How the wealthy seem to immigrate as they please

Leaving on a (private) jet plane.
Leaving on a (private) jet plane.
Image: Fredrik Persson via REUTERS
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On Saturday, Indian billionaire Adar Poonawalla made international headlines when he told the Times of London that he had moved to the UK “for an extended period of time.” The move, which Poonawalla justified as an effort to be with his wife and children and to evade a grave threat to his life in India, happened just before the UK stopped all Indian nationals from arriving in the country because of its high number of Covid-19 cases.

Poonawalla, who does not appear to be a UK citizen (India doesn’t allow dual citizenship), is not the only wealthy Indian to flee the country—other businesspeople, as well as Bollywood stars and cricketers, have also left, many on private jets. Even before the pandemic, the world’s wealthy have seemed to move wherever they want, no matter the visa restrictions that would otherwise inhibit the rest of us. Though a person’s visa status is sometimes a sensitive issue, the wealthy often have pathways available to them for legal migration that the rest of the world does not.

They invested their way in. Twenty-four countries, including the UK and UAE (popular destinations for those fleeing India’s Covid-19 crisis) have Citizenship Investment programs. Those who invest a certain amount—usually around $200,000—can, depending on the country, enjoy long-term residency or eventually become citizens. A generous interpretation is that folks in these programs are boosting their new countries’ economies through their investment; a cynical one might be that they’re buying their way in. It’s not for us to judge.

They’re already dual citizens. Whether they were born into dual citizenship or became citizens another way (like through marriage or long-term residence), wealthy people like holding multiple passports. It can be a way to protect their holdings, offer hassle-free traveling, to have a plan B, or simply be a status symbol.

They’re on other kinds of visas. Those who don’t want to make a long-term investment in a country might find other kinds of visas are perfectly suitable. Obtaining a US B visa, the kind needed for those conducting business or receiving medical treatment, is a lot easier if you’re wealthy. If their stay is just for a short period, maybe a simple tourist visa will suffice—in the UK, it’s good for six months, and you can even rent property.

They just don’t worry about it. If you’re undocumented, running your own business is a surprisingly easy way to make money. A 2008 article in Reuters suggested that some 20,000 Americans who make $100,000 or more were undocumented or on expired visas. If you’re part of the world’s 1%, it’s harder to hide, but maybe officials just won’t ask.