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How to Move Abroad Legally

Rosheda combines her law degree with her travel writing experience to write on legal issues surrounding travel.

Approximately 300 million migrants currently live outside their home country. Like the promise of ice cream on a summer day, the possibilities for freedom or financial opportunities have seduced them to foreign countries.

Maybe this new era of remote work has you feeling the same longing. You crave greener pastures and the freedom to live how you want and where you want. But before you upheave your life and move abroad, you’ll need to set up a strong legal foundation to ensure success. There’ll be tax considerations, real estate contracts to finalize, and other things to settle.

Most importantly, you’ll need to decide exactly how you plan on legally living in another country for an extended period.

There are many avenues you can take to get legal residence in another country. Citizenships by investment, digital nomad visas, family sponsorships, and employment-based visas are the most popular. But as with all things in life, the right one for you will come down to individual considerations.

Moving abroad can be the perfect opportunity if planned right.

Moving abroad can be the perfect opportunity if planned right.

The legal path you choose when moving abroad will depend on your particular circumstances.

Are you looking for the adventure of hopping from place to place while you continue working for your job remotely? If so, you may need a temporary residence permit like that offered by the digital nomad visas some countries have begun handing out in the past couple of years. Perhaps you are looking to completely change citizenship as part of your financial strategy and need something more permanent. In that case, countries that offer citizenship by investment may be your best bet.

The only way to know what may work for your individual circumstance is to have an idea of the available pathways. Once you familiarize yourself with the different opportunities the various immigration laws around the world offer, you can begin thinking about which strategy to adopt and which countries fit into this strategy.

After narrowing your move down to one or two countries, it is highly advisable that you consult local immigration lawyers to advise you on the process to get your legal residence, long-term visa, or citizenship in their country.

Immigration Laws for Moving Abroad

Citizenship by Investments (CBI)

Who Should Use CBIs

If exploration or country hopping while you work remotely is your main motivation for wanting to move abroad, a digital nomad visa, which is covered next, is your best bet. If you have significant wealth and any of the following is true, a Citizenship by Investment Program (CBI) may be your ideal pathway to moving.

  • You are looking to set up a permanent home in a second country that you can safely escape to if the social or economic conditions worsen in your country.
  • You are looking to completely relocate to a zero-tax or low-tax jurisdiction for tax or business purposes.
  • Your home country has a weak passport that restricts your traveling, and you’re looking for a second passport that will allow you and your family to travel visa-free or almost visa-free.
  • You are retiring and looking to move permanently.

What Is a Citizenship by Investment Program?

Countries with citizenship by investment award citizenship in exchange for financial investments or donations. Typically, the process begins with an application to the government or competent authority tasked with granting these special citizenships and ends with an investment or donation which secures the right to apply for citizenship.

Investments range from close to a million dollars in countries like Malta, where the standard of living is high and the passport is considered golden, to approximately $200,000 in nations like St. Kitts and Nevis, where the passport is also golden, but the standard of living isn’t as high.

If you don’t know what a golden visa is, the immigration professionals at Henley and Partners Global explore them in this excellent guide to getting citizenship by investment.

How to Move Abroad Using Citizenship by Investment

Some aspects of the process to get a CBI will vary depending on the country. For example, some countries may allow a real estate purchase instead of an investment into an approved fund. Others may add other donations like monetary support for a local arts or philanthropic program to the list of financial requirements for citizenships. However, in most cases, the following steps are usually followed.

  1. An application is made directly to the government or through an authorized agent. This application will be accompanied by documents proving finances, good character, family members to be included in the application, and any other stipulated by the immigration authorities.
  2. Due diligence is done on you and your family members by the government. Some countries do something like a level 1 background check, after which they give you a document allowing legal residence while more sophisticated checks are performed. After these other checks into your history, you are either denied or allowed to continue with an application for citizenship. Other countries have a faster process and will do a full check immediately after you submit your application so that you get your citizenship rights in a few months.
  3. Once you’ve passed all checks into your background and finances, your investment becomes payable. The investment may be an actual investment in a fund approved by the government, a non-refundable donation, a real estate purchase, or some combination of the above. Other financial considerations may also be needed. Depending on the country, this step may come earlier in the process.
  4. After financial consideration is paid over to the country, a citizenship document that enables you to apply for a passport is given to you and your family members.

