Language Testing for Immigration and Visas to Canada

For most immigrants to Canada, language testing is an essential requirement. This article covers some of the basic, but important questions you might have on this topic, including:

  • Do I need to take a language test, or am I exempt?
  • Which tests are accepted?
  • What language level do I need for immigration or for a visa?
  • When should I write my test?

Question 1: Do I need a language test?

Economic Class (or "Skilled Worker") Immigration

If you’re planning to immigrate to Canada under the economic class, which includes all programs in the Express Entry system, most Provincial Nominee Program streams, or one of the various federal Pilot Programs for skilled workers, you will need to prove your language ability to qualify.

The economic class covers the majority of applicants for immigration. The reason for the language requirement is that in order to qualify, you need to demonstrate that you are willing and able to work in Canada, and a major skill needed for this is to be able to speak the language. This language ability can be in either one of Canada’s official languages, English, or French. If you can speak both languages, you will have a significant advantage. This article focuses on English as most likely, if you’re reading this, it’s the language you know!

It’s important to note that for immigration, these language requirements apply to all applicants, regardless of nationality.

Studying in Canada

If you’re planning to study in Canada, then in most cases, you do need to take a language test.  If you’re applying under the regular student stream, there actually isn’t any language requirement for the study permit or visa itself. However, the college or university will have their own language requirements which you need to meet before they will accept you into the program. For this requirement, if you are from an English speaking country, or already received previous education in English language, then you could be exempt from this requirement. For confirmation, you’ll need to check with the policies of the educational institution where you want to study.

If you’re studying, and applying under the Student Direct stream, which is an option open to residents of India, Pakistan, and China (among other select countries) you will be required to include a language test with your application.

It is worth mentioning that, if you are coming to Canada to study the English or French language itself, then in this case, you might not have to take a test.

Working In Canada

Now to the topic of coming to Canada on a work permit. In general terms, there is no requirement to write a language test to get a work permit to Canada. However, it is necessary that you demonstrate your ability to do the job that you’ve been offered by the Canadian employer. So in some cases, proving  your language abilities with a test does form part of a strong visa and work permit application. So if you’re planning to work in Canada, it’s necessary to approach this issue on a case by case basis.

When testing is NOT needed.

If you're immigrating under the Family Class, which includes Spousal Sponsorship (for wives, husbands, and common-law partners of Canadians), Child Sponsorship, or Parent and Grandparent Sponsorship, there are no language requirements, so no tests are needed. This is because qualification is based on your family tie to a Canadian citizen or permanent resident, rather than your ability to succeed as a worker.

Question 2: Which language tests are accepted?

For permanent resident programs, there are two tests which are accepted by IRCC: the IELTS General Training exam, which is available at centers around the world, and the CELPIP-General exam, available in various locations inside Canada.

It’s important to note that the IELTS General Training is distinct from the IELTS Academic exam. Only General Training is accepted by IRCC. Similarly, the CELPIP-General exam is different from the General-LS exam. The LS is acceptable for Canadian citizenship applications, but for permanent residence you will need the General test.

For the French language the required test is the TEF-Canada, available internationally, and inside Canada.

If you do plan on studying in Canada, your educational institution will have a list of which language tests they accept. Generally, they will want to see the IELTS Academic test rather than the General-Training test. Also, they will often accept other tests such as TOEFL, CAE, CPE, and in some cases the Duolingo test. Just a reminder that the language requirement for study is different from the requirement for immigration. So if you will be studying and then immigrating at a later date, you will likely need to take two different tests as part of the process.

Question 3. What language level do I need for immigration or for a visa?

Before we get to talking specific numbers, it’s important to introduce the Canadian Language Benchmark (or CLB) classification system. This is the Canadian government’s way to streamline the ranking of language ability across all of the available language tests, in both English and French. When you’re looking at official documentation for language requirements, the numbers you see will typically be in the CLB scale - this is really important, because to understand the score you need on a test, the CLB number needs to be converted to the corresponding test score.

Converstion Table for CLB and IELTS Scores
Converstion Table for CLB and IELTS Scores

Express Entry from Outside Canada

With that out of the way, let’s talk about permanent residence, and the Express Entry system. If you are outside of Canada, and planning on entering Express Entry, you most likely will do so under the Federal Skilled Worker Program. Federal Skilled Worker has a minimum language level of CLB 7. This is equivalent to an IELTS score of 6, or CELPIP score of 7. This minimum needs to be met in all four areas of the exam (which includes reading, writing, listening, and speaking).

Express Entry from Inside Canada

If you are inside Canada and have Canadian work experience, your Express Entry eligibility may be under the Canadian Experience Class. Under this program, the minimum requirement depends on the skill-level of your job. For jobs classified as Skill level “0” or “A” in the National Occupational Classification system, you’ll need a CLB level of 7 (so the same minimum as the Federal Skilled Worker Program). Generally spelling, jobs at level “0” and “A” are those that require some university education.

However, for jobs classified as Skill level “B” (which applies generally to jobs which require some college or technical training), you only need a CLB level of 5. This is equivalent to an overall IELTS score of 5, or a CELPIP score of 5.

Provincial Nominee Program and Pilot Programs

The various Provincial Nominee Programs (or PNP) streams either have the same or slightly lower requirements than Express Entry. Many skilled-worker streams also require a CLB 7, however you will find some programs requiring CLB 5, or even CLB 4. There are literally more than 80 Provincial Nominee Program streams, so it is impossible to cover all of them in this video, but we will cover one example.

In British Columbia, the Entry Level and Semi-Skilled category is designed for workers in tourism, hospitality, food processing, and long-haul trucking. In this program, the minimum requirement is a CLB 4, which is equivalent to a IELTS and CELPIP score of just 4.

There are other options, which allow applicants to qualify with a CLB score of just 4, and these include the Atlantic Immigration Program, and various Federal Pilot Programs, such as the Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot, and the Agri-Food Pilot.

To summarize the situation, if you can reach the CLB 7 level (IELTS 6), you will have options to choose from in terms of programs. If you can’t quite make this level, however, it’s not necessary to give up. There are also immigration options for applicants with lower language skills.

Secondly, it is important to note that the numbers provided here are minimum requirements for qualification. In Express Entry, and in many PNP streams, you are given points for your language level. And the higher the level, the more points you get. Exceeding the minimum requirements is hugely beneficial in these competitive programs. Therefore, rather than just trying to meet the minimum score, you want to score as high as you can.

Students

For studying in Canada, each education institution has its own requirements, so it will be necessary to check with the institution you’re applying to. However, in general, general, if you can reach a level of CLB 7 (IELTS 6) you will have a wide range of options for programs. The most competitive programs may want to see an IELTS 7 or higher. As mentioned earlier, if you’re applying for a study permit in the Student Direct Stream, you do need a test up-front, and this is the IELTS exam, with a minimum score of 6.

Question 4: When should I write my tests?

Depending on where you are located, it could take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to book an available time slot to write your exam, and after writing you’ll need to wait about 2 weeks to get your results. Therefore it’s important to plan your test date well in advance. In all cases, you need to have your official test results in-hand before you can submit your application.

The IELTS and the CELPIP tests have a validity of exactly two years from the test date, and your test results do need to be valid up to the point that your immigration application is received.  

Our advice is generally, write an exam, or at least a solid mock exam, as soon as you can fully understand your level. Also, keep in mind that may not get the score you need on the first try. Fortunately, there is no limit to the number of times you write, and people can often improve their scores on a second or third attempt. The best approach is to give yourself enough time to retake the test, if necessary.

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