E-Residency in Estonia

ADMD Law Office, Sofian Bianca

1. Introduction

As the world seems to develop faster and faster, a new gadget has been placed to the disposal of the foreigners and non-resident persons in Estonia, namely the digital identity card also known as e-residency. The primary goal of this idea is to simplify the process of using the Estonian public and private services by using secure e-services, which are already available to Estonian citizens.

At October 21, 2014 the digital e-residency rights that are already available to Estonian nationals, were extended to also apply to foreigners as from December 1, 2014. The extension of such e-residency rights to foreigners is expected to attract around 10 million “digital citizens” by the end of 2025. Considering that the population of Estonia is a mere 1.3 million people, such e-residency program may greatly benefit Estonia’s economy.

2. The Utility of e-Residency

It should be noted that e-residency is usable only in a digital environment for identifying a person and providing a digital signature to access certain e-services. It also provides access to numerous online services which includes bank management, government dealings, company management, contracts, business/company registration, child benefit applications, payment of administrative fines such as parking/speeding tickets, and even checking medical records online.

It should be noted that as far as e-residency is concerned, a digital signature of a person shall have the same legal consequences as a hand-written one as long as the relevant legislation does not state otherwise. However, it should be noted that this only applies within the confines of the Estonian Law, and therefore the legal standing of a digital signature shall be subject to the relevant country’s law and the agreement between the parties outside Estonia.

Both authentication and digital signature are called certificate, which binds the necessary data for certifying the authenticity of the person and the digital signature with a person and certifies the identity of the person. The digital ID card and its certificates are valid for three (3) years and the renewal of certificates is not possible. This process differs from the ID-cards issued prior January 1, 2007, which were, and in some cases still are valid for ten (10) years and its certificates for three (3) years. The certificates of such ID-Cards could be renewed free of charge upon the expiry of their validity.

It should be noted that with the new e-residency program, the entrepreneurs will be able do the following via the online system:

  • establish Estonian companies online via Company Registration Portal,
  • view their tax accounts and submit online tax returns via e-Tax Board,
  • access all their bank accounts with a single smart card,
  • use Estonian digital signature on any official document and in other EU member states starting from 2016,
  • use free encrypting service with the smart card,
  • use Estonian public services via state portal eesti.ee,
  • can be part of digital revolution and can become an e-Estonian as an early adaptor.

3. Requirements for application

E-residency can be attributed to a person who justifies an interest towards the Estonian e-services or who has a connection with the Estonian state. However, in cases of applications for e-resident digital ID to children under the age of 15, the following documents shall be required:

  • Identification documents to be submitted by the legal guardian of the child, or;
  • if the application is submitted by a court-appointed guardian or a representative authorized by a guardianship authority, a document certifying the right of representation.

4. Application Procedure

It should be noted that currently, only domestic applications are accepted for e-residency applications, meaning that a person may only apply for the e-residency within Estonia. However, a new system will be implemented in the near future, possibly spring of 2015, which will allow applications to e-residency to be submitted from abroad, via relevant Estonian embassies and consular offices. However, such system is not currently implemented and therefore only domestic applications are possible.

Accordingly, once the applicants arrive in Estonia, they will need to apply to the nearest Police and Border Guard Office to submit their application for e-residency. Once the application is submitted through the relevant office and approved, the relevant documents will be submitted to the applicant. It should be noted that upon application, the applicant shall be required to present a valid identification obtained from the relevant authorities of his/her home country (such as a passport). The applicant will be identified on the basis of document the applicant’s face biometrics and finger prints shall be recorded.

Therefore, the required documents for domestic applications are as set forth below:

  • Travel document or physical identification document from your native country
  • Photograph, taken at the location
  • Application form, filled out at the location
  • Biometric information to be presented at application (fingerprints)
  • Application fee of EUR 50.

