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.




  1. yes, I went though the process of getting US TN visa when I was at my last company. Now I know why the company appointed immigration layer to assist me. For me, I felt the process was quite simple as my lawyer’s letter has outlined every detail they want to know in the language/format CBA understand.

    Like you, I also arrived close to 2hrs before the flight and they kept waiting me in the secondary section. I have remind them few times about my flight status but they kept ignoring me. Ten minutes before the flight they called me and processed the documents/payment of visa fee. After that agent escort me to the door and said “now run and good luck” which was the exact flight departure time. From that point onward I used my sprinting skills to get the flight.

    1. Glad to know I’m not the only one they’re picking on. Sadly hiring a lawyer wasn’t in my budget, And I’m a kind of do-it-yourself guy in many ways. I’m certain that I have everything I need for my next trip. Sounds like I should budget a little extra time though – 2 hours sounds tight. Glad you made your flight! 🙂

  2. Hello, I would love to see a copy if that letter from your lawyer. Now a TFN is only once.every 5 years correct? I also heard that there is a form an employer in the US can fill out. I also read you need to fill out a W-8BEN and get a Federal tax identification number FTIN. Please email me directly at chaosconsultants@gmail.com

  3. I have an opportunity to do some mechanical inspections in the US , this work will be on a part time basis when they require . As a Canadian what do I require to enter the states ??


    1. It sounds like you’re going to be performing the work for a US company while physically in the US. I suggest you get official legal advice on that question. My knowledge is limited to my experiences as a knowledge-based worker who doesn’t do much of the work at in while in the US. So expertise you want to look for is the legal side and the accounting side. If you want to do more research on your own first, look into the NAFTA agreement itself and figure out if your expertise qualifies or not. That will help guide you to applying for a specific Visa type.

      There’s a lot of contradictory info out there to read, because it ultimately comes down to the border guard’s discretion which obviously can vary from minute to minute. Try to find a legal expert to help you figure out the right way to apply and for which type of Visa.

      Good luck!

  4. Oh gosh! I can’t believe what you all went through.

    Ten days from now, I am leaving Canada for the US on a 4-day consulting assignment for a manufacturing company. I plan to take my original degrees, the consulting assignment, and a copy of my resume showing an extensive amount of experience as a consultant in several countries world wide for many years. What else would I need? Any help would be most welcome.

    Thanks in advance

    1. In my experience I carry a copy of my contract and only present it if they request it (they usually don’t). What you may not have but I have found to be essential is a letter from the company requesting you to perform this work for them, that you’ll need to be on site, and what specific duties they need you to do and for how long. This letter will need to be on company letterhead (i.e. not printed from home, but actually sent via mail to you to present to the border guards) and should be written by someone at the company who will be available at the time of your crossing for the border guards to call and speak with. Also only answer the questions they ask, much like a court room.

      This is just my experience and isn’t any kind of guarantee. Even with all this I have been denied. Have a Plan B in place in case you are denied (i.e. be able to inform the company you can’t come into the country and it won’t be a total surprise to them).

      Good luck!

  5. I am a Canadian who is a licensed California Real Estate Agent (this is considered a consulting job) and was offered a position with a California brokerage firm. My problem is that I can’t find any information online on how to legally go about this? All of the visa options don’t include Real Estate Agents. I hold a TaxID number. Any help or comments from anyone would be appreciated.

  6. I was also misled that a contract would be OK instead of an explanatory letter (on letterhead, signed etc) outlining the same information as on the contract. I was in the process of getting that emailed to me while I was waiting in secondary, but after 45 minutes the sympathetic border agent requestioned me, said there was a grey area that could be interpreted to my advantage, and stamped my passport and sent me on my way. Phew. I even had an hour before the flight departed.

  7. I just started working for a US based company as their Event Manager. All the work I do will be done in Canada with the exception when I am asked to attend some trade shows in the US. My role is to ensure the booth / exhibit it set up correctly and be there to oversee the running of the booth during the event. I am not selling anything. I’m not sure what is required for me to go through customs. Any ideas? Just a letter and my contract? Thanks

    1. I’m not a lawyer, but you’ve asked and I can give you my opinion 🙂

      It sounds like you’ll be performing some of your actual job duties while in the US. Many people “attend meetings” in the US and people reason that they aren’t actually delivering value to the employer directly, just attending meetings. But your description sounds like you’re delivering value to your employer while in the US.

      So you’ll need a Visa.

      Now will the agent want to make you go through all that, all the questions and application? In my experience , it can depend on if they like you, their mood, what they ate for breakfast, who their previous girlfriend/boyfriend is dating now, etc. Basically it is not something you can control. All you can do is present your best case with as much evidence as you can.

      So check into the Visa types, find out which one you want to apply for, and get all the evidence together. At the very least you should ask your employer to write you a letter you submit to the agent asking them to grant you the Visa. Have your employer print it on company letterhead, sign it in ink, and mail it to you. It has to be mailed, not emailed/faxed, etc. They want real ink on the signature with proper letterhead. I don’t believe a contract suffices.

      You’ll need supporting documents for your visa type, possibly degree etc. Not a copy, the real thing.

      Hopefully you’ll show up with all your paperwork and evidence and they’ll roll their eyes and say you over-prepared and let you go without even looking at it. It has happened to me once. But prepare for the worst case, because when it happens it really, really sucks.

      Good luck!

  8. I am self employed and have contracted by a Canadian company to deliver a half day workshop during a three day conference being held in the US. Do I need a visa to enter the US to do this work?

    1. I’m not a lawyer, but in my opinion you will be given a Visa when entering the States. The question is what kind (anyone going in actually gets a Visa be it for vacation, work, whatever). Can the agent decide to ruin your day? Yes. You’re going into the US to perform your duties you’re being paid for. Your actions are resulting in income for the company. The fact that it is a Canadian company makes me pause, I’m not really sure. With that caveat, maybe you don’t. In my experience they always say that if a US company is benefiting from you being in the US, a specific business visa is required.

      Sorry I can’t be more helpful – the Canadian company thing makes me unsure.

  9. Hi Kirk – appreciate you sharing your story. I’m Canadian and did my graduate studies in Michigan then continued to work in Detroit for several years as a TN urban planning professional. Reading your story brought back a lot of my own stressful, frustrating and interesting exchanges with Customs officers over the years.

    You mentioned you’re a Canadian consultant with US clients – I’ve moved back to Canada and now reside in Toronto. I’m in the process of setting up a part time consulting practice and intend to take on US clients as I grow my business. Can I ask what entity you chose to register your business as. LLCs don’t exist in Canada and I believe a US LLC would be treated as corporations by the CRA. I’m not yet in a place to register as a corporation either. Any insight you have is much appreciated. Thanks!

  10. I incorporated in Canada, filed taxes in US and Canada based on where my earnings came from (State vs Federal laws in the US).
    Given the recent changes to income sprinkling by the Liberals I’d agree that incorporating should be done with caution – not a lot of value if your income and spending are too close.
    Best of luck!

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