Last update on June 05, 2019
Written by Keith J Fernandez

Got a business idea but don’t think your own country offers the right conditions? Consider an entrepreneur visa for immigrants and expats! Expatica pulls together the definitive list of startup-friendly countries.

Whatever your personal opinion of Elon Musk, the controversial Tesla founder remains an inspiration to many. As an entrepreneur who built a multi-billion dollar empire for himself, he personifies the expat success story. Born and raised in Pretoria, the South African moved first to Canada and then to the United States; here, Elon famously dropped out of Stanford University to pursue an entrepreneurial career. Musk would doubtless have been successful if he’d started a company in his hometown, but likely not as much. Both Canada and the United States far outrank South Africa in terms of how easy it is to do business in today’s world. So, where should an expat entrepreneur be looking to launch a start-up? Expatica helpfully rounds up the best entrepreneur visa programs available, and explains who’s eligible and why.

New Zealand

The land of the long white cloud topped the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index in 2019, another point in favor of a country that consistently tops quality of life rankings. New Zealand wins points for protecting investors, registering property, and starting a business; the country ranks in the top three on all these fronts. Most impressive, the country’s regulatory environment is so focused on innovative companies that all it takes is one day and one procedure to start running a new business – although you’ll need to reserve your company name 20 days in advance.

Got a pile of cash and a killer idea? Ride the wave to New Zealand, the easiest country in the world to do business (Photo: Tim Marshall / Unsplash)
Got a pile of cash and a killer idea? Ride the wave to New Zealand, the easiest country in the world to do business
(Photo: Tim Marshall / Unsplash)

Expats who want to launch a company in New Zealand have it easy, too. New Zealand’s Entrepreneur Work Visa allows anyone to buy or set up a business as a first step towards residence. To apply, you’ll need to provide a detailed business plan, have at least NZ$100,000 to invest in your business and score 120 on its points scale.

With growth of over 3% in the three years to 2017, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is pushing to transform the agrarian economy into a leader in emerging and disruptive technologies. With record startup investment inflows, there are several reasons for wannabe entrepreneurs to move to the edge of the world.

Singapore

This tiny country is a global financial center with a strong export economy. Having a well-connected transport and export-led logistics hub catering to approximately four billion people across Asia ensures that Singapore is a great location to launch a business.

The World Bank ranks the Lion City as the best place in Asia – and the second overall – for doing business; it gets extra points for cutting the time required to launch a new company to just over a day. The best place in the world to enforce contracts, Singapore recently amended its Companies Act to make ownership more transparent. Its strong, growth-focused ecosystem sees Singapore rank as one of the world’s most competitive economies.

Got a hydroponics patent to your name? Singapore may offer you an entrepreneur visa.
Got a hydroponics patent to your name? Singapore may offer you an entrepreneur visa (Photo: Chen Hu / Unsplash)

In 2017, Singapore’s EntrePass made it easier for expats to enter and establish a new business on the island in recent years. However, foreigners must meet several requirements before their entrepreneur visa is confirmed. These include getting at least SG$100,000 in funding from a government-accredited venture capitalist or angel investor. Foreign investors cannot run several types of businesses; these include coffee shops, bars, food courts, massage parlors, and employment agencies.

Where it does want innovators is in life sciences, energy, chemicals, aerospace, and electronics wafers. If you’re an engineer with a patent to your name, Singapore should be on your list.

Hong Kong

Fancy your ability to do business with the Chinese? You’ll probably want to settle on Hong Kong, which the World Bank says is the fifth-friendliest place to start a business, and the fourth easiest to keep your operations running smoothly. You don’t necessarily need to know Cantonese or Mandarin to do business. However, it helps when registering property, getting credit, or resolving insolvency; the Special Administrative Region scores worse on these fronts. Business registration is now also more expensive than in previous years.

Hong Kong’s liberal economic system, lack of trade barriers, a transparent legal system, intellectual property protection, and low taxes make it a strong contender for any businesses focused on the Asia-Pacific region.

Want to reach the Chinese market? Hong Kong has a long history as a base for entrepreneurs (Photo: Tommy Tong / Unsplash)
Want to reach the Chinese market? Hong Kong has a long history as a base for entrepreneurs (Photo: Tommy Tong / Unsplash)

Unlike Singapore, there are no minimum capital requirements for its Entry for Investment entrepreneur visa. You do, however, need to have a two-year business plan; this includes a revenue forecast, a market analysis, and an explanation of how you expect to contribute to the economy. Authorities ask for proof of capital investment; this amounts to enough funds to cover your start-up costs and operational costs for three to six months. Factors such as your own education and the suitability of your office all play a role.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam wants to develop the technology, innovation, and creative services sectors in order to diversity the economy. She is backed by plans to create the Greater Bay Area, a cluster of urban areas projected to be worth HK$28 trillion by 2030.

