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There was plenty to compete for your attention on the expo floor at Bitcoin 2023, North America’s largest bitcoin convention, which took place in Miami earlier this year.
There was the bitcoin-themed “Back to the Future” DeLorean, and the bitcoin-themed cornhole competition.
But a modest booth in the back of the expo hall was holding its own and attracting a steady stream of attendees to see a minor bitcoin celebrity: Katie Ananina.
“But nobody knows me by my last name,” Ananina said. “Everybody knows me as ‘Katie the Russian.’”
Ananina is the CEO of Plan B Passports, a company that helps bitcoiners find legal residence or citizenship in another country. Since 2020, she’s been increasingly popular with Americans.
“We’ve seen a huge spike when the first  election took place, because half the country’s unhappy with the results,” Ananina said. “Then, when COVID hit, a lot of people realized they don’t have as much freedom as they wish they had. So they decided to hedge against the government again.”
Ananina’s business ebbs and flows with the price of bitcoin, but also with her clients’ geopolitical angst. She said she serves hundreds of clients annually, steering many Floridians and Texans to the Caribbean.
It’s not just that some bitcoiners fear that the country is falling apart; it’s also that they fear Uncle Sam eventually will go after them for owning bitcoin.
“In order for you to be able to get out, you need an exit strategy,” Ananina said. “And again, that’s where a second passport is the ultimate hedge.”
More than 20 countries offer a formal citizenship by investment program, or CBI for short. They’re offered by several small Caribbean countries but also places like Turkey and Malta. CBIs have been around since the 1980s and traditionally attract very rich people.
“I had an interviewee say that she thought of buying yet another Mercedes,” said Kristin Surak, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, who studies citizenship by investment. “But she decided citizenship in Dominica would be a better investment for her.”
Dominica is an island nation in the Caribbean with about 70,000 people. As with many citizenship by investment programs, Dominica’s offers two routes to citizenship: a one-time donation of $100,000 or a real estate investment of $200,000, typically in a condo — a condo a new Dominica citizen may never need to visit.
“In some cases, you never even have to go to the country, and for the most part, most investors don’t want to go,” Surak said. “They’re looking for the travel options or the insurance.”
The “insurance” part is basically the idea that if things fall apart in the United States, an ultra-high net-worth individual could take their yacht or private jet to another home country.
But the travel benefits are often the bigger lure. Some Caribbean nations have visa-free travel arrangements with the United Kingdom and European Union.
If you’re wondering if this is all really just some way to avoid the IRS, that’s not really what it’s about, said Peter Spiro, a professor at Temple University Law School.
“As long as you hold U.S. citizenship, you’re taxed on your worldwide income, and having another citizenship doesn’t help you at all,” Spiro said.
Many countries that offer these programs don’t have much in the way of domestic industry, aside from tourism. Proceeds from citizenship by investment programs often make up a big chunk of their government revenues.
“These countries, because they’re small, the revenues that they’re generating from the citizenship programs is significant relative to their GDP,” Spiro said.
But the programs are not without controversy. Some critics just find the idea of buying citizenship … a bit gross.
“It’s not that this person knows the country, that this person is attached to this country, that they’ve spent some time in this country,” Spiro said. “All those traditional historical trappings of citizenship go out the window.”
Several citizenship by investment programs have also come under scrutiny for allegedly working with criminals. The U.K. recently revoked its visa-free travel arrangement with Dominica, citing security concerns with its CBI program.
Plus, there’s often not great accounting for how the revenue is actually spent. But that doesn’t really bother Katie Ananina or many of the bitcoiners she works with.
“Now where exactly does the money go? We will never find out,” Ananina said.
And if you happen to be wondering if there’s perhaps a citizenship by investment option for those on a budget, maybe one you can buy around next year’s election? There isn’t. I asked.
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