Estonia, one of the world’s most digitally advanced countries located in Eastern Europe, has decided to extend its e-residency benefits to foreigners, in an attempt to acquire ten million new “digital citizens” by 2025.
Estonia has been known for its tech-savvy government that promotes the use of online technology for the benefit of its citizens. The country issues a digital ID card to every citizen when they reach 15 years of age. The card works through X-road, an IT platform, and allows users to get access to about 4,000 services online. With the help of this digital card, citizens can pay their parking tickets, register their businesses, check their medical records, manage their bank accounts or even apply for child benefits. At the moment, 90% of Estonians use this service. About one-third of Estonian citizens use it to cast votes online.
The digital ID concept will now be extended to foreigners through the newly launched ‘e-residency’ which will allow people to get online access to Estonia’s public and private online facilities. This implies that people who may be living in a different part of the world can still become “digital citizens” of Estonia and make use of all associated rights online.
In October last year, Estonian parliament voted in favor of extending the digital e-residency rights by the end of the year. It is estimated that through this e-residency program, Estonia will be able to attract 10 million “digital citizens” by 2025. The government also hopes that this program will encourage wealthy foreigners to start online businesses in the Estonian domain. Applications for the new e-residency is expected to be processed in just 18 minutes.
“The primary goal of the e-residency initiative has been straightforward: to make life and business easier for our international partners and non-resident foreigners who have a relation to Estonia – who invest, work or study here and do trade with us,” says Siim Sikkut, an Estonian government official.
However, this digital residency will not provide non-residents with constitutional rights, and will only allow users access to day-to-day concerns. The ID card issued to foreigners will have a microchip, and it will allow access to services through a two-step authentication process with the help of a USB card reader.
“General banking, government dealings, company management, contracts, medical visits; non-residents will have secure access to online services and ability to digitally sign in legally binding manner just like Estonians do,” says Sikkut.
The beta testing of the new program has already got more than 13,000 people signed up from different nationalities. Most of the people believe that this how the future world would look like.
The program also aims to encourage foreign businesses by cutting red tape. For instance, Oleg Antipanov, a Russian national, is fed up of the bureaucracy in his homeland. “Russia has a lot of strange requirements for business. Here if you want to open a bank account you must show them pictures of your office and have a landline, even though some of us work remotely. Plus, after the crisis in Ukraine the pressure only got worse,” he says.
British national Ruth Chamberlain plans to launch a business funding platform in Estonia. She plans to apply for the Estonian e-residence as soon as possible. The procedure at the moment requires her to visit the Estonian police or border guards to go through a background check. A fee of 50 Euros is charged, after which she would need to collect the ID card in person by the end of two weeks.
But Estonia plans to further improve this process so that all the above steps can be carried out in the Estonian embassies of the resident’s home country and s/he wouldn’t need to travel to Estonia.
Estonia, with a population of 1.3 million – the lowest in Europe, has been struggling with the problem of talented Estonians leaving the country to expand their businesses in the outer world. Critics have pointed out that free WiFi and easy access to government services online is not enough for Estonian citizens and that the government has not yet developed a model that can encourage people to pursue their careers in Estonia itself. There is also skepticism over how the new program will benefit foreigners and people are waiting for the roll-out to see what’s on offer.
The Estonian government also claims that unlike other countries in Europe, their approach to immigration is more balanced and realistic. “Estonian government and society have always understood that as small economy, we have to be open to the world – especially in trade and investment. Thus, any measures that improve the business climate are well-regarded and sought for,” says Sikkut.
There have also been some concerns over privacy issues surrounding the data collected by the Estonian government while issuing such digital ID cards. But the government has promised to maintain strict standards of privacy and the highest levels of data security. “We have to protect everyone’s privacy. Trust is a basic principle. If people can’t trust e-services, they will never use them,” says Andrus Ansip, former prime minister of Estonia.