Never heard of Estonia?
Perhaps due to their bigger neighbours next door, the newest incarnation of the Republic of Estonia has implemented some of the toughest technology to crack since their liberation from the Soviet Union in 1991. They have some of the most sophisticated and efficient administration for its citizens, aiding its Ascension to the European Union in 2004. It also boasts four unicorn startups (Skype, Transferwise, Playtech and Taxify) which combined with a population of 1.5 million gives the country perhaps the highest proportion in the world for unicorns per capita.
So advanced was their ID card for the era, a historical four years ago in 2015, that even the United Kingdom broke EU laws for a while to only recognise theirs plus Germany's residence cards as valid for travel in the UK, which led to the UK's Home Office losing the McCarthy case in the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Justice.
Since then, many other countries have followed suit and brought in digital encryption, notifying the European Commission's eID programme of their intention to fully-recognise other countries' documents.
I visited Estonia back in September 2013 just as the summer peak season died and the air was cooling. In fact my fondest memory is having what remains my favourite beer anywhere in the world at the Olde Hansa – their house-brewed Dark Honey Beer. I am in fact salivating as I write this.
Separated by only 85km, Tallinn and Helsinki sit opposite each other across the Gulf of Finland and run perhaps the shortest flight between capital cities anywhere in the World. Though if you are looking for shortest distances between capital cities by land it will be hard to beat Austria and Slovakia, or even Vatican City and Italy!
Tallinn airport is only 10 minutes by public transport and taxi from the city centre, or if you prefer the healthier option a 40 minute walk. Tallinn was the destination of some mass British Airways Executive Club Tier Point running which has been further improved since Finnair launched their A350 operated flights to London.
I had first heard of e-Residency in 2015, not long after their launch in December 2014. At the time applications were free but when I came round to doing it they had started charging a €100 application fee so I put it off for a while. The application fee still remains at this level even in 2019. The vast majority (99.5%) of all 54,000 application so far have been approved according to their statistics. So successful have their first 4 years been that the President has recently endorsed their White Paper for e-Residency 2.0.
As a side note that having e-Residency, and despite its name, it does not grant physical residence rights to Estonia. But the good thing is citizenships from just about any country in the world is able to apply for it.
Thanks to European Union laws any EU citizen, resident, or company is allowed to establish and perform their business activities in any other EU country they so desire. As I had just moved to Portugal and finally navigated documentation woes, I had had lots of discussions with my friend Thomas who convinced me to reconsider the e-Residency programme. Finally in October 2018 though I decided to pull the trigger and submit my application. This involved filling in an online form providing the Estonian Police who issues the e-ID card:
- my personal details,
- copy of my passport,
- a new passport photo which in fact was just a well-judged selfie from my iPhone
- motivation statement
- where you want to pick up your card – choice of Estonian embassies around the world.
My motivation statement was 1-2 sentences long. Something like, but more polite than:
I feel f**ked over by the UK's EU membership referendum and want to be part of a Government programme which facilitates business within the EU.
And so they accepted me.
Lisbon or London
The application website states around 6-8 weeks of processing time, though for me it was:
- Time between sending application and start of police background checks – 8 calendar days
- Time to complete background checks and approval – 7 calendar days
- Time for card to arrive – 13 calendar days.
You have the choice to pick up your card at many Estonian Embassy in the world (it is delivered there by Diplomatic Post), plus a couple of pop-up shops based on trade events they attend, such as the recent Estonia Now event in Glasgow. There is a time limit of 6 months to pick up your card otherwise your application is deemed cancelled and the fees are surrendered by the applicant.
I happened to be in the UK over Christmas so I chose London. On a freezing December morning between Christmas and New Year I made a short hop on the tube to Gloucester Road station and the 10 minute walk to the Estonian Embassy in London.
Note that every Embassy has designated times to pick up documents, which is stated in the email you receive. In London they only allow pick ups on a Monday 10-13hrs, Wednesday 10-13hrs or Thursday 13-16hrs. No appointment was required, and because it was the holiday season there was no-one there except me and the embassy staff member!
I handed over my passport and needed to have a couple of fingerprints taken. A couple of final verbal confirmations and signing a paper to confirm handover of the e-Residency card and I was out in less than 5 minutes, now feeling emotionally closer to this tiny Baltic country than to my childhood home of 25 years.
As mentioned in my motivation statement, Brexit is my key driver for applying for the e-residence. Whether you are a leave or remain supporter the sheer uncertainty over the last 2 years had taken its toll on me and I just wanted to put matters into my own hands. Since I was born as a Brit I never had to take an Oath of Allegiance to The Queen, combined with the fact that in a modern liberal world I have the freedom to choose which governments I support, I was happy to give e-Residency a try.
With an EU company I have full access and trading rights within the EU. For instance even with a Portuguese delivery address I can shop on any of Amazon Business websites (which by the way has 50% off your first order) so it's now more sensible for me to use the Spanish version, put in my EU VAT details and shop in VAT free prices with the necessary VAT invoice formats are created.
Location Independent Administration
Just recently the Estonian parliament passed a new law to help e-Residents. The €2500 share capital require to start a company no longer needs to be deposited in an Estonian bank account. In fact it does not even need to be a bank. Starting 1st January 2019 share capital is allowed to be deposited in any bank or payment provider so long as it is within the European Economic Area. This means fintech accounts, the likes of Bunq, N26, Revolut etc., are now permissible for share capital deposit. (Day-to-day banking was permitted in any EEA country anyway)
A cool feature of Estonia's business environment is that English is accepted as a semi-official language. All Government websites are tri-lingual in Estonian, English and Russian, and all tax returns, contracts and other official matters performed in English are permissible. I would have been OK with matters in Spanish or Portuguese, but let's say that governments which work in these languages aren't known to be the most open and efficient.
(See also my Digital Nomad's Checklist)
Despite being one of the smallest EU nations, I believe Estonia has made one of the shrewdest decisions in embracing the digital advancements our modern society has made. In stark contrast to many countries which require physical presence to deal with lots of matters, the e-Residency route allows citizens from all over the world to maintain seamless trade ties with the EU.
For me that, and the Dark Honey Beer, is worth getting excited.