COVID-19 and study permits for Canada: What international students need to know

International students in Canada and COVID-19

In a normal year, hundreds of thousands of international students come to Canada to pursue their studies. But, as you know, 2020 is not a normal year. 

Here’s a comprehensive guide to everything international students need to know about study permits and studying in Canada during COVID-19. From travel restrictions, to study permit applications, to post-graduation work permit eligibility. We’ve got you covered. 

Moving2Canada is committed to providing up-to-date accurate information amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Please refer to the end of this article for our list of sources.

How to enter Canada with your study permit / approval letter

As of October 20, 2020, international students attending a Designated Learning Institution (DLI) that has been specifically approved by their provincial or territorial government as having a COVID-19 readiness plan will be able to enter Canada. You can search the list of approved DLIs here.

In order to enter, an international student must have a valid study permit or a letter of introduction that shows they were approved for a study permit. (Source: IRCC)

As well, anyone entering Canada at this time is subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine period. International students are subject to this mandatory quarantine period — no exceptions. However, international students may want to consult with their school in Canada, as a component of the school’s COVID-19 readiness plan addresses the school’s ability to support some parts of a student’s quarantine experience.

When international students enter Canada, border services officers may ask if the student has time to complete their quarantine period before attending classes in-person, or if they can attend classes online while in quarantine. Finally, if your study program has been suspended or cancelled you will not be able to enter Canada at this time.

Jump ahead to find the answer to your question:


Can international students travel to Canada during COVID-19?

As of October 20, 2020, International students attending a post-secondary institution in Canada with an approved COVID-19 readiness plan can enter Canada. A full list of approved DLIs is here. In order to enter, an international student must have a valid study permit or a letter of introduction that shows they were approved for a study permit. (Source: IRCC)

Anyone entering Canada at this time is subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine period. International students are subject to this mandatory quarantine period — no exceptions. However, international students may want to consult with their school in Canada, as a component of the school’s COVID-19 readiness plan addresses the school’s ability to support some parts of a student’s quarantine experience.

When international students enter Canada, border services officers may ask if the student has time to complete their quarantine period before attending classes in-person, or if they can attend classes online while in quarantine. Finally, if your study program has been suspended or cancelled you will not be able to enter Canada at this time.

Take note: Canada’s travel restrictions will be updated in response to the progression of COVID-19, both in Canada and around the world. Stay tuned to our COVID Newsfeed for the latest updates.


What is considered “non-optional / non-discretionary travel” for international students?

As of October 20, 2020, an international student’s travel to Canada will be considered essential (non-discretionary) if their DLI is on the approved list and if they have either a valid study permit or a letter of introduction demonstrating they’ve been approved for a study permit.

As a student, travel to Canada won’t be considered essential (non-discretionary) if:

  • the student’s study program has been cancelled or suspended
  • the student is entering Canada for any reason other than to study

Is Canada still processing study permit applications?

Yes. Canada is still processing study permit applications. However, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has indicated that many immigration applications are experiencing processing delays due to the impact of COVID-19 on the immigration department. 

Canada has adopted a new two-step process for study permit applicants which will enable some international students to begin their Canadian studies without a final approval on their study permit (refer below).


How does Canada’s new two-step approval process for study permits work?

Normally, an international student living outside Canada has to submit a complete study permit application and receive an approval letter before they can travel to Canada and begin their studies. After receiving their approval letter, the student may travel to Canada where they activate their study permit at the Canadian port of entry (POE). 

The new two-step process enables students to begin their studies remotely, via distance learning, while receiving a sort of halfway-approval on their study permit. This is because, as many of Canada’s immigration offices around the world are closed or offering reduced services, many study permit applicants are unable to obtain and submit some of the documents required for their study permit applications, including biometrics, medical examination results, and their original travel documents.

The new two-step process is as follows:

Step One: Approval-in-principle & distance learning

Study permit applicants must begin by submitting their application for a study permit, even if they are unable to obtain some of the normally-required documents.  Under the new two-step system, study permit applicants may submit their study permit applications without their:

  • Biometrics,
  • Medical exam, 
  • Police certificates, and/or
  • Original travel documents. 

However, study permit applicants will still need to submit:

  • Letter of acceptance from a designated learning institution (DLI) in Canada,
  • Proof of funds,
  • Proof of eligibility for a study permit aside from documents unavailable due to COVID, and
  • Only for Quebec schools: Quebec Acceptance Certificate (CAQ).

If a study permit applicant submits an application that would be deemed eligible aside from missing any of the above-mentioned documents, immigration officers will issue the applicant an “approval-in-principle.” With the approval-in-principle, the study permit applicant is authorized to begin their Canadian studies from abroad. 

Notably, international students who begin their studies from abroad can count their time spent studying abroad towards their eligibility for a post-graduation work permit, as long as 50 percent of their studies are eventually completed inside Canada. However, an international student cannot begin their Canadian studies until they receive an approval-in-principle on their study permit application.

Step Two: Submit missing documentation & full approval

Once a student is able to obtain and submit the missing documents for their study permit application, they must do so. At this point, immigration officers will assess the final study permit application and decide whether to approve or refuse the application. Receiving an ‘approval-in-principle’ in Step One does not guarantee that a study permit will be issued. 

In normal circumstances, once a study permit applicant receives the approval letter for their study permit, they can travel to Canada and activate the permit at a port of entry. However, due to Canada’s COVID-19 travel restrictions, only study permit applicants who are studying at DLIs with approved COVID-19 readiness plans will be able to enter Canada. All other international students can monitor Canada’s travel restrictions for updates to see when they’ll be eligible for travel. 


What if I can’t get all the documents required for my study permit application?