How Long Will It Take to Get Your Citizenship Through CBI?

Getting a CBI application approved may take as short a time as six months. But some countries stretch the process out to as long as three years. For those taking longer times, you are normally allowed to set up a residence while you await approval and permission to start the naturalization process.

Moving abroad through a citizenship by investment process can be complicated and varies by country, so always consult a lawyer if you choose this route.

Digital Nomad Visas

The pandemic brought the digital nomad phenomena into the mainstream. But digital nomads have been working remotely from foreign countries long before Covid-19 was a thing. With this renewed interest in remote work, there is an increasing practice of awarding a special visa to those remote workers seeking permission to live and work abroad legally for a prolonged period without having the burden of taxation in the countries they choose to live in.

If ever there was a way for freelancers to have their cake and eat it too, this special visa, popularly called a digital nomad visa, could be it.

Currently, approximately 50 countries offer these visas. You should know that digital nomad visas do not give permission to work with companies local to the country issuing them. It is a prerequisite for getting a digital nomad visa that the remote worker must already have outside work based in another country so that there is no competition with the local population for jobs.

Who Is the Digital Nomad Visa For?

This way of moving abroad is for you if:

  • You plan on maintaining residence in your home country but want to go abroad to explore a few countries while you work or operate your existing business remotely.
  • You want to move to a country with a low cost of living while you work remotely and do not plan on maintaining a residence in your home country while you live abroad temporarily (this kind of visa allows for stays from several months to a few years, depending on the country). You should note that giving up an apartment or home in your home country doesn’t relieve you of your taxpayer responsibilities there. Giving up taxable status will take significant planning if that’s your goal.

What Is a Digital Nomad Visa?

This visa allows freelancers with proven employment in their home country to move temporarily to a second country for an extended period without needing to pay taxes. While no financial investment is needed to qualify for this type of visa, you will need to prove that you can sustain yourself for the whole time you plan on living in your country of choice.

How to Get a Digital Nomad Visa

  1. To begin, you fill out an application, which can be printed online in most cases. All countries ask that applications be supported by documents proving the employment you will be undertaking while in their country, bank statements showing your ability to sustain yourself financially for the length of your stay, and proof of health insurance. Some countries will also ask for proof of accommodations and set minimum monthly earning thresholds. Others, like Germany, may ask for proof of expertise in your field.
  2. Submit the application online or to the country’s embassy or consulate in your home country. After submitting your application, some countries will ask for an interview; others will simply approve your visa with no need to ever show up in person.
  3. Get your visa from the consulate office or the prescribed fashion.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Digital Nomad Visa?

Processing times for digital visas vary. Some places like Barbados will approve and give you a digital nomad visa in as little as seven days. Most others will have it ready in a month. You can see the actual application for Barbados' digital nomad visa here for an idea of the process.

Immigration by Family Sponsorship

Another way to start the process of legal residence or citizenship in a country is by proving a close family connection with a citizen of that country.

All countries recognize family sponsorship as a legitimate way to gain residence or citizenship. If you are about to start a family through marriage or can prove a connection through descent to a citizen of the country you hope to move to, there may be a provision that will allow you to move there legally.

Who Can Benefit From Family Sponsorship?

  • You are married to a citizen of the country.
  • You are the child of a citizen of the country. If you were born to parents of the country (even if the birth is in another country), you can acquire citizenship in most countries.
  • You were not born to parents who are nationals of the country, but you are a grandchild or have older ancestors who have or had citizenship in the country. This way of acquiring citizenship is complicated but possible in a few European countries like France and Italy. If you believe this may apply to you, hire a competent immigration professional to advise you.
  • You are a close relative (sibling, parent, dependent grandparent) of a person with citizenship in the country.

How to Move Abroad Through Family Sponsorship

Requirements to move abroad through family relationships will be different and follow different timelines depending on which country you plan on moving to. The following steps are loose guidelines to give you an idea of what may be required. Consult the immigration authorities in the country you plan on moving to for precise information. An immigration lawyer may also be helpful.

