Visitor visas for romantic partners: tough to get, but not impossible

October 2017

When we hear someone say that they are planning a trip, we often assume their biggest worries are whether they’ve figured out accommodation, packed the right clothes, or were able to secure the time off work.

For those who are from visa-requiring countries, a much bigger hurdle exists: being able to secure visitor visas to actually enter Canada.

For those who are romantically linked to a Canadian, obtaining a visitor visa is especially challenging. This applies to those in long-distance relationships who want come to Canada to visit their loved ones, or those who are living abroad with their Canadian partners and are looking to make a trip back home together.

Why is it difficult?

When applying for a visitor visa, the applicant must prove to the Immigration officer that his or her intention is to come to Canada only temporarily. This is the case for all those seeking temporary entry to Canada, whether applying to study, work, or visit.

A central concern for the officer is whether the applicant will leave at the end of his or her authorized stay. Once approved, unless specifically noted, visitors are allowed to stay for up to six months at a time, until the expiry of the visa (except in the case of supervisas). The officer wants to know that once the applicants’ legal rights to stay in Canada have ended, they will respect the law and leave.

This is the opposite intent which exists when someone is looking to move to Canada. For example, in the case of spousal sponsorships, the intent is clearly to settle in Canada permanently.

In the case of a romantic partner of a Canadian seeking entry to Canada as a visitor, officers are naturally skeptical about the partner’s intention upon entering Canada. They worry that the partner will enter Canada as a visitor, but will not leave at the end of his or her authorized stay. Who wouldn’t want to stay with their loved one, right?

But what if you did just want to come for a visit, and really would go back home when required?

Dual Intent

It is legally permissible to have ‘dual intent’. It means having the intention of coming temporarily, with the eventual goal of applying for permanent residence. This is often the case for romantic partners visiting Canada, who have the long-term plan of settling here. International students also often have dual intent by looking to study here temporarily, with the eventual goal of applying for permanent residence.

While it is legally permissible to have dual intent, successfully proving it is where it gets tough. Permanent intent will be implied, especially if you are in a long-term relationship with a Canadian. As a result, when applying, romantic partners of Canadians should focus on providing as much proof of possible about the temporary nature of their visit.

Tips for romantic partners applying for visitor visas:

  • Get it right the first time. Once a visitor visa is refused, it becomes very difficult to overcome an officer’s decision upon resubmission. As is pointed out by Mr. Vic Satzewich in his book Points of Entry: How Canada’s Immigration Officers Decide Who Gets In, the officer who is reviewing the resubmitted visa application may be sitting right next to the officer who refused the first one. Applicants will have to give a very compelling reason for him or her to make a different finding then his colleague. Our office recently succeeded at obtaining a visitor visa for a romantic partner after a refusal, however it required extensive documentation and explanations about the applicant’s changed circumstances since the first application.

  • Give extensive documentation, but in a clear, concise way. Remember, visa officers are only human. They have a large workload, and face time constraints. In his book, Mr. Satzewich points out that visa officers in a busy Asian office can make decisions on up to 75 applications per day. That translates to about 3 minutes per file! So, while you should give ample proof of your statements, you should also outline what is included in your application in a clear, concise cover letter. List the documents you are submitting. The goal is to be so clear that the officer doesn’t need to spend extra time sifting through your materials.


  • Explain why you are coming, but more importantly, why you will leave. Requesting the full six months for the visit, for no particular reason other then being together with your partner, signals to the officer that you’d likely have no problem staying even longer. If you have a specific reason for coming, such as attending an event or celebrating an anniversary, then give the officer proof. If possible, include a trip itinerary, proof of your plane ticket both there and back, and information about the particular event. You should also give convincing proof for why you need to return back to your home country, or current country of residence. This could include a letter from your employer outlining when you need to return to work. It could also include proof that you still own a house or car in your country, and would need to return to finalize the sale even if you were intending on being sponsored as a spouse at a later date. You should also give ample evidence of your ties back at home. If you have a child or elderly parent you take care of which would necessitate your return, prove it. A letter written by your parent could go a long way in showing that you do not have the option of simply hanging around Canada after your temporary visit ends.

