BlogVisas and permits: What’s the difference?

24 March 2020

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One of the biggest challenges in my work as a Canadian immigration lawyer is to simplify the immigration process and make it easy to understand for somebody who has little to no experience with immigration matters. This can be difficult at times because there are many terms and phrases that exist in Canadian immigration law that have no meaning for the average person.

In working with clients, I have found that many of them use the terms “visas” and “permits” interchangeably as though they mean the same thing. However, the two types of immigration documents are significantly different, and it is important to understand what those differences means both for entering and remaining in Canada. Given the current COVID-19 health crisis affecting international travel to Canada and the ability of those who are in Canada seeking to depart, it is an opportune time to review the difference between visas and permits.

“Visas” are the stickers that are placed by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) in passports that allow the passport holder to travel to Canada from abroad. Visas are typically valid for 10 years for visitors, while those who are coming to Canada to study or work have shorter validity periods tied directly to the length of the expected studies or work. There are also “permanent resident visas” issued to allow somebody to travel to Canada to become a Canadian permanent resident.

Visas are not required for every person wanting to travel to Canada. Citizens of visa-exempt countries such as the US, Australia, New Zealand, UK or any of the European Union countries are not issued visa stickers – they are instead issued Electronic Travel Authorizations (ETAs), which are typically valid for five years and serve the same purpose of allowing the holder to travel to Canada.

“Permits”, on the other hand, determine what its holder can do when they are inside Canada. All permits include conditions on the holders’ stay in Canada, including the date when the person is required to leave Canada. Common conditions for work permit holders prohibit them from studying, unless separately authorized, and to only work in the occupation and location indicated on the permit. Similarly, common conditions for study permit holders prohibit students from working more than 20 hours per week if they are attending school full-time, unless working during a regularly scheduled school break.

“Visitor records” should also be included within the broad definition of “permits” because they are another type of immigration status document issued by IRCC. Like a student or work permit, visitor records determine what visitors can do while inside Canada. Visitor records, unlike student or work permits, are not as well-known as their counterparts because most visitors who travel to Canada are automatically granted stays of up to six months with just a passport stamp on entry or no stamp at all. Only in cases where a visitor is expecting to stay past the six-month validity period would they need to ask for a visitor record.

In addition to the interchanged use of the terms “visas” and “permits”, I have also seen cases where clients mistakenly believe that by applying for either a visa or permit that they will receive the other one automatically. This is untrue.

The most common situation that arises is where a worker or student initially comes to Canada and is in possession of both a valid visa and a work or study permit. What happens if the person needs to apply for a new work permit because a job assignment has been extended or because it will take longer for a student to complete his or her studies?

In these situations, it is important to understand that:

  • It is possible to apply for a new work or study permit from inside Canada even though your visa is expiring soon or has already expired. Applying for a new work or study permit does not mean that you also get a new visa. Obtaining a new work or study permit will allow you to remain in Canada until the new permit expires but will not allow you to board a return flight to Canada if you left.
  • If you need to travel outside Canada, such as for a family trip or a vacation, then you should apply for a visa before leaving Canada, if possible, to ensure you can return to Canada without delays. While workers and students can apply for new visas from inside Canada, visitors will have to apply from outside Canada. If you are unable to obtain a visa before leaving Canada then you will have to apply for one from outside Canada and will be unable to return until it is issued. In order to obtain a new visa before leaving Canada, you will need to show that you have a valid work permit or study permit to demonstrate the purpose of your return trip to Canada.

As you can see, visas and permits serve different purposes in Canadian immigration law. Visas facilitate international travel to Canada, while permits determine what the person can or cannot do after arrival. For those who have immigration status documents that are expiring soon you will need to apply for new status documents before the expiry date to remain in legal immigration status in Canada. For those who had planned to depart Canada before the expiry date of their current status document but are unable to do so now due to the health crisis, it is also possible to apply to extend your stay in Canada and obtain a visitor record until it is safe to travel again. IRCC has already announced special measures to help those affected by COVID-19. Please see our blog about these measures:

During this challenging time, it is recommended that you stay up-to-date on the latest developments with immigration policies and give yourself ample time to make the necessary applications to extend your permits to remain in Canada or to obtain visas, if they are necessary.

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Sas and Ing Immigration Law Centre LLP

A partnership between Catherine Sas Law Corporation and Victor Ing Law Corporation

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About the Author