A Cautionary Tale for Cross-Border Consultants

I thought I had done my homework, that I was simply going to pass through security at the airport like I had many times before.  If that had happened though, this wouldn’t be a cautionary tale now would it?  😉  Canadian consultants working for US-based companies be warned ….

As a Canadian I was concerned about taking on US-based consulting customers as I wasn’t clear on what that meant from a Visa standpoint.  So I researched the heck out of this, including looking at the Bureau of Consular Affairs, the US Customs and Border Protection Agency, and the US Visa Service websites.  I spoke with an expert cross-border accountant to ensure I understood the tax situation too.  I thought I had my bases covered.

Earlier this month I collected my documents together as I was travelling into the US for business and wanted to make sure I wouldn’t have any problems at the airport.  I ensured I had a copy of my contract as I knew from experience that if they get really picky then being able to review the contract itself was very helpful.  I knew I was going to be crossing under the NAFTA agreement and I felt I had everything I needed.

You know those moments in your life when a small decision results in a schism in your life?  I had one of those moments when I walked up to the front of the CBA security line.  Two kiosks emptied out at the same time, and both agents called me over.  I decided to go right and thanked the agent on the left.  I wonder what would have happened in I had gone left ….

The CBA agent felt that since I would be earning money in the US I needed a Visa, which meant I needed to go into secondary containment.  No problem, I’ve had this happen before and came out the other side.  I had planned ahead and had over 1.5 hours before my flight was due to leave, so I wasn’t too concerned.  After waiting for 15 or 20 minutes I was called into the interview room and told that I did not have a Visa so I would not be entering the US today.  I was, to put it plainly, floored.  I explained that I was going to do a meet and greet and not actually do productive work.  “Doesn’t matter,” he said, “If a US company is paying you and a US company is benefiting from your activities, you need a Visa.”  OK, can we proceed with getting the Visa then, here is my contract showing the terms of my employment, just like the online resources explained.  “No good,” he said, “it is not on official company letterhead.”

I’m sorry?  What?

“Yeah, it has the same information but it has to be phrased as a request addressed to the CBA, and has to be on official company letterhead.”

The CBA agent carefully explained that I needed to call and make an appointment ahead of time, to pay the application fee, and to bring along all the documents including the letterhead one so I could properly apply for a Visa.

Well you can’t really argue your way into a foreign country so I took careful notes of what was expected according to him.  I then spent 1.5 hours being questioned about the details of my life, my family, and my desire to enter the country; was digitally fingerprinted; and finally escorted by armed guard outside the airport’s secure area.  Good day!

I have since called the appropriate people for clarification because the websites say things like

When a citizen of Canada requests to be a TN with an application for admission, the applicant must present a letter or similar statement signed by the employer indicating the position, salary, employment location, and requested length of employment. (CBP Website)

See that “similar statement” part there?  Yeah, ignore that – simply not reliable.

So the Consular office cleared things up for me.  They said that if I were to go through the application process as suggested by the CBA agent, here is how it would go:

  1. Pay $140 application fee
  2. Attend office for appointment
  3. Wait in waiting room with all the other applicants
  4. Periodically someone will come out and ask all Canadians to raise their hands
  5. Everyone raising their hands would be sent home – they don’t give Visas to Canadians.  Stop wasting their time.

This made sense and jived with statements on their website like:

Canadian citizens usually do not need a visa as a NAFTA Professional.

So where does this leave me?  Simple – I need to bring all these documents with me (letter of employment on original letterhead with authentic signature, my contract, my university degree (not a copy, the original), etc) and present myself at the airport CBA again, on the day of travel, requesting to be granted access with a TN Visa.  I will then go through the evaluation and the CBA agent will decide if I receive a Visa or not.  There is no guarantee, nor is there anything I can do ahead of time (beyond gathering these documents) to help my chances of getting in.

So the moral of the story?  Speaking with someone on the phone is still a better way to understand Visa requirements than reading their FAQs, online resources, and all that other junk.

Another moral (can a story have two morals?!?): Sometimes one person’s bad day can spill over into your own – don’t soak up that negative energy!  A setback is only as influential as you make it.



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