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14th Sep 2015

Canada introduces new travel authorisation requirement

Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) is moving to implement a new Electronic Travel Authorisation (eTA) requirement for foreign visitors this year, including international students. Modelled on similar programmes in the US and Australia, the eTA applies to all visiting students from visa-exempt countries whether travelling on a tourist or student visa. US citizens are among those exempt from the eTA requirements, as are diplomatic officials and travellers in transit to the United States. According to CIC, "The number of visa-exempt foreign nationals travelling to Canada on a temporary basis per year is significantly larger than the number of visa-required travellers. For example, visa-exempt foreign nationals, excluding US citizens, represent approximately 74% of foreign nationals who arrive by air in Canada."

Apply online

Visitors to Canada are now encouraged to apply for an eTA at the earliest opportunity, even before booking travel arrangements. As of 1 August 2015, applications can be made online. CIC has indicated that many authorisations are granted within minutes of application but that their intention otherwise is to process files within 72 hours. Each application costs CDN$7 (US$5) and once issued an eTA is electronically linked to the applicant’s passport and valid for a period of five years.

The introduction of pre-screening

The purpose of the eTA is to pre-screen visitors before they arrive at a Canadian airport. A statement from CIC notes that travellers are asked to provide "basic personal information similar to what is currently collected when they arrive in Canada. The only difference now is that Canada will know the answers to these questions before their arrival. The answers to a few simple questions given in the eTA application will be used to pre-screen travellers to ensure that they are not inadmissible to Canada."

Put another way, the goal of the programme is to facilitate travel for low-risk visitors and, at the same time, to remove any uncertainty about a visitor’s admissibility.

Up until the introduction of the eTA, visa-exempt foreign visitors have not been screened for admissibility until they arrive at a port of entry in Canada and this lack of pre-screening leaves room for the possibility that a visitor could be denied permission to enter the country on arrival. CIC reports, "In 2012/13, the total number of visa-exempt foreign nationals who arrived in Canada and were deemed inadmissible for entry at air ports of entry was 7,055. This resulted in significant expense, delay and inconvenience for these foreign nationals, other travellers, the airlines and the Canadian government. Reasons for refusal can include membership in terrorist organisations, espionage, participation in war crimes or crimes against humanity, international human rights violations, membership in organised crime groups, criminality, or issues endangering public health, such as tuberculosis."

Timing is everything

The new eTA requirements come fully into force on 15 March 2016. Anyone arriving in Canada after that date, from a visa-exempt country, must have an eTA. Those that don’t can be refused entry to Canada, or may be prevented from boarding their flight to Canada from abroad. There is another important timing consideration for students entering Canada this summer and fall for longer-term studies under a Canadian study permit. A further statement from CIC notes:

"International students from visa-exempt countries who get their study permit on or after 1 August 2015, will automatically be issued an eTA, along with their permit. However, study permit holders who received their permit on or before 31 July 2015, will need to get an eTA if they plan to leave Canada and return by air, starting 15 March 2016."

This opens the door to a scenario that officials and educators are keen to avoid: students who received a study permit before the end of July arriving in Canada for their studies, and then exiting the country and attempting to return after 15 March 2016 without an eTA. Any such students engaged in a longer-term study in Canada (and with a study permit issued before 1 August 2015) must now take care to apply for an eTA before making plans to exit and re-enter Canada after mid-March 2016.

The backdrop

News of eTA arrives on the heels of another important new policy change for Canada this year: the introduction of the Express Entry programme and its new processes and requirements for international students hoping to immigrate to Canada after their studies. Questions remain as to the long-term impacts of the new Express Entry system, particularly in terms of how it affects the immigration prospects of foreign graduates. They are accompanied as well by recent news reports suggesting Citizenship and Immigration Canada is already struggling to keep up with increased demand from international students. Internal CIC reports obtained by The Globe and Mail newspaper indicate that processing times for Canadian study permits have increased by 30% of late, while processing times for temporary resident visas have doubled. This has led to "waiting times for visas that are weeks longer than those in Britain or the United States" and that have reduced Canada’s international competitiveness, reports The Globe. Lisa Brunner, an international student advisor at the University of British Columbia, wrote recently on the CBIE blog about processing times for post-graduation work permits, noting, "When the possibility of permanent immigration is explicitly used as a recruitment strategy by [the Canadian government], it shocks [students] to learn just how long processing times…can actually be." As these commentaries suggest, it is not only the letter of official policy but also the real experience of students and the overall performance of CIC’s International Student Programme that will ultimately determine Canada’s position in international markets. The eTA is now the latest addition to this complex arithmetic of competitiveness, and its implementation will no doubt be closely observed by stakeholders in Canada and around the world.

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