Over the past few years, our Expat Group at Walkner Condon has covered the success of Portugal’s Non-Habitual Residence (NHR) program extensively. As a former expat who lived in Portugal before returning to the states in 2011, finding other Americans living in Portugal (well, Lisbon at least, as I can’t say I was laying back and enjoying the calmer life of the Algarve, which at that time was known mainly as a British expat enclave) was difficult. However, over the past handful of years, the transformation of Portugal into a key in-demand destination for Americans (retirees but also non retirees) has been absolutely stunning. According to Forbes, the number of Americans living in Portugal rose 45% in 2021 from the prior year. And 2022 got off to an even hotter start, with VISA-motivated investment by Americans more than tripled in the first quarter of 2022 over the first quarter of 2021, according to SEF, the Portuguese Immigration and Border Service. The American Expat trends in Portugal certainly show no sign of slowing. Rising housing prices in the U.S., a favorable Euro/USD exchange rate and the popularity of remote work have no doubt added kerosene to the NHR fire!
Portugal’s NHR success story has not gone unnoticed by other fiscally-challenged EU member nations that would like to attract more talented and/or wealthy expats to immigrate and contribute to their economies and tax rolls. It should come as very little surprise that Italy and Greece have prepared to enter the competition for these expats, whether they be citizens that fled in years past for better opportunities elsewhere, or foreigners looking for attractive low-cost living options in Southern Europe with enticing scenery, warm climates, rich in cultural tradition and, of course, tax breaks.
Perhaps as the influx of expats in Portugal continues to crowd its beaches and inflate the once-attractive housing market, it’s time to consider these relatively new tax programs in Italy and Greece and compare them with each other and with Portugal’s NHR program. Obviously, the competition for the would-be expat’s visa application comes down to more than tax arithmetic, but understanding a few key features of the Italian and Greek tax programs for expats should prove to be a valuable launching point into further inspection and study of these countries as potentially viable competitors of Portugal for expats moving forward. Accordingly, we’ll briefly outline some key tax features introduced in Italy, and then we’ll take a similar look at what Greece is doing to entice attractive expats.
ITALY’S TAX INCENTIVES: A TALE OF THREE REGIMES
While Portugal’s NHR program offers, for the most part, the same thing for everyone (the exception applying to Portuguese-based earnings, where incentives are afforded only to workers in only certain professions), Italy takes a completely different approach: three distinct tax incentive regimes. Any would-be expat shopping for a program will therefore study each of these three regimes and determine whether one of them would fit the bill. The highlights (NOTE: only a cursory overview) of each of these three regimes are set out individually below. Like most things I’ve learned about the Italian tax system in general, they’ve designed this with complexity and special rules and exceptions abound.
The Impatriati Regime – Calling all Digital Nomads/Remote Workers, Self-Employed Businesspersons, Freelancers or Others Landing Employment in Italy
The Impatriati Regime looks to attract people moving their tax residency to Italy that are willing to commit to Italian tax residency for two years. Eligibility requires that you have not been a tax resident of the country for the two prior years. The regime is designed for workers – those who are going to earn taxable income – because the Impatriati regime tax incentives apply to employment (or self-employment income).
The main tax incentive is that participants are taxed on only thirty percent (30%) of their employment or self-employment income. If the participant moves to one of the southern regions of Italy, the employment/self-employment incentive improves for the participant, as they will be taxed on only ten percent (10%) of their self-employment income. Note that these incentives do not reduce the applicable required Italian social security contributions, nor do they apply to capital gains taxes. The incentives are designed to reduce active income from employment, not passive income nor pension income. It is important to note that there is NO CAP on the amount of income that can be reduced per this regime.
The Impatriati tax incentives last for five years. However, the regime can be extended for another five years under certain conditions: (a) the individual has at least one minor child, or (b) the individual, their partner, or their child purchase a home in Italy the year preceding the beginning of their participation or thereafter. However, the amount of income-tax-exempted income is reduced from 70% (or 90% if applicable) to 50% during this extended period, unless the participant has three or more minor children (which I guess that’s one way to combat the aging population crisis!).
The Fixed Tax Regime – Attention Ultra-High Net Worth Individuals
Completely different from the Impatriati regime’s incentives that focus on employment/self-employment income, this regime (we’ll call it “Fixed” or “UHNW”) focuses on income generated from offshore sources and caters to a very select group of potential immigrants. This program applies to foreign sourced income generated abroad that would otherwise subject Italian tax residents to income taxes or capital gains taxes. It also applies to inheritance or gift taxes that would otherwise apply to gifts given or received or inheritances received from abroad.
