What are qualified electronic signatures?

An e-Residency digital ID allows you to make qualified electronic signatures, as legally strong as handwritten, but much more efficient.

Most people understand that e-Residency is a digital gateway to start a business in Estonia and run it remotely from anywhere. But do you understand how this ‘gateway’ works in practice?

Put simply, it’s the e-Residency digital identity card, the digital certificate it provides, and how it interfaces with Estonia’s e-government infrastructure. Having an e-Residency digital ID allows secure, digital authentication in Estonian e-service portals. For example, logging into the e-Business registry to start a company.

But these powerful little blue digital IDs also enable qualified electronic signatures (QES), the highest ‘trust level’ of digital signature according to European standards. Using QES, e-residents can sign legal contracts and confirm transactions with the same legal standing as handwritten signatures. QES thus allow e-residents to run their businesses in the safest way possible. But given the time and paperwork saved, it also makes administration quicker and easier. This article sets out how and why this is the case.

Electronic signatures under European Union law

In the EU, the legal framework for electronic signatures is set out in the eIDAS Regulation (910/2014) (eIDAS). It provides a number of standards to ensure that electronic signatures can be created and validated throughout Europe.

What is an electronic signature?

According to the European Commission:

“An electronic signature is an electronic indication of a person’s intent to agree to the content of a document or a set of data to which the signature relates. Like its handwritten counterpart in the offline world, an electronic signature is a legal concept capturing the signatory’s intent to be bound by the terms of the specified document”.

There are three types of electronic signatures laid out in the eIDAS. The European Commission differentiates them by ‘different trust levels’: simple, advanced, and qualified.

  1. Qualified electronic signatures or QES feature the highest trust level and have the same legal standing as a handwritten signature. They require the use of a qualified signature creation device and are based on a qualified certificate for electronic signatures.
  2. Advanced electronic signatures lie somewhere in the middle when it comes to trust. They identify and provide control to the signatory, and any changes to the signature data are detectable. Adobe Sign and DocuSign are examples of advanced electronic signatures.
  3. Simple electronic signatures have the lowest trust level and essentially take the form of associated electronic data used by the signatory to indicate their consent. They include for example typing your name under an email.

What can qualified electronic signatures be used for?

QES can be used in a variety of situations, including the types of cross-border tasks e-residents need to undertake for their Estonian companies. Examples include:

  • Signing legal agreements (service contracts, sale or purchase, employment, lease, insurance),
  • Confirming transactions (eCommerce or banking transactions),
  • Undertaking public administration tasks (e-Business register changes, declaring taxes, requesting information).

QES have a higher trust level than Adobe Sign and DocuSign (which provide advanced electronic signatures). QES also add electronic time stamps to every signature or transaction. This not only protects from one party making changes after documents are signed, but also provides legal certainty and defendability in court.

Electronic signatures with your e-Residency digital ID are QES

All Estonian digital IDs – for citizens, residents and e-residents – contain the necessary qualified electronic certificates to offer QES.

The digital signatures available with your e-Residency digital ID are QES. That means they have the highest trust level according to the eIDAS and the same legal standing as handwritten signatures.

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