Most people assume, from what they have heard, that it is extremely difficult to get a residence permit in a foreign country. Well, the reality is that it varies widely from country to country. In some, the procedure is so difficult or the process so opaque that even God himself would not be able to get a residence permit. In others, the process is so simple and easy, depending on your circumstances, that you can essentially just move in. The best way to figure out if you qualify is to decide first which countries are your top priority, and then investigate the immigration requirements for those individual countries. Many, if not most, have web sites where you can get the information directly from the source. To give you some idea, I have written up below a list of the major categories of visas that a country offers. In many cases, if your circumstances change once you are in, the immigration ministry will work with you to change your status.
In many countries, either lawyers or immigration services specialize in obtaining residence visas for foreigners. This is a good business, so it has attracted a lot of con-artists, scammers, and shady entrepreneurs and lawyers. Be very careful in hiring one of these lawyers or services and check them out thoroughly before you do. If you get a good one, it can be enormously helpful and facilitate your receipt of permission enormously.
Here are the various categories that most countries offer:
Tourist Visas - Tourist visas are easy to get, as nearly every country strongly encourages tourism, but they usually come with a lot of restrictions, and depending on the country, cannot be renewed indefinitely or cannot be renewed at all. Some countries are very loose about what can be done on a tourist visa - most Central American countries allow purchase of property, creation of corporations, and even the operation of businesses on tourist visas, sometimes allowing them to be renewed indefinitely. It is not technically legal to do this, but it is done with surprising frequency. The risk is that if the immigration ministry frowns on it, you can be deported immediately, and not allowed back in for as much as ten years - making disposal of your local assets difficult and expensive. This is a good way to get your feet wet in a particular country, however, so it should not be dismissed outright.
Retirement Visas - About forty years ago, Costa Rica became the first nation on the planet to make it easy for expatriates to take up legal residence for the purposes of retirement. This is because the money that expatriate retirees bring into the country is an easy source of foreign exchange, that is guaranteed income for the country, for which no investment or effort on the country's part is required. Seeing the success of Costa Rica's program, many other countries have copied it, in various ways and with various restrictions, making retirement abroad one of the easiest and most readily available ways to obtain a residence permit. The key is to have a guaranteed foreign source of income, that is demonstrably "permanent and irrevocable" and the applicant must be above a certain age. Costa Rica now is considering a requirement of a minimum of $1000 per month, but other countries can be even lower - Panama requires $600 and Nicaragua only $400. Other countries around the world now have such programs as well - the Phillipines, Australia, Belize and many others - but most require that you document your source of income. Most also require that you be above a certain minimum age, usually 45 to 55.
Investment Visas - Most countries make provision for individuals to immigrate, either for permanent residence or for citizenship, if they make a certain level of investment in the country. The requirements vary widely, of course, and what types of investments that are qualified are also hugely variable. Dominica, an island republic in the Caribbean, allows you to become a permanent, full citizen with passport and voting rights, for an investment of $75,000 in 15-year local bonds (the country is an offshore banking center), or by simply making a single payment to the government of $50,000. Others place the barrier quite high - as much as $1 million or more in some cases. In Costa Rica, an investment of $50,000 in a tourist related enterprise will qualify you for an investor's residence permit, but the threshold is much higher if your investment is a general one - $200,000. Panama will allow you in for an investment of $100,000 in Panamanian bonds or savings account. Many tropical countries that have a deforestation problem are encouraging reforestation by allowing residence permits by people who are reforesting land - $40,000 investment is required in Panama, and $100,000 in Costa Rica. At one time, Tonga would allow the outright purchase of citizenship for only $7,000, but this is no longer the case. Check into this category for the countries you are considering - you may be surprised at how easy and cheap this route can be.
Representative (Employment) Visas - Most countries understand the needs of business, and recognize that qualified candidates with needed skills are not always available in the country. For this reason, these countries offer a special category of visa for expatriates who bring a needed skill to a local business that needs it. This is a way in for a lot of people, who arrive on tourist visas, get to know and schmooze local business leaders, get a job and then apply for a representative visa. This may require the cooperation of the employer, and the employer may be required to demonstrate that he has searched for the needed skill locally and has been unable to find a qualified local candidate. The visa is usually good only for as long as you remain employed, however.
