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The Best Options For Visa-Free Travel And How To Qualify

11 Mar
Beautiful My Khe beach in Da Nang, Vietnam.

The Best Options For Visa-Free Travel And How To Qualify

You Need A Second Passport Right Now More Than Ever Before In History

The global coronavirus quarantines that have shut country borders around the world have given new value to and created renewed interest in the second passport industry.

I’ve been recommending obtaining a legal residency in another country as well as working toward a second passport for more than 20 years.

Over those decades, readers have written regularly to ask why. What is the benefit, so many have asked?

Why go to through trouble and the expense of qualifying for a second passport if you already hold a U.S. or Canadian passport, both of which allow for visa-free travel to big numbers of countries.

Many have considered a second passport of interest only if you’re considering renouncing your current citizenship.

COVID-19 has changed that. So many people have found themselves trapped in their home countries, unable to travel beyond those borders.

As I write, Europe continues to ban Americans.

However, European passport-holders can return “home” to Europe. Other countries, including Panama, for example, have reopened to tourists with testing requirements.

One reader wrote recently to ask why Kathleen and I stayed in Paris last year at the beginning of the crisis.

After all these years recommending backup residencies and second passports, this reader wanted to know, don’t we have them ourselves?

Yes, we do. We’re residents of Panama and hold both U.S. and Irish passports, meaning we could have gone to the United States, Panama, or Ireland if we could have found a flight (and, with a little work, we could have).

We chose to ride out the storm in Paris because, even under quarantine, Paris was a pretty nice place to be. For us, life in Paris under lockdown was better than life quarantined in the United States or Panama would have been.

Life in Paris is figured out for us. We have friends, resources, and infrastructure on the ground that made it possible for us to live comfortably and productively throughout our “confinement.”

We have family in the United States but no home there, and with riots and protests taking place across that country, we’re even less interested in rushing over for a visit.

We could have gone to Ireland, but we don’t have a house there anymore either.

Had things in Paris become uncomfortable, though, that’s likely where we would have gone.

The Importance Of Having Options

The point is we had and continue to have options. We didn’t find ourselves at the mercy of any single government or set of pandemic rules and restrictions. We chose to stay in Paris because, for us, it was the best choice, knowing that, if that changed, we could reposition.

Eventually, when the dust settled a bit, we did head to the United States for several months so I could help my mother out. Then we returned to Paris for the holidays with our children and new granddaughter. Late January, we made our way to Panama.

Even if Europe doesn’t open up for Americans by summer, we’ll head back over to Europe… which we’ll be able to do thanks to our Irish passports.

We’ve been preparing for a situation like this for a long time. If you’re just beginning to realize that you, too, need to put these kinds of options in place for you and your family, the first thing to understand is that you can’t obtain a second passport overnight.

How Do You Qualify For One?

You have three options.

You can buy a passport through a legitimate Citizenship by Investment (CIP) program… you can track down an ancestor (a grandparent or great grandparent) from a country that allows for naturalization through heritage… or you can spend the time required as a resident to become a naturalized citizen of that country.

In most cases, you must be resident in a country for five years to become eligible for citizenship. Then the naturalization process can take another year or more.

Unless you decide to go the heritage route, meaning the country choice is made for you, one key consideration when shopping second-passport jurisdictions is how many places a passport allows you to travel visa-free. This number changes regularly, including for the United States and Canada.

Brazil, for example, recently removed the visa requirement for Americans. The Brazilian government could easily reverse that at some point if diplomatic relations with the United States change.

Right now, the winning passports are from Europe. Non-European countries are banned from traveling to Europe in response to the pandemic, reducing their visa-free travel numbers significantly. This is not so in the case of an EU passport.

This, though, is likely a short-lived situation, and, when the United States, Canada, and Japan are again allowed visa-free travel across Europe, those passports will return to their top-of-the-list positions.

However, the current reality makes a point. If you’re a North American, the best second passport can be from a European nation. In many cases, a Euro-passport can also be the easiest to qualify for, via the ancestry path.

Right now, Portugal is probably the easiest European passport to obtain through residency, primarily because residency in Portugal is so easy to obtain.

Beyond Europe, some of the best passports for visa-free travel are those from Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. However, Japan and Singapore don’t allow dual citizenship, and it’s not easy to qualify for dual citizenship in South Korea.

Other good options include Panama and Colombia. Passports from these two countries allow for widespread visa-free travel, and many, if not most, of the countries that require a visa in advance for holders of passports from these countries aren’t places on most people’s travel itineraries.

In addition, remember that a second passport isn’t valuable only for the added travel opportunities or for the options and flexibility it can mean in a crisis like the one we’re living through now. Having citizenship in another country gives you the right to work (without getting a work permit) in that country and the right to participate in any other activities limited to citizens.

Panama is a good example. This country restricts certain professions and businesses to Panamanians only. You can’t be a doctor or an accountant and you can’t own a retail store in Panama unless you hold a Panamanian passport.

Elsewhere, including in Ecuador and the Dominican Republic, for example, legal residency gives you the right to work.

All this means you need to do some homework to find the country that’s the best fit for backup residency or second citizenship for you depending on your goals and agendas. The options are many, and all come with different requirements for time in country, requirements to qualify, and costs. Time requirements can be reduced or eliminated if you go the CIP route.

My Irish passport, for example, gets me into two countries visa-free that my U.S. one doesn’t… while the U.S. passport gets me into three countries the Irish one doesn’t. Back when Brazil required a visa for Americans to enter, I simply used my Irish passport to go to Brazil, saving me both time and money.

Those may seem like small things, but, as visa-free travel rules and travel restrictions change regularly (as the global response to the current pandemic is showing us in a dramatic way), so do the differences.

Lief Simon