On June 27, 2023, the Canadian government announced a new “Tech Talent Strategy” aimed at increasing the country’s attractiveness to global talent. Central to the government’s strategy is a program that offers three-year open work permits to foreign nationals who hold H-1B specialty occupation visas in the United States. Spouses of US H-1B visa holders would also be eligible for work authorization in Canada, and children would be eligible for study permits. The Tech Talent Strategy also includes provisions that promote Canada as a destination for digital nomads, improve the allocation of visas to startup companies, and streamline work permit processes. The open work permit program for H-1B visa holders is set to go into effect on July 16, 2023.
Open Work Permits for H-1B Visa Holders in the United States
Under the Tech Talent Strategy, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) will issue open work permits valid for up to three years to individuals holding H-1B visas in the United States. The H-1B is a US specialty occupation visa for positions that require at least a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent in a particular field. Visa holders are limited to six years in H‑1B status, although they can extend that timeframe if they meet specific milestones in the US permanent residency (green card) process.
Canada’s open work permit program for H-1B visa holders will be open for one year or until IRCC receives 10,000 applications from principal applicants, whichever is sooner. Work permit applications from dependent spouses will not count against the limit. Individuals receiving open work permits will be able to work for almost any employer in Canada.
The program’s stated goal is to “expand the opportunities available for skilled workers to continue to pursue their careers in the high-tech sector and contribute to economic growth and prosperity in North America.” The possibility of obtaining an open work permit in Canada is significant for foreign workers in the United States who are approaching the six-year H-1B maximum and who are not eligible for further extensions. Rather than return to their home countries, these foreign workers will now have an easier pathway to work in Canada and thus remain in North America, and potentially afford their US employers more time to complete the lengthy green card process.
Other STEM-Friendly Provisions
In addition to attracting H-1B workers from the United States, the Tech Talent Strategy includes other measures designed to solidify Canada’s reputation as a hub for global talent. These include:
- Digital Nomads: A foreign national will be permitted to perform remote work (commonly referred to as a “digital nomad”) for a foreign employer, while in Canada in visitor status for up to six months. The Tech Talent Strategy aims to allow digital nomads to work remotely for Canada-based employers as well, with the potential for work permits and even permanent residency.
- Startup Visas: Canada’s Start-up Visa (SUV) program provides a path to permanent residence for foreign entrepreneurs with support from a designated Canadian venture capital fund, angel investor, or business incubator. Due to long wait times, IRCC will allow SUV applicants to apply for an open work permit of up to three years, rather than a one-year work permit that limits them to work solely for their own startup.
- Work Permit Processing Times: As part of the country’s Global Skills Strategy, Canada has sought to reduce processing times for work permit applications, which suffered during the pandemic. Under the Tech Talent Strategy, government agencies are recommitted to meeting a two-week standard for processing work permit applications as well as certain labor market impact assessments.
- Filling Labor Market Gaps: Based on persistent labor shortages in technology sectors, IRCC will launch a new Innovation Stream within the government’s International Mobility Program by the end of 2023. The Innovation Stream will create a new exemption from the labor market impact assessment process, which will ease regulatory burdens on high-growth employers and help advance Canada’s innovation priorities in key industries.
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 The US government caps the number of H-1B visas that may be allocated in any given fiscal year at 65,000, plus another 20,000 for individuals with U.S. graduate or professional degrees. Companies must register prospective H-1B employees in a government lottery in order to be eligible to submit an H-1B petition. For FY2024, there were more than 780,000 total registrations, signaling that the demand for H-1B visas far exceeds supply. Only 14.6% of eligible registrations were selected in the lottery and are able to submit an H-1B petition.