Putting together a successful application will require careful planning. Unfortunately, despite providing as much information as possible, you may still not succeed. It’s simply very hard to convince the officer that your visit to your loved one is only meant to be temporary. However, it’s not impossible. By providing an application that addresses the officer’s concerns up front, you’ll give yourself the best chance of success.


A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: The Importance of Photographic Evidence in Spousal Sponsorship Applications

August 2017

In December 2016, new application forms were introduced for individuals wishing to sponsor spouses or partners. It was part of a package of reforms designed to speed up processing.  In June 2017, further improvements were made to the guides and document checklists.

The current version of the document checklist outlines that the following should be submitted as proof of the relationship with the sponsor:


Photos of your wedding, customary celebrations, engagement, and/or outings. Provide a maximum of 20 photographs to support your relationship (taken at different times and places).   Please write your name and date of birth on the back of each photo and provide a brief context on the back of each photograph (do not provide CD, DVD, USB key)


When was the last time you printed photographs? I’ll bet some of my younger readers have never actually printed photographs.  In today’s age of Facebook, Instagram, and digital photo frames, printed photographs with notes on the back seem like an anachronism.

And yet, photographs are incredibly important to immigration officers who make decisions about the genuine nature of relationships. In his field research for his book, Points of Entry: How Canada’s Immigration Officers Decide Who Get In, sociologist Vic Satzewich observed officers as they reviewed spousal sponsorship applications. He noted the following:

  • An officer reviewing an application stated, ‘I would like to see more pictures, but you know, this looks real.’

  • An officer reviewing wedding photos commented on how the applicants were dressed, whether funds appeared to have been spent (as indicated by the food and drink on offer at the reception), how many guests were in attendance, and what the guests were wearing (if they had dressed appropriately for the occasion).

  • Other officers interviewed for the book commented about photographs they had seen that looked staged, or appeared doctored. However, photographs from the wedding were said to be helpful in confirming how many, and which family members attended.

  • Most concerningly, an officer reviewing a sponsorship application observed that in the photos taken at the religious ceremony, no one was smiling. He acknowledged that it was a serious occasion (as it occurred in a temple), but was concerned that no one appeared happy. In that case, the officer called in the sponsored spouse for an interview, rather than approving the application immediately.  

20 photographs seem insufficient considering the importance officers place on them. Moreover, the list provided does not suggest that any photographs taken with family members or friends, or at home (everyday life photos), should be provided.  Surely these are important evidence for the officer.

I had a client come in to see me whose sponsorship was denied. He did not retain a copy of his application prior to sending it, so I completed an Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) request for a copy of the application.  The photographs submitted as part of the application were mentioned in the officer’s electronic notes, but were not provided along with the other documents.  When I inquired why, I was told:

We confirm that all documents remaining on file were provided to you.

Note that not all records are required to be kept on file for the whole duration of the retention period. Document of lesser value to the department are destroyed to thin out some files.

Apparently, photographs were of ‘lesser value to the department.’ This likely had more to do with the amount of room they took up, and not their actual value.  The result for the client is that the original photographs of their wedding, which they had no copies of, were shredded, and there was no evidence of their wedding for their appeal.


Using Photographs to Support your Spousal Sponsorship Application

My solution to the issue of how best to present photographic evidence is to embed it into additional pages attached to the Relationship Information and Sponsorship Evaluation form (IMM 5532). The last question on this form asks, ‘Is there any other information you wish to support your relationship.’ I write ‘see attached pages’ in the text box on the form.  Then, I have clients provide further information about their relationship by inserting photographs, screenshots from social media posts, and other illustrative evidence about their relationship into the document.  Captions with locations, dates, and identification of the individuals in the photographs are placed underneath each visual item.  Photographs can be small, as digital photographs cut and pasted into a document can be made as large or as small as one desires.  Thus, several photographs can be interspersed with text on a page.  Dozens of photographs can be submitted this way, without unduly increasing the physical size of the application.  Since the pages are part of the IMM 5532 form, they cannot be culled to thin out the file. 

