How to Become an EU Citizen & Live Freely in Europe 🇪🇺

EU citizen

There are four main ways to become an EU citizen:

  1. Acquiring citizenship of any EU country through descent
  2. Acquiring citizenship of any EU country through marriage to one of its existing citizens
  3. Acquiring citizenship of any EU country through ordinary residency (i.e. by living there)
  4. Acquiring citizenship of any EU country by investment

In most cases, it takes time to become a citizen of an EU country – anything from a year to over ten years. The length of time depends on the individual country’s rules, plus which path to citizenship you choose.

Let’s take a closer look at the different routes to becoming an EU citizen.

How to Become an EU Citizen 

There are four main ways:

  1. Through descent
  2. Through marriage
  3. Through ordinary residency (i.e., living in the country)
  4. By joining a citizenship or residency by investment program in the EU (often known as Golden Visa programs)

Once you’ve been granted citizenship, you can then apply for a passport from your new country. 

Depending on which country you’ve naturalized in and where your original citizenship is from, you may be able to maintain dual citizenship, which has a whole host of benefits.

In recent years, there’s been a dramatic rise in the number of people applying for citizenship of EU countries. 

UK nationals have become one of the largest groups applying for EU citizenship.

The majority received either a French or German passport (likely due to becoming naturalized in these countries after already having lived there for the required period of time). 

What Does Being an EU Citizen Mean?

EU citizenship is a special status granted to nationals of the EU member states, making them “EU citizens”.

It was created in 1992 at the same time as the European Union, when the Maastricht Treaty was adopted.

Anyone who holds citizenship in one of the EU member states is classed as an EU citizen.

These rights also extend to 3 additional countries – Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway – which are not part of the EU, but a part of the European Economic Area (EEA) single market.

Switzerland is also included (and Swiss citizenship is one of the most powerful in the world).

Citizenship is the legal bond between the state and the individual. It can be granted by birth, marriage, naturalization, or various other means.

During naturalization, the state grants citizenship to an individual by accepting their application to become a citizen.

Of course, the state can also refuse the application, sometimes for a clear reason, (e.g. if the applicant has a serious criminal record), or else simply at the state’s discretion.

become an EU citizen
Source: Eurostat

Key Benefits

EU citizenship gives citizens rights, freedoms and protections according to EU law. 

One of the most important of these is the right to freedom of movement, which includes the right to settle, work, study, and retire anywhere in the European Union. You can also travel freely within the Schengen area with just your national ID, no need for a passport.

EU citizens can vote and run for office in national elections of the state in which they live. They can also vote in European elections and participate in other EU-wide decisions.

What’s more, as an EU citizen you’ll be protected when travelling abroad.

When you visit a country where your country of citizenship isn’t represented, you have the right to consular protection from embassies of other EU member states.

The EU also includes some of the safest countries in the world, such as Ireland, Portugal and Denmark, plus some of the happiest countries in the world, such as Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands.

Europe also puts forth many contenders for the world’s freest countries, with the top 10 almost entirely dominated by countries from the EU, EEA and Switzerland (which ranks freest overall).

What is an EU Passport?

An ‘EU passport’ simply means a passport issued by any EU member state.

That’s any of the following countries:

Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Republic of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden.

Acquiring citizenship of any of these countries gives you the right to apply for their passport. For example, a Portuguese passport is also an EU passport.

It gives you the right to freedom of movement across all 27 EU member states, plus the European Economic Area countries (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) and Switzerland.

Citizenship Pathways

Through ancestry 

Citizenship through ancestry is a popular option for becoming an EU citizen. Depending on the country, you can apply for citizenship if you have parents or grandparents who were citizens.

In the case of Italy, even great-grandparents!

Citizenship through descent or ancestry is inexpensive and relatively easy. But, unfortunately, not everyone has an ancestor from another country – and it’s not something you can really control.

Through marriage 

This is another route to EU citizenship, through your EU spouse. Timelines for citizenship through marriage vary. Spain has one of the fastest, granting Spanish citizenship after just one year of marriage.

Through residence

Citizenship through naturalization is when a country gives citizenship to people who have been legal residents for the required number of years. 

Timelines vary according to the country.

The fastest timeline in the EU is five years (France, Belgium, Portugal, Ireland, Sweden, and a few others). Others can extend as far as 10 years (Austria, Italy, Spain, Greece). It’s totally up to the individual country. 

Some countries are much harder to get citizenship in than others. To show you what we mean, here are some of the world’s hardest countries to get citizenship.

Fortunately, most countries in the EU are relatively straightforward.

At Digital Émigré, we focus on helping people get EU citizenship through naturalization.

We believe you should have control over your future freedoms, rather than have them be subject to a random accident of birth. 

First Step: Get Residency in an EU Country 

The first step to become an EU citizen through naturalization is to be a legal resident of your target country. That’s the first hurdle for the new émigré.

