The first golden visas were introduced in the Caribbean in 1984 and the UK has run its own scheme for several years, issuing 1,500 in the year to last September. What is new is the number of countries offering these visas, and their lower price tags.
The world's on board
"Countries from the US, Australia, Cyprus and Portugal to St Kitts have adopted golden visas, many aimed squarely at buyers in Asia," says Joachim Wrang-Widen of Christie's International Real Estate. "In Australia, for example, they even gave them a new subclass — 888 — a number the Chinese associate with wealth. Greece's golden visa programme was launched by its prime minister in China."
European visas range from a minimum property investment of £203,430 in Greece to £244,100 minimum spend in Cyprus and £406,800 in Spain, which demands investors are in the country for at least 183 days each year.
Pay no tax in Portugal
The Portuguese scheme, launched in 2012, is one of the most successful, helped by its requirement that investors spend only seven days in Portugal in the first year and 14 days in the next two. It allows any non-EU resident spending more than £406,800 on property to live in Portugal and gain entry to the 26 European countries covered by the Schengen Agreement, which excludes Britain. After six years they can apply for Portuguese citizenship.
Between January last year and March this year, Portugal issued 772 golden visas, generating £244million for the government. Chinese buyers were the top investors, at more than 70 per cent, buying chiefly around Lisbon.
Of more interest to British buyers is Portugal's non-habitual tax residency scheme, under which anyone spending 183 days or more in Portugal each year can have a tax-free international income for 10 years. "It is not as straightforward to sign up to as the golden visa and you should get specialist advice, but this scheme is attracting serious interest, especially from Scandinavians and the French," says Alison Buechner Hojbjerg of Quinta Properties, who recently employed two new French-speaking staff to cope with demand.
"Europeans tell me it seems too good to be true when they realise they pay no tax at all on foreign income including pensions, rental income and capital gains."
£1.1 million: a four-bedroom villa beside Pinheiros Altos golf club on the Algarve
In upmarket Quinta do Lago where 80 per cent of all buyers last year were cash buyers from the UK, Quinta Properties is selling a two-bedroom apartment next to the Ria Formosa nature reserve for £405,438, and a four-bedroom villa beside the Pinheiros Altos golf course for £1.1 million.
The two-island state of St Kitts and Nevis was first to set up a golden visa scheme, in 1984. As the sugar cane industry fell into terminal decline, several Caribbean countries also capitalised on their chilled sun-and-sea lifestyle to offer residency status. The offer of lower taxation has proved compelling for Europeans and Americans, says James Burdess of Savills. St Kitts rules are so undemanding that investors spending more than £239,500 on property are not required to even set foot in the country to acquire citizenship. Grenada, the Bahamas and Commonwealth member Antigua have all joined in, and it is Antigua, with its Citizenship by Investment programme, that is proving particularly popular.
"Interest in Antigua has significantly increased in the past year," says Burdess. "Buyers who invest a minimum of £269,440 in an approved real estate project get an Antiguan passport, free travel to over 130 countries, and the right for their children to study in the UK without a visa. They also pay no capital gains or inheritance taxes."
Antigua is an established holiday destination with direct flights from London and many US cities. It has a relatively strong, well-established rental market, and an impressive new airport is — slowly — being built.
Completed and approved government schemes include Nonsuch Bay, an established sailing resort on the quieter east coast, where one- to three-bedroom apartments, three-bedroom townhouses and plots for detached villas start from £209,550.
On the south coast, Tamarind Hills is building contemporary two- and three-bedroom apartments and villas at glorious Darkwood Bay, close to the shops and marina of Jolly Harbour. Prices from £344,260.
Christie's International Real Estate: www.christiesrealestate.com
Quinta Properties: through Savills (www.savills.co.uk)
Nonsuch Bay: www.nonsuchbayresort.com
Tamarind Hills: www.tamarind-hills.com