Another benefit to this strategy is that clients love preparing the pages that set out the history of their relationship. It gives them a chance to go through all the photos taken over the course of their relationship, and to express their story in a meaningful way.  I tell people to imagine they are creating a storybook for their future grandchildren.  The product is an easy to read, chronological narrative that does not require flipping back and forth between printed photographs, notes on the back of the photographs, and the information on the form.  Officers can read all the information they need in just a few minutes, even where there are many pages of additional information provided.

Perhaps Immigration will catch on to this idea, and the next version of the guide/checklist will set out procedure that I’ve been using!



International Students: Don’t Squander Your Post-Graduate Work Permit!

July 2017

This is the story of three brilliant, but misinformed international students* whose chances of becoming Canadian permanent residents were lost. 

  1. Kazumi earned a two-year-long Canadian diploma in fashion design. He applied for his post-graduate work permit right after he finished his program. For a few months afterwards, he worked at a fancy clothing store. Then, he heard the great news that he was accepted into an impressive Italian fashion design program. Without hesitation, he flew to Milan. Wanting to eventually live in Canada, he returned to look for a job, which he found. Unfortunately, his post-graduate work permit expired within a few months, so he had to return home to Japan without the opportunity to apply for permanent residence.


  2. Yamini came to Canada to study computer programming. She was a genius with computers. After school finished, Yamini applied for a post-graduate work permit. Shortly after, she set up her own small business, working as a freelance computer programmer. She made great money and was ready to set up her life here in Canada. When she applied for permanent residence, she found her self-employed work experience did not count for points under the Express Entry program.


  3. Nuria studied journalism in Canada and earned a four-year-long undergraduate degree. During her summer breaks, she went home to Spain to be with her family. She applied for a three-year-long post-graduate work permit after she finished school. Her first two years were spent working at a coffee shop and growing her writing portfolio. In her third year, she landed an unpaid internship working at a local newspaper. She was happy to get this great experience and hoped to work there as a staff journalist in the future. Unfortunately, she had to return home at the end of the three-year period without being able to apply for permanent residence. She did not have any qualifying work experience to apply for permanent residency in Canada.

What do all these international students have in common? They wasted their opportunities to use their post-graduate work permits in ways that would allow them to successfully apply for permanent residence.

What is a post-graduate work permit? 

International students who study in Canada at designated learning institutions have the opportunity to apply for post-graduate work permits (‘PGWPs’). PGWPs are open work permits that allow permit holders to work in any job. PGWPs are generally issued for the same length of time as the programs of studies, up to a maximum of 3 years. However, if the duration of the programs of studies are two years or longer, the duration of the work permits will be three years. If an applicant is hoping to eventually apply for permanent residence, choosing a program of study that is at least two years in length is recommended to maximize the amount of time the PGWP can be valid for. 

Why are PGWPs a fantastic opportunity?

Most of the applications for permanent residence in Canada are done through the Express Entry (‘EE’) application management system.

To get into the EE pool, applicants must first qualify under one of the three programs leading into EE: the Federal Skilled Worker (‘FSW’), the Federal Skilled Trades  (‘FST’), or the Canadian Experience Class (‘CEC.’)

In each of these programs, applicants are evaluated on their work experience. The work experience must be ‘skilled.’ The number of ‘points’ awarded will be based on how many years of skilled work experience the applicants have.  Applicants with the most ‘points’ are invited to apply for permanent residence.

The Federal Skilled Worker and Canadian Experience Class programs require that applicants have at least one year of work experience. (Continuously and within the last ten years for FSW program, and cumulatively and within the last three years for the CEC program.) For the Federal Skilled Trades program, it must be two years within the last five years.