You can get residency in an EU country in several ways:

  • Employment 
  • Self-employment
  • Passive Income or Independent means residency visas
  • Investment (e.g. one of Europe’s Golden Visa programs)
  • Student visas (but these don’t always count towards the years needed for citizenship)

#1. Residency through employment

One of the traditional ways to get residency in an EU country is by finding a job there.

This involves getting a work permit through the new employer, which you can then use to apply for residency.

But it can be challenging to find work as a non-EU citizen.

EU employers tend to hire from within the EU first, unless you have specialist skills. That’s why we prefer routes to residency that rely on income from remote work or an online business.

#2. Residency through self-employment

Self-employment is another route to residency. This involves setting up as a self-employed individual in the target country, and using that as a means to get residency.

Different countries have different rules, and becoming self-employed is easier in some than others. For example, we’ve been told that Spain and Belgium have highly bureaucratic processes for setting up as self-employed.

#3. Residency through passive income or remote work

The passive income route to residency allows you to overcome challenges with employment and self-employment. Not all EU countries offer a path to residency through passive income, but many do. These residency visas are sometimes known as ‘retirement visas‘.

The definition of ‘passive income’ varies from country to country. Typically, it’s defined as income received without working. That includes dividends, investment income, pension income, royalties, and rental income from property abroad. 

Portugal’s D7 visa is one of the best options as a route to EU residency for those with passive income. If you have a salaried remote job, you should look at the new Portugal Digital Nomad Visa (launched in late October 2022).

Several other European countries, including Greece, Iceland and Malta, have introduced digital nomad visas in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This shift opens up many options for remote workers to move to Europe easily. But not all digital nomad visas are valid pathways to citizenship. That’s because some are only valid for limited periods of time, such as one year.

#4. Citizenship and residency through investment

One popular pathway to becoming an EU citizen is via one of several citizenship by investment programs running in the EU. 

These can be divided into two categories:

Fast track citizenship by investment

This is where you can be awarded a passport in return for your investment, without having to spend many years living in the country.

Malta and Cyprus both offer this route, with passports available in 1 year and 6 months respectively. However, the Cyprus scheme is currently suspended.

Residency by investment

Here, you make an investment in the country, which gives you immediate residency. After the required number of years, you become eligible to apply for citizenship.

For example, Portugal offers this route with its residency-by-investment program, known as the Portugal Golden Visa.

Real estate has recently been removed from Portugal’s Golden Visa program. The best way to get it now is by investing in funds.

Greece, Cyprus, and Spain also have Golden Visa programs. All require you to maintain your residency status for a certain number of years before becoming eligible for citizenship.

EU Countries With Golden Visa Programs

Fastest citizenship by investment pathways

  • Citizenship by investment in Cyprus. Passport in 6 months / min investment 2.2 million EUR. CURRENTLY SUSPENDED
  • Citizenship by investment in Malta. Passport in 1 year / min investment of 690k EUR 
  • Citizenship by investment in Bulgaria. 18 months / min investment of (approx) 1 million EUR 

Residency by investment pathways, leading to citizenship

Which EU Citizenship is Best?

Some EU passports are more powerful than others when it comes to global visa free travel, according to the Henley Passport Index. 

Any EU passport will give you freedom of movement across the entire Schengen zone and the rights to live, work, study and retire across any of the member states. 

Ideally, you should become an EU citizen in a country that allows you to maintain your existing nationality.

But not all EU countries allow it. For example, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria all require new citizens to renounce their existing nationality.

Bulgaria allows dual citizenship, but only for native Bulgarians, EU/EEA and Swiss citizens and spouses of Bulgarian nationals. 

In an unstable world, two passports are better than one. So it’s critical to consider whether your target country will allow you to maintain dual citizenship.

It’s worth noting that some US citizens may consider renouncing their US citizenship for tax purposes.

No other country, except Eritrea, levies citizenship-based income tax on non-residents.

Here’s a handy comparison of different citizenship options in the EU.

CountryMinimum timelineDual citizenship ok?Physical stayTax residency required?Language level
French citizenship5 yearsYes183 days per yearYesB1 French
Italian citizenship 10 years Yes183 days per yearYesB1 Italian
German citizenship6-8 yearsNo183 days per yearYesB1 German
Portuguese citizenship5 yearsYes7 days per year with Golden Visa; 183 days with other visasNoA2 Portuguese
Spanish citizenship10 yearsNo183 days per yearYesA2 Spanish
Irish citizenship5 years Yes183 days per yearYesEnglish only
Luxembourg citizenship5 yearsYes183 days per yearYesB1 Luxembourgish
Swedish citizenship5 yearsYes183 days per yearYesEnglish or Swedish
Comparison of popular EU citizenship routes

Portugal offers one of the most flexible and fastest EU citizenship pathways, while also allowing dual citizenship. 

become an EU citizen
Source: Henley Passport Index

A Portuguese passport allows visa-free travel to 188 countries.

