Dubai: Looking to live and work in the UAE but not sure how to start the process? If you are new to the country, you may have heard of free zone visas. But what are they and how can you get a free zone visa? Here is all you need to know.
What is a free zone?
A free zone, also known as a free trade zone, is a special economic zone where companies can operate and receive considerable tax and fee exemptions. Companies within free zones are treated as offshore companies and therefore do not need to engage with the customs authorities or Ministry of Economy. Instead, they are governed by authorities designated for the specific zone.
How can I get a free zone visa?
According to Shafiq Muhammad, Public Relations Officer in Dubai, you can get a free zone visa in two instances:
1. You are employed by a company based in a free zone. In this situation, the company would apply for your visa and cover all costs.
2. You have applied for a freelancer visa, or have set up a free zone company. In this situation, you would need to apply for the visa through the free zone authority and would need to cover all costs. To know more about how you can start a free zone company, read our guide here.
How is a free zone visa different from a mainland visa?
A free zone visa is issued for three years, after which you would need to apply for renewal. Comparatively, visas issued on the mainland are typically for a duration of two years. However, more recently, new announcement have been made for five-year (or Green) visas and 10-year (or Golden) visas.
How many free zones are there in the UAE?
According to the UAE’s Ministry of Economy, these are the free zones operating in the UAE:
1. Jebel Ali Free Zone
2. Masdar City Free Zone
3. Dubai Maritime City
4. Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi (KIZAD)
5. Sharjah Publishing City
6. Hamriyah Free Zone
7. Dubai Commercity
8. Khalifa Port Free Trade Zone
9. Creative City Free Zone
10. Ajman Free Zone
11. Fujairah Free Zone
12. Dubai South
13. Dubai World Trade Centre
14. Dubai Design District
15. Dubai Science Park
16. International Humanitarian City
17. Dubai Multi Commodities Centre
18. Dubai Outsource City
19. Dubai Silicon Oasis
20. Sharjah Media City - Shams
21. Sharjah Airport International Free Zone (SAIF)
22. Abu Dhabi Airports Free Zone
23. Dubai International Financial Centre
24. Abu Dhabi Global Market
25. Dubai Internet City
27. Umm Al Quwain Free Zone
28. Ajman Media City Free Zone
29. Meydan Free Zone
30. Dubai Healthcare City
31. Dubai International Academic City
32. Dubai Production City
33. Dubai Studio City
34. Dubai Media City
35. Ras Al Khaimah Economic Zone (RAKEZ)
Easy option to live in the UAE
Many free zones in the UAE are a preferred option for entrepreneurs, as they offer packages that ensure that you can complete your business set up and visa application process relatively easily.
For example, Ajman Free Zone (AFZA) offers a Freelance Licence package with over 40 economic activities, where the freelancer can set up a business with 100 per cent ownership and an investor visa valid for three years. Similarly, Ras Al Khaimah Economic Zone (RAKEZ) has a special package for small and medium enterprises, which allows people to set up a business and also apply for a visa.
How to apply for a free zone visa
These are the steps you need to follow to apply for a free zone visa according to Virtuzone, a business setup consultancy in the UAE:
Step 1: Register for E-Channel services
The first step to applying for your UAE free zone visa is registering for E-Channel services, a platform which was designed by the UAE government to streamline the visa process. If you are registering a free zone business, ask your free zone agent or authorised typing centre to register your company for online services and pay the mandatory registration fee – Dh2,500 plus a refundable security deposit of Dh5,000 – to complete this step. You will receive a notification as soon as you are registered.
Step 2: Entry permit
Once registered for E-Channel services, you need to apply for your entry permit – also known as an employment visa. This is essentially a temporary visa, valid for 60 days. Entry permits are usually issued within 15 days, however for an additional fee of Dh1,000 you can apply for the express service which takes five to seven working days.
According to Virtuzone, it is strongly advised that you refrain from leaving the UAE after applying for your entry permit. Doing so can cause discrepancies in your immigration file which can lead to delays in the process. Your entry permit is an electronic document that will be emailed to you once ready.
Step 3: Status change
If you are within the UAE, you would need to apply for an ‘in-country status change’. For it, you would need to submit your passport to immigration who will stamp and activate your employment visa. The process takes around three to five days and costs Dh750.
If, however, you are outside the UAE when your employment visa is issued, or you plan to leave the country shortly afterwards, it is possible to activate your free zone visa by exiting and re-entering the UAE and presenting your printed employment visa to the immigration officer at the airport in the immigration arrivals hall. The immigration officer will then stamp and activate the free zone visa. This option is not available to all nationalities, so it is always best to check with your free zone authority before leaving the country on a UAE employment visa.
Step 4: Medical fitness test and Emirates ID registration
A medical fitness test is comprised of a blood test for any infectious diseases, and a chest X-ray. This can be completed within a few hours and results are usually available after three working days.
With the results of your medical test, you can then apply for your Emirates ID card. This is an identity card that must be carried by UAE citizens at all times and is needed to open bank accounts, to take out contracts for mobile phones, or tenancy agreements. If it is your first time applying for an Emirates ID card, you will need to visit a Federal Authority for Identity, Citizenship, Customs and Ports Security (ICP) service centre to submit your application and provide your biometric details.
A three-year Emirates ID card costs Dh370.
While earlier the next step in this process was the stamping of the residence visa, for which you would need to visit an immigration authority, ICP recently announced that Emirates ID would be replacing the residence visa sticker on your passport.
Applying for a free zone visa for dependants
Once your UAE visa has been granted, you can apply for additional visas for your spouse, dependent family members and domestic staff such as housekeepers or drivers.
The process, as provided by Virtuzone, is that you must first obtain a salary certificate from your free zone stating your earnings – the minimum salary to sponsor a wife or child varies between jurisdictions. However, it is usually around Dh7,500. On top of this, you are usually required to pay a security deposit of Dh3,000 or Dh5,000.
Once you have provided the required paperwork, the process is very similar to the one above, however there are different requirements for medical tests (not needed for those aged 18 or below) and biometric details (not required for those aged 15 or below).