Some people have come to my blog out of appreciation for my past writing work, which I am so humbled by. Some have come out of curiosity about what I've been up to, or about what life in another country is like. Some want tips for themselves. Some are just trying to get their culture in. Others yet are probably still reading out of spite. But overwhelmingly, the thing I hear over and over again is: "How? How did you do it?"
It was a question that I couldn't yet answer, because I hadn't actually done it yet. It didn't seem right to lay out all the steps to get approved for permanent residence when I myself hadn't been approved yet, and heaven forbid, divulge any confidential information that would affect my application status.
But we need not worry anymore, folks! Because as of this past July, I have been officially approved as a Permanent Resident of Canada. I am now legally allowed to, and in fact, encouraged, to move to Canada at my convenience.*^
*before May of next year
^to any Canadian province or territory except Quebec
Full disclosure: I haven't fully moved yet, and will not be for a few months. There are some personal reasons for this, but also, there are a ton of logistics that go into moving that take time, which I will--you guessed it-- go over in future posts.
But the biggest obstacle for Syd and I starting our life together--the legal one--has been cleared. And here's how we did it.
But Tyler, before we begin, what is Permanent Residence?
What marrying someone from another country does do for you, though, is generally makes it a lot easier for you to go through the immigration process. Canada, like most other countries, does not let people move here for funsies. Rather, you would normally have to go through a long, expensive, confusing process of obtaining a work permit or being "nominated" to move here for having some sort of special job or credentials. Most folks I know (including people who already live here) would not qualify for any of these complicated programs, at least not without the help of one or several lawyers.
Being sponsored by a family member (in my case, a spouse), on the other hand, while it doesn't give you a free pass, it at least means that you don't need any amount of education, skills, or money to be qualified to move. You need only to prove that your relationship is legitimate, and that you're not any sort of risk to the health and safety of Canadians.
After you become a Permanent Resident, you are protected by the Canadian Constitution and afforded most of the same rights and privileges of Canadian citizens: living, working, attending school, streaming Drake's entire discography, ordering a 9x9 at Tim's, you get the picture. The only exceptions are voting, and holding any government job that deals with classified information. You can also still be stripped of your status and deported if you move away again, or commit any crimes that are considered especially heinous. To avoid that, you would want to 1) not do crimes, and 2) stay in Canada for at least 3 years, after which you can apply for citizenship.
This system is a little bit different than the United States, which has complicated tiers of immigration and court proceedings, and also does not always give Green Card holders many of the same rights as US citizens. Personally, I find the Canadian system mostly fair, and even somewhat generous. Canada is a nation of immigrants, more so than my experience in the United States. It is normal to see immigrants here enjoying all parts of life, working most any job they are qualified for, worshipping whatever faith they choose, speaking whatever language they like. To be honest, I think this is an unusual concept to most Americans, who view immigration as this solemn, lonely experience opening you up to a life of hardship and persecution. Not to say those things don't exist in Canada, which they certainly do, but often when I tell people I am moving to another country, they think of me as some lunatic choosing to be destitute because "immigrants don't get jobs or houses," and "they can't get anywhere in society," when really, the only way most people here would even know you're not Canadian is if you tell them (or talk to them in a nasal American accent).
- October 3, 2021 -- Sydney and I get married
- November 2021 -- I begin contacting immigration lawyers and collecting all the documents needed for our application
- January 29, 2022 -- we meet with our lawyer and go over our finished application before we send it
- February 2, 2022 -- our lawyer sends our application to IRCC by postal mail
- February 7, 2022 -- IRCC receives and signs for our application
- April 15, 2022 -- Acknowledgement of Receipt (AOR), meaning IRCC acknowledges they have received our application and started processing it
- May 5, 2022 -- Sydney is approved to sponsor me, meaning she meets all of the eligibility criteria to sponsor an immigrant
- May 5, 2022 -- our application is transferred from the central processing centre (CPC) to the visa office that is closest to us for them to begin processing me (in our case, the Ottawa office is closest)
- May 5, 2022 (busy day!) -- I receive a request to complete the Immigration Medical Exam
- May 17, 2022 -- the Immigration Medical Exam is completed and the results are electronically sent to IRCC (I actually completed it a week before but the doctor never sent it in)
- May 20, 2022 -- I pass the medical exam and start flexing
- June 8, 2022 -- I get a request to submit biometrics
- June 17, 2022 -- I go submit the biometrics and they are electronically transmitted to IRCC
- June 17, 2022 -- I pass the biometrics! I am not a fraud!
