TL;DR: Marriage doesn’t automatically get you a Canadian passport.
Let’s say you meet and fall in love with a Canadian. You have an adorable meet cute, decide to spend the rest of your lives together, and then you get married. Marriage doesn’t automatically get you a Canadian passport. You can’t just show up at the Canadian border with your marriage certificate and expect to automatically be granted Canadian citizenship. In actuality, it’s significantly harder than that.
Lots of people like to joke about marrying a Canadian as an easy pathway to citizenship, but the reality is that it takes 12 months to process permanent residency applications for spouses, never mind citizenship. It’s only after living legally in Canada as a permanent resident for several years and meet specific residency requirements that you’re even eligible to apply for citizenship. In December, 2016, the IRCC announced that it intended to process most spousal applications within 12 months. This is a significant improvement from the 12-26 months it used to take to process this application.
Just like all other immigration programs, this process is slightly different if you intend to reside in the province of Québec. If your spouse is a resident of Québec or plans to reside in Quebec once you are granted residency, then you will also need to apply for a Québec Selection Certificate before they can submit their application to sponsor you.
Who can sponsor you?
Canadian citizens over the age of 18 and can sponsor their spouses even if neither of them currently lives in Canada. Permanent residents of Canada over the age of 18 that currently live in Canada can sponsor their spouses for immigration. There are significant barriers for spousal sponsorship on couples who have been married for less than 2 years or who don’t have children together. However, while it’s difficult, it’s not impossible. Many of the requirements are left at the discretion of immigration agents, providing a lot of flexibility.
To keep things simple, the term “spouse” will be used to mean legal spouse, common-law partner, or conjugal partner. There are no restrictions on same sex relationships.
Canada recognizes any civil marriage that is legally recognized in the country where it took place so long as both parties were physically present at the ceremony.
Canada also recognizes common-law partnerships, providing that you can prove that you have been together in a marriage-like relationship for at least 2 years, including 12 consecutive months. If you have children together, then the 2 year minimum is waived. To sponsor a common-law partner, you will need to prove that you have shared a home and finances in a relationship similar to marriage but without the actual marriage certificate. If you are in a same-sex relationship in a country that has legal restrictions on same-sex marriages, then you could apply for sponsorship as common-law partners.
If you have extenuating circumstances that make it impossible to live together in order to qualify as common-law partners or to obtain a valid marriage certificate, you can still qualify for sponsorship by proving that you are conjugal partner. This would apply to you if you are unable to live together for 12 months due to restrictions pertaining to immigration barriers, religious reasons, or sexual orientation. To qualify for this, you’ll have to prove that there are valid reasons beyond your control that you have been unable to live together.
If you’ve been in a relationship for less than 2 years and do not have children together, you can probably still qualify for immigration through spousal sponsorship. If that’s the case for you, then the approval of your permanent residence status would be conditional for a period of 2 years. This condition will only be removed after you are able to prove that you have lived together in Canada for 2 years after you became a permanent resident. If you break up within that time, you will have to leave Canada if you were already living in the country on a visa. You would then have the option to re-apply for an immigration or visa program that will allow you to remain in or return to the country.
Prior to 2002, Canada had a fiancé class visa which allowed a Canadian to sponsor their fiancé so that they could live together in Canada while planning their wedding. This is no longer the case.
Step One: Prove it
Being married isn’t enough to qualify for immigration. No matter how deep your love, you’ll still need to prove it to the IRCC. You’ll need to meet some fairly specific requirements in order to prove that your relationship is genuine. If any documents are written in a language other than English or French then they will also need to provide translated copies.
- Proof of cohabitation if you are currently living together. Or, as much proof as possible to demonstrate the reasons why you have not been able to share a household and/or finances
- If you are not living together:
- 10 pages of printed media to demonstrate ongoing communication (letters, text messages, social media posts, and/or emails)
- Proof of visitation (plane tickets or boarding passes and passport pages
- If you are married: marriage certificate and 20 photographs from your wedding
- If you are in a common-law or conjugal relationship: as much information as possible to demonstrate that you share a home and finances such as: statements for joint bank accounts or credit cards, mortgage documents signed by both parties, property lease signed by both of you, property ownership documents in both of your names, declarations from people verifying your relationship, pictures from your lives demonstrating that your relationship is genuine such as from vacations, family events, holidays, etc.