As described in the above question, study permit applicants may submit an incomplete application is they are unable to obtain or submit one of the following documents due to COVID-19:

  • Biometrics,
  • Medical exam, 
  • Police certificates, and/or
  • Original travel documents. 

No study permit application will be refused if those documents are missing as a result of COVID-19. Instead, study permit applicants may be able use the new two-step application process to begin their studies from abroad via distance learning until they can obtain the necessary documents and safely travel to Canada.


What if I’m supposed to start (or continue) my Canadian studies in Winter 2021 but I’m outside the country?

As of October 20, 2020, international students attending a post-secondary institution in Canada with an approved COVID-19 readiness plan can enter Canada. A full list of approved DLIs is here. In order to enter, an international student must have a valid study permit or a letter of introduction that shows they were approved for a study permit. (Source: IRCC). 

If you are unable to enter Canada at this time, there are special measures in place to help you.

If you are stuck outside Canada but you have a study permit, an approval for a study permit, or an approval-in-principle for a study permit, then you can begin or continue your studies from abroad without this impacting your eligibility for a post-graduation work permit (PGWP). Under these special measures you can complete a percentage of your studies from abroad and still count this time towards your eligibility for a PGWP. The percentage of online course work you can complete while maintaining eligibility for your PGWP depends on which situation describes you:

  • Students may now study online from abroad until April 30, 2021, with no time deducted from the length of a future post-graduation work permit, provided 50 percent of their program of study is eventually completed in Canada.
  • Students who have enrolled in a program that is between 8 and 12 months in length, with a start date from May to September 2020, will be able to complete their entire program online from abroad and still be eligible for a post-graduation work permit.
  • Students who have enrolled in a program with a start date from May to September 2020 and study online up to April 30, 2021, and who graduate from more than one eligible program of study, may be able to combine the length of their programs of study when they apply for a post-graduation work permit in the future, as long as 50 percent of their total studies are completed in Canada.

Canada’s COVID-19 travel restrictions are constantly evolving. Follow our COVID-19 Newsfeed for the latest updates to travel restrictions for international students. 


Can I still apply for a study permit through the Student Direct Stream (SDS)?

You can only submit an application through the Student Direct Stream (SDS) if your application is complete without any missing documents. While Canada is allowing regular study permit applicants to submit applications with documents missing due to COVID-19, the Student Direct Stream is not allowing incomplete applications at this time. 

If you are applying as a resident of an SDS-participating country but you cannot obtain all the required documents, you must apply through the regular study permit stream.


If I do online studies will I still be able to apply for a Post-Graduation Work Permit (PGWP)?

Canada has introduced special measures due to COVID-19 which allow international students to complete a percentage of their studies from abroad and still count this time towards their eligibility for a post-graduation work permit (PGWP). The percentage of online course work you can complete while maintaining eligibility for your PGWP depends on which situation describes you:

  • Students may now study online from abroad until April 30, 2021, with no time deducted from the length of a future post-graduation work permit, provided 50 percent of their program of study is eventually completed in Canada.
  • Students who have enrolled in a program that is between 8 and 12 months in length, with a start date from May to September 2020, will be able to complete their entire program online from abroad and still be eligible for a post-graduation work permit.
  • Students who have enrolled in a program with a start date from May to September 2020 and study online up to April 30, 2021, and who graduate from more than one eligible program of study, may be able to combine the length of their programs of study when they apply for a post-graduation work permit in the future, as long as 50 percent of their total studies are completed in Canada.

You will still have to meet all other eligibility requirements for a PGWP. To be eligible for these measures, students must have submitted a study permit application before starting a program of study in the spring, summer, or fall 2020 semester, or the January 2021 semester. All students must eventually be approved for a study permit.


What if I submitted my study permit application, but my school in Canada has cancelled classes or closed down?

If your school has cancelled your classes, your program, or closed down entirely, an immigration officer should issue a request for a new letter of acceptance, giving you an opportunity to apply for a study permit under a different program.


I am a study permit holder in Canada. Can I work more than 20 hours per week during COVID-19?

A temporary measure was in place until August 31 enabling international students working in essential services or functions to work beyond the weekly limit of 20 hours per week as indicated on their study permits. This measure is no longer in place.


I am a study permit holder in Canada, but I have had to reduce or pause my studies due to COVID-19. Can I still work?

Yes. International students who were forced to drop to part-time studies or pause their studies are still eligible to work on- or off-campus during their period of reduced study. However, students must still abide by the conditions of their study permits, including those regarding how many hours they can work per week. 

Students eligible for on-campus work may continue working for their on-campus employer remotely. The on-campus employer should provide a teleworking agreement as evidence of such an arrangement.


How has COVID-19 affected international students in Quebec?

Effective October 20, 2020, international students attending a Designated Learning Institution (DLI) that has been specifically approved by their provincial or territorial government as having a COVID-19 readiness plan will be able to enter Canada. Notably, all post-secondary institutions in Quebec are on the approved list. You can search the list of approved DLIs here.

International students studying at institutions in the province of Quebec are likely aware that Quebec’s process for study permit applicants is different from the rest of Canada. The province of Quebec has introduced its own set of special measures to assist international students during COVID-19. Please refer here for more information.


I applied for my study permit outside Canada, but I’m inside Canada with an approval letter. Can I activate my study permit?

New process for activating study permits inside Canada: Individuals who are inside Canada but have were approved for a study permit and have a valid Letter of Introduction (LOI) have a new process enabling them to activate their study permit from inside Canada. Individuals in this situation may activate their study permit by submitting a IRCC web form and including the exact message outlined on this IRCC page. If the individual meets the criteria, their permit will be mailed to them. This only applies to applicants who submitted their study permit application while outside Canada.


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