Friday, August 21, 2009

Canadian Immigration: Part II

(This is a series of posts detailing my personal journey from work permit to Canadian citizenship. I've included as many details as I can remember. If you found this post using an internet search for Canadian immigration, or if you are a regular reader who is interested in moving to Canada, please bear in mind that things may have changed since I went through the system, and your situation may be completely different from my own. Please consult the Canadian government's website for more information.)

See also Part I: the wilderness work permit years

Part II: Resident, permanently

I'm not usually one for serious relationship talks, but I was forced into one when Mr E Man and I had been together for less than a year. I needed him to confirm what I really already knew: that we had something special enough that I should apply to stay in Canada permanently.

Believe me when I say I didn't take this decision lightly. I knew my parents would be very upset, and I spent a lot of time on the phone with my favourite Auntie, who married an American and went off to live in the States when she was just 18. She gave me lots of good advice, mostly about how to break the news...

Anyway, let's gloss over that conversation and discuss permanent residence. This is (I think) the equivalent of the American Green Card, i.e. you are no longer tied to a specific job. Citizenship gets you voting rights, a passport, a shot at some government jobs, state unemployment and other benefits, and a guarantee of no deportation, but permanent residence gets you pretty much everything else. You do have to renew your PR card every five years, which is a bit of a hassle and is basically intended to push people into citizenship.

So how do you become a permanent resident, aka landed immigrant?

There are several routes. The two options open to me were:

a) move in with Mr E Man, wait a year until we officially had common-law status, and get him to sponsor me.
Advantages: slightly faster process; cheaper.
Disadvantages: he would have had to guarantee that he would be responsible for me for the next ten years (i.e. if I lost my job, he'd have to support me, as PRs can't claim state benefits).

b) apply through the skilled worker class, which awards points based on education, work experience, and other factors.
Advantages: I could apply immediately, meaning that the sponsorship route wouldn't actually save me that much time; the satisfaction of qualifying in my own right.
Disadvantages: More expensive.

(The website now lists a separate Canadian Experience Class which wasn't available when I was applying, but looks like it would have been the best option for me!)

So, skilled worker class it was.

I'm a big fan of the points system. The federal government controls the amount of immigration by raising or lowering the points total you need to qualify, but the cut-off at the time you apply is the one they use to assess your application. This means that if you have enough points (take the test!), you know you're going to get in (assuming that you pass the medical and police checks - see below). I found the system to be very fair.

(Slooooooow, though. This may be because those of us applying from inside Canada had to send our initial application to the Buffalo office, with all the US applicants. My application went through at the same time as the mass exodus of 2004...)

The application

The PR application forms took me weeks and weeks to complete. You basically have to provide documentation of your employment and education for every single month since the age of 18. In my case this meant digging up university transcripts, degree certificates, and a letter from my postdoc employer (institution AND PI). I also had to try to remember the dates of all my student addresses (with help from my Mum) and summer jobs. The latter caused me some anxiety as I had no way of contacting several former bosses who had since moved on; I stated this in the cover letter (not required, but I put one in anyway) and they never asked me for any further information.

I also had to provide police certificates from England and Scotland, which have separate forces. This cost about GBP20 each, and consisted of them running my name through their computers and providing me with a letter saying "nope, never heard of this person". I didn't have to provide anything from the Canadian police at this stage, although I know they checked for a police record at some point.

The big sticking point, though, was the money. The application itself cost me about $1,500, which was bad enough for a postdoc on a $35,000 salary. But you also have to provide evidence that you can support yourself for your first six months in Canada; for a single person at that time, you had to have $9,500 in the bank at the time of your application, and it had to still be there when you were granted PR status. The only way around this requirement was to have a letter from my employer guaranteeing that I had a job for at least the next two years. My awesome PI tried everything in her power to get me this letter, but for a postdoc... no can-do.