- June 21, 2022 -- we receive a letter listing "pre-arrival services" (services offered to help immigrants settle into their new life. This is not an official part of the immigration process but receiving this generally means they are finishing up)
- July 5, 2022 -- the IRCC website says they have made a decision on my application
- July 5, 2022 -- IRCC requests photos of me and a copy of my passport to issue my permanent residence document
- July 7, 2022 -- I overnight the photos and my passport to them
- July 8, 2022 -- IRCC receives the documents they requested from me
- July 15, 2022 -- IRCC approves me as a permanent resident and issues me my immigration papers to move to Canada
- July 16, 2022 -- I receive my immigration papers. Go us!
There's a lot of ways you can slice and dice the dates here. From the time we got married to the time I got my Permanent Residence documents in hand, it was 286 days (about 9 and a half months). If you just look at the time it took to get approved from the time they received our application, it was 158 days (about 5 months and one week). Overall, we got approved much sooner than we expected to and much faster than the average wait time of 12 months, and we are extremely thankful for that, though I can't help but believe my obsessive over-preparation and due diligence helped at least a little in getting us approved faster.
Step 1: Being qualified
- legally married
- in a jurisdiction that Canada recognizes marriages from (most places)
- the wedding must have been carried out in-person by a recognized officiant
- not biologically related (ick) with few exceptions
- age 21 or older, with some exceptions
Step 2: Lawyer?
That's what we did in 2020, when Canada's border was closed due to COVID-19. During the early stages of the pandemic, the land border and airports were completely closed to anybody but essential workers, so nobody, including friends and family, was allowed to enter Canada, period. This meant that Syd and I were essentially banned from seeing each other. But, much like when somebody gets a traffic ticket here in New York, I thought maybe the way we could "fix" this was by hiring a respected lawyer who would make some calls to people I didn't have connections with, file some paperwork I didn't know existed, pay a few fees, and work out some deal that would make me allowed to enter the country.
Maybe it's because I didn't find the right lawyer, but I think it's more likely that the Canadian legal system isn't as lenient as the reason this strategy didn't work. I called and emailed and met over Zoom with a few lawyers, but all of them gave me the same generic speech about Canada's immigration process, and told me there were no loopholes or motions or appeals or affidavits I could file. The process is: you want to see your girlfriend? Fly somewhere else, get married, then apply for spousal sponsorship. That's it. No other way around it.
The border would open a year later, but of course, we didn't know that at the time. Closing off a country from the rest of the world indefinitely was a scary thing that made us feel powerless, hopeless, and having no legal recourse not only made things worse, but it was also was a very foreign thing for me, who grew up in a world where lawyers were like saviors in legal crises: stern but friendly men on billboards who were fighting for you, and had all the answers.
All of this to say, for purposes of Canadian immigration, I really don't think a lawyer is worth your time or money. They all cost around the same amount, which is a lot, and they all do the same thing, which is very little. Expect a lawyer to:
- Have a one- or two-hour consultation with you where they give you their generic spiel about how to file your application ($250-$500 CAD)
- Send you a retainer (legal contract) where you either decline or agree to have them "represent" you ($3,000-$5,000 CAD if you accept; they usually include the immigration fees in their price)
- Send you all the government forms to fill out and have you fill them out yourself or, maybe if you beg them, with their paralegal walking through it with you
- Maybe mail in your application for you
- Forward you email updates from the government about your application
- If you don't know English, and know it well. I say this because the forms you fill out have to be followed word for word, and there is a decent amount of legalese.
- If you have a complicated situation, such as a criminal history of immigration issues, which you often will have to have a lawyer work out for you anyway.
