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Candid Canadian Question – Can I Work in Canada Without a Visa?

Ottawa, September 2020
Ottawa, September 2020

“Hypothetically—asking for a friend, obviously—can a foreign national work in Canada without a proper permit?”

No matter how it’s phrased, this is the gist of the question I get asked once in a while. Sometimes it comes from a backpacker running out of money and looking for under-the-table opportunities. Sometimes it’s from people far, far away who don’t qualify for any of the work permit options but want to come to Canada to find a better life and maybe a legal way to stay eventually. Sometimes it’s from foreign students or temporary residents with expired work permit.

Hey, I’m not here to judge.

From a legal perspective, working illegally in Canada can get you—and your employer—into a lot of trouble. It’s also probably morally questionable since you’re taking a shortcut and not paying income taxes.

But again, you’re not coming here for a lecture.

So how about a reality check? Working in Canada without a valid permit is difficult and that alone should be a deterrent.

Still considering it? Then you need a plan to tackle these challenges.

Four challenges illegal workers face

Challenge #1 – Lack of references

Congrats, you got a job interview. If it goes well, the next step will probably be a reference check, which means your potential employer will contact up to three former managers or supervisors to confirm employment dates and ask a few questions about your personal and professional skills.

If you were already working off the books in Canada, your previous employer may not appreciate being listed as a reference—I mean, technically, you didn’t exist, right?

And potential employers are less excited about foreign references— this a common immigrant job-seeker dilemma, by the way, the “Canadian experience catch-22.”

Issue #2 – No SIN number

Got a job offer? All legit employers will ask for your Social Insurance Number (SIN) during the onboarding process.

A SIN is a unique nine-digit number that identifies Canadian citizens, permanent residents and temporary residents. It’s used for tax reporting purposes, so your employer needs it when you start working.

Temporary residents are issued a SIN that begins with a “9.” Employers often ask for a copy of the work permit to make sure it’s still valid.

Permanent residents and Canadian citizens are issued a SIN that begins with “1” (if issued in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador), “2” or “3” (Quebec), “4” or “5” (Ontario), “6” (Prairies, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and northwestern Ontario) and “7” if issued in the Pacific region.

Providing a fake SIN (i.e. just making up a number) won’t work for long because your employer will remit your income tax deducted to the Canada Revenue Agency and quickly realize the number doesn’t exist or doesn’t match existing records.

Issue #3 – Getting paid

Let’s assume you did get hired and started work. Now you want to get paid, right?

Most employers use direct deposit, which means your pay is electronically transferred to your bank account. Problem is, you need two pieces of ID to open a bank account in Canada. And if you’re not a Canadian citizen, you will need to show a confirmation of Permanent Resident or work permit.

If your employer pay by cheque, your only option will be to cash it in one of these “payday loans” places—Eazy Cash, Cash Shop, etc. They charge fees and probably ask for ID.

Issue #4 – Enforcing your worker’s rights

Let’s just say that employers who knowingly hire illegal workers aren’t usually known for best practices.

You could be forced to work overtime and for less than minimum wage, your work environment could be unsafe and there’s also a risk you’ll get paid whenever your employer feels like it.

Issue #5 – Stalling your career

On the long term, working illegally can hurt your career. First, it’s going to be tricky to list your experience on your resume and getting a reference from the job. Second, it’s also unlikely you’ll get meaningful opportunities—you’re probably going to be stuck with work no one else wants to do.

Still willing to chance it? Here are some options

Again, I don’t believe in lecturing people, so if you’re desperate for work you could:

  • Leverage the “immigrant network,” i.e. looking work opportunities within your community. For instance, working in an Australian pub as an Australian, with a Spanish construction crew if you’re Spanish, etc.
  • Look for odd jobs such as garden work, snow shovelling, pet care, cleaning, etc. Keep an eye on special events as well, extra help may be needed.

Do explore legal ways to work in Canada

Most foreign workers do need a permit to work in Canada but there are plenty of options for open work permits and employer-specific work permits. And if you’re 18-35 years old, you may be eligible for a Working Holiday Visa!

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