Well, I saved like I've never saved before. I didn't buy a single new thing for two years. I made my own lunch every single day, and ate lots of my grad student era rice-carrots-onions-soy sauce special. Mr E Man offered to lend me the money, but theoretically the government could have demanded to see my bank statements to check for big lump sum deposits, and I didn't want to take a single chance with my application. He did pay for lots of dinners and other treats though! Thankfully, the small pay-out I'd received as compensation for breaking my arm very badly when I was seven, and which my parents had securely stowed away in a long-term savings account, happened to mature just as I was despairing of ever saving enough money, and made up the short-fall with about $10 to spare.

When I finally had everything together and sent off my big fat application envelope (registered mail, of course), I had such a huge sense of relief. What a process! Now, all I had to do was wait.

And wait.

And wait.

The medical

After about nine months, I got a letter asking me to send in my medical results. This was an excellent sign that everything else was proceeding according to plan. Only certain doctors are authorised to perform an immigration medical, and my regular doctor was not on the list. So I made an appointment with the doctor whose office was closest to our apartment.

The medical itself was pretty damn thorough. They took blood, did a complete physical and medical history interview, and a chest X-ray to test for TB. It took about two hours in total. The doctor told me that he'd wait for the blood test results, and then send the package in to Ottawa.

And again, I waited.

And waited.

It was taking much longer than the website said it should. I was moaning about this to a friend in the locker room at work one day, and a random person who was also getting changed piped up with "I have an email address you can use to contact them, shall I send it to you?"

Anyone who's ever gone through this system will understand how rabidly I leaped upon this offer. The only other way I could get in touch with immigration was through the ridiculous phone system that made you enter all kinds of identification numbers and go through multiple options before it would try to connect you, and then if all agents were busy (as they always were), it would disconnect, making you redial and go through the entire process again. Coupled with the fact that the call centre wasn't in my time-zone, you'll understand why we immigrants hate the phone system so much.


I emailed the address I'd been given, asking for an update on my application status. Someone replied a few days later, saying the delay was due to them not receiving my medical results.


I called the doctor's office, and his snotty receptionist said "of course we sent it". "Registered mail? I need to know when you sent it, and who signed for it in Ottawa". "No, regular mail". "Well, do you keep records of which files you sent on which dates?" "NO" (hangs up).

I tried again, with identical results.

So I got Mr E Man (who had a different surname from mine at the time) to make an appointment with that same doctor a week later, and I tagged along...

The doctor was niceness itself. He realised I was horribly worked up, apologised for the conduct of his receptionist, and said he'd have words with her. He also explained that she wasn't even responsible for sending out the results; his other office in Richmond handled all of that. He called his other receptionist, who took about five minutes to come up with the date my results had been sent, the tracking number for the registered mail package, and the name of the immigration official who'd signed for it.

Another email to Ottawa, and my medical results magically showed up.

This part of the story still makes me mad; if I hadn't happened to meet that random person while I was getting changed for work one day, I never would have known what the hold-up was and would have had no chance of fixing the problem.

The flagpole

Anyway, once my medical results were in, it only took a few more months to get a letter saying that I'd been awarded PR status. That made it more or less exactly 18 months from first sending in my application. The final step was go down to the border so I could re-enter Canada and activate my PR status (what are you supposed to do if you live in Northern Manitoba or wherever??!! Not everyone lives half an hour from the border). Somewhat predictably, it took twice as long to clear US immigration as it did to process my paperwork (including a bank statement check) on the Canadian side. The Americans were politer than I'd ever seen them though; they get this a lot, and call it "the flagpole", as they direct your car into a separate lane that forces you around the flag pole and back into Canada.

So. A celebratory dinner, and a bit more paperwork to switch my SIN and healthcare card to the permanent, no-expiry-date version, and that was that.