To find out whether a job’s skill level is appropriate, applicants must determine what the job’s NOC Code is, and then see what level has been assigned to it by our government’s employment department. To be considered ‘skilled work’, the job must be in a skill level A, B, or 0. Here is the website where applicants can to look up NOC Codes and their corresponding skill levels:

When applicants look at the comprehensive ranking system criteria, they will see that much more points are awarded for those who have Canadian work experience. Having Canadian work experience very often makes the difference between having a high enough score to be invited to apply for permanent residence versus having to return home.

For those who have not studied in Canada, applying to work in Canada temporarily is very difficult. With the exceptions of some programs such as International Experience Canada, obtaining a work permit normally requires finding an employer who is willing to go through a lengthy application process on the applicants’ behalf. This typically includes having to advertise the job position to Canadians first.

This is where PGWPs come into play. They give international students the opportunity to get Canadian work experience in the appropriate skill level, so that they can eventually apply for permanent residence.

A PGWP is literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It can only be applied for one time, and the application must be made within 90 days of finishing a program of studies. If a graduated student doesn’t apply for it, or doesn’t use while it was valid, then the student has squandered a great opportunity to obtain skilled Canadian work experience. 

So, what could our misinformed students have done differently in the above scenarios?

  1. Kazumi, our fashion designer, could have deferred his Italian degree to stay in Canada for as long as it took to get at least one year of Canadian work experience in a job the appropriate skill level. While it was great that he studied at an impressive Italian school, when he returned, there was simply not enough time left in his work permit to gain the required one-year of work experience.

  2. Yamini, while a business savvy computer programmer, didn’t know that self-employed work done in Canada does not count as qualifying work experience. She could have tried to find a job where she was an employee. Once she became a permanent resident, she could have opened her business as planned.

  3. Nuria, the aspiring journalist, had trouble finding a job right out of school, since she had an empty resume. She could have interned at the local newspaper and expanded her writing portfolio during school. Instead of spending all her summers in Spain, she could have stayed here to gain the work experience she needed to be able to land a ‘skilled’ job as soon as possible after finishing her degree. Employers would have been more likely to hire her immediately if she already had previous work experience and internships. Even working at the coffee shop during school could have helped make her more employable, since the future employer could have seen that she was a great worker. 

The bad news is that the above students are out of luck. If you are an international student too, then the good news is that unlike them, you have taken the time to read this post. This means that from now on you will be making decisions that ensure that you don’t waste your golden ticket to permanent residence: your post-graduate work permit.

*Please note that these stories are based on real experiences, but the details have been changed to protect the clients’ privacy.

Residency Obligations for Permanent Residents

Next month I will be speaking at the Canadian Bar Association’s National Immigration Law Section Annual Conference. Being asked to speak is an honour, however it comes with the requirement to submit a paper.  Finding time to research and write was an issue – much of the paper was written between basketball games in the hallway of a high school in Markham, Ontario, where my son was playing in a weekend tournament.

Misconceptions about Express Entry

March 2017

I do a lot of consultation appointments with individuals who want to know if they are eligible to immigrate to Canada through Express Entry.

The next question I’m always asked is ‘how long will it take until I get my permanent residency?’

Refugee Lives and Political Whim: On Trump, Trudeau, and the refugees they seek to shut out

February 2017

Incredulously, I watched a video of a crowd of hundreds of protesters chanting, ‘Let them see their lawyers NOW!’ The video was taken at a US airport over this past weekend.  Photographs taken in that same airport showed lawyers sitting in groups on the floor, hunched over their computers. They were drafting emergency court petitions in support of the individuals who were detained when their flights arrived – people who had been mid-air when Donald Trump’s Executive Order banned the entry into the US of individuals from seven predominately Muslim populated countries.  I have never been as proud of my fellow immigration lawyers and human rights activists as I was this past weekend.  And I have never felt more grateful for the rule of law, when those court petitions were successful.