The incentive is considerably more straightforward than those in the Impatriati regime: the participant pays a fixed €100,000 annually and no further taxes are due on the above-referenced income, capital gains, gift or inheritance items. Additional family members can be included in this regime for an additional €25,000 annually.
Membership in this regime has further privileges. First, it lasts for fifteen (15) years. Second, it exempts participants from paying wealth taxes on their offshore assets. Finally, it even excludes participants from having to make a declaration to the Italian tax authorities on their offshore assets.
While this regime does not reduce Italian taxation on Italian-sourced income (normal rates apply), the Fixed/UHNW regime might be particularly attractive to affluent expats with substantial investment portfolios and/or foreign-source income.
The Flat Tax Regime For Foreign Pensioners
To qualify for the Flat Tax regime, you have to be retired, or at least receiving a pension income. The pension can be public (e.g., Social Security) or private (e.g. 401k or IRA). Participants must not have been an Italian tax resident in any of the previous five tax years. Significantly there is also an important geographic/demographic restriction to participate in this regime: the participant must establish residency in a municipality with less than 20,000 inhabitants in the Southern regions of Italy. Therefore, extensive exploratory visits to remote locations in Southern Italy are highly recommended before planning to participate in this regime.
For those retirees, or semi-retirees, comfortable with those limitations, very attractive tax incentives await. First, participants will enjoy a flat tax of seven percent (7%) on their foreign-source income, including pension income and also capital gains on otherwise taxable foreign investments/property. Second, participants are exempt from any applicable wealth tax. Finally, participants also are not required to declare their offshore (foreign) assets. Ordinary Italian income and capital gains rates will apply to Italy-source income.
This regime’s incentives last for ten (10) tax years, so this fits right between the time limitations of the best incentives in the Impatriati regime and the Fixed/UHNW regime. For retirees looking for some of the lowest cost destinations Italy has to offer in order to kick back and enjoy a peaceful retirement environment with a warm climate for a decade, the Fixed Regime may indeed prove to be an ideal tax incentive regime. Thereafter, taxes revert to regular Italian rates on all (worldwide) income (or wealth) from all sources.
GREECE – LAST TO THE PARTY BUT EXTREMELY COMPETITIVE
Much like Italy, Greece’s economy has suffered tremendously for quite some time, and particularly so with the onset of the pandemic. Another key similarity to Italy and Portugal: the existing tax regime for residents was highly unlikely to make it a choice destination for retirees and/or high net worth expats (45% marginal tax rate on income over €35,000). With that in mind, Greece has also joined the tax reform race to attract a much-needed injection of wealthier foreigners and expatriate nationals. The approach by Greece is almost a carbon-copy of the Italian reforms discussed above, but differences will be noted below.
Tax Relief for Expats on Earned Income from Greek Employment and Self-Employment
Originally, this tax incentive program was created in 2020 to benefit persons gaining tax residency in Greece in order to work for Greek companies or foreign companies with a permanent establishment in Greece. In 2021, special provisions were added to provide these tax incentives to self-employed expats to attract the growing masses of “digital nomads” who could work remotely from almost any country to provide their services to clients. The Visa process for digital nomads would naturally be different and Greece may still be working out the wrinkles, so you may need some expert assistance from an immigration expert in Greece (whatever one would call the equivalent of an Italian “commercialista”).
The key tax benefit of these programs is a huge tax break on earned income: Under the programs, Greece will levy taxes on only 50% of annual earned income for the seven (7) year duration of the program. There are several conditions to these incentives:
- Applicants were not a tax resident of Greece for at least five of the previous six years before transferring tax residency to Greece;
- Tax residence is transferred from an EU member state or EEA (EU plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) or from a country with which Greece has an administrative cooperation agreement on taxes with Greece (this includes the USA as these countries have a valid income tax treaty in place for over 50 years);
- The applicant provides services in Greece in the context of an employment relationship with a Greek legal entity, a permanent establishment of a foreign entity in Greece, or (post 2021) through self-employment business activity; and
- The applicant must commit to remain a tax resident of Greece for a minimum of two years.
As you can see, the Greek tax regime for expat employees/self-employed is very similar to the Italian Imperiati regime. The Imperiati regime appears more generous in terms of tax reduction for the first five years and can be extended for an additional five years on level terms for the Greek program, but only if additional requirements are met. On the other hand, the Greek tax incentives last seven years with no possibility of extension. Interestingly, Portugal’s NHR program lasts ten years and provides a flat tax of 20% on Portugal-source earned income, but only for certain professions, which can change over time, which makes it less comprehensive when it comes to domestic source earned income.
