Welcome to e-Estonia!
Estonia is the only country in the world that has fully-integrated online platforms for essentially all administrative functions of the state. Beginning in 2015, Estonia opened up its virtual borders to everyone with its new e-Residency programme.
Estonia is a small Baltic country bordered by Russia, Latvia and Finland across the Baltic Sea. It has not been particularly easy for the small state, with a population of 1.3 million, to make itself known on the world stage. Comparing it with Estonia’s Scandinavian neighbours where Sweden has Ikea, Finland had Nokia and Norway has oil, what Estonia has is its E-government.
Since 2002, Estonia has been issuing national identity cards with a chip inside them. While this is a common practice for quite a number of countries these days, where others fall behind is the practicality of the ID card. The functions of the Estonian ID card have far surpassed the basic utility of being a document to travel with. Today, an Estonian ID card allows you access to functions such as:
E-Voting – all voting – parliamentary, local elections and European Elections – can be done online in less than 5 minutes. Voting can be done through a computer in the comfort of a bed simply by plugging the ID card into a USB reader and making a few clicks. The new generation of voters in Estonia are growing up without having visited a polling booth; instead, they are familiar with the friendly user interface of E-voting.
Digital signatures – All documents can be signed electronically with the ID card. This is not a new practice, but under Estonian jurisdiction all digitally signed documents are legally binding and carry the full weight of the legal system behind it. A digital signature is, thus, just as valid as a signature on paper. Long gone are the days of printing out a document, signing it and then scanning it just to send it via email.
Taxes – In an effort to curb bureaucracy in Estonia, all tax returns and documents can be filed online. All taxes and incomes are shown on the government portal automatically, and to file a tax return a simple confirmation is needed (similar to ticking the terms & conditions when registering on a website). Gone are the days when taxes are done on paper and submitted manually. With less than 5 clicks and 5 minutes, taxes are submitted electronically.
Healthcare – When visiting a doctor in Estonia or refilling a prescription, drugs are prescribed online, and simply presenting the ID card at the pharmacy will be enough to pick up the medicine.
Business – Estonia holds the world record for the fastest business registration. In under 18 minutes, a business can be registered. Whats more, using the ID card, all taxes for the company can be submitted online, and any paperwork can be signed virtually and will be legally binding. Businesses can, thus, be run from virtually anywhere in the world.
These are just the tip of the iceberg; there are other countless functions that make daily life less bureaucratic and much simpler, such as the ID card being your drivers licence, all state correspondence being online, and the ability to sign into your online bank using the ID card instead of tokens and pin codes.
Recently Estonia opened up its digital infastructure to foreigners using the e-residency card. Whilst this does not does not grant any residency status under Estonian law, it does open the Estonian digital infrastructure up to foreigners. The main benefit of it to foreign nationals is that many of these functions are opened up to non-Estonians. The value of this is that after a successful application to become an e-resident, a foreigner can open and register a company in Estonia online in less than 18 minutes from anywhere in the world. All tax declarations and paperwork can then be signed digitally without having the need to go to a notary or to Estonia to sign a document in person. On top of this, Estonian tax law favours small to medium businesses, with 0% tax on corporate profits when reinvested in the company.
Anyone can apply for an e-Residency for around 50 Euros. Opening an Estonian bank account for a business can be done online by the end of 2016, and digital signatures will be recognized by all EU member states by 2018.
This is only the beginning of the Estonian e-government and e-residency programme, with more functions being rolled out every year. Estonia aims to make its mark on the global stage by offering a a 21st century approach to governance through e-government.
By Helmuth Martin Reisner
Edited by E. Harris