Needed Skills Visas - Nearly every country has a list of labor skills categories of which it is critically short. Often, the shortage is great enough to stunt the economic growth of a critical industry. So if you can find out what skills the country needs, and educate yourself quickly in one of them and get even a temp job to prove you have the skill, it may be a route in for you. If the country's immigration ministry has a web site, it will usually list these skills. Well worth checking out - the needed skills can be surprisingly common in the States. An advantage of this category is that the immigration ministry may even help you find employment!
Volunteer Visas - Many countries, particularly in the Third World, offer visas to persons who are officially volunteering to work for an internationally recognized charity which is working in the country involved. You will be required to prove your status as a representative of that organization. Such organizations as Witness for Peace, Oxfam, Greenpeace, Care International, The International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent, World Wildlife Fund, Volunteer Service Overseas, Peace Corps, Doctors Without Borders, etc., are all are recognized for this purpose, and if you volunteer for them, they can greatly assist you in getting a residence permit. The downside is that most of these charities now require you to actually pay them for the privilege of volunteering, but the experience and the contacts this experience can provide can be worth twice the cost. The residence permit you will obtain, will generally be good only for the term of your relationship, and you may be required to reapply year by year, and of course, you will have to spend most your time working without pay for the charity, as well as supporting yourself economically. But it is an excellent way to learn the ropes in a foreign country, get to know the local bureaucrats, and learn of other ways to get a local residency. Many a long-time Third-World expat began his expatriation as a volunteer for an NGO - a "Non-Government Organization." This is one of the main routes out the States for the non-rich. Such experience looks really good on a resume, too, and can be particularly helpful in finding an overseas job for your permanent exile if you are headed for the Third World.
Migration Visas - Nearly every country on the planet has a regular category of visa for people who simply want to live there, but don't qualify to jump the queue for some other category listed on this page - this category, the oldest and most traditional of all, and the basis for immigration law itself, is usually implemented these days for domestic political purposes, mostly to show the locals that other people are trying to get into the country because is a desirable place to live. But to control the rate at which people move into the country, there is usually either a quota system or a qualification system involved. This is well worth checking into - if the quota is not always filled, or the qualifications are not particularly high, it might be possible to simply apply and get accepted - and you're in. Check into this - quotas from the U.S. are often unfilled, particularly to third-world countries.
Humanitarian Visas - The majority of countries allow nationals of other countries to immigrate if they are married to one of the country's nationals, or are the parent or child of a national. There are a lot of variations on this theme - gay marriage is recognized for this purpose in some countries, but not in most. Common law marriages are almost never accepted, but are honored in a very few. Some require that the couple be married for a minimum length of time. Since this is a category that is often abused by marriages of convenience, some countries, including Costa Rica, require that you be a first-degree blood relative of a national (father, mother, son or daughter).
Political Refugee Status - In many countries, this category is readily available to those who can document their status of having been politically or religiously persecuted in their home country. The difficulty in proving the claim varies widely, however, and you may be required to supply proof that it is simply not possible to provide. Check into this before you leave, if you intend to apply on arrival, as is usually done with this category. The bad news is that this is usually temporary status, and can be renewed only by reapplying every year, to demonstrate that the persecution is still a danger. Additionally, since this category is so widely abused, many countries are now incarcerating those whose claims are being processed or which have been denied - Australia, Italy and France are notorious for this. So if your intent is permanent exile, you are usually better off to try another category first.
Student Visas - A significant number of countries allow students to study in their country on special visas, usually good for the school term, and this may be a possible route in if you are willing to spend a certain amount of time at a local school or university. The downside is that the visa usually expires when the term ends, or when full-time enrollment ends.
Other categories - Immigration laws are notoriously quirky. Most are political footballs in their home countries from time to time, and so they vary widely from country to country. The result is that there are often qualified categories that you would never expect - members of certain religions or citizens of certain countries, for example. Some countries offer categories based on professions they intend to encourage - Ireland, for example, offers a special category for professional artists and writers. Because of the quirkiness of the laws around the world, it is a very good idea to check carefully what the local laws are before you write off a particular country as being unacceptably difficult to get into.
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Copyright © 2004 by Scott Bidstrup. All rights reserved.