Not quite so permanent

Oh, except for the pickpocket incident on our honeymoon. It is no fun at all to try and get a temporary document to let you back into Canada when your PR card gets stolen. I made a special trip down to London to go to the High Commission, where I was treated like a criminal (they seemed to think I was guilty of something, but didn't know exactly what). The problem was that I hadn't obtained a police report, which was basically impossible as our train was leaving Madrid 30 minutes after the theft occurred. "Well, you should have got a police report at your destination." "But I called the embassies in Madrid, Lisbon, Faro, Paris, and London, and no-one told me to do that!!!!!" "Shrug". After a good few hours of interrogation and fretting, they gave me a sound telling-off and a document saying that my re-entry into Canada would be at the sole discretion of the immigration agent at Vancouver airport. Cue me freaking out for the entire long flight home, and Mr E Man trying to reassure me that they wouldn't deport me once I was on Canadian soil...

The immigration agent read the document and asked what the deal was. I launched into a lengthy explanation, but only got as far as "WELL. My wallet got stolen in Madrid with my PR card in it" before she said "That SUCKS. Welcome home, eh?" and stamped my passport. Yay, Canada!

As I commented on the honeymoon post, "I really could have done without losing all my ID. Especially as I started a new job a month after we got back and needed all my stuff together! I also wanted the replacement cards in my new name... this started a vicious cycle in which I had to get my social insurance number (SIN) card replaced before I could get my provincial health care card replaced. I needed the new care card before I could replace my permanent resident card. And I needed my permanent resident card in order to get my new SIN card.

The healthcare people eventually took pity on me and broke the cycle, but only after I had to go to hospital a couple of months later to get rehydrated by IV drip after 10 days of food poisoning. It then took a few more months and $$$ to get my PR card back, during which time I couldn't leave the country and made my parents promise not to get sick!"

Stay tuned for Part III: Citizen Cath!


  1. I might regret saying this but "it seems like it is harder check ups on you to enter Canadian PR than US PR". At least you don't have to provide employer for more than 5 years... [if you apply as an outstanding researcher that is]. And so far noone has said anything about money in an account... [note, yet.]

    Breaking the news to the parents... well, I have omitted [lied] so far. I said "a different kind of visa", not "permanent residency", since my mother would interpret it even more acutely as "you will never ever come back home". [She's already sort of drawing those conclusions but not as hard] I'll go with, "we'll see what the future holds".

    I might give you an email to hear more about how to break it to your parents though. I guess, sooner or later I have to tell them? I don't think I will apply for citizenship soon though... it feels a bit funny in my tummy when I think about that.

    I am happy that they didn't give you hassle entering Canada again and I can understand the HATE of loosing PR and ID cards. I tried to explain to someone here a while back that I will never walk with my passport on me here in the States since I am terrified of loosing it. How on earth would I be allowed to reenter? I wouldn't. and trying to leave, I don't even want to think about it.

    Looking forward to the next installment with citizenship tests and all :)

  2. Really? It's harder to get into Canada? I thought the opposite was true... I've also heard people say that you apply for your Green Card with no idea of whether you're going to qualify or not. And that there's a few months of the process during which you can't leave the country (two sets of friends missed my wedding because of this rule).

    Definitely email me (or Skype me) about the parents conversation... in my case it really helped that they'd met Mr E Man and really liked him. After the wedding, they both admitted that they would have been sorely tempted to emigrate to Canada at my age. (I'm working on getting them to look into emigrating now, but they're not all that keen).

    Oh, and I carry my citizenship card on me at all times, because it's my only wallet-sized government ID (I don't drive). My passports are safely locked away at home though. Next time I travel, I'll keep the two passports and citizenship card in 3 different places (money belt and inside pockets of 2 different bags!)

  3. Wow, awesome post Cath. That bit about just being in the right place atthe right time to get a hold of that email address really hit home with regards to trying to contact government departments for various reasons and how impossible it is without a little luck on your side.

    As a born and raised Canadian, I'm never really given much (or any) thought to how the immigration process works. I'm finding this series of posts really eye opening.