Ultra-High Net Worth Fixed Tax Regime a/k/a “Non-dom Investor” Status
Just like Italy, Greece has added a Fixed or UHNW tax option, whereby participants moving to Greece may pay exactly €100,000 annually for a maximum of fifteen (15) years, and can add any relative into the deal for another €20,000 per person per year. This will relieve the participants of any further income tax obligations from non-Greece sources. Furthermore, participants are not subject to Greek inheritance, gift and parental grant taxes as well. And, unsurprisingly, the non-dom status also relieves participants from having to declare their income earned abroad.
To qualify for non-dom status in Greece, two important conditions must be met:
- Prior Non-Residents Only: Applicants must not have been tax residents of Greece for seven of the prior eight years to qualify; and
- Investment in Greece: Applicants must show that they, or their relatives, directly or indirectly (through an entity of which they are a majority owner) invest at least €500,000 in real estate, businesses or transferable securities/shares of entities based in Greece.
Accordingly, while the term and the tax bill is identical to the Italian Fixed/UHNW regime, the key difference is that Greece is requiring a substantial investment in Greece to apply. Of course, anyone with overseas income at a level that makes paying Greece €100,000 each year for taxes on that income a “deal” will likely have no issues buying a residence there for over the €500,000 investment threshold.
The Flat Tax Regime For Foreign Pensioners a/k/a “Non-dom Pensioner” Status
Greece also has a non-dom regime for foreign pensioners, which, like the Italian flat tax regime for pensioners, enables participants to pay a flat rate of seven percent (7%) on all of their foreign-source income to Greece. To qualify, there are two key conditions for this program:
- The applicant cannot have been a tax resident of Greece for five of the prior six tax years before transferring their tax residence to Greece; and
- The transfer of residency must come from a state with which Greece has an agreement on administrative cooperation regarding taxation (includes the U.S.) in force.
As in Portugal’s NHR program, participants in the non-dom regime for pensioners in Greece must declare all of their worldwide income annually, whereas the Italian pensioner regime does not require the declaration of offshore income.
There is certainly one feature of the Greek program that is superior to both Portugal’s NHR program and the Italian fixed rate tax regime: its longevity. Retirees wishing to not revert to the high tax rates of Western Europe after ten years will no doubt appreciate the fifteen year duration of this tax incentive program. Another critical advantage over the corresponding Italian tax incentive regime is that Greece’s program does not impose geographic/demographic restrictions. If you are a retiree who prefers an urban community, the Greek program may be a better option for you.
CONCLUSION: LET THE BATTLE FOR EXPAT DOLLARS BEGIN!
This brief explanation of key features, conditions and restrictions of the newer expat tax incentive programs introduced in the last few years in Italy and Greece are both a testament to the success of Portugal’s NHR program for attracting foreign wealth and investment and a strong entry from these fellow EU nations in the competition to attract vital expat residents. The relatively low cost of living, favorable climates, and historical cultural attractiveness are advantages that all have traditionally shared, but their traditional tax regimes did little to enhance the attraction of residency in any of these Western European gems. With the population explosion of expats in Portugal, property values and, therefore, the expat’s cost of living are on the rise. It may be time for would-be expats, digital nomads and retirees, to focus on these newer programs and broaden their horizons to consider all that Italy and Greece have to offer with a more level fiscal playing field. After all, these expat tax incentive programs appear to share more similarities than differences.
Remember that this is not intended to be an all encompassing comparison of the pros and cons of immigrating to any of the above-mentioned countries that are offering special tax concessions through their programs. Consider this a launching point for further inquiry and research. For example, consider other potential taxes that might affect your decision and which may depend on your unique objectives and financial/familial situation. Inheritance taxes, property taxes, etc. may dramatically alter the financial attractiveness of these destinations depending on your circumstances. Additionally, immigration eligibility and steps to obtaining the ability to become resident, and the costs involved in the immigration process for any of the above-mentioned countries are very important considerations, but are well outside the scope of this article.
If you are contemplating a move from the United States to live an expat adventure, in Portugal, Italy, Greece, or elsewhere, your financial planning and investment management needs are about to change dramatically, but we’re here to help expats manage through the inevitable complexities. Consider reaching out to me or one of my colleagues, Sylvain Michelin and Keith Poniewaz. You can find a way to schedule a no-obligation consultation with us, and much more useful information regarding expat financial and investment topics, on our website.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stan Farmer, CFP®, J.D.
US EXPAT FINANCIAL ADVISOR
Stan Farmer, J.D., is a Certified Financial Planner™ (CFP®) and fee-only financial advisor who specializes in working with U.S. expats and Americans living outside the U.S.