner, 2020 was the worst year for EB-5 since 2011. Only 2,577 I-526 petitions received approvals during the 2020 fiscal year. Low as that figure may be by the EB-5 program’s own standards, it still makes EB-5 the second-biggest investment migration program globally in 2020.
#1 – Turkey
- Main applicant approvals in 2020: best estimate – 13,325 (+325%)
Determining how many main applicants were approved for citizenship by investment in 2020 is no walk in the park.
Turkey’s Interior Ministry reports statistics on its CIP at irregular intervals (i.e., every once in a while) and, as such, we are unable to offer precise numbers of approvals within the calendar year. The Ministry does report accurate figures, but for non-uniform periods. Our estimates for the full year 2020, therefore, are based on an extrapolation of ongoing trends:
The Turkey CIP’s approval volumes have increased steadily and rapidly since late 2018, when the government reduced its minimum investment requirement by three-quarters. At the very beginning of June 2020, the last time the Ministry directly issued a statistical update, 9,011 main applicants had received Turkish citizenship through the program since its opening in 2017.
Because Turkey’s reporting is irregular in its intervals, we have converted the Ministry’s multi-month figures to monthly average approvals.
- During the period September 2019 to February 2020, Turkey approved 4,656, or 776 per month on average. This implies that 1,552 (776 x 2) applications were approved in the first two months of 2020.
- Over the subsequent reporting period – March, April, and May 2020 – monthly approvals averaged 1,333, implying a total figure for main applicant approvals for the year to June 1st of 5,552.
The estimated average monthly approval volume for the first five months of the year, then, is 1,110, which would imply a full-year figure for 2020 of 13,325. Keep in mind that the period for which we have precise data covers a period in which Turkey was at a peak in terms of pandemic restrictions, so the estimate is, in our opinion, conservative.
We consider it unlikely that approval volumes in the latter half of 2020 were significantly below those of the first half, for three reasons:
- Monthly application volume has been increasing steadily since late 2018;
- The practical obstacles to application were far greater in the first half of 2020 than in the second; and
- There is no anecdotal evidence from service providers to indicate any drastic fall in approval volumes.
If property sales to foreigners can serve as a proxy – which, considering the significant overlap between top foreign home buyer nationalities and top CIP applicant nationalities, it likely can – interest in the Turkish CIP is unlikely to have abated in the latter half of 2020.
Our best estimate for CIP application approvals for Turkey in 2020 is 13,325, but even if we apply a confidence interval of just 50% and the true figures is just half of our estimate, the Turkey CIP would still be the world’s most popular investment migration program by some distance. Indeed, Turkey would top the list even if we only counted the numbers for the first half of 2020, a period for which we do have reliable data.
The below graph illustrates how lopsided the pandemic’s impact on the top 10 investment migration programs was in 2020.
If you enjoyed this article, you’ll love the IMI Data Center, the world’s most comprehensive database on investment migration program statistics, home to more than 300 graphs and charts.
Christian Henrik Nesheim is the founder and editor of Investment Migration Insider, the #1 magazine – online or offline – for residency and citizenship by investment. He is an internationally recognized expert, speaker, documentary producer, and writer on the subject of investment migration, whose work is cited in the Economist, Bloomberg, Fortune, Forbes, Newsweek, and Business Insider. Norwegian by birth, Christian has spent the last 16 years in the United States, China, Spain, and Portugal.