- Birth certificates of any children that you have together, if applicable
- Proof of three of the things below (not needed if you have been together for more than 2 years, currently live together, have children together, and have only been married to each other):
- Joint ownership or lease of a home
- Joint responsibility of utilities
- Government issued identification documents showing the same address
- Evidence of financial support between you and your spouse
- Proof that your relationship is recognized by your friends and family (for example, social media posts showing that your relationship is public)
Step Two: Pick Your Class
The first thing you’ll need to do is decide on which immigration class to apply under. There are two different kinds of applications you can use, depending on your current situation: the Spouse or Common-Law Partner in Canada Class and Family Class.
Spouse or Common-Law Partner in Canada Class
This option applies if you’re currently present in Canada as a temporary resident. In order to qualify for this you probably already have a valid worker, student, or visitor visa. You can also apply for an open work permit if you are applying through this immigration class so that you are eligible to work when you wait for your residency to process. If you’re currently living in Canada on a work or study permit, you’ll need to make sure to apply for an extension before it expires because it will not be automatically renewed just because you’re married to a Canadian or applied for immigration.
If you leave Canada while waiting for your residency to process, there is no guarantee that you would be allowed back into the country, especially if you require a visitor visa in order to enter Canada.
The application to sponsor a member of the family class is typically used if you are living outside the country, though you can sometimes go this route even if you already live in Canada. This application will be processed through the visa office in whichever country you currently live in or hail from. This is the appropriate class to apply through if you currently live in Canada but don’t plan not stay in Canada while your application is processed or if you plan to appeal if your application is refused. While waiting, you can travel back and forth from Canada to wherever you are living, assuming that you do not require a visa in order to enter Canada.
In some situations, you may be able to move to Canada to live with your spouse while waiting for your application to process. This sort of thing is up to the discretion of the border agent so there is no guarantee that you’ll be allowed across the border. You’d have to demonstrate to the agent that you’re in a marriage or marriage-like relationship and that your spouse has already submitted their application to sponsor you to immigrate (or has demonstrated intent to). Be prepared to show all related documentation that were submitted with the application and have printouts of any communication from the IRCC that confirm the status of your application. You’ll also have to convince them that you would voluntarily leave Canada if your application is denied, that you would not try to find employment without a valid work permit, will be able to support yourself or be supported by your spouse while in Canada, and that you would not attempt to benefit from social services until you are granted residency. If the border agent gives you the green light to enter Canada, they’ll make the decision about how long your visa would be valid for.
Step Three: Sponsorship
Before you can apply to immigrate, your spouse will need to apply to sponsor you. Their application will ask some detailed questions including how you met, how the romance developed over time, and the current state of your relationship.
In order to be eligible to sponsor you, your spouse must be one of the following:
- A Canadian citizen currently living in Canada
- A Canadian citizen living outside of Canada that can demonstrate their intent to live in Canada by the time that you become a permanent resident so that you can live in Canada together
- Canadian permanent resident currently living in Canada (permanent residents that do not currently live in Canada are not eligible to sponsor family members)
Your spouse will also sign a contract of undertaking stating that they will provide you with financial support related to basic requirements for a period of 3 years. This is a promise not only to support you, but also that you will not need to apply for social assistance. If you are to apply for social assistance within those 3 years, your spouse will be required to repay whatever amount you receive from the Canadian government during that time. Your spouse will be bound to this undertaking even if you separate or get legally divorced, move to another country, become a Canadian citizen, or experience financial hardships.
Basic requirements are things necessary for everyday living including food, shelter, clothing, household supplies, personal requirements, fuel, and any medical needs that aren’t covered by the provincial health care program.
While they will be responsible for you, there are no financial requirements they would need to meet in order to sponsor you. They do not need to prove a minimum income or savings, though they will need to supply information about both.