Although the city has seen some collateral damage because of China’s ongoing trade disputes with the United States, Hong Kong is expected to post GDP growth of 2.5% through to 2020.

United Kingdom

If you’re willing to deal with the economic uncertainty of Brexit (maybe you’ve got an idea for a company that thrives on chaos), you could do worse than launching a company in the United Kingdom. Although the World Bank ranks it 19th in terms of getting a start-up off the ground, with four procedures and just over four days to launch, Britain is the ninth-easiest place in the world to do business.

Written a pile of code that can speed up financial transactions? The UK wants to hear from you (Photo: Jonas Leupe / Unsplash)
Written a pile of code that can speed up financial transactions? The UK wants to hear from you (Photo: Jonas Leupe / Unsplash)

In March 2019, the United Kingdom expanded its immigration policies with two different kinds of entrepreneur visas. The country’s new two-year start-up visa was opened to non-EEA nationals who can support themselves in other jobs while developing their business idea in the country. An innovator visa, on the other hand, is offered for three years, but new businesses need an investment of at least £50,000, and the founder isn’t allowed to work elsewhere. Both entrepreneur visa types require that the applicant be endorsed by a business, a higher educational institution, or an incubator. In particular, the United Kingdom wants to attract talent in technology, financial services, and science.

While the rate of economic growth in the United Kingdom is expected to slow in 2019, it is forecast to remain well above 1.5% in 2020. Brexit or not, there’s certainly a solid reason to consider launching a company in the world’s seventh-largest economy.

Denmark

Low corruption, strong infrastructure, and a primarily digital economy are some of the reasons Denmark takes third place on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index and scores highly for cross-border business. Although ranked 42nd for launching a new company, it’s five procedures in four days; theoretically, you could have your business up and running before your first weekend.

Can you find new ways to digitise fish sales? Denmark is home to 400+ tech startups and yours could be next (Photo: Nick Karvounis / Unsplash)
Can you find new ways to digitise fish sales? Denmark is home to 400+ tech startups and yours could be next (Photo: Nick Karvounis / Unsplash)

Startup Denmark’s entrepreneur visa is aimed at innovative, scalable and tech-driven businesses with clear growth potential. Over 400 companies in fields as diverse as edtech, medtech, fintech, and artificial intelligence call Denmark home.

To apply, you’ll need to have your business idea approved by the government. Next, you must prove that you can support yourself during the first year; you’ll need DKK137,076 in the bank for that. Finally, you must play an active role within the business. Nor does it have to be a one-person operation; teams of up to four people can apply. An entrepreneur visa is generally valid for two years; it can be extended for five years after that. The average time to acceptance is just four weeks; best of all, you can take your family with you if you can show enough funds to support them.

Denmark’s economy’s doing well – it posted annual GDP growth rates of above 1.5% in the three years to 2017 and is expected to maintain that momentum through 2020. If you want to reach a market of 500 million consumers, Denmark might be the place to start.

The Netherlands

That the Netherlands is beset by too many tourists is an indication of its popularity – as are the constantly rising house prices. Several other factors add to its appeal: this tiny corner of Europe has the best work-life balance in the OECD, it’s the easiest place for cross-border business, and the second-most innovative country (after Switzerland).

With four procedures that take just over three days, as estimated by the World Bank, starting a business in the Netherlands is ridiculously easy.

The Dutch Startup Visa is aimed at entrepreneurs looking for an international base for an innovative business. Besides a ground-breaking idea, you’ll need to work with a government-recognized facilitator, put together a detailed plan showing how your new brainstorm can turn a profit and benefit the Netherlands, register with the local chamber of commerce, and have enough money to pay your living expenses for a year. It takes three weeks to approval; after, the authorities issue a one-year entrepreneur visa that comes with tax discounts and access to loans.

Got an innovative business idea involving water management? The Dutch will welcome you with an entrepreneur visa (Photo: Debbie Molle / Unsplash)
Got an innovative business idea involving water management? The Dutch will welcome you with an entrepreneur visa (Photo: Debbie Molle / Unsplash)

Besides technology and life sciences, the Dutch are keen on innovations in horticulture, agri-food, water, water management, creative industries, and logistics.

Although GDP growth has slowed on the back of a tight labor market, the economy is expected to outperform the eurozone into 2020 with an economic expansion of 1.7%. Enough reason to consider applying for an entrepreneur visa in order to move to the Netherlands? We think so.

So, where are you taking your next big idea?