On a final note about lawyers, I'd be careful who you contact if you decide to get one for purposes of moving to Canada. The folks I spoke to had the proper certifications and were reasonably knowledgeable, so I considered them legit, but it can sometimes be hard to know for sure. First of all, look out for "immigration consultants" that are not qualified lawyers but really just folks who went through the immigration process themselves and want to charge for their advice. Whether consultant or lawyer, though, a lot of these "law firms" are fly-by-night sort of operations run out of people's houses. Even if you're not getting ripped off, your experience with these offices isn't going to be like a classy, high-profile law firm, and, much like anything with moving to another country, you may need to adjust your expectations on the level of service you will receive.
Step 3: Preparing the Application (the Forms and Supporting Documents)
In one envelope, Syd and I submitted around 90 pages, which included:
- 8 government forms
- 18 supporting documents
- 20 photographs of us
- 2 photographs of me
Using the government website's tool to determine what forms you need is imperative, and a lawyer may or may not be able to tell you as well. For us, we were required to fill out:
- IMM0008: Generic Application Form for Canada. This is basically the summary form of all other forms. It's a short, simple 3 pages that asks the principal applicant (in this case, me) who you are, where you're from, what you are applying for, and where you plan to live in Canada.
- IMM1344: Application to Sponsor, Sponsorship Agreement and Undertaking. This is the form filled out by the sponsor (my wife in this case) saying they are qualified to be an immigration sponsor (they are a citizen or permanent resident themselves, they do not do crimes, etc.), and also that they agree to be held financially responsible for the principal applicant (me in this case) for 3 years after they move there--the government apparently takes this part very seriously, as it can be difficult for immigrants to land good jobs sometimes, and part of accountability to taxpayers is making sure these folks don't get all the public assistance. The "financially responsible" part means if at any point in 3 years I do not find a good job and need to go on public assistance, Syd is responsible for paying it all back.
- IMM5406: Additional Family Information. This form is to be filled out by the principal applicant, listing everyone in their immediate family: spouses, parents, and siblings, living or not. To be honest, I couldn't really tell you why this form exists, especially since if any of your family members want to move with you, they have to apply for immigration separately. If I were to venture a guess, it might be to get an idea of what kind of family you come from and if you plan on bringing them all with you at any point.
- IMM5476 (x2): Use of a Representative. This is just a form that says you have given permission to somebody (a legally recognized lawyer or consultant) to look at your immigration application for you. One form each must be filled out by anybody involved in the application process--in this case, both my wife and I.
- IMM5532: Relationship Information and Sponsorship Evaluation. This one is the big one. Half is filled out by the sponsor, explaining some information such as where they live, where they work, what level of education they have. One is not automatically disqualified for their education or employment status; however, I do believe this is looked at to see whether you are qualified to sponsor someone to immigrate and be financially responsible for them. The other half of the form is to be filled out by both the applicant and sponsor, explaining when they met, how they met, when they got married, how they got married, if anybody can attest to how legit their relationship is, etc.
- They do not give you a lot of space on these forms; luckily, they are pretty lenient with you filling out extra pieces of paper and attaching them. For example, they wanted a list of dates for every time Sydney and I ever visited each other...there were some extra pieces of paper added.
- IMM5533: Document Checklist. This isn't so much a form as it is really your guide to your whole application. It is, quite literally, a checklist, of all the things you should have in your application envelope and in what order, and you literally just check each box to make sure you have those things. Some items have an area where if you are missing a document, you can explain why (keep in mind they ask for a lot of supporting documents that may be hard to find depending on what country you come from).
- IMM5669: Schedule A - Background/Declaration. To be filled out by the applicant, this is kind of like a self-assessment but for a background check. They ask you your work history, education history, disabilities, military history, criminal history (if I haven't been clear about this, if you want to move to another country, don't do crimes), etc.
