The Future of Citizenship and Residencies

by | Apr 22, 2024 | Blog

The history of residencies and citizenships is deeply intertwined with the development of human societies, governance, and international relations. It’s a complex topic that spans from ancient civilizations to modern-day policies, reflecting changes in how communities and nations define belonging, rights, and obligations. While those who argue passports are inherently statist conceptions may be correct, if we aim to be free in the world we find ourselves in, we must learn more about this institution.

Citizenship in History

In ancient Greece and Rome, citizenship was a status granted to free men, giving them the right to participate in the political life of the city-state, including voting and owning land. The concept of citizenship was closely linked to one’s participation in the community’s defense and governance. In contrast, women, slaves, and foreigners (metics in Athens, for example) had limited or no rights.

The Roman Empire further developed the concept of citizenship with the Corpus Juris Civilis, which detailed the rights and duties of citizens. The expansion of the Roman Empire saw citizenship extended to conquered peoples, serving as a tool of integration and control. After all, letting people be mostly free as long as they pay their taxes serves as a great business model for expansionary empires. 

The collapse of the Roman Empire led to the emergence of the feudal system in Europe, where the notions of citizenship and residency were tied to one’s allegiance to a lord or monarch rather than to a particular geographical territory. Rights and obligations were determined by one’s position within the feudal hierarchy.

In the medieval period, cities began to gain independence and could grant “burgher” rights to inhabitants, offering protection and economic privileges. Cities were highly attractive and offered a safe haven. The German saying Stadtluft macht frei nach Jahr und Tag (“city air makes you free after a year and a day”) reflects the fact that serfs who fled their feudal lords could take refuge in the city, and after one year and one day, he ceased to be tied to his former lord. This marked a shift towards residency-based rights within specific locales.

The Peace of Westphalia in 1648, marking the end of the Thirty Years’ War, is often cited as the beginning of the modern system of nation-states. This system emphasized sovereign territories with clear borders, and citizenship became tied to nation-states rather than city-states or local communities.

European expansion and colonization introduced complex systems of governance, including different statuses for colonizers and colonized peoples, directly impacting concepts of citizenship and residency. While different empires responded to this issue differently, colonization furthered the goal of European empires to expand their sovereignty to additional territory, making all inhabitants of that new territory subject to their rule and therefore subject to pay their taxes. 

Only in the 19th and 20th centuries saw the formalization of nationality laws, distinguishing between nationals and foreigners and establishing legal frameworks for acquiring or losing citizenship. These laws often included residency requirements, naturalization processes, and the concept of jus soli (right of the soil) and jus sanguinis (right of blood).

Finally, the late 20th and early 21st centuries have been characterized by increased globalization and migration, challenging traditional notions of citizenship and residency. Two centuries ago, the number of people migrating across jurisdictions was measured in the thousands, while in the past century, it was millions. I suspect we are at the beginning of the newest century where billions of people will change jurisdiction. 


Citizenship by Investment

Issues like dual citizenship, the rights of migrants and refugees, and the concept of global citizenship have become significant in the modern day. So too has the concept of Citizenship by Investment, whereby some countries now offer citizenship or residency to individuals who invest a significant amount of money in the country’s economy, reflecting a shift towards more flexible and economic criteria for citizenship, consistent with early city-states.

The Citizenship by Investment (CBI) industry has its roots in the 1980s. The concept is often credited to St. Kitts and Nevis, a small Caribbean nation that established the first CBI program in 1984. Faced with economic challenges, including the decline of its sugar industry, the government introduced the program as a means to attract foreign investment. In exchange for a significant investment in the country’s economy, investors could obtain citizenship. The program was designed to provide a new source of revenue for the country and to stimulate economic growth.

Following the example of St. Kitts and Nevis, other Caribbean countries, including Dominica, Grenada, Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Lucia, introduced their own CBI programs. The concept has since spread beyond the Caribbean to countries in Europe, the Pacific, and elsewhere. For instance, Malta and Cyprus have established CBI programs that attract significant interest from investors seeking access to the European Union. Portugal, Spain, and Greece offer “Golden Visa” programs that grant residency, and potentially citizenship, through real estate investments or other economic contributions.

