How to Become an EU Citizen: The Ultimate 2021 Guide

become an EU citizen

Do you want to become an EU citizen? 

Perhaps you’re from the UK, and wish to regain your EU rights after Brexit.

Or perhaps you’re from another non-EU country and wish to have dual citizenship with a powerful and flexible passport from one of the EU member states. 

The good news is, becoming an EU citizen is easier than you think.

How to become an EU citizen 

There are four main ways to become an EU citizen:

  1. Through ancestry
  2. Through marriage
  3. Through naturalization
  4. By joining a citizenship by investment program in the EU

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’ll 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 living there for the required period of time). 

What is EU citizenship?

Let’s take a quick look at what exactly EU citizenship is. In a broad sense, citizenship is the legal bond between the state and the individual. 

It can be granted by birth, marriage, naturalization, or various other means. In naturalization, the state grants citizenship to an individual by accepting their application. Of course, the state can also choose to refuse the application. 

EU citizenship is a special status granted to nationals of the EU member states. It was created in 1992 at the same time as the European Union, when the Maastricht Treaty was adopted.

become an EU citizen
Source: Eurostat

Why should I become an EU citizen? 

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. 

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, having EU citizenship also protects you 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.

Benefits of becoming an EU citizen

  • Live, work, study, or retire in 27 EU countries
  • Have a safe and secure escape route in times of crisis
  • Access favourable EU tuition fees at top universities
  • Have the reassurance of enhanced consular protection around the world
  • Easily access national health care benefits, many free of charge 
  • Travel visa-free to at least 153 countries (CHECK this)
  • Benefit from EU privacy laws
  • Pass your citizenship to your spouse and descendants

How to become an EU citizen as an American

US citizens can access EU citizenship through any of the pathways described in the next section. 

How to become an EU citizen after Brexit

UK citizens can rejoin the EU by following any of the standard pathways. Brits also have an extra route back into the EU: Ireland. 

Despite Brexit, any UK passport holder can move freely to Ireland under the Common Travel Area agreement (which predates the EU). Once resident, the naturalization period takes five years. At that point, you’ll be able to apply for Irish citizenship and rejoin the EU.

Ways to become an EU citizen 

Become an EU citizen 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. Unfortunately, not everyone has an ancestor from another country.

Become an EU citizen 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.

Become an EU citizen through naturalization 

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, and a few others). Others can extend as far as 10 years (Austria, Italy, Spain, Greece). It’s totally up to the individual country. 

At Digital Émigré, we focus on helping people get EU citizenship through naturalization. We think an individual’s future freedoms should be entirely in their control, rather than subject to an accident of birth. 

First step: Get residency in an EU country 

Before starting the pathway to citizenship through naturalization, you need to be a legal resident of your target country. This is the first hurdle for the new émigré.

There are a number of ways to do this and that’s what the next section will focus on in detail. The Digital Émigré team has immigration and tax experts on hand to guide you through all aspects of the residency process. 

Ways to get residency in EU countries 

  • Employment 
  • Self-employment
  • Passive Income
  • Investment

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, as 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 online businesses.

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.

Residency through passive income

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. 

What’s more, the definition of ‘passive income’ varies from country to country. The standard definition is income received without working. That typically includes dividends, investment income, pension income, royalties, and rental income from property abroad. 

There’s still a grey area about whether income from a remote job with one employer based outside the target country counts as passive income. For Portugal it does. Portugal’s D7 passive income visa is one of the most flexible options as a route to residency for those with passive income.

That makes Portugal a good choice if you prefer to have a permanent remote work contract with an overseas employer, rather than taking your income as dividends from an online business.

Citizenship and Residency through investment

One popular pathway to becoming an EU citizen is via one of several ‘citizenship by investment’ schemes 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 actually move to 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 Golden Visa program. Germany, Spain and Ireland also have similar programs, all requiring you to maintain the residency for a certain number of years before becoming eligible for citizenship.

The residency by investment option can be thought of as allowing your investment to spend time in the country instead of you physically being there (unless of course you want to).

In contrast, those who use standard (non-investment) residency as a pathway to citizenship have to make the target country their main base for the entire timeline, including becoming a tax resident. This can still be a flexible option in a country like Portugal, but it can be restrictive in others.

Which EU countries have 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

  • Portugal (citizenship in 5 years)
  • Greece (citizenship in 7 years)
  • Ireland (citizenship in 5 years)
  • Spain (citizenship in 10 years) 
  • Germany (citizenship in 8 years)

Which is the best EU citizenship to have?

That depends… 

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. 

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

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 US citizens may consider renouncing their US citizenship for tax purposes. No other country, except Eritrea, levies citizenship-based income tax on non-residents.

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 global visa free travel to 188 countries. It’s also geopolitically neutral and unlikely to cause you trouble at any border crossings. 

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

Here’s a detailed side-by-side comparison of the two main residency options: D7 vs the Golden Visa.

Become an EU citizen in Portugal

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

  • Several flexible and accessible residency pathways to fit your lifestyle and goals
  • Golden Visa program: One of the EU’s most successful residency programs 
  • Golden Visa: Residency by investment with minimum 350,000 EUR
  • Good returns on investments for both funds and property
  • Passive income residency pathway for digital nomads, remote workers and online business owners
  • Pathway to citizenship in five years
  • Dual citizenship allowed
  • Tax benefits for 10 years through Portugal’s unique NHR scheme
  • Powerful, globally well-regarded passport that gives access to 188 visa-free destinations, plus freedom to live, work, study, and retire anywhere in the EU/EEA
  • In 2021, the Portuguese passport ranks higher than the UK, USA or Hong Kong

Interested in moving to Portugal? Our team can guide you through the visa options

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, one year
  • Citizenship by naturalization: Portugal, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Ireland, plus several others. All five years. Five years is the shortest citizenship by naturalization timeline that we’ve identified in the EU. 

Can I become an EU citizen 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. In the following section, we’ll take a look at the other 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.

Which EU countries offer residency-to-citizenship pathways with passive income?

Portugal: D7 passive income visa and residency permit 

  • Passive income level required: 635 EUR per month 
  • Dual citizenship allowed
  • Timeline to citizenship: 5 years

Luxembourg: Residency for private reasons

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

Cyprus: Income based visa and residency permit

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

Greece: Financially independent residency

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

Malta: Residency by economic self-sufficiency 

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

Austria: Settlement permit (gainful employment excepted)

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

Estonia: Temporary to permanent residency

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

Italy: Elective residence by independent means

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

Ireland: Common Travel Area (UK citizens only)

  • Passive income level required: No minimum
  • Dual citizenship allowed
  • Timeline to citizenship: 5 years

Spain: Non-lucrative residency permit

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

Conclusion: Should I become an EU citizen?

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 27 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 options available to become an EU citizen, largely depending on your personal situation and unique goals. All EU countries will give you the same rights of freedom of movement, but for maximum flexibility we recommend that you select target countries that allow dual citizenship. 

Start your journey to EU citizenship today.

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