From Canada to the US, Part 1: Work Visas

Lea Alcantara

Getting to this welcome post was not as easy as signing a few documents and high-fiving each other via Skype. It took months of planning and research. It took hiring a lawyer, an HR consultant and additional services from Emily's accountant. It took paperwork and faxes beyond what should be reasonable in 2013. It took dealing with two states and the federal government.

Because of all we learned in the process, Emily and I decided to share (and return to regular blogging) here, and we'll likely discuss these topics further on CTRL+CLICK CAST. This first post delves into what we learned and had to do in order for me to live and work in the US.

Hiring a Canadian

This summer, I knew I was moving to Seattle. But as a Canadian citizen, I couldn't just move to the US and maintain my business. My two options were either don't work at all or find a job with a US company.

The scenario is common: hiring Canadian workers is appealing for many US employers because their education and work experience is relatively equivalent to US workers. This is particularly true in the tech industry where there are so many opportunities, yet qualified professionals are hard to find.

So, when you find an awesome person who happens to be Canadian and wants to live and work in the States, how do you get them on board?

Work Visas

In short, as a Canadian, there are various rules for what work is allowed in the States. There are various work visas you can acquire, the most common being a TN visa or an H-1B visa. Under either visa, the main intent is that it is a temporary work visa and 100% tied to the employer you're working with.

You are not allowed to start your own business, you are not allowed to work for more than one employer with one TN visa, and everything has a time limit.

In the end, a TN visa was the best fit for me to apply for because, once approved, I could enter the States immediately — but it came with a few strings. The biggest one is that not every Canadian qualifies for the visa.

There are official NAFTA educational requirements and credentials you must meet. Not only that, you must have the appropriate post-secondary degree and documents, as well as work experience. This makes it difficult for "self taught" designers or those who transitioned careers from non-related professions.

All of this information Emily and I found via cursory research through the web — mostly through the official government pages. As with most government information, it said anything and everything, much with conflicting or even outdated material.

Given the volume of information and the lack of clarity we reached on our own, we decided we had to consult a lawyer. There are a lot of people who risk going through the border without one, but we decided the investment would make us better prepared and give us peace of mind.


The peace of mind an immigration lawyer brings is extremely important to note because every single border officer treats each case individually. I cannot emphasize this enough: since every border person treats each TN visa application individually, it means every border person can interpret your TN application package individually, increasing the likelihood of misinterpretations.

Due to how competitive and lucrative it is to work in the US is, it is US Border and Customs' job to make sure that you are a legitimate worker. Since the definition of "legitimate" is evaluated individually, that means you could be rejected from entering the US due to a missed document or failure to provide adequate proof.

With all those potential points of failures, a lawyer can make sure you have all the necessary documents while also reviewing said documents, and even writing the draft offer letter to suit TN entry requirements further.

Speaking of the TN offer letter, be sure to consider your employment start date. If the start date of your job is more than two weeks from the date you arrive in the US, that could trigger red flags on your application. Make sure that when you purchase a plane ticket to the States that it coincides with your actual start date that is documented in the TN offer letter.

Timing is also important in preparing your application. Because you have to provide original documents — not copies; not even notarized copies — make sure you provide enough time between creating your TN application and when you have to fly out.

For example, since I graduated with a college diploma vs a university Bachelor's degree, I was required to provide at least three years of work experience. Since I was self-employed, proof of this included a personally-signed letter from one of my long-term clients on their letterhead (which I designed, natch!) and a formal resume (which really was a printed out version of LinkedIn profile).

Why a Lawyer Is Worth It

To further strengthen proof that I was legitimately self-employed in the NAFTA category I was applying under, our lawyer also suggested I include my latest tax return, the receipt with the filing of my business name back in 2005 and a copy of my local business license. She also advised I include my old business card, my old faculty card from MacEwan and even the official transcript of my academic record.

While that may seem excessive, all of the documentation, professionally put together, would make it very hard for any border officer to deny entry, which was the entire point of the exercise. In situations such as this, it is better to be over prepared than under.

Another thing that made us realize that an immigration lawyer was important, was that I wanted to work in a different city than Emily. I am currently in Seattle, while Emily works in Albuquerque. We wanted to make sure that would not be an issue during any border interviews; that it was clear I was working remotely and that it was normal to have the main office in a different city. In a future post, Emily will go through the human resources angle of this, but for getting my work visa, we had to make sure to state in the TN offer letter where the Albuquerque office is and where I was going to live in Seattle, which constitutes my workplace.

Additionally, a lawyer can advise you over what phrases are "trigger words" to avoid. Many customs officers are purposely taught to be abrasive and try to catch you saying something "wrong." The point is, if you're qualified to work in the US with a legitimate job offer, you have really nothing to worry about. But since each application is reviewed individually, it is up to the discretion of the customs officer whether your application is legitimate.

In part 2, I'll detail the reason for all of this preparation: crossing the border and applying for the TN visa, then in part 3, I'll chat about banking in the US as a Canadian. Stay tuned!

Legal Blah Blah

I hope it goes without saying, but please don't take anything I've posted here as anything other than my and Lea's own personal experiences. What worked for us is just that … what worked for us.

If you need expert advice, seek an expert.

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