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Expat Briefing Editorial Team, 06 January, 2014
“Complicated”, “bureaucratic” and “time-consuming” are some of the descriptions that aspiring expats might use of visa application requirements when thinking about a move abroad. But the good news for those seeking a better life overseas is that a range of countries are fine-tuning their visa systems to make the process of expatriating a little bit easier, especially for expats with skills, or who are likely to make a significant contribution to the economy in their host country.
The UK Government has been very keen to send the message abroad that the country is “open for business” (as explored in our Expat Briefing on UK tax measures recently), and in September 2013, immigration minister Mark Harper outlined changes to the UK immigration rules designed to increase flexibility for businesses.
Among other measures, the revisions remove the English language requirement for intra-company transferees, make it easier for graduate entrepreneurs to switch from Tier 4 student visas to a Tier 2 skilled worker visa, and waive share ownership restrictions for senior staff earning GBP152,100 or above.
Indeed, the UK has been particularly active on this front in 2013, and in November the Government announced additional changes to the visa system, including the launch of an invitation-only service providing bespoke support for top business executives.
According to the Home Office, the "GREAT Club" scheme will begin in the New Year as a 12-month pilot for 100 global business leaders with strong UK links. Participants will be given an account manager to ensure their journey through the visa and immigration service is "swift and smooth." During the pilot the manager will also be available to arrange visa services tailored to individual needs at no extra cost.
“I created UK Visas and Immigration in March to provide a focus on delivering excellent customer service,” said Home Secretary Theresa May. “These changes will allow us to maintain a world-class, competitive visa system that can innovate in order to serve the ever-changing needs of business and ensure Britain succeeds in the global race.”
“We will continue to listen and respond to the needs of high-value and high-priority businesses so that we can provide them with a service that supports economic growth, while at the same time maintains the security of our borders,” May added.
The move followed the revelation of plans by Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne to make it easier for visitors from China to visit the UK. The moves will include a pilot scheme allowing selected Chinese travel agents to apply for UK visas by submitting the EU's Schengen visa form, rather than two separate applications; a 24-hour "super priority" visa service from summer 2014; and the expansion to the rest of China of a VIP mobile visa service currently operating in Beijing and Shanghai. "Visitors from China can continue to have confidence that the UK remains open for business and leisure," Osborne said.
In December, it was announced that 19 young entrepreneurs from 13 countries have become the first batch of applicants to come to the UK to set up businesses as part of the Government's new Sirius Programme.
The scheme, which is run by UK Trade & Investment, recognizes graduates with innovative start-up ideas, and aims to attract hundreds of talented entrepreneurs into the UK in its first two years. Successful teams receive start-up support including a 12 month place on one of the best business accelerator programmes; mentoring; help gaining clients; financial support of GBP12,000 (EUR14,400, USD19,800) per team member; and a visa endorsement. Enterprises remain completely owned by the graduate teams, and no equity is taken.
“The UK is one of the best places in the world to become a successful entrepreneur and we are committed to helping talented entrepreneurs from around the globe to build their businesses here,” said Minister of State for Trade and Investment Lord Livingston. “The Sirius Programme will back the most talented teams and ensure the UK continues to lead in inspirational start ups and being the first to market with innovations.”
Changes have been introduced in Canada recently to make the visa application and processing system more efficient and user friendly, including some major adjustments to the Canadian Experience Class (CEC) programme.
The same language criteria for applicants will apply, however this is expected to be verified upfront, to ensure that those who do not meet these requirements will be screened out earlier, thus leaving staff able to concentrate on those more likely to qualify.
In order to streamline the CEC visa, the Canadian Government is introducing an annual cap on the number persons admitted under the programme in order to manage intake, maintain reasonable processing times and prevent a backlog from developing.
“The Canadian Experience Class has allowed more than 25,000 people to stay in Canada permanently to contribute their skills and talents,” said Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander in November 2013. “The government is taking concrete action to reduce backlogs and processing times. By making these changes to the Canadian Experience Class, we are moving toward a more effective and efficient immigration system.”
CIC will accept a maximum of 12,000 CEC applications from November 9, 2013, to October 31, 2014. However, despite the annual cap on applications, the department will admit approximately 15,000 individuals under the CEC in 2014.
CIC is also seeing an overrepresentation of certain occupations in the program. In order to bring in as diverse a skill set as possible, the department will introduce limits on the number of applications under certain occupations. Effective November 9, 2013, CIC will introduce sub-caps of 200 applications each in certain skilled occupations. Also, six particular occupations will no longer be eligible for the CEC.
The CEC was introduced to help skilled temporary workers, preferably those with good English or French language skills, become permanent residents of Canada.
It is the policy of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s newly elected Australian Government to get a tighter grip over immigration generally. However, overseas students planning to study at a non-university higher education institution in Australia may benefit from plans to extend streamlined visa processing from March 2014.
Streamlining has been in place for overseas university students since 2012. The procedure designates visa applicants with a Confirmation of Enrollment as being a lower immigration risk regardless of country of origin, meaning that applications are processed more quickly, and that in most cases less documentary evidence is required.
“The changes will assist all providers, but particularly the vocational education and training sector, making access to Australia’s education system more attractive for overseas students”, said Scott Morrison, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection. “This would mean students from a number of key markets would be able to apply for a student visa with up to AUD40,000 less in the bank.”
