A guide to visitor visas in Canada: Reasonable Doubt

Having loved ones visit you in Canada is trickier than you think


Those of us who are Canadian citizens are used to easy travel. Out of the world’s 195 countries, Canadians can travel to 172 of them without a visa. Even when a visa is required, it’s usually easy to get. The distinctive maple leaf on a Canadian passport is often greeted with a smile and a handshake.

So it often comes as a surprise when friends or relatives who wish to visit Canada are refused visitor visas and denied entry. The reality is that while the rest of the world looks upon Canadians with warm and welcoming eyes, Canadian immigration authorities scrutinize those coming from abroad with an unexpected degree of doubt, suspicion and skepticism. Visiting Canada is made all the more difficult by the fact that the official government guide for would-be visitors does very little to inform applicants about what is needed for a strong visa application. For those of you planning on having a friend or relative visit you in Canada, here are some things to keep in mind:

Is a visa necessary?

Not all foreign nationals coming to Canada need a visa. To find out whether a visitor needs a visa, consult the “entry requirements by country” section of the government’s immigration website. Travellers coming from visa-exempt countries need to apply for an electronic travel authorization (eTA) if they are arriving by plane. If they are coming by car, train, bus or boat, an eTA is not required.

Applying for a Visitor Visa (a.k.a. Temporary Resident Visa (TRV))

As mentioned above, there is a government-written guide for TRV applications. It provides in-depth information about how to complete the necessary immigration forms and even links to a simple checklist to assist visitors in compiling their applications. While easy to follow, the guide and checklist give the impression that following them to the letter will result in an application that is likely to be approved. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Aside from checking that travel documents are in order, forms are filled out correctly and a visitor is not otherwise inadmissible to Canada (due to criminality, medical conditions, etc.), the evaluating immigration officer must be satisfied that the visitor will leave Canada by the end of their visa. The guide offers almost no information on how the officer decides whether a visitor will overstay their visa, even though this is one of the most common – if not the most common – reason visitor visa applications get refused.

In practice, officers consider several different factors in assessing the risk of overstaying. Here are some of those factors, as well as possible ways in which a visitor may choose to address them:

Purpose and length of the visit

The document checklist requires a “purpose of travel” letter to be included as part of the application, but gives little guidance on what that letter is. Think of this document as a blueprint for the trip. The visitor should include as much detail as possible specific dates of travel and details about accommodations make for a better document than a single sentence stating that “I want to visit my friend in Canada.” A plan for the trip will help assure the officer that the visitor’s stay in Canada will be temporary.

Though not a requirement in most cases, visitors can include a “letter of invitation” from a person residing in Canada to help prove the purpose of their visit. Effective letters, like the purpose of travel document, should be detailed. A good letter of invitation tells the officer about the Canadian resident, their relationship with the visitor, and why they are inviting the visitor to Canada. If the resident will be providing the visitor with accommodations during their stay, this should be stated in the letter.

Ties to their home country

The officer’s assessment of this factor is simple: the stronger the visitor’s ties to their home country, the more likely they are to return there when their visa expires. Visitors can describe these ties in the purpose of travel letter and also support them with other evidence:

  1. If the visitor’s entire family lives in their home country, then they can include letters from family members talking about the close relationship between the visitor and the family, making it less likely that the visitor will choose to abandon their family and stay in Canada.
  2. If the visitor has a job in their home country, they can include a letter from their employer confirming employment and the employer’s agreement to give the visitor the necessary time off for the trip to Canada.
  3. If the visitor owns property in their home country, they can include a copy of the deed to confirm ownership.

These are only a few examples of country ties. Anything else that binds the visitor to their home country can help convince the officer that the visit to Canada will be temporary. However, even strong ties do not guarantee a successful application. Visitors should also keep in mind that their country of residence itself may be an obstacle to their application. Officers are wary of applicants from impoverished countries and countries in the grips of conflict, so visitors from such places should include as much evidence of their ties to their home country as possible.

Ties to Canada

The officer also considers the visitor’s ties to Canada that may cause a visitor to overstay their visa. Family members living in Canada are a common example of a tie to Canada. Strong applications acknowledge these ties (as applicants must be truthful in their applications) while at the same time stressing that the visitor has more incentive to return to their home country than to stay in Canada.

Financial support

Before granting a visitor visa, the officer needs to also be satisfied that the visitor will be able to sustain themselves while in Canada and afford a ticket home. Bank statements showing the visitor’s savings is one of the easiest ways to show that they have enough money for their trip. If a Canadian resident is offering the visitor free accommodations, this can be brought to the attention of the officer.

Past refusals

Officers give significant weight to previous refusals of immigration applications. Thus, all other things being equal, a visitor with no previous refusals will have a higher chance of getting a visa than a visitor whose application was refused in the past. To limit the impact past refusals have on the outcome of an application, visitors can explain how they addressed the concerns identified in their previous refusal in their current application.

These are only some of the poorly explained factors that officers consider when deciding whether to issue a visitor visa. For a detailed look into how officers approach TRV applications, see the TRV Program Delivery Instructions.

Does my visitor need a lawyer?

There is no requirement that a visitor applying for a TRV retains a lawyer or an immigration consultant. The Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada website contains all the guidance a would-be visitor would need to apply for a TRV on their own.

However, retaining a legal professional can help with putting forward the strongest TRV application possible. Given their experience and expertise, legal professionals can identify weaknesses and errors in the application that the visitor might have missed. Legal professionals also routinely draft cover letters to accompany applications where they point the officer to all of the evidence included with the application to make sure that it doesn’t go unnoticed.

Ultimately, getting a visitor visa to Canada is a trickier process than most people think. Even if a visitor submits the perfect application, there is no guarantee of success. Otherwise great applications can be let down by factors the applicants can’t control, such as which visa office they must apply to and which particular visa officer gets assigned to their application.

Refusals happen, and they happen often. Luckily, a refusal is not the end of the road. A visitor can either submit a new application addressing the officer’s concerns or appeal the officer’s decision to the Federal Court of Canada. While, in most cases, reapplication is the more practical and timely option, an appeal to the Federal Court may necessary where an officer’s decision is so damaging as to make reapplication pointless.

Leo Rayner is an immigration lawyer with Legally CanadianReasonable Doubt appears on Mondays.

A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Legally Canadian or the lawyers of Legally Canadian.

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