Last March, Malta began accepting citizenship applications from wealthy foreigners willing to invest $1.5 million in the country in exchange for Maltese citizenship (and with it, all the benefits that come with belonging to an EU member state). While the Maltese program was by no means the first of its kind, it received an enormous amount of attention in Europe for putting a price tag on EU passports. Then, in May, an entrepreneur named Roger Ver launched Passports for Bitcoin, a service that helps clients use bitcoin to buy St. Kitts and Nevis citizenship. St. Kitts has exchanged citizenship for cash for years, but thanks to Ver, it’s gaining a reputation among the techie-libertarian set as a go-to place to escape the U.S. tax code. And after the World Cup ended, the New York Times reported on the possibility of Qatar recruiting and naturalizing young players from across the African continent to boost its team’s performance in the 2022 World Cup. There’s a precedent for that: in 2003, Kenyan runner Stephen Cherono was given a monthly stipend of $1,000 for life to switch his allegiances and become Qatari—an offer that prompted him to change his name to Saif Saaeed Shaheen.
Until recently, becoming a citizen of a country has largely been regarded as priceless—a rare intangible privilege that can’t be bought or sold. This perception is starting to fade as the links between a country’s financial interests and its citizenship policies grow more pronounced. Now that a prominent figure like Ver and EU member countries are getting into the passport business, the idea that citizenship can be bought and sold is reaching the mainstream.
Countries, particularly small ones, have long been sympathetic to well-heeled strangers with cash to spare: St. Kitts, a pioneer in this business, opened up its shores to citizen-investors in 1984. Now, three of its Caribbean neighbors—Dominica, Antigua, and Grenada—along with Cyprus, Malta, and Bulgaria have versions of this legislation, much of it adopted in the past five years, to attract rich foreigners. This trend is a result of what lawyers say is an increased demand for second passports among the super-affluent over the past few years, as well as lagging economic growth in the countries that seek to attract them. Private consultants that help develop, broker, and publicize these deals have also significantly bolstered and professionalized this mini-industry. Citizenship, in these situations, isn’t traded as a means to enter a meaningful social contract, with responsibilities and benefits, as much as it is seen as a souped-up Global Entry badge that makes life more convenient for a select few.
“In the old world, such programs would have been inconceivable. Today, they’re becoming an accepted element of strategic immigration policy,” says Peter Spiro, a law professor at Temple University who studies these movements. “Investor programs give the lie to the notion that citizenship is sacred, in a civic sense, and the Qatari program is a riff on cash-for-passports. The emerging market for citizenship literally commodifies the status, as states come to see immigration as a talent-pool competition and revenue center.”
This can give rise to some very strange situations. During the Sochi games, an American-Italian couple, Gary di Silvestri and Angelica Morrone di Silvestri, represented the Commonwealth of Dominica in cross-country skiing. (Neither completed their race.) They were able to qualify despite their age (47 and 48, at the time) and their birthplace (the U.S. and Italy, respectively) because they bought into the island’s investor-citizenship program—and had very little competition from back “home.”