Citizenship can be bought — but at what price?

Embark Beyond, a luxury travel agency based in New York, faced the same challenges last year as other firms in the sector. Before the pandemic, it handled holiday plans for America’s wealthiest: after-hours private tours of museums, booking out entire hotels, private jet-based itineraries and the like. As borders closed, that business was upended.

So last year, the company pivoted by launching a “Dual Citizenship Program”, which helps people obtain a second passport from one of 15 EU states. It is open to anyone, but more than 90 per cent of inquiries have been from US citizens, often seeking to explore their ancestry or simply clear passport control more quickly. Rather than by investment or a visa pegged to ploughing millions of dollars into the local economy, this concept is simpler — and cheaper. All you need to qualify is a few thousand dollars and the right family tree.

The business of second passports is well established, although the focus until recently has been on citizenship by investment, where wealthy individuals effectively buy a passport. The best-known operator is London-based Henley & Partners. Founder Christian Kälin has been nicknamed “The Passport King” for helping smaller, poorer nations create legal, if controversial, cash-for-passport schemes.

Henley estimates the global citizenship business is worth $26bn a year. That value, and the sector, is expected to grow. In this year’s edition of its Wealth Report, Knight Frank found 24 per cent of ultra high-net-worth individuals (those with more than $30m in net assets) were looking to apply for a second passport.

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Embark’s team retrieves records, certifies documents and confirms eligibility, before filing paperwork to reclaim the citizenship an applicant’s forefathers held before emigrating stateside. The timeline for approval varies, from three months to several years, as does the fee: rates for Czech nationality start at $2,000; Italian starts at $7,800.

The company’s website makes all this seem easy, but it is a detailed, time-consuming process and does not always work out. Kate Sullivan helps run the programme. In many countries in central and eastern Europe, she says, citizenship is offered as reparation, often to descendants of those driven away by persecution during the Holocaust. “You need to be able to prove not just your lineage, but specifically where your ancestors were born,” Sullivan says — a problem for one client, whose meticulous record-keeping seemed to have positioned her well for the programme.

When Sullivan and her team examined those documents, they discovered the client’s mother was born not in Czech or Hungarian territory, as the client had assumed. Her home town was in what was the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Today, Ukraine is neither a full member of the EU nor a country that permits dual citizenship in this way. Sullivan’s client was therefore ineligible.

Portugal is an interesting case, says Sullivan, as its reparation-based citizenship stretches back five centuries. It will give a passport to anyone who can prove their ancestors were part of the community driven out of the country by the Inquisition in the 1500s. But it is an intricate process that involves assent from religious leaders in Portugal, though it can work well for the right applicants. The passport is granted based on a link to the Portuguese Sephardic community, so verification by Jewish scholars is required.

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It is easy to see the appeal of a second passport by ancestral heritage. For one, it is a handy rebuke to the isolationism and nationalism of the defining political moments of the past decade, from Brexit to Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda and Theresa’s May’s jibe that “citizens of the world” were really “citizens of nowhere”.

The attractions of “digital nomadism” — that globetrotting-millennial ideal that work is portable on a whim — have only been burnished by the global shift out of offices during the pandemic. Home can be a compound on a beach in Ibiza rather than a co-op on the Upper East Side. Those accustomed to shuttling across the world freely were rattled by closed borders. Kälin says wealthy people, especially in the US, have been reminded of the need for a plan B. “People on both sides of the [political] camp — Trump supporters who don’t want to live under Democratic rule and Democrats who don’t trust the future of the country — they’re thinking about civil unrest and how they might prefer to live abroad.”

But it is uncomfortable to commodify citizenship in this way. Embark Beyond’s programme also raises questions about race: all countries in the initial roster of 15 are majority-white.

Most countries require applicants to have an ancestor born there no more than two or three generations back, though Italy has no such limitation and Kälin estimates 60m people worldwide are eligible for an Italian passport.

Sullivan says most of her clients feel a connection to the country of their new citizenship and often plan trips to ancestral homes, though none of the 15 countries for which she helps clients obtain passports requires such a trip.

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However, citizenship is not just about what a country can do for you, or how readily it will welcome you as one of its own. It is as much about what you can do for that country.

Mark Ellwood is a New York-based journalist and author

This article is part of FT Wealth, a section providing in-depth coverage of philanthropy, entrepreneurs, family offices, as well as alternative and impact investment.



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