Digital Nomads and Immigration

Meurrens LawUncategorized

Over the course of the past several years I have noticed a steady increase in the number of what I call digital nomads seeking to immigrate to Canada.  These individuals, often avid readers of Tim Ferris’s The Four Hour Work Week, typically work from home.  They are hyper efficient, and through delegation and automation can accomplish in twenty hours what most people take forty hours to do.  They work on contract, often with multiple employers, or are self-employed.  While they have skills that would make them very marketable in the Canadian labour force, most do not want to give up the freedom that they have built just to obtain permanent residency.

The question that they all have is simple. Can they immigrate to Canada without having to become an employee?

Economic Immigration Programs Specifically for Entrepreneurs

Most Canadian economic immigration programs discourage self-employment.  For example, in the Canadian Experience Class, self-employment in Canada does not count towards the one-year work experience requirement.  In Express Entry, meanwhile, self-employment does not earn any points for Canadian work experience.  Most skills-based provincial nomination programs also prohibit independent contractor work, and even set caps on what percentage of a Canadian business a prospective immigrant can own in order to qualify as a skilled immigrant.

There are, however, a few exceptions to this.  The Self-Employed Class, for example, allows individuals who in the past five years have two one-year periods of self-employment in cultural or athletic activities to apply for permanent residence in Canada if they intend to be self-employed in Canada.  Examples of cultural and athletics include music teachers, actors, athletes, painters, film makers, freelance journalists, choreographers, coaches and trainers.  In recent years YouTube celebrities have started applying under the program, and absent changes in the future it is likely the Self-Employed Class will expand to include professional Instagrammers, podcasters and bloggers.

Another economic immigration program that caters to those who want to be self-employed is the Start-Up Visa Program.  To qualify, applicants must start a business in Canada for which they provide active and ongoing management, and for which they are essential.  As well, applicants must get the support of a designated venture capital fund, angel investor or business incubator. Depending on the terms of the designated entity that supports the business, the Start-Up Visa Program can be an appealing option to those who want to start businesses in Canada which don’t have rigid job-creation or income threshold requirements.

Finally, most provincial nomination programs have entrepreneur programs.  These programs typically require that applicants commit to investing a certain amount and committing to hiring a certain number of employees. While these programs typically don’t cater to the digital nomads described above because of their rigid job creation and net worth requirements, they should understand that the programs exist in case their respective province’s program is of interest.

Economic Immigration Programs that Don’t Specifically Cater to Entrepreneurs

Prospective self-employed immigrants to Canada should also understand that they may still qualify to immigrate through Canada’s general economic immigration programs.  While Canadian self-employment experience does not count for immigration purposes, self-employment abroad does.  As well, foreign entrepreneurs can achieve their Comprehensive Ranking Scores in Express Entry by obtaining Owner – Operator Labour Market Impact Assessments.  Finally, there is the somewhat legally gray area of what exactly constitutes self-employment for immigration purposes, which is a complicated topic for another day.

Finally, some prospective immigrants who are currently freelancers self-employed may have to accept employment for 1-2 years in order to immigrate to Canada.  Once they do, such individuals typically have numerous temporary and permanent programs to facilitate their entry, and it simply becomes a question of picking one.  Interestingly, some provincial governments have started to recognize the reality that many immigrants do not want to commit themselves to full-time and permanent employment.  British Columbia’s Provincial Nomination Program, for example, currently has a pilot project in which prospective applicants only have to commit to one-year of full-time employment in the tech sector.  During this time, there is no prohibition on them working remotely on a contractual basis for foreign companies, including working on their own websites.  It has become a popular program for many aspiring, tech-savvy entrepreneurs from abroad.


In other words, it is true that a quick read through of the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada would suggest that applicants must find employment in order to immigrate to Canada. However, through a little bit of creativity, digital nomads can obtain permanent residency without having to abandon their digital, freelance or self-employed passions.  This will likely only continue in the future, as more and more provinces seek to attract such applicants.