Along with all the forms, we were required to send the following "supplementary" documents to prove our relationship was the real deal:
- Proof that the sponsor is a Canadian citizen (Syd's passport)
- Proof of sponsor's income and employment status (a letter from her employer AND her most recent tax return)
- The applicant's travel document (my passport) AND birth certificate
- Proof of marriage (we sent our long-form marriage certificate; a marriage license alone is not acceptable)
- A "police certificate" from the applicant's country of origin (in my case, a FBI background check. You can pretty easily do this by signing up on the FBI website and then going and giving your fingerprints at a post office or security guard licensing location. The cost for me was around $55 USD)
- 2 "passport"-sized photos of the applicant (must have very specific dimensions as well as meet the usual passport photo requirements, and one must have contact information for the photographer on the back)
- Proof of Contact between the sponsor and the applicant (screenshots of texts, emails, messages, between you. They allow up to 10 pages of Proof of Contact documents and that is exactly what we sent; luckily after four years together we had not deleted most of our conversations)
- Proof of visits between the sponsor and the applicant (to prove not just that we have been in contact but that we have also spent time together in-person; we used boarding passes from our honeymoon and tickets from some events we attended together, and I also submitted Sydney's I-94 travel history, a US government document that tells non-Americans where and when they have visited the US)
- Photographs showing your relationship, including some from the wedding (you are allowed to send up to 20, and we had no shortage from over the years, so we picked out 20 of our best taken at different points throughout our relationship, had them printed at a local Walgreens, and captioned and dated the back of each)
- Document proof that you are recognized as spouses (for this we followed their suggestion of using proof that Sydney is my life insurance beneficiary, which I had to request from the insurance company a looooong time in advance)
- Document proof of financial support between applicant and sponsor (we made a joint bank account and printed out the statement, and also printed out the wifi bill that I pay at our apartment in Ottawa)
- Proof that your relationship is recognized by friends and family (we printed out screenshots of our Facebooks showing our relationship status, a few posts we made about getting married, as well as had some of our friends and family write letters attesting that our marriage was legit)
In a future series on the blog, I will go into some quick tips and tricks about what kinds of documents work best for your application and what, specifically, the IRCC is looking for from these items.
If this sounds like a lot, IT IS. Immigration is the ultimate test of patience, not just because it takes forever to get approved, but it also takes forever just to apply. A lot of this stuff we had to order months in advance just to put in the stack of paperwork. To give you some examples:
- I lost my original birth certificate and had to wait about four months to get a certified copy of it from the New York State Department of Health.
- They wanted our marriage certificate. We got married in early October, but our marriage certificate wasn't ready at the clerk's office until mid-December.
- For the FBI background check, you can do it online, but after you do the online portion, you have to go schedule an appointment to get your fingerprints done somewhere in person.
- Opening a bank account in Canada was a nightmare that took several weeks, and all we wanted to do was open an account so we could print out a joint statement. Post for another time.
- As I touched on above, it took several months for me to get Syd listed as my life insurance beneficiary. This was actually the longest holdout, and the reason we didn't get our application mailed in until the following February.
All of this to say, you have to do your due diligence. You should start collecting all of these documents and photos before you even get married. Have multiple copies of all the forms and clearly mark which ones are the most up to date. Be public about your relationship. Seriously. Put each other's names on everything the first chance you get. It should feel like your marriage is the biggest news on TV and the only people who don't know about it yet are the immigration officers. And if you aren't ready for that, you aren't ready to do this process.
One thing to note is that Syd did not change her legal last name at all during this process. This was done purposefully, as we wanted to make sure all the documents we submitted that had her maiden name on them (her passport, etc.) were still valid and not have to wait for new ones.
Step 4: Mail your application
Our lawyer was generous enough to offer to mail our application for us. She only sends things by postal mail, which we were nervous about (Canada Post, the Canadian postal service, has a troubled history of being bad at delivering things--you know, their one job). But, I was put at least a little at ease because she got tracking on the envelope (ALWAYS get tracking, don't just drop your application in a mailbox), and five days after we signed it, our application was received and signed for at the address. IRCC does not notify you that they have received your application for several months, so have some patience, faith, and get tracking.
Step 5: Acknowledgement of Receipt (AOR)
This is how Acknowledgement of Receipt, or AOR, works. When you first mail in your application, you will hear nothing. Radio silence. It can be quite nerve-racking, but you really must be patient. The silence doesn't necessarily mean they haven't gotten your application; it just means they haven't gotten to it yet.
