Student checking their phone

By Moira MacDonald


No kidding – there has been a whirlwind of changes to Canada’s study permit program for foreign nationals since late 2023. Among these is a limit over the next two years on the number of new study permit applications that the federal government will process as of Jan. 22, the date the change was announced. At the time of the announcement, the cap was expected to result in about 360,000 approved study permits, a 35 percent cut compared to 2023.


If you are a student from outside Canada who has had this country on your list of potential university study destinations, you likely have a lot of questions. “For students, question number one is, ‘Does Canada remain open?’ And the short answer is, ‘Yes,’” says Larissa Bezo, CEO of the Canadian Bureau for International Education.


However, after massive growth in this sector over the last decade and concerns about meeting the country’s obligations to international students, Canada’s federal immigration department said it had to step in to protect the system’s integrity and ensure students are treated fairly.   No target for the processing of study permit applications in 2025 has been announced and the number is to be re-assessed at the end of 2024, the government said. This is the first time that a limit of this kind has been set by Canada.


“To be absolutely clear, these measures are not against individual international students,” Immigration Minister Marc Miller said at the Jan. 22 announcement. “They are to ensure that as future students arrive in Canada, they receive the quality of education that they signed up for and the hope that they were provided in their home countries.”


What does this mean for you, dear prospective international student? Sector experts say Canada remains a good bet for a quality university education that is well-recognized globally. But you should take some time to understand the details of the recent changes and how they affect you, including whether your planned course of study is even impacted by the cap. If it is, find out what the additional requirements are, including the all-important “provincial letter of attestation,” and what to expect around timing for the processing of your study permit application.


On to some myth-busting and question answering …


Is Canada banning visas for foreign students?

No. Canada’s immigration department is reducing the number of new study permits it will process for international students in 2024 and 2025. For 2024, it has set a limit or “cap” of processing 606,250 study permit applications for affected programs.


Are all incoming international students affected by the study permit cap?

No. International students pursuing master’s or doctoral studies, or those headed into elementary or secondary school programs are not included in the cap. Students who already have study permits and those seeking renewals are also not affected. Students coming to Canada for six months or less are not required to have a study permit and are also not included in the cap.


Are Canadian universities still interested in international students? Is it even worth trying to come to Canada?

Again, the answer is yes. Canadian universities are still very interested in having international students at every level. “Universities are still accepting applications from international students and now’s a great time to apply,” said Graham Barber, assistant director, international relations at Universities Canada, which advocates on behalf of Canadian universities. Graduate level students are not impacted at all by the study permit restrictions. This has been viewed by some immigration observers as a signal that Canada is particularly keen on students at this level of study. If you are in this category and have a letter of acceptance, there’s no need to delay your study permit application.


How will the cap affect my chances of getting a study permit and how will it be applied?

While fewer permits will be approved than last year, the cut brings the numbers close to where they were around 2022  (407,000 for all levels of study ), which remains substantial. Each of Canada’s 10 provinces and three territories has been given a share of the 606,250 study permit applications that will be processed for the capped groups, based on their population. Each jurisdiction will then decide how it will distribute its share among universities, colleges and other affected “designated learning institutions.”

Significant cuts were expected for more in-demand provinces such as Ontario – 50 percent or more.. British Columbia reported an allocation of 83,000 study permit applications,  below the 97,000 it saw in 2023. However, other provinces that have received less attention from international students in the past may have room to grow their study permit approvals under their allocations.


Has anything changed around the application for a study permit? What is this “letter of attestation” that I have been hearing about?

The biggest change is that every application for a permit under the cap now requires a provincial “letter of attestation” also known as a PAL. This PAL means that the application has been verified by a province or territory as falling within its study permit application limit, or allocation. Study permit applications for affected programs received after the Jan. 22 announcement must include this PAL. However, those students whose study programs are not covered by the cap – master’s, doctoral  , elementary and secondary school programs – do not need a PAL in their study permit application.

A previous announcement by the immigration department also increased the proof-of-financial-support amount that all study permit applicants must provide. That amount is $20,635 per year, not including tuition, for a single person. This applies to all study permit applicants, regardless of whether or not they are covered by the cap.


Where can I get an attestation letter?

The best advice is to check with the university where you have applied or have been accepted for the most up-to-date information. Provinces and territories have until March 31 to develop their systems for issuing and managing these letters of attestation.

Quebec was already able to issue this document as of Feb. 13 by modifying its existing Certificat d’acceptation du Québec. CAQs issued before this date do not include the modification; an updated CAQ is required in this case if the application is submitted after Jan. 22. Alberta said its system was operational March 1 and British Columbia’s system began March 4. These provinces are issuing the letters of attestation to post-secondary institutions. The institutions then send them to international students.  Where a province has not yet announced anything, “I would encourage [students] to be in direct conversation with the institution where they intend to study to get clarity in terms of timing, etc.,” said Larissa Bezo of CBIE. But be patient in the run-up to March 31 – “If an institution says ‘We don’t yet have that information as to when the [provincial letter of attestation] will be available,’ they sincerely mean they don’t have that information,” Bezo added.


