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How easy is it to buy British citizenship?


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To go along with the private jet and luxury yacht, the current ‘must-have’ for a discerning multi-millionaire seems to be a range of international passports. The phenomenon of citizenship by investment has emerged over the last few decades and developed into a billion dollar industry. These “CIP” schemes enable the super-rich to acquire a second, third or even fourth nationality in return for an investment in the country’s economy.

The country of new nationality can function as a haven from any adverse political or economic conditions for the investor and their assets. The passport also makes the investor more mobile, offering up easy visa-free access to a greater range of other countries. An Asian businessman who avails of Malta’s scheme, for example, will be able to travel anywhere within the European Union.

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By all accounts business in CIPs is booming but these programmes are starting to gather a lot of negative publicity. Over the last couple of weeks the OECD has name and shamed 21 countries whose citizenship by investment programmes potentially enable tax evasion. There have also been reports that these schemes threaten the security of the EU, with fingers being pointed at Malta and Cyprus for having sold citizenship to potentially unsavoury individuals. Security agencies are worried that these schemes could be exploited, allowing international criminals easy access to European countries.

Bearing these concerns in mind, just how easy is it to buy British citizenship? Well, the UK does not offer a pure citizenship by investment programme: that is to say, an off-the-shelf purchase of citizenship by simply investing a sum of money in a country’s economy without ever needing to actually live there.

What the UK does offer is a “residency by investment” programme, the Tier 1 Investor visa. Like CIPs, a significant investment in the UK economy is required to get a Tier 1 Investor visa. But if the investor wants to stay long term, apply for settlement and ultimately acquire British citizenship they will have to physically live in the UK and make some attempt to integrate.

Step 1: purchase residency with a Tier 1 Investor visa

First of all any would-be investor wanting to acquire British citizenship needs to have a fairly healthy bank balance. Applicants for a Tier 1 Investor visa must be able to show that they have at least £2 million of their own funds under their control and free to invest in the UK. Certainly not the priciest investment programme around but not the cheapest either.

The other requirements for the visa are fairly simple. Unlike some other work visa categories, Tier 1 Investor applicants are not required to show they can speak English. They only need to show that the money is under their control (or held jointly with their spouse or partner) and that it is held in a regulated financial institution in the UK or overseas. In other words, the money must be in the investor’s bank account for three months beforehand, meaning that until recently that an investor needed only to turn up at the the visa application centre with a bank statement to be granted a visa.

Understandably this allowed some scope for exploitation so the government has toughened the requirements for a Tier 1 Investor visa over the last few years. Now an application can be refused if there are reasonable doubts about the source of the investment funds or that they have been acquired through unlawful conduct. The applicant’s criminal and immigration history will be scrutinised as part of the application and the Home Office can also look closely at any third party providing the funds to check that they are above board.

And this is not simply a matter of flashing the cash. If the applicant manages to obtain the visa then they will have to actually invest the money in the UK economy within three months of arrival. This might mean by buying government bonds or shares in British companies, for examples. The applicant must show that they have maintained the investment in order to get an extension once their initial visa has expired.

Step 2: spend enough time in the UK and apply for settlement

After spending five years continuously in the UK —  this drops to or two or three years if they have invested £10 million or £5 million respectively — the applicant may be eligible to apply to settle in the UK. Settlement, also known as indefinite leave to remain, means having the right to live and work in the UK without having to apply for any more visas.

This is where it can get tricky for your average international jet setter. Even though an investor makes no commitment to live in the UK to get the visa, they (and since 11 January 2018 their dependants) have to meet the same strict rules on absences as other work visa categories, Namely, you cannot have been outside the UK for  more than 180 days per 12 month period over their time in the UK.

They also have to show some attempts at integration, albeit crudely, by passing the Life in the UK test and that they can at least converse in English. And even if they shell out for the accelerated settlement scheme, their dependant family members will still have to spend the full five years in the UK before they can apply for indefinite leave to remain.

Step 3: apply for British citizenship

Once the applicant has been granted indefinite leave to remain, it’s likely that their mind will soon turn to citizenship. It is at this point those who opted to pursue the accelerated investor route will feel short changed: despite being able to settle after two or three years, they still have to live in the UK for at least five years before they can apply for citizenship, unless they are married to a British citizen. They will also have to show that they have held indefinite leave to remain for 12 months, making the minimum residence period six years. There are also absence criteria for citizenship which limit absences to no more than 450 days over the five years before application and no more than 90 days in the final 12 months.

Bearing all that in mind, how much does British citizenship actually cost? Let’s crunch some numbers;

  • Initial investment – £2 million
  • Visa fee for initial application – £1,623
  • Super premium fee for entry clearance application – £1,000 approx
  • Visa fee for extension application – £1,623
  • Super premium fee for extension application (Assuming your average investor is unlikely to want to make a trip to a Home Office premium service centre) – £10,500
  • Immigration health surcharge fee for a five year visa – £1,000
  • Fee for indefinite leave to remain application – £2,389
  • Super premium fee for ILR application – £10,500
  • Fees for Life in the UK test – £50
  • English language test – £150 approx
  • Fee for citizenship application – £1,330
  • Passport fee – £85

Total: £2,030,250

So after spending over £2 million and a significant portion (at least six years) of their life in the UK an investor may finally have British citizenship. Whether the requirements and the financial costs to acquire citizenship are rigorous enough is debatable, particularly when figures show that the number of applications for Tier 1 Investor visas has gone up recently. The Home Office has announced that another review of the Tier 1 route is on the horizon so more change could be on the way. In the short term, at least, the requirements are unlikely to get any easier. In a competitive market, investors who are shopping around for citizenship may be tempted elsewhere — particularly as British citizenship will soon be “devalued” by no longer providing coveted access to the EU.

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Joanna Hunt

Joanna Hunt

Joanna Hunt is a Partner and Head of Immigration at DAC Beachcroft. She advises and supports a range of businesses and individuals with their immigration needs, with emphasis on sponsorship and work based visas. She is contactable on johunt@dacbeachcroft.com and tweets from @JoannaHunt12