Virtual Estonia

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Colin Moors joined a select band who are part of Estonia’s e-residency scheme.

As of this week, I have staked my claim to a new legal EU entity. I am officially an e-resident of Estonia. No, I have never been to Estonia, unless you count consulate soil as a technicality but my Estonian and Finnish friends tell me it’s pretty hip. I shall definitely go one day but for now will settle for being virtually Estonian.

You may be wondering what personal and bureaucratic hoops you’d need to jump through in order to be granted such status. It’s surprisingly easy, in fact. Fill in a form, then wait. The form needs the usual details such as permanent address and a valid travel document but it’s mostly about the waiting. The progress of your application is sent to you by email and when the day arrives, you book your appointment to visit the Estonian Consulate via a web site. This visit is the only time you may get to meet an Estonian in the flesh, unless you are lucky enough to be invited to one of their fantastic midsummer parties, but that’s another thing entirely. Oh, and there is no requirement to speak any Estonian, unless you want to.

People’s reaction to this news tends to be “wow, that’s cool” among my techie friends, “how much did it cost?” among the financially minded or “huh?” to pretty much everyone else. To answer those briefly, it costs €50 if you visit your local consulate, or it’s free if you visit Estonia. I couldn’t convince the Together editor that I needed three days in Estonia for a story, so €50 it was. It is indeed pretty cool. The “huh?” part may need a little more explanation, as it’s a valid question.

As a tech-minded guy, I like to stay up with or ahead of the latest tech trends, so as soon as I heard about the possibility of e-residency, I went for it, not having a clue what it could actually be used for. It turns out that Estonia is just about as near the cutting edge of citizen-power technology. As a full resident and citizen of Estonia, such a card is your entire life. Children at school have their course grades, exam results and attendance records on theirs, all fully accessible by their parents – something they’re thrilled about I’m sure. Banking is 98% electronic, health services and government business are regularly consulted and accessed online and as far back as 2012, some 92% of Estonians did their taxes wherever they were in the word via their trusty card reader and the online tax system.

All this has been made possible through the emergence of “E-stonia” as it’s been dubbed. Largely driven by the president of Estonia himself, Toomas Hendrik Ilves (@IlvesToomas), the country has become a powerhouse of technology, one in which children as young as seven will be taught to program by this time next year. The tiny corner of what used to be the Soviet Union not so long ago has re-emerged over the years as a major player on the world tech and cryptography stage. The country that brought a revolution to world communications with Skype is now set to do the same with digital signing of documents and e-services.

So, what can an e-residency do for me? At the moment, the range of practical applications is limited but the potential is huge. Obviously, simply being a card-carrying e-resident won’t confer upon you the right to citizenship, so many of the services enjoyed by Estonian citizens will be unavailable. However, the card and reader currently provides the possibility to use the ID as your signature. With the encrypted code on your ID and a connection to a government server, anything you sign with the card is legally binding, and as much a legal entity as your personal handwritten signature on a document. As law in an EU country, this applies EU-wide.

Another thing that is technically still possible but perhaps not quite as easy as it could be is the right to open a company and bank account in Estonia. The Estonian government boasts that it can be done in a world-record 18 minutes but the reality is a little different. As with any country, to open a business or account, you’ll need a residential address in the country concerned. Estonia will provide you with an address on request (via the e-ID, naturally) but will charge the princely sum of €200 per year, plus various charges if you need things like phone call handling. Hardly an 18-minute job but all handled virtually and efficiently (see http://1office.ee/en/services-in-estonia/virtual-office-tallinn/).

Business opportunities, secure document exchange and signature and banking are a pretty spectacular start for a country that’s determined to become the go-to place for tech within the next generation. I can only see good things coming as the younger generation expands and enhances the possibilities of e-residency yet further. If you’re even remotely interested in technology, an e-residency could well be the best €50€ you’ll spend this year.

e-residency applications: https://e-estonia.com/e-residents/about/

PHOTO CREDIT: khora