I heard that under this cap, Canada will limit its intake of international students by country. Is that true?

The federal immigration department has responded that: “[a]ll study permit applications are assessed equally and against the same criteria, regardless of the country of origin.” Individual institutions do their own student recruitment and some have been trying in recent years to broaden the number of countries where students are coming from. However, it’s not clear how the cap will be applied by universities facing a cut in international student study permits.


I heard that certain programs will be favoured under the study permit cap, such as students in medical schools. Is that true?

Here’s what the federal immigration department has to say about that: “Medical schools are considered to be undergraduate programs or professional programs and would therefore not be exempt from the cap. Provinces and territories will determine how their allocation is shared among [their] designated learning institutions.” Setting priorities for how to distribute a province’s cap allocation would presumably only apply in high-demand provinces facing a study permit cut  – Ontario, for example — but there is no information on that yet.


I submitted my application after January 22. It has been returned to me because I didn’t have a letter of attestation. Does that mean I am rejected?

The federal immigration department calls these applications “unprocessed” rather than rejected. Applicants can try again – just make sure all the required documents are there, including the letter of attestation if it applies to you.


I submitted my application for a study permit before January 22 but it was still being processed when the cap was brought in. How will this affect my application?

Those students who submitted their study permit applications before the Jan. 22 announcement do not need to take any further action as a result of the new requirements, the federal government has said. Their applications have continued to be processed, along with applications from international students whose programs are exempt from the cap.


I submitted an application for a study permit before January 22 but it was returned because I was missing a document. Do I have to include a letter of attestation when I re-apply?



My study permit is ending this summer. Does that mean I will need to get a provincial attestation letter to renew my permit? Will the cap affect my ability to renew or extend my existing study permit?

No. Current study permit holders in Canada will not be affected and do not need to get a PAL.


I have been accepted into a university program for spring or summer 2024 but I still don’t have a study permit. What happens now?

If you did not apply for a study permit before the Jan. 22 announcement, this means you will be included in the cap (unless you fit one of the exemption categories mentioned already in this article), and you will have to get an attestation letter once they become available in the province where your university is located. Check with your university for more instructions. Bear in mind that study permit application processing time was running at about 10 weeks as of early March once all those documents are submitted, including the attestation letter. That does not include time to submit biometrics, if you are required to do that. The federal immigration department also says that processing times can vary depending on things such as how easily information can be verified.


Am I still eligible for a post-graduate work permit (PGWP)? I heard something about international students not being eligible for this anymore!

International students enrolled in Canadian university undergraduate and graduate programs remain eligible for PGWPs. As well, graduates of master’s degree programs that are eight months or longer are eligible for a three-year PGWP if they meet all other existing criteria, as of Feb. 15, 2024. What has changed is that new students enrolling in private college programs  that have curriculum licensing agreements with public colleges are no longer eligible for PGWPs. International students at Canadian universities are not affected.


How does this affect my eligibility to work in Canada while I am at school ?

There have been no recent changes to international students’ ability to work in Canada during their studies. Consult the federal immigration department’s webpage for details. However, there have been changes affecting the ability of an international student’s spouse or common-law partner to work. Only spouses and common-law partners of international students in graduate and professional degree-granting programs (such as law, medicine, education, engineering ) will be eligible for open work permits.


If I am already in Canada on a visitor visa or work permit, do I need to provide a letter of attestation when I apply for a study permit?

Foreign nationals who are in Canada on a work permit do not need a PAL when applying for a study permit. Some categories of temporary residents are also exempt – but not all. Make sure to check the federal immigration department’s website for details so your study permit processing is not delayed.


In conclusion …

In the short-term, changes to Canada’s international student immigration policies do create confusion and anxiety for students and institutions alike. Nevertheless, there has been general consensus that changes were needed so that international students have as positive an experience as possible. “Each institution is trying to reassure students and applicants that we’ll get answers in time for them to make a decision and that we’re still a welcoming country in which to study,” said Annik Gélineau, chair of the Association of the University and College Registrars of Canada.


In the meantime dear international student, take a deep breath and carry on with pursuing your goals. It’s always wise to be clear about your motivations for choosing any study program and place, and how these match up with your interests and longer-term plans. “Get to your ‘why’s’ and then make a checklist,” advises Lou Janssen Dangzalan, an immigration lawyer and vice-president of Canadian Immigration Lawyers Association. “Make sure it aligns with your goals and with what’s available out in Canada.” Giving yourself options in terms of programs and universities is also a good strategy to follow for any student, adds Graham Barber of Universities Canada: “Make sure you’ve got a couple of programs in mind,” he says. “Keep your options open, apply early and make sure you’re checking all the boxes and meeting all the requirements.”