  1. Your first step will usually be petitioning the government for a residence permit and getting your family member to petition to become your sponsor at the same time. These petitions will need to be accompanied by background information on you, proof of relationship to the citizen filing to help you move to their country, and by evidence that your sponsor (or yourself in some cases) will be able to financially maintain you for a prescribed period of time. In the case of spouse sponsorship, many jurisdictions will require stringent proof that your marriage isn’t a sham.
  2. Biometric information is usually the next step. This is simply fingerprints and other scans so that the government in the country you plan on moving to has identifying data on you.
  3. If your petitions are approved, you will need to attend an interview at the consulate or embassy in your country.
  4. At some point, you may also need to apply for permits that allow you to work legally.

How Long Does It Take for a Family Member to Sponsor Your Move Abroad?

This method of emigrating can take anywhere from one year to many years, depending on the jurisdiction you are moving to and your relationship with the person sponsoring you.

For instance, sponsoring a spouse usually takes a much shorter time than sponsoring a sibling. And countries like the U.S. can sometimes have backlogs that mean some categories of immigrants sponsored by family members join a line behind others also seeking legal residence.

Immigration Based on Employment

Many countries will allow you to move to their shores if you have employment in the country.

However, this may be easier said than done if you don’t have in-demand skills like software development or engineering. Even if you have these skills, there is no guarantee you will find an employer, as most countries have laws requiring that local employers try to fill job positions from the local pool of candidates before looking for foreign workers.

Some countries, like the U.S., also have huge backlogs in employment-based visas, so the wait may be quite lengthy.

Who Is an Employment-Based Visa For?

This is a viable way to move abroad if the following applies to you:

  • You have a skill in demand in the country you plan on moving to.
  • You can find an employer willing to hire you and go through the process of sponsoring you to come into the country.
  • You don't mind continually renewing your permit to both live and work.

How to Get an Employment-Based Resident Visa

  1. Apply for and get a job with an employee willing to sponsor you. There are specialized job boards online to help with this. Some people also retain an agency that specializes in finding these employers for help.
  2. Submit your application. Your sponsor will need to do the same. This application will need to be accompanied by your employment offer, your qualifications, background information, and more. Your sponsor's application will sometimes need to have a document showing that no local people with the skill you bring are available to do the job.
  3. Once these petitions are approved, you will be eligible to continue with an application for the resident visa and permits you will need. Different countries will have different steps from this point onward.

How Long Do Employment-Based Visas Take?

These visas can take as little as a few months and as long as a year or more. It is best to check with the country you plan on moving to for information.

Get a Lawyer

I have repeated many times that it’s crucial to get legal representation or agents competent to deal with immigration matters in your country of choice.

That's because a lawyer can help navigate around two big plagues in immigration law.

Vague Legislation

Going it alone may work in some cases, but in countries with complicated or vague immigration laws, you may find that your dream is doomed before it has even begun.

For example, the legislation dealing with citizenship by investment in Austria states that it is possible to acquire citizenship through extraordinary contributions. But it provides no specifics on what kind or amount of financial investments may suffice as extraordinary.

If you were thinking of moving to Austria, an immigration professional experienced in dealing with Austrian affairs would be crucial to putting together an application in this example. Otherwise, your proposal may fall short of what is customary.

Prevent Scams

Immigration scams are nothing new. In recent years, scams selling visas and selling citizenship by investment to countries that do not offer such citizenship have become popular.

Many applicants found out they had been scammed only after they had already made big payments, supposedly for investment purposes. Deal with a local lawyer or agent with a good reputation, and you will lessen your chances of being scammed.

In this global world, the opportunities to move abroad keep getting better. Whether you choose a permanent move like that afforded by the citizenship by investment programs, or a more temporary digital nomad visa, you'll have the world at your fingertips, and the greener pastures you've been dreaming about.

Further Reading

World Migration Report 2020

Examples of Citizenship by Investments Regulations

An Example of a Digital Nomad Visa Application: Barbados

Immigration Scams

Federal Trade Commission Report on Immigration Scams

SEC v. Marco A. Ramirez, et al.

SEC v. A Chicago Convention Center, et al.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2022 Rosheda Stephenson