Syd and I were part of a Facebook support group during our application process, and one of the things the folks in this group will constantly tell you is that everybody's steps are not necessarily in the same order, nor do they take the same amount of time: you could receive your AOR a few weeks after you send in your application, or a few months, or a year. You could receive it before or after you do your medical exam, or before or after your biometrics. While this is true in theory, most people's applications follow a pattern. Assuming the immigrant does not already live in Canada, you generally receive AOR around 60-90 days after you apply. This is based on the wait time at the time of writing. During Covid, applications were much more backlogged and took much longer.
You will receive AOR in an email (just like any communication from IRCC), and you do not need to do anything but continue to wait.
Step 6: Sponsorship Approval and Transfer to VO
After the sponsor is approved, the immigration application is then sent to a different processing center (called a Visa Office, or VO) for the applicant to be evaluated. Generally speaking, they seem to send the application to whatever visa office is geographically closest to the applicant. For most Americans, this seems to be New York City, though for me being in Upstate New York, I am actually a bit unusual in that I am closer to the one in Ottawa, Ontario, and that is exactly where mine was sent.
The VO is where applications can sometimes get held up in processing, since they have varying levels of staff and varying numbers of applications they are working on at a given time. Patience is a virtue!
Steps 7 & 8: Immigration Medical Exam (IME) and Biometrics
Both the medical exam and biometrics (fingerprints and getting your photo taken) can be done either in Canada or outside of Canada, since the Canadian government has certified people all around the world to do so. I was relatively lucky by being 1) close to Canada, and 2) close to offices in the United States that offer these services. The government website or the link in the email will give you a list of places near you that you can go to get these done.
It is very unusual to "fail" the medical exam or biometrics, especially for those going through the spousal sponsorship process. The requirements are usually much more stringent for those trying to come to Canada for work or study purposes. The bigger challenge for me was finding places that had appointments reasonably available within 30 days, and for a fair price. As you may read in my other posts, I paid $400 USD for the medical exam and $85 CAD/$65 USD for biometrics. The medical fee you pay to the doctor's office when you visit and can vary widely; the payment for the biometrics fee you actually make to the Government of Canada, either online or mailed in with your application. My lawyer included my fee in her legal fees and then paid it on my behalf.
Step 9: The Waiting Game
In the meantime, you may receive an email from IRCC advising you of services that are available to help you settle in your new country. This is called the "pre-arrival letter" and not everyone receives it, nor do you need to, but we did, and I will say I found some of the information in it helpful. There are, for example, a number of nonprofit organizations that help immigrants find jobs and housing, offer classes to learn English or French as well as trades, life skills such as banking or starting a business, etc. They do good work for a lot of things you may not even think about; as an American I did not realize for a long time the potential language and cultural barriers that other immigrants can face.
Step 10: Passport Request and COPR
I was genuinely surprised when I logged into my online account to check the status of my application to see "Decision Made." Of course, the decision could always be negative, but I really never had any reason to suspect that our application would get refused; we had all of our ducks in a row and completed all of the steps, and we also had nothing to hide. What I was surprised about, rather, was the sheer speed of it all. We had been told to not get our hopes up and that we should wait a year or more, but within a few weeks after submitting my medical and biometrics, there it was. One odd thing is that they never really come right out and say you're approved; they really only notify you in writing if your application has been refused.
Not even 24 hours later, I received an email requesting me to send a copy of my passport and 2 more photos of me, and in exchange I would get my Confirmation of Permanent Residence (COPR) document, an unassuming piece of paper to show to a border officer that tells them, "hey I live here now," which they sign and send off a copy to the powers that be telling them I'm here to stay.
This is where it pays to be an American, too. See, most people who travel to Canada (or the US for that matter) need a visa to do so, either applying for one before they travel or at the airport when they get there (a visa is a small slip of paper explaining who you are, what you'll be doing, and how long you're allowed to stay in a country). So for immigration purposes, in addition to having a permanent residence document, you also have to have a physical visa attached to your passport before you come to the country. Most Americans are unfamiliar with the concept of visas, because they are allowed to visit several countries as tourists without having to get one. This includes Canada, where many Americans simply hop in their car and head north for the day without thinking twice about extra requirements.