If you plan to immigrate with dependent children that are not related to your Canadian spouse, your spouse will also need to also need to sign an undertaking pledging support for a period of 10 years or until that child is 22, whichever happens first. Even if you are to get divorced before the period of undertaking is reached, your spouse would still be responsible for ensuring that your child is supported. This promise of undertaking for dependent children does have financial requirements that need to be met in order to be eligible for sponsorship.
- Proof of citizenship (Canadian birth certificate, certificate of citizenship, or Canadian passport) or permanent residency (permanent resident card, record of landing, or confirmation of permanent residence (CoPR)
- Proof of income:
- Tax returns and income slips for most recent tax year OR explanation for why you cannot provide these
- Letter from your employer stating length of employment, salary, and hours per week (if applicable)
- Welfare receipts and/or receipts from government payouts (if applicable)
- Required only if you will be immigrating with your children:
- Sponsorship evaluation
- Evidence of income for the previous 12 months
- Evidence of savings that show they meet the financial requirements
- Financial evaluation if you are the parent to a dependent child with a child of their own
- Required only if they have been married to another person: divorce, annulment, separation, or death certificate
- Application to sponsor, sponsorship agreement and undertaking
- Sponsorship evaluation and relationship questionnaire form
Things that would disqualify your spouse from sponsoring you are:
- Being under the age of 18
- Became a permanent resident less than 5 years ago through spousal sponsorship
- Sponsoring another spouse within the previous 3 years
- Currently receiving social assistance for any reason other than disability
- An undischarged bankruptcy
- Convictions relating to crimes of a sexual nature, a violent criminal offence, or a violent crime against a family member or romantic partner
- Immigrating to Canada through the Family Class program themselves in the previous 5 years
- Current incarceration
- Default status of loans, family support payments, or performance bonds
- Having sponsored another family member that ended up on social assistance during the period of time that they had promised to provide financial support
- An order to leave Canada (applies to permanent residents only)
Step Four: Your Application
As your spouse is getting together their sponsorship application, you can start working on your own application.
There are no official financial requirements to be eligible for sponsorship. So, you will not need to prove a minimum income or savings. You will, however, need to sign a contract of undertaking promising that you will make all reasonable efforts to support yourself and to provide for basic requirements and that you will ask your spouse for assistance if you are having any trouble doing so. If you end up receiving social benefits within 3 years of becoming a permanent resident, then your spouse will be responsible for paying those funds back to the Canadian government.
- Your Identification:
- Police certificate(s) from any country that you have lived in for 6+ months since turning 18
- Valid passport
- Birth certificates for you and
- 2 photographs for permanent resident card
- Required only if you have been married to another person: divorce, annulment, separation, or death certificate
- Required only if you are applying through the Spouse or Common-Law Partner in Canada Class: visa or permit confirming that you are currently allowed to legally live in Canada
- Required only if you have dependent children (even if they will not be immigrating with you): birth certificates, certificates of adoption, or custody papers
- Document checklist for spouse, common-law partner, or conjugal partner
- Relationship information and sponsorship evaluation form
- Generic application for Canada
- Additional Dependents/Declaration form
- Additional family information form
- Background declaration form
- There may be additional documents specific to whichever country you live in
In order to be granted residency in Canada, you must not be inadmissible to the country. Some things that would make you inadmissable are:
- Having a serious health problem that would be considered to be a danger to public safety
- Having a serious financial problem
- Having a family member that is not allowed in Canada
- Being a security risk
- Violations of human or international rights
- Having ties to organized crime
- Lying on your application or interview
- Having been convicted of drunk or impaired driving
- Having been convicted of a criminal offense
If you have been convicted of a crime, you may not even be able to enter Canada as a visitor. If it has been more than 5 years since the end of your criminal sentence (including any period of probation), then you can apply for rehabilitation. If your crime was committed in Canada, then you can also apply for a record suspension (aka pardon) with the Parole Board of Canada. Your application for permanent residency will not be assessed until you are determined to be rehabilitated.
Step Five: Waiting
After your spouse submits the application, they will receive a confirmation of receipt. Then, they will be evaluated to determine if they are eligible to be a sponsor you for immigration. The amount of time it takes to evaluate their eligibility varies, but since the IRCC aims to fully process 80% of all applications within 12 months, you should expect to hear back about this fairly quickly.
