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When you first receive a work or study permit, it’s typically a moment of great excitement. The chance to work or study in Canada is monumental for many people and offers them an opportunity to expand their skills and further their education or career goals.

However, if you have a spouse or common-law partner, the thought of being away from them for months or even years at a time is daunting. Many couples do not want to be separated, which forces skilled and educated people to give up opportunities to live or work in Canada, as they believe their partner cannot accompany them.

Fortunately, this is not always true. There are many situations where the spouses or common-law partners of international students or foreign workers can take advantage of a type of work permit called a spousal open work permit (SOWP). These are typically valid for the same length of time as the original work or study permit and allows the couple to be in Canada together.

In this post, we explain the spousal open work permit and show how the partners of work or study permit holders can apply for this unique opportunity.

What is the Spousal Open Work Permit?

The spousal open work permit (SOWP) is a type of work permit offered to the spouses or common-law partners of individuals granted a Canadian work or study permit.

Finding information on the SOWP can be complex, as there are different types offered depending on the type of permit obtained by the principal foreign national (the spouse who initially secured a Canadian work or study permit).

Explaining Common-Law

Before we go any further, it’s helpful to define what Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) mean when they talk about common-law partnerships. This refers to any couple that has lived together in a conjugal relationship for at least one year. The cohabitation must be continuous – it cannot be intermittent.

Unlike a legal relationship like marriage or a civil union, a common-law partnership must be established in each individual case.

What type of work permit is the SOWP?

The spousal open work permit is a particularly useful type of work permit since it is ‘open’ rather than ‘closed’. This means that the open work permit is not tied to a specific employer or even a particular type of job.

With a closed work permit, the individual applying typically must prove that they have a valid offer of employment from a Canadian employer. They must also provide a positive Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA), which is a document that shows that the labour market validates the current need for this foreign worker to fill the job in question. According to Canadian Immigration and Citizenship, this process also shows that “no Canadian worker or permanent resident is available to do the job.”

An open work permit does not require an LMIA, which can be an additional inconvenience and cost to many potential applicants.


Who is eligible for the SOWP?

There are two categories of individuals eligible for a Canadian spousal open work permit.

Update: International Student Spousal Open Work Permits Changed on March 19, 2024

IRCC released updated information about Spousal Open Work Permits on March 19, 2024. Whether or not your spouse can come to Canada depends now depends on a few factors including:

  • When they applied
  • Whether they are currently in Canada on a SOWP
  • And your level of study in Canada.

Spouses and common-law partners of international students

The first category of eligibility covers the spouses and common-law partners of international students on study permits. Certain spouses and common-law partners of international students may be eligible for a Spousal Open Work Permit. Eligibility depends on when you apply, your level of study, and if your spouse or common-law partner is applying to renew an existing spousal open work permit.

If your spouse or common-law partner is applying for an SOWP on or after March 19,2024:

From March 19, 2024, spousal open work permits will only be issued for international students who are studying in specific programs, namely:

  • A master’s or PhD program in a university or polytechnic institution; or
  • Students of specific professional degree programs, namely:
    • Doctor of Dental Surgery.
    • Bachelor of Law or Juris Doctor.
    • Doctor of Medicine.
    • Doctor of Optometry.
    • Pharmacy.
    • Doctor of Veterinary Medicine.
    • Bachelor of Science in Nursing.
    • Bachelor of Education.
    • Bachelor of Engineering.

If your spouse or common-law partner submitted their application for an SOWP before March 19, 2024 or if they’re applying to extend their existing permit:

Your spouse or common-law partner may be eligible for an SOWP if:

  • You have a valid study permit.
  • You’re eligible for a PGWP.
  • You’re a full-time student at a public post-secondary school, or a private college-level school in Quebec or a Canadian private school that can legally award degrees under provincial law.

If eligible, the partner’s SOWP would be valid for the same duration as the principal foreign national’s study permit or post-graduation work permit.

Spouses and common-law partners of temporary foreign workers

The other category of individuals who may apply for a SOWP are spouses or common-law partners of a principal foreign national on a Canadian work permit. In this situation, the couple must be able to prove:

  • The principal foreign national has a valid work permit
  • The principal’s work permit is valid for at least 6 months after the date the SOWP is filed
  • The principal is employed in an eligible occupation
  • They plan to reside in Canada while employed

In both of these cases, the couple must also provide proof that they are in a legitimate relationship.

How to apply for a spousal open work permit

The application process for a spousal open work permit varies depending on whether the individual is applying from within Canada or outside of the country.

Before you do anything, take a look at the eligibility criteria for your category, and determine whether your situation checks all the boxes. If not, your application will not be approved.

If you are applying from within Canada, take a look at this instruction guide to ensure you have everything you need. From there, you will use an online tool to answer questions related to your personal details, relationship, as well as your partner’s work or study permit. The online tool will then generate a personalized document checklist.

Once you have gathered all the required documents, you can create an IRCC online account, which will allow you to scan and upload all required documentation and application forms and pay the required fees.

If you are applying from outside Canada, the application forms and documentation required will vary depending on your country of origin. You can choose whether to apply online or use a paper application.

Applying for a spousal open work permit is an excellent opportunity for non-Canadian couples to explore Canada together. To learn more about how to successfully enter Canada as a couple, explore Moving2Canada’s resources on immigration, employment, and so much more.

About the author

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Rebecca Major

Regulated Canadian Immigration Consultant
Rebecca Major is a Regulated Canadian Immigration Consultant (R511564) with nearly 15 years of licenced Canadian Immigration experience, gained after graduating with a Bachelor of Laws in the UK. She specializes in Canadian immigration at Moving2Canada.
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Citation "Spousal Open Work Permit (SOWP) in Canada: All You Need To Know." Moving2Canada. . Copy for Citation