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Transitioning from US international student to Canadian resident

interstride logo by Interstride
August 4, 2023

This blog post was co-authored by Cosmina Morariu, Partner at Fragomen, and David Comtois, Senior Associate at Fragomen

Did you know that Canada is the 4th most popular destination for international students? Whether you want to continue your studies as a graduate student or start your career, Canadian permanent residency may be a good option for you. In this article, Canadian immigration lawyers explain the three post-graduation options for international students in the US to move to Canada:

  • Study
  • Work
  • Investment

Why Canada?

The number of international students moving to Canada is increasing each year. The most international students in Canada are from India with China and The Philippines representing the 2nd and 3rd most international students.

No matter which country you are originally from, there are many benefits to choosing to transition to living in Canada after attending college in the US as an international student:

  • Similar culture and climate
  • Close proximity to the US
  • More welcoming to immigrants than the US
  • Spouses and dependents can work and study in Canada as well
  • Easier, faster, and more straightforward immigration process than the US

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Canadian government added additional immigration pathways for international graduates. International students in Canada can now study remotely for up to 50% of their courses. International students can also work full-time during their studies without affecting their eligibility for post-graduation work authorizations. For these reasons, immigrating to Canada as an international student may be beneficial for your long-term career even if you have already completed a bachelor’s degree program in the US.

Transitioning to Canadian Permanent Residence (PR) through temporary studies

Starting with a study permit is the most common pathway for Canadian PR. It involves three phases:

  1. Study permit
  2. Post-graduation work permit (PGWP)
  3. Permanent residence

Study permit

This is an excellent option for international students and graduates who want to continue their studies to earn a master’s degree and/or Ph.D. To qualify for a Canadian study permit, the academic program/training must be more than six months in length, and it must be at a qualifying learning institution such as a university or accredited college.

Some people may be exempt from a study permit and therefore not be eligible for this pathway to permanent residency, including but not limited to those with qualifying family members in Canada and the children of diplomats. The following activities do not issue a study permit:

  • Self-improvement courses
  • Remote learning
  • Audited courses
  • Non-program courses (courses that do not issue a credential, certificate, or degree)

It’s important to obtain a study permit in order to begin this pathway to permanent residence. To begin the process, start by applying to a qualifying academic program or school. Confirm that the program offers a post-graduation work permit. This is very important! Once you have a letter of acceptance from the program, you can complete the study permit application online through the Canadian consulate in the US. For programs in Quebec, you must also apply for a Certificate of Acceptance (CAQ).

After the application is approved, you can obtain your study permit upon entry into the US. On average, it takes 6-10 weeks for study permits to be approved. Some specific programs may have faster processing times depending on your home country. Contact Fragomen to see what you qualify for.

Post-graduation work permit (PGWP)

One great benefit of studying as an international student in Canada is the Post-Graduation Work Permit (PGWP). This is an open work permit that you can apply for up to 180 days after graduation from a qualifying academic program. An open work permit means no conditions for vocation, employer, or location. The permit lasts eight months to three years based on the length of the academic program you completed. It cannot be renewed or extended, although the Canadian government did come up with some measures to further extend the PGWP in specific circumstances. Taking advantage of PGWP helps you gain work experience and points towards earning your Canadian permanent residency.

Permanent residence

If your goal is to remain in Canada long-term, you will want to seek permanent residency. We recommend working full-time for at least one year in a skilled worker position through a PGWP before applying for permanent residency. This will increase your chances of acceptance using Canada’s point-based system for immigration.

Express Entry is the fastest and most popular option for permanent residence in all provinces except Quebec. Quebec has its own permanent residence immigration streams. You can apply for permanent residence through the Express Entry pathway by first setting up your profile and then submitting the permanent residence application once selected by the Canadian government. Here are some of the minimum requirements to qualify:

  • A higher education degree (e.g. bachelor’s or master’s)
  • At least 1 year of work experience
  • Language assessment in English
  • Biometrics and medical exam

The applicants with the most points in the immigration system will be selected for PR. If you are not selected, there are other PR options including the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP). Qualifications vary based on providence. Contact Fragomen to discuss your specific options.

Transitioning to Canadian Permanent Residence through temporary work

International graduates who do not want to continue their studies can apply for a Canadian work permit and eventually for permanent residency. A work permit is required for most work in Canada, and all international graduates looking for a job in Canada will need a work permit. Employer-specific work permits (as opposed to open work permits) are tied to a specific employer and specific location. After you are offered the job, but before you apply for the work permit, a Labor Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) may be required from the employer.

There are many work permit categories. Once you have a job offer, consult with an immigration attorney such as Fragomen, to explore the best work permit options for your specific circumstances. Eligibility depends on a variety of factors including but not limited to:

  • Your home country
  • Your vocation
  • Your language skills in English or French

You must work for at least one year for the employer on your work permit before you can apply for Express Entry. This will also give you points in the Express Entry immigration system.  The number of points you will earn is based on the level of the job and the job type. The minimum is 50 points, but C-suite executives can be awarded 200 for a job offer in Canada. Prior to entering the Express Entry pool of candidates, if you do not have any Canadian work experience, you will need to have at least 67 points to be eligible as a Federal Skilled Worker.

Transitioning to Canadian Permanent Residence through the International Experience Canada (IEC) program

The IEC program provides an open work permit that may last up to two years. However, only people from certain countries are eligible. Currently, people from India and China are not eligible. Check to see if you qualify based on your country of citizenship here. Additionally, you must be under 30 or 35 years old depending on your country of citizenship.

The pathway to Canadian PR through the IEC program has three phases:

  1. Create an IEC profile
  2. Apply for the Working Holiday Permit
  3. Apply for Permanent Residence

You can apply for permanent residence at any time before the Working Holiday Permit expires, but make sure you have enough points in the Canadian immigration system before applying. The Working Holiday Permit will give you points for one year of work experience, but not points for having a job offer, unless the employer agrees to obtain an LMIA.

Transitioning to Canadian Permanent Residence through entrepreneurship

Interested in starting a new business in Canada? This is a direct pathway to permanent residence for those who qualify. The ideal candidates are:

  • Business graduates such as MBAs
  • Engineering graduates
  • IT graduates

You can apply for PR through entrepreneurship individually or with a team (up to five applicants in the same application). You will need to show how your business start-up idea is innovative, scalable, and will create jobs for Canadians. If approved, the business must be set up in Canada and operate in Canada. The international entrepreneur is expected to work for the business in Canada. This is not a passive investment program.

To qualify for permanent residency through entrepreneurship, there are specific language requirements. You must also show you have enough funds to settle in Canada and cover your cost of living. Lastly, you must obtain a Letter of Support from a designated organization:

While this pathway allows some candidates to skip the work permit step, you may still choose to apply for an open work permit while you are waiting for your Canadian PR to be approved. Make sure to apply for PR before applying for the work permit. Work permits are usually approved within a few months. This allows processing time for the PR application while you begin setting up the business with the work permit. You must show progress in the business set-up for PR to be approved, but the business does not need to succeed to obtain PR nor do you need to keep the business for a specific amount of time once PR is approved.

Find your ideal path to Canadian Permanent Residence

You have options for Canadian permanent residency – at the federal and provincial level – through work, study, or entrepreneurship. You can pursue an advanced degree as an international student at a Canadian university or apply for a work permit with a qualifying job offer or business start-up plan. While processing times vary, you may be able to gain Canadian permanent residency within approximately 1-2 years after graduation from college/university in Canada. Then, you will be on the right track for Canadian citizenship and a Canadian passport, if desired. International students and graduates interested in moving to Canada should reach out to Fragomen for advice regarding their specific circumstances.