“I was in a huge panic,” Liu, originally from mainland China and who has lived in Hong Kong for 15 years, said.
“I was worried about losing the opportunity if I did not act immediately, so I went online to look for an emigration agency that night.”
Liu said she had considered the visa scheme for years and wanted to invest in a property in Portugal to spend her retirement years there, but her busy work schedule had kept her from applying.
She explained Portugal’s beautiful countryside and cuisine had attracted her, as well as the potential in the property market as house prices surged.
So-called golden visa and passport schemes, which offered foreigners European Union citizenship in return for substantial investments, were launched in several countries in 2012 to attract overseas investment and help refill government coffers in the wake of a financial crisis.
The Portuguese Immigration and Border Service said people could apply for a golden visa by transferring €1.5 million (HK$12 million) of capital into the country, through the creation of at least 10 jobs, or by buying a property worth at least €500,000.
Successful applicants only need to spend seven days in Portugal for the first year, and 14 or more days in subsequent years. They also get visa exemptions for travel across the border check-free Schengen Area.
Visa holders can also qualify for a Portuguese passport after five years if they pass a basic language test.
About 11,630 residency permits have been handed out under the scheme, which brought close to €6.8 billion of investment to the country, a large part of which went on property, government statistics show.
Almost half of the permits were granted to Chinese nationals, followed by Brazilians and Americans. Despite the economic benefits, golden visas have come under fire in recent years.
The European Commission has warned they created a security loophole for money laundering and tax evasion, especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year because people on a sanctions list could have bought EU access.
The scheme in Portugal, one of the poorest countries in western Europe, was blamed for soaring house and rental prices, especially in Lisbon and Porto, the two largest cities.
The concerns sparked the government decision to terminate the visa programme and introduce a ban on new licences for Airbnb properties and short-term holiday rentals.
But Liu said the Portuguese property market remained “healthy” and that she expected to settle her application in a few months’ time.
She added she had also decided to buy a property with a rental yield of between 5 per cent and 10 per cent.
“I only need to stay in Portugal for seven days a year to get the residency, and the rest can largely be taken care of by money,” she said.
Gaebriella Wilkins, 70, a British expatriate who spent almost four decades in Hong Kong, said she was relaxed as she entered the final stages of her application, which involved a biometrics appointment.
“Portugal I felt was a good place to invest,” she said. “I liked the Portuguese lifestyle for holidays. I welcome the safety, the food, the weather and all those things that you look forward to later on in life.”
Wilkins said she had bought two properties at Setubal, about 48km (30 miles) from Lisbon, for €500,000 last December.
The former costume designer said the homes generated €2,700 in rental income a month.
Jason Gillott, the co-founder of GVP Life, a Hong Kong-based visa consultancy firm, said a few dozen inquiries had come in after the announcement and about 20 of his clients had been caught off guard and panicked.
But he said the Portuguese government had a track record of not introducing policy changes overnight.
Gillott predicted a few months’ transition time would be offered after the proposal went through the Portuguese parliament on March 16.
“There’s legally enough time for people to still qualify if they make a quick decision, and act now,” he said. “You’ve got developers, legal advisers, and many industries that have grown around the scheme. They all need time to adjust to the changes.”
He added geopolitical tensions had led to more American and Chinese applications for Portuguese golden visas in recent years and the 2020 United Kingdom vote to leave the EU, dubbed Brexit, attracted Britons who wanted to retain EU rights.
Gillott said the housing crisis in Portugal had little to do with the golden visa scheme, but was caused by the country’s supply-demand imbalance, which was made worse by red tape in planning permission applications, high stamp duty and a high number of vacant homes – which the government should have dealt with.
“The golden visas only accounted for 3 per cent of the property transactions and only the luxury side of the market was involved,” he said.
He suggested, instead of abolition, the government could raise the investment threshold to prevent people from snapping up cheaper flats, which could avoid distortion of the domestic property market.
Other European countries that have offered golden visa programmes include Malta, Spain, Italy and Greece, with Spain tipped to be the next to scrap the scheme.
Gillott said his company planned to offer the Greek and Maltese golden visa schemes to clients who did not manage to make the deadline for Portugal.
Benny Cheung Ka-hei, a director at Goldmax Immigration, predicted the golden visas would become a thing of the past inside two years.
He said about 40 people applied for visas under the Portuguese programme through his firm each year.
But Cheung added the small pool was largely made up of wealthy businessmen and expatriates who wanted easy entry without a major time commitment.
“Many countries impose strict rules for those who want to gain residency, and they have to spend a certain amount of time there in person,” Cheung said. “Those European countries offering golden visas are very lenient in that aspect, but Hongkongers could soon lose that convenient choice.”