It’s the first country to offer something akin to digital citizenship, where you can be somehow affiliated with the state without physically being there.
Though some commentators are suggesting the move signals “the beginning of the end of the nation state,” e-residency doesn’t come with the same kind of rights and benefits enjoyed by actual residents or citizens. The government describes it as “a state-issued secure digital identity for non-residents that allows digital authentication and the digital signing of documents.”
This ID card allows you to log into to certain public and private sector online portals previously only available to actual Estonians. “Basically, you’re offered a way to have an Estonian government-guaranteed digital identity,” Siret Schutting, the director of government initiative e-Estonia Showroom, told me. “You can authenticate yourself digitally and make digital signatures.”
The application process to become an e-resident launched in beta today, with British journalist Edward Lucas getting the first e-identity.
“It started with the very basic idea of making life simpler for people who are already in Estonia but who are not residents and not citizens—so, for example, businessmen that have contact with Estonia but might not be residents,” Schutting said. “Now we’re actually starting to offer this globally.”
She gave the example of a businessperson deciding to base his or her company in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, because of its thriving business environment and favourable tax situation.
“You can be very connected to a country without actually being a resident or a citizen,” she said. With e-residency, that person would be able to make use of e-services like registering their company online and signing contracts digitally. Attracting business is, of course, one of the major aims of the project.
If somebody comes to you with a flimsy paper contract, you’re like, ‘Uh-oh. No, no, no.’
While you might not have heard much about Estonia, which has a population of 1.3 million and a history of Soviet occupation, it’s not actually that surprising that this country should be on the vanguard of this kind of digital innovation. Since around the year 2000, Estonia has pushed ahead in providing e-services for its citizens, from filing tax records online to signing contracts digitally and even voting online.
Schutting explained that Estonians are just accustomed to this lifestyle now; one of her colleagues signed his job contract on his mobile phone while out fishing on the sea. She said there was some trepidation when the country first started using digital signatures, but the tables have turned.
“Now our society is at a place where people trust digitally signed documents and contracts. If somebody comes to you with a flimsy paper contract, you’re like, ‘Uh-oh. No, no, no.’”
She put the country’s progressive attitude down to a collaborative ethos.
“Our digital society was built up on the basis that the private sector works together with the public sector; there’s collaboration everywhere,” she said, and added that a high level of trust between private citizens and the government meant Estonians embraced digital changes when they were first introduced 15 years ago. A 2008 EU survey found Estonians trusted their government more than other Baltic countries.
We’re sort of creating this country without borders
E-residency goes a step further and extends some of these benefits to non-residents. At the moment, you have to go to the Police and Border Guard in Estonia to apply, which involves filling a form, taking a photo, proving your ID with relevant documents, providing biometric data—an eye scan and fingerprint—and paying €50 ($60). A background check takes up to two weeks, then you get your card.
But by next Spring, the government hopes to extend the application process beyond its borders so would-be e-Estonians can apply at their local embassy. Local news site Estonian Public Broadcasting reports that over 12,000 people have expressed an interest in e-residency so far, many from the US.
While the specifics of e-residency boil down to basically a few hassle-free business solutions right now, the whole idea of extending services beyond a physical country has a greater ideological potential.
As Schutting described it: “I like to dream that this is a community builder; we’re sort of creating this country without borders.”