Furthermore, a background and criminal check of the applicant will be performed by the Estonian Police and Border Guard office which may take up to fourteen (14) days to finalize. After a successful background and criminal check, a notification will be sent to the applicant via the applicants designated e-mail address at the application form, whether or not the eligibility conditions are fulfilled. If the application is successful, the notification will also include the date, time and location to collect the relevant card. It should also be noted that once the abroad application system implemented, it will be possible claim the relevant card upon a successful application from the closes embassy.

5. Accessibility

It should be noted that the relevant legislation allows the providers of a public or private service the discretion to decide whether or not to provide such services to a certain applicant, to limit the provision of the service availability in the extent of the content of the service, as well as the number of people with access or to prescribe additional requirements for gaining access to the service, including submission of additional data and documents or personal appearance in the location of the service provider.

6. Utility outside Estonia

At the moment, the secure identification on the internet with an ID card and the possibility to provide a digital signature is available in several European Union Member States in addition to Estonia, such as Austria, Belgium, Spain, Latvia, Finland and elsewhere. Although not all Member States recognize the digital signatures of other Member States, this will be mandatory for all Member States starting from 2016. Also, the digital identity which allows access to the digital identity cards of other countries will be recognized starting from 2018.

7. Protection of data

Data protection in Estonia is regulated by the Personal Data Protection Act which regulates the use of personal data in databases containing personal data by public authorities and private entities. Accordingly, the relevant authority for data protection in Estonia is the Estonian Data Protection Inspection Agency which oversees that the requirements of the act law on data protection met. However, due to the fact that very little private data is available in the card, protection of data does not constitute too much of a problem. Furthermore, it should be noted that the certificates on the cards are publicly available in a directory service since they contain only the card holder’s name and personal ID and no other personal data. Accordingly, in Estonia such data is considered as public data by nature. It should also be noted that if and when a person suspends or revokes his certificate, it will also be removed from the directory and the data will no longer be available to the public.

Furthermore, any person who wishes to access this publicly available data will be required to access the system via the card itself. Therefore, the public data file is not published online and the personal data on the card in visual and electronic format are accessible only to those persons to whom the card holder physically presents the card. The general stance to ID card and data protection in Estonia is that the card should contain as little private data as possible. Instead, the data should be kept in databases at relevant authorities and a person can use the card as a digital key (authorization method) to access his or her data in the database.

8. Comparison with other countries’ type of e-residency

The most similar system to the Estonian e-residency is the e-residency system implemented in Malta. Since January 2013, the Department for Citizenship & Expatriate of Malta (the Department) required that all non-Maltese nationals who legally reside in Malta and who hold identity cards and/or residence permit stickers in their passport must replace such documentation with the new e-residence document. Such document consists of a plastic card that contains the information of the previous Identity Cards and Residence Permits.

Applicants are required to personally visit the offices of the Department to be photographed by the relevant officials for the purposes of e-residency application. If the applicant’s home country is one of the countries listed as Third World Countries, biometric data (two index fingers) of the applicant will also be required. Furthermore, the family members and children under the age of 12 of applicants who are EU, EEA or Swiss nationals, shall be exempt from the biometric data (finger prints) requirement.

As an additional rule, all foreign nationals applying for a residence permit in Malta, whether they are European nationals or third world country nationals must present to the Expatriates Department that they are not going to pose a burden on the Maltese economy. Therefore any applicant regardless of whether they are European Union nationals or a third world country national are required to provide documentary evidence of their medical cover and their financial resources.

The main benefits of Malta’s e-residency are:

  • Access a number of electronic services provided by the Government and other parties
  • May opt to vote at the Local Council Elections and/or EU Parliament Elections
  • Obtain an e-ID subscription
  • Discounted public transport fares

Applications for e-residency cards are only accepted by prior appointment with the department and it can take between 4-8 weeks to be processed.

As we can observe, the major difference is the lack of digital signature of the e-residence and its availability only in a real environment and not in a digital one. In other EU countries there are no such e-residencies, but the normal residence permits, which are usually required if staying more than 3 months in the country. Therefore, at the moment it seems like there is no better option than the e-residency of Estonia.