    The point about having to leave the country and re-enter upon getting PR status does seem kind of silly though doesn't it. A friend of mine has just gotten greencard status in the states after geting married and she was dealing with the same thing (in the opposite directin), which, given where she was living, was a huge hassle as opposed to a 30ming drive!

  4. geesh, apologies for the ridiculous number of typos in my above comment!

  5. Thanks Liz! (And welcome, by the way, although I know this wasn't your first comment).

    A little luck definitely goes a long way with the government! I wonder what would have happened if I hadn't been given that email address - would they have eventually contacted me, or would my application just have languished?

    The need to leave and re-enter Canada seems to stem from the fact that the vast majority of people apply from outside the country; it's relatively rare to come in on a temporary basis and then apply from inside (although this is the most common route for scientists). So the set-up is that crossing the border triggers the process that gets you your PR card and other paperwork. Frustrating, and no doubt expensive and time-consuming for lots of people!

    I'm glad you're enjoying these posts. I've found the same with posts by bloggers seeking permanent residence in my native UK. And don't worry about typos, you should see my first drafts...

  6. Did the test, I score 83 and the pass mark is 67 ... I should start looking for a job in Canada!
    Your posts are wonderful Cath, I am sure that one day they will help me a lot.

  7. w00t! I think that's more than me - probably due to your language skills? (I had enough points to qualify without having to go for language testing to prove that I have some very very basic French in addition to more-or-less fluent English. I also had to provide a statement saying that I was fluent in English. It went: "I'm English").

    I hope these posts are helpful too - I'm glad you're enjoying them!

  8. This reminds me of my sister-in-law (from Germany) and her long quest to get a "green card" for the US. She took the first route, since her and my brother were married before she started the application process. I wrote several paragraphs describing what I remember of this last night, but then my computer froze and the comments vanished and I gave up. Suffice to say, though, that after more than a year and lots of gathering of documentation, the green card came through early this year -- a month after my sister-in-law, brother, and niece moved to Germany. Their plans had changed a lot during the course of waiting. Dad got the card in the mail and called Germany to congratulate them, apparently with a lot of laughing on both ends of the line. Now, I think my brother is going through the same process in Germany.

  9. D'oh! At least they were able to laugh about it... would they still be able to use it if they decide to go back? It's nice to have options, after all!

    The other thing with having a spouse sponsor you is that you have to prove your relationship is genuine. Did your SIL have to go through that too? Various people suggested that Mr E Man and I just get married, but a) it was too soon and b) it would have almost taken longer to plan a wedding than to just do it myself! A quick civil ceremony with none of my family there was never going to be an option...

  10. Sorry about taking so long to respond - for some reason I simply can't make posts here from my home computer at the moment. Only my computer at work is up to the task.

    Yes, my SIL did have to get letters from several people stating that her relationship and marriage to my brother was sincere and not done for the purpose of helping her get residency or citizenship. I wrote one of those letters, in fact, although it turned out that they didn't need it since they already had a letter from my parents saying the same thing.

    They did get married in a relatively simple civil ceremony when they were living in Texas, but her parents and a couple of other family members were able to come. Since it was a small ceremony, my brother didn't have that many more family members there than my SIL did.

    I think that they could still use it if they moved back to the US, but as far as I know they don't plan to do that in the next few years.

  11. No worries, there's no statute of limitations around here!

    I think my husband would have preferred a simple civil ceremony with just our parents present, but the rest of my family and most of our friends would never have forgiven us!

  12. Phew! Your story makes my story seem so much less convoluted!

  13. Yes, well, there were a couple of pot holes along that road!

  14. Staying Vancouver for two years, however, I am reluctant to apply PR, though I am titled to apply it. Sometime, I want, sometime, I hate the waiting time.

  15. Yeah, it takes a long time. However, if you're even thinking about staying permanently (and if you can afford it, of course), it might be worth it to at least start the process now rather than later. Get all your documents together, at least ;)


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