Here’s why the Estonian Police and Border Guard Board now has a presence in South Korea

Behind the scenes, Estonia’s new e-Residency Collection Centre in Seoul has been made possible by achieving several ‘firsts’.

Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid agreed new links with South Korea while opening the e-Residency Collection Centre.

The first e-Residency Collection Centre was officially opened today in Seoul by President Kersti Kaljulaid.

It’s an enormous honour that President Kaljulaid attended the event, as this highlights both the importance of e-Residency and the significance of this new collection centre.

The Estonian Police and Border Guard Board (PBGB) is the issuing authority for e-Residency, which is why it is a secure government-backed digital identity that provides access to our transparent and trusted business environment. Our duty is to provide an efficient service to people around the world who apply for e-Residency with legitimate purposes, while protecting our digital nation from those who do not. As a result, e-residents make a significant positive contribution to Estonia.

Until now though, e-residents could only pick up their digi-IDs from Estonian Embassies around the world or from the PBGB service points in Estonia. Taking into consideration that there are only 40 Estonian Embassies, it’s obvious that longer term solutions are needed to both support the growth of e-Residency and meet the needs and expectations of existing e-residents.

As President Kaljulaid explained at the official opening event, the state must also embrace innovation and adopt an entrepreneurial mindset, and the first e-Residency Collection Centre is a great example of this because it enables Estonia to scale up globally by better serving entrepreneurs beyond our borders in a safe and secure way.

Behind the scenes, there are actually a number of firsts involved in the opening of this first e-Residency Collection Centre.

Our partner in South-Korea is VFS Global, which already works with 58 governments around the world and provides mainly consular services. The e-Residency Collection Centre is located in one of their branch offices, which already has a visa application centre.

Issuing identification documents, such as e-resident digi-ID’s, through a foreign external partner and doing this in a foreign country, is something that PBGB has never done before. In fact, it’s something that most countries have never done.

But even PBGB, which may often have to be a conservative organisation due to its authoritative role, is open to (secure) new solutions that help us evolve and improves the service that we offer. Afterall, we already have the requisite high-level digital infrastructure that is needed for issuing identity documents through a private company.

So we decided to test it. And yes, we are still testing it, because these are just some of the ‘firsts’ involved behind the scenes:

  • Of course, Estonia is already the first country to issue e-Residency so it is an entirely new concept for our partners who have developed their processes primarily around issuing visas.
  • This is the first time Estonian identity documents have been issued by an external service provider. Also, this is an external service provider that is not an Estonian company and not issuing them inside Estonia.
  • In addition, this is the first time that an external service provider has also been responsible for the verification and identification service.
  • To make all this possible, this is also the first time that an external private enterprise outside of the EU has connected to our X-Road, the secure digital channel that forms the basis of Estonia’s advanced digital infrastructure.

This is why the opening of the first e-Residency Collection Centre in South Korea is of considerable importance for e-Residency, but also for PBGB more generally.

It took less than a year to make today’s official opening possible, but it required a lot of hard work from our joint international team made up of PBGB (and our SMIT team in particular) and VFS Global. At time, there were team members working on this in Tallinn, Moscow, Seoul, Mumbai, and Bangkok so meetings took place at all hours of the day and night!

The main challenges we came across were related to IT developments and data exchange through the X-Road, but we were always able to find solutions together.

I had the honour of personally handing over the first digi-ID card at the new collection centre to new e-resident Yongdae Kim.

The e-Residency Collection Centre was then quietly opened in mid-December when we started to issue the very first digi-ID cards in Seoul. This quiet launch was important so that we could ensure everything was working smoothly and we could offer the best service to our new e-residents in Korea.

Despite this quiet opening though, e-Residency (and Estonia in general) has been receiving significant new attention in South Korea as a result so we have already received approximately 300 e-Residency applications from Korea in the past month, which is more than in the first three years of the programme!

So far, about 100 of them have already collected their cards in our new e-Residency Collection Centre and everything has gone even better than we expected. Our partner has shown exceptional professionalism while issuing e-resident’s digi-ID’s and fulfilling all the necessary security requirements.

As a result, we were ready on time for the official opening by President Kaljulaid today. Judging by the incredible interest that the event is receiving in Korea, it seems that the centre is going to be very busy here for the foreseeable future! The opening of the centre has already played a part in opening up significant new opportunities for the Estonian state and Estonian entrepreneurs, such as the new business and technology links agreed today with Gyonggi province, which is home to Pyongo Techno Valley.

Our next steps

It is, of course, too soon to evaluate the success of the Collection Centre and make conclusions about our next steps. We still consider the e-Residency Collection Centre in Seoul to be a pilot project.

We must be sure that while outsourcing the issuing service and making the process smoother for e-residents, we are also maintaining the necessary level of trust and security that is essential for government-issued identity documents.

There are high risks with this project, mainly because of these “first times”, and the fact that we are responsible for the impact of this centre on the individual rights of e-residents, as well as the reputation of e-Residency and our country.

The Estonian Police and Border Guard Board as the issuing authority of e-resident’s digi-ID must guarantee that this document has been issued safely to all e-residents and that the security requirements set by the European Union and national organisations are met. These high standards must always be maintained, regardless of whether the document is issued at one of our service points, an Estonian embassy or in a third party office such as this.

We must remember that every e-resident digi-ID is a government-issued digital identity document and this is what provides the trust that entrepreneurs require. It also makes it far more special and credible when compared to other possibly similar private alternatives.

The hard work never stops, of course. PBGB will continue to oversee the collection centre and then, if succeeds, explore more opportunities in Dubai, Bangkok, Sao Paulo, San Fransisco, Singapore, and beyond.

This is just the beginning.

Thank you to President Kaljulaid, everyone who has been involved in making today’s official opening possible, and the Korean people who have given us so much interest and warm welcomes.