Across the Tasman, New Zealand is the latest country to announced plans for a new class of visa designed to attract the business-minded. The new Entrepreneur Work Visa will, from March 2014, introduce a points system and a minimum capital investment figure of NZD100,000 (USD82,600, GBP49,600, EUR59,400).
The country is hoping to attract migrant businesses that are innovative, and that will involve new technology, create jobs, support effective domestic competition, and have good growth prospects. Ideal candidates would also create new exportable products and services not already present in the New Zealand market. Points will therefore be awarded based on job creation, export potential, and business experience, and extra points will be given for expanding or starting businesses outside of the Auckland region.
“New Zealand needs to attract talented, enterprising, well-connected business people to invest and grow businesses in New Zealand,” Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse last month. “That’s why a new Entrepreneur Work Visa will replace the current Long-Term Business Visa, which has not been significantly changed since 1999 and has attracted a large number of low-quality applications.”
“This is an ambitious new policy that will raise the bar and encourage innovative, export focused businesses, while again demonstrating a commitment to the regions,” Woodhouse added. “These changes are designed to attract talented, entrepreneurial migrants who can invest in our communities, grow profitable businesses, and create jobs for New Zealanders around the country.”
On July 12, 2013, the State Council promulgated a set of new rules governing the entry of foreigners into the People's Republic of China, the Regulations on the Administration of the Entry and Exit of Aliens. The new rules entered into effect on September 1, 2013, and replaced the former Rules for the Implementation of the Law on Administration of the Entry and Exit of Aliens.
The new regulations add additional categories to the existing visa system to make it easier for foreign personnel to be employed in China.
In June 2013, the Maltese Government enhanced the terms of the incentive scheme offered to high net-worth individuals seeking to obtain a residence permit.
As under the previous program, introduced by the last government, wealthy persons seeking a permanent residency visa will have to purchase high-value property and make a minimum tax contribution each year to Maltese coffers.
Then, in November, the European Commission confirmed that Malta has the right to run a scheme granting citizenship to individuals who participate in the country's new Malta Individual Investor Program.
Applicants have to be approved by a due diligence regime, for which there is a fee of EUR7,500, and make a contribution to Malta's National Development Fund of at least EUR650,000. A contribution of EUR25,000 is required by family members, as well as a due diligence fee of EUR5,000 (reduced to EUR3,000 for minors aged between 13 and 18). Participants' names are not made public.
However, opposition politicians argue that the move is damaging to Malta's reputation, and Nationalist Party leader Simon Busuttil has vowed to rescind passports acquired through the scheme should his party return to power.
Such schemes are also proving controversial at EU-level, and sections of the European Parliament have called for a debate on them (see below).
EU “Golden Visa” Schemes
In September 2013, Spain passed legislation that grants automatic and retroactive residency to non-EU nationals via property investments, which in turn will allow travel without a visa within the 26 countries that make up Europe's Schengen Area.
The new arrangement, dubbed the "Golden Visa," applies to those who spend EUR500,000 or more on residential, commercial property or land in Spain. Investors will be allowed to stay for 12 months, instead of just 90 days, and will afterwards be eligible for a two-year residency permit, renewable every two years.
The move has been welcomed by estate agencies in Spain, with one company anticipating "a very positive effect on the Spanish property market."
High net-worth individuals in Macau, Hong Kong and Shanghai were the targets of a campaign launched by Portugal in October 2013 to raise awareness of the country's "golden visa" opportunity for non-EU individuals who choose to invest in the country.
According to Portugal's consul-general in Macau, Vítor Sereno, 168 of the visas so far issued have gone to Chinese citizens, with investors from Macau and Hong Kong accounting for around 35 percent of a total EUR106m of Chinese investment in Portugal that has been raised by the scheme so far.
The EU Axe to Fall On Golden Visas and Citizenship For Sale?
However, there is potentially one blot on the landscape as far as “Golden Visas” in the European Union are concerned, and that is the European Parliament’s decision to debate the whole area of “citizenship for sale” in EU Member States.
In November 2013, the European Commission confirmed that EU states have "full sovereignty" when it comes to granting citizenship, but European Parliamentarians representing the Verts/ALE (European Green Party and European Free Alliance) have asked the Commission to clarify whether Malta's citizenship offer respects "the letter and the non-discrimination principle" of EU treaties and the Schengen Borders Code.
Currently, Cyprus, Greece and Latvia, as well as Portugal and Spain offer pathways to permanent residency for investors, while Malta and Cyprus have schemes leading to citizenship.
“While decisions on issues of nationality and citizenship fall within the exclusive competence of individual Member States, the Maltese decision is problematic as it entitles new citizens to travel within the EU and to access the rest of the Schengen area without other member countries being consulted,” states the question submitted to the European Parliament for debate. “It could therefore be interpreted as an abuse of the rights acquired by the country through its membership, and as a lack of respect for the other EU Member States and member countries of the Schengen area. This decision also raises important concerns as regards possible discrimination, since only the richest third-country nationals will be able to buy citizenship.”
The European Parliament debate on this matter will take place in January 2014, and it raises the question of whether other visa schemes that effectively discriminate in favour of expats with a certain level of wealth or with particular skills, such as those offered by the UK, will also come under attack.
What is certain is that countries outside the EU, unencumbered by EU law, will continue to roll out the welcome mat to expats likely to contribute the most to their economies.