As the industry grew, it also faced scrutiny and controversy. Concerns have been raised about the potential for money laundering, tax evasion, and the security implications of offering citizenship to foreign nationals without thorough vetting. In response, many countries have tightened regulations, increased due diligence procedures, and in some cases, restructured or ended their programs. 

As a result, the CBI industry continues to evolve, influenced by global economic conditions, geopolitical shifts, and changing regulatory landscapes. It remains a significant, though sometimes controversial, aspect of global migration and investment flows. While many large and more powerful countries do not like the increasing popularity of CBI programs, the benefit to both small countries and participants in these programs means that they will continue to pop up in various places all over the world. 


Regional “Citizenship”

Part of what makes CBI programs and their resulting passports so valuable is the access they can give to easy travel. Part of the ease in travel results from unions of free travel. Here too, there are more trends towards creating unions for easy travel. 

The EU is the most advanced example of a region allowing free movement among its member states. Citizens of EU countries enjoy the right to live, work, study, and retire in any other EU member state with minimal formalities. The Schengen Area, which includes most EU countries and some non-EU countries, allows for passport-free travel across its members’ borders.

CARICOM aims to achieve similar economic integration and cooperation among its 15 member countries and five associate members in the Caribbean. The CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME) initiative includes provisions for the free movement of skilled labor, allowing qualified nationals to work in any member state without needing a work permit.

Mercosur is a South American trade bloc comprising Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela (currently suspended). The bloc has agreements that facilitate the residency and employment rights of citizens within member countries, moving towards a system of free movement similar to that of the EU. While one needs to read the fine print to understand the nuances of any travel/work union, this trend is positive from the perspective of Free Cities as it lays the groundwork for a potential union of free travel and trade between a union of autonomous or semi-autonomous city-states. 


The Future of Citizenship?

The concept of privately issued or privately offered citizenships or residencies, while currently not practiced in the traditional sense, opens an interesting discussion on the evolution of nation-states, citizenship norms, and governance models. This idea intersects with the “Free Cities” concept, where cities or regions operate under a unique set of laws, governance, and economic policies, often with a high degree of autonomy from their host nation-state. Such Free Cities may be managed and operated by private companies and therefore could offer some form of privately issued citizenship. This would then create the potential for integrating privately offered Free City citizenships or residencies to create a network or league of city-states, similar to the Hanseatic League of Medieval Europe. 

If all of this seems far-fetched, I might suggest that the CBI program was invented by Christian Kälin, a private person who worked with St. Kitts and Nevis to create the first CBI program. Further, we see a large number of lawyers and immigration consultants working in a private capacity to increase human freedom of movement. We also see a plethora of new tech startups, using AI and other tools to assist both nations and individuals in their ability to apply, access, and take advantage of various residency and citizenship programs. Privately issued passports and visas are simply one step further and likely to be experimented with. 

Finally, Hong Kong presents one interesting example of how this might look. The situation regarding residency and citizenship in Hong Kong is unique due to its historical background and the “One Country, Two Systems” principle agreed upon during the handover from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1997. This principle was supposed to ensure that, except for foreign and defense affairs, Hong Kong would maintain its own legal and economic systems separate from those of mainland China for 50 years after the handover.

Hong Kong has its own set of immigration policies and regulations, distinct from mainland China. People from other countries can apply for various types of visas to work, study, or live in Hong Kong. Permanent residency is granted to individuals who have lived in Hong Kong for a continuous period of at least seven years under most visa categories. Permanent residents enjoy certain rights, such as the right to vote in local elections and the right to live in the region without visa restrictions.

Citizenship is a more complex issue. Hong Kong does not offer its own citizenship. People born in Hong Kong before and after the 1997 handover are Chinese citizens as defined by the nationality laws of the PRC, assuming at least one parent is a Chinese national or permanent resident of Hong Kong at the time of their birth. 

The Hong Kong way presents one possible way for privately issued residencies to come into being whereby Citizenship remains the responsibility of a Host Nation to the Free City, but the Free City can create visas as they see fit. While this may not be a privately issued passport, the impact is similar with private companies increasing their responsibility for promoting and organizing the movement of human beings to where they are treated best. 


This blog post is an amended version of an article originally published in Escape Artist Insiders Magazine in April 2024. Visit their website for more articles, information and advice on becoming an expat or digital nomad.