Portugal offers a wide range of residency options, including the D7 passive income visa for remote workers, online entrepreneurs and retirees, plus an extensive Portugal Golden Visa residency program including several different types of investment.

Getting the Golden Visa by investing in Portuguese venture capital or private equity funds is the top option in 2023 and beyond. Check out our latest guide to the funds route.

Become an EU citizen in Portugal

become an EU citizen

Portugal is a prime location for becoming an EU citizen. Here’s a summary of the benefits:

The 4 FASTEST Portugal residency routes

You can apply for Portuguese citizenship after just five years of residency.

That’s one of the fastest timelines in the EU. But when exactly are those five years counted from?

Well, the clock starts when you receive your residency permit.

That’s why it makes sense to get to that point as quickly as possible, avoiding any unnecessary hold-ups or complications.

Here are the best Portugal residency routes

Residency routeBasic requirementsTimeline to residency permit (estimated)Minimum physical stay requirement
Portugal Golden Visa (Investment Funds)Minimum of €500,000 invested into an eligible Portuguese fund.6 to 8 months from time of investing and submitting application.7 days per year
Portugal Highly Qualified Activity (HQA) Visa Minimum of €175,000 investment, plus company setup in Portugal. Can all be done via a concierge-style incubator service.1 to 2 months from submitting application.7 days per year
Portugal D7 ‘Passive Income’ Visa Minimum of €705 per month in passive income, plus 12 months of savings (for one person). 4 months from time of submitting application at embassy.183 days per year
Portugal Digital Nomad VisaMinimum of €2820 per month in remote work salary, plus 12 months of savings (for one person). 4 months from time of submitting application at embassy.183 days per year

How Quickly Can I Become an EU Citizen?

The answer to this depends on the specific target country and your chosen pathway to residency. Here are some of the fastest options we’ve found.

  • Citizenship by marriage: Spain, one year
  • Citizenship by investment: Malta, 18 months
  • Citizenship by naturalization: Portugal, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Ireland, plus several others. All take five years. Five years is the shortest citizenship by naturalization timeline that we’ve found in the EU. 

Can I Get Citizenship With Passive Income? 

Yes, but you’ll have to become a resident first, for the required length of time in your target country of choice.

Not every EU country allows third-country nationals to become resident with passive income.

Portugal offers the fastest and most flexible passive income based residency-to-citizenship pathway – allowing you to be eligible to apply for citizenship after just five years of residency. 

What’s more, the cost of living in Portugal is one of the lowest in Western Europe.

In the next section, we’ll take a look at other passive income visa options.

With the rise in popularity of ‘digital nomad visas’, more countries may soon adopt similar pathways.

At present, most digital nomad visas/residency options can’t be used as a pathway to citizenship (the Portugal Digital Nomad Visa is an exception)

Which Countries Allow Residency With Passive Income?

Portugal: D7 passive income visa

  • Passive income level required: 740 EUR per month (minimum)
  • Dual citizenship? Yes
  • Timeline to citizenship: 5 years

Read More: Complete Guide to Getting Portuguese Citizenship

Luxembourg: Residency for private reasons

  • Passive income level required: 2,202 EUR per month 
  • Dual citizenship? Yes
  • Timeline to citizenship: 5 years

Read More: Complete Guide to Getting Luxembourg Citizenship

Cyprus: Income based visa and residency permit

  • Passive income level required: 800 EUR per month 
  • Dual citizenship? Yes
  • Timeline to citizenship: 7 years

Greece: Financially independent residency

  • Passive income level required: 2,000 EUR per month 
  • Dual citizenship? Yes
  • Timeline to citizenship: 7 years

Malta: Residency by economic self-sufficiency 

  • Passive income level required: 1,116 EUR per month 
  • Dual citizenship? Yes
  • Timeline to citizenship: Over 10 years

Austria: Settlement permit (gainful employment excepted)

  • Passive income level required: 1,933 EUR per month 
  • Dual citizenship? No
  • Timeline to citizenship: 10 years

Estonia: Temporary to permanent residency

  • Passive income level required:
  • Dual citizenship? No
  • Timeline to citizenship: 8 years 

Italy: Elective residence by independent means

  • Passive income level required: 2,597 EUR per month 
  • Dual citizenship? Yes
  • Timeline to citizenship: 10 years

Read More: Complete Guide to Getting Italian Citizenship

Ireland: Common Travel Area (UK citizens only)

  • Passive income level required: None
  • Dual citizenship? Yes
  • Timeline to citizenship: 5 years

Read More: Complete Guide to Getting Irish Citizenship

Spain: Non-lucrative residency permit

  • Passive income level required: 2,500 EUR per month 
  • Dual citizenship? No
  • Timeline to citizenship: 10 years

Read More: Complete Guide to Getting Spanish Citizenship


Which EU country gives citizenship easily?