Because I am a US citizen, I do enjoy visa-free access to Canada, and therefore, do not actually need a visa to enter the country, which is a whole step of waiting I did not have to endure. Rather, all I had to do was head to my local passport photographer and snap two more pictures, scan my passport, fill out a rather unofficial-looking half-sheet with my name and application number and FedEx it to them so they can issue me a confirmation document.
I don't totally buy their reasoning, but IRCC has some whole thing about how they don't mail things to people for security reasons blah blah blah--so basically, when you ship them something, you have to ship it with a prepaid return label and envelope for them to send your stuff back to you. The benefit of this is if you can afford to, you can overnight your documents to them and when they send them back to you, they are overnighted again! The drawback, though, is the complete chaos and confusion that can ensue at the local FedEx office, trying to explain to them why you need a return envelope back to you that is stuffed inside your envelope to them, and trying to pay for both the shipping there and the shipping back. I was told by FedEx staff that they do not offer return labels on international packages, so I basically had to create the two envelopes separately in two different shipping transactions and then stuff one inside the other. I thought I had it all worked out after paying a pretty penny ($160 USD total for 2 photos and 2 sheets of paper), but IRCC still sent me a threatening email saying I needed to pay FedEx a second time, because apparently my international overnight shipping didn't include customs and duties.
But if you're following along, this means you've been approved! Sorry there isn't much fanfare, but that's it. Two chaotic days at FedEx and you're now a permanent resident of Canada.
The first thing is that the process is a little outdated, arbitrary, and lacks transparency. IRCC does offer an online application now, but it was brand new at the end of 2021, and still has a lot of kinks to be worked out. There is also an online tracker for the status of your application, but it is not always updated or accessible. Syd and I were never able to create an account for ours; we kept getting error messages. So we never saw more than just some very vague general information that could be looked up by typing our application number into the website (this is called ECAS).
While this is now finally starting to change, most everything until this year was done over snail mail. I wouldn't normally have a problem with this, but the thing is, snail mail nowadays is a great excuse to avoid accountability. "We never received your application." "We only received parts of it." "This document is damaged." There are a million things that could go wrong (and have), and the government is never held responsible for any of them. Combine that with the IRCC being basically completely unreachable for questions or concerns, the forms being very unclear (some look like they were made in Microsoft Word 2003) and missing spaces for signatures, and their website never working, and this is a real problem--one that has made it to mainstream political debate. This is people's lives we're talking about here. For some people, their entire life hinges on their immigration application, and the government's attitude toward that fact is--er--not serious enough, we'll say.
The second thing, related to the first, is the incredible variation this process can have. We were very fortunate to have our application approved in a little over five months, but there are some in the same position as us that have been waiting over two years. Some have complicated circumstances regarding their application...but some don't. It's rather curious what goes on at these offices that leads to such drastically different results for such seemingly similar applicants. My process really could not have gone much smoother. Even assuming that everything goes right, other applicants have to send more documents, fill out more forms, attend an immigration interview, deal with a third-party vendor called VFS Global which sometimes handles processing on behalf of the government and does a shoddy job, the list goes on. If anybody at the IRCC is reading my soapbox speech, applicants deserve a more consistent, predictable, understandable, and therefore more humane, experience.
Sorry, fell asleep there. But don't worry! You, dear reader, will be there with me throughout that journey over the next couple months.
If you've stuck around long enough, congratulations. You've now seen the end of what will probably be longest post ever, and also the ins and outs of applying to be a Canadian Permanent Resident. Since this post in particular is mostly intended for folks who are serious about moving, I hope this was helpful for you, and please feel free to reach out to me using my contact info if you have something you need help with. If I can't answer your question, I can at least point you in the direction of someone or something who can. Remember, though, I am not a lawyer and this blog is not intended to be legal advice. ;)
A final note
Get comfortable with it. Be loud and proud, and even annoying about your life and your commitment to each other. I'm not saying to divulge sensitive personal information to anybody (except the IRCC, since they require it, but get used to telling the elevator-pitch version of your life story to anybody who asks, and maybe some people who don't. Proving your relationship can be hard, nerve-racking, and annoying work, but it builds trust and character between you and your partner. For better or worse, immigration doesn't give you much of a chance to be private or quiet about your relationship. Own it and love it; it's yours after all!