Assuming your spouse is determined to be eligible, the next step is a review of your own eligibility to become a permanent resident of Canada. After your application enters review you’ll receive instructions about getting a medical examination from a panel physician. These examinations are only valid for 12 months so you can’t do this part until you get the green light from the IRCC. Processing times differ depending on the country you live in and which type of application you submitted, but you can generally expect the application to be fully processed within a year unless there are complications. During this time, your spouse can check the status of the application and you can sign up to receive updates as your application is processed.
Depending on the specific details of your relationship and the information included in your application, the IRCC may follow up with you to request additional documentation or clarification. The faster you provide anything that’s requested, the faster your application will be processed.
In some circumstances, you may be required to interview with an immigration official in order to assess the validity of your relationship and your personal background. You will have the opportunity to pick a preferred interview location when submitting your application based on which country you are currently living in. This may require traveling to a specific visa office. For example, applicants living in the U.S. can interview only in Los Angeles, CA or New York, NY. You’ll receive a notification outlining the specifics of the interview in the event that this step is required as part of your application review.
If you applied through the Spouse or Common-Law in Partner Class, you can apply for a work permit so that you are eligible to be hired by a Canadian employer while you wait for your residency to come through. In order to receive the work permit, you’ll need to have the ability to be living in Canada as temporary resident (as a visitor, worker, or student) and live at the same address as your spouse.
You can either send the application for a work permit in along with your application, or submit it afterwards if necessary. You may also be eligible to obtain provincial medical insurance.
If your Canadian spouse is found to be ineligible to sponsor you, you will be refunded all processing fees submitted with your application. You will not have an opportunity to appeal this decision, but if possible, your spouse has the opportunity to resolve whatever circumstances made them ineligible and then you could apply again at a later date.
The IRCC states that if your spouse is rejected as a sponsor, you can still apply for permanent residence, but that your application might not be approved. There’s no further explanation about how you may be eligible even if your spouse is not, so it seems like a long shot.
Some reasons that may lead to rejection:
- If requirements are not met
- If your relationship is found to be fraudulent
- The application does not include all required documents or are missing required information
- You are found to be inadmissible to Canada
You’ll receive a Confirmation of Permanent Residence (CoPR) once your application is processed. The CoPR will have an expiration date on it based on either the date of your medical exam or the expiration date of your passport (a good reason to make sure your passport doesn’t have an approaching expiration date before applying).
If you do not move to Canada before this expiration date, then you will forfeit your invitation and would no longer be eligible for permanent residency. You would not be refunded any fees and would need to re-apply again if you decide to move to Canada in the future.
You will receive your official Permanent Resident card a few weeks after you move to Canada or after confirming your status if you already live in Canada. You will immediately be eligible to apply for provincial health insurance.
Step Six: Living in Canada
Once in Canada, you will need to maintain residency requirements in order to keep your permanent residency status (2 years in a 5 year period must be spent living in Canada). After living in Canada as a permanent resident for 1,460 days, you can apply for citizenship.
Once you’ve been granted residency status through spousal sponsorship, you can’t just get divorced and then sponsor another person to immigrate to Canada. You’ll be barred from sponsoring another spouse to come to Canada for a period of five years after becoming a permanent resident. This doesn’t mean you have to stay together with your original Canadian forever, but you can’t immigrate and then turn around and immediately pay it forward.
You are under no obligation to stay with a spouse that is abusive towards you or your children. In those circumstances, you are encouraged to find safety away from your spouse, even if that means you would need to apply for social assistance.
Other immigration options
Spousal sponsorship is a lengthy process and by no means guaranteed. It is not the only way to immigrate to Canada and we’ll go over the other methods extensively in the coming chapters. All of these programs favor candidates with connections to Canada, such as a Canadian spouse or Canadian relatives. In addition to that, these other immigration programs operate at a much faster speed. If you’re married to a Canadian and don’t qualify for any other immigration program, then this is your best option. However, if you happen to be eligible for any other program, then you’re probably better off trying that other program instead since Express Entry applications are processed in 6 months compared to the 12 for spousal sponsorships.