These EU countries give citizenship easily:

1) Portugal. It has one of the fastest routes to citizenship (you can apply after just five years residency), and a minimum stay requirement of just 7 days per year (with the Golden Visa). Also, the language requirement for citizenship is low compared to other countries (A2 level).

2) Ireland. If you’re a British national, you can move to Ireland anytime without a visa. Then after five years you can apply for Irish citizenship. It’s even easier if you have an Irish parent or grandparent.

3) Malta. If you have €700,000 to spare, you can buy citizenship of Malta in around 18 months.

4) Luxembourg. You can apply for citizenship of Luxembourg after just five years of residency there. People who’ve done it say that the process is fast, efficient, and goes by the book.

How can I get EU citizenship?

There are several ways to get EU citizenship.

1) Through ancestry (i.e. your parents or grandparents)

2) Through marriage

3) Through birth (i.e. where you were born)

4) Through naturalization (i.e. by becoming resident in a country long enough to qualify for citizenship, or getting citizenship by investment)

How hard is it to get EU citizenship?

The difficulty of getting EU citizenship depends on several factors, including the route you choose and the country in question. If you have ancestry, birthright, or a spouse from an EU country, then the process will be typically easier and faster than naturalization.

There are several relatively easy routes for naturalization in the EU. For example, you could buy EU citizenship in Malta and have a passport in around 18 months. Or, you could invest in Portugal for the Golden Visa, then apply for citizenship after just five years.

If you’re a British national, you could apply for EU citizenship in just five years by moving to Ireland, where no visa or language exam is required.

How can I become an EU citizen after Brexit?

Unless you have ancestry or other links to an EU country, then the best way to become an EU citizen after Brexit is to first get residency in an EU country, then apply for citizenship by naturalization. This may take a number of years, depending on the country.

For example, it takes five years to be eligible for Portuguese citizenship. In Ireland, it also takes at least five years to get Irish citizenship, but you can live in Ireland freely without a visa, even after Brexit.

How can I move to Europe permanently?

The best way to move to Europe permanently is by applying for a long-term residency visa in one of the EU member states. There are several ways to do this, including getting sponsored by a European employer, joining a study program in a European country, or applying for residency based on passive income or investment. The application process usually begins by applying for an entry visa at your target country’s nearest embassy in your home country. Once you arrive in your target country, you can then complete the second stage, which normally involves getting a residency permit. After that, you can renew the residency permit for the required number of years until you become eligible for either permanent residency or citizenship.

Can US citizens live in Europe?

Yes, US citizens can live in Europe quite easily. All US citizens can spend up to 90 days in any 180 travelling freely across the Schengen area. But to move to Europe long-term, you’ll need to apply for a residency visa. You can do this in the US, then enter the new country with your US passport. You can then apply for your residency permit. Most European countries let you apply for permanent residency or citizenship after living there for a certain number of years. For example, in Portugal, you can get permanent residency or citizenship after five years.

What are the benefits of an EU passport?

The benefits of an EU passport include the right to freely travel, live, work, do business, study, and retire across all 27 European Union countries, plus those of the European Economic Area and Switzerland. EU passport holders receive consular protection from other EU countries when overseas. They can also vote in their passport country and run for office, both in their citizenship country and in the European Parliament.

Before you go…

Having EU citizenship is a valuable asset in today’s post-pandemic world.

An EU passport gives you and your family an important escape route to 30 safe and stable countries.

It also allows you access to lucrative business opportunities across the Eurozone, along with top quality healthcare and enhanced political protection abroad.

There are many ways to become an EU citizen. The right one for you depends on your personal situation and goals.

Citizenship of any EU country will give you the same freedom of movement rights.

But for maximum flexibility and the best possible Plan B, we recommend focusing on a country that allows dual citizenship

Join the Digital Émigré newsletter for tips on making your big move.

4 thoughts on “How to Become an EU Citizen & Live Freely in Europe 🇪🇺”

  1. Pingback: Living in Madeira in 2021: Portugal's most exciting hidden gem | Digital Émigré

  2. Alexander Gray

    The graph above implies that Romanian is not an EU member that is not correct. Romania is an EU member but not in the Schengen Area. That means that Romanian passport holders can freely move, live or work or retire in any EU country, the difference being that they require a passport to enter the Schengen Area.

  3. Pingback: 11 Reasons You Should Move to Portugal from USA | Digital Émigré

  4. I am very much interested in getting a second passport. Pls help. My email address is faryalali4758@gmail and my tel no in USA is 415-260-7790.

Comments are closed.