U.S. travel visa tips for Canadians

There are many reasons you may travel to another country. While most do so to vacation, others will travel to attend school, seek medical treatment, or for temporary or permanent employment. Whatever the scenario, there are different admittance requirements set out by each foreign government, and if you’re offside with them, it could result in anything from a hefty fine to a permanent ban. Since many of our readers travel to the U.S. for extended periods of time, I’ll review a few visa scenarios that apply specifically to Canadian citizens seeking travel visas for that country.

What is a visa?

Before you travel to a foreign country, the authorities of that country will review your situation and determine whether you qualify for entry. If approved, you’ll be issued a visa which is generally stamped or glued inside your passport. There are non-immigrant visas that relate to people who only want to visit a country temporarily, and immigrant visas for those who wish to immigrate on a permanent basis. Each category contains various types of visas, with scenario-specific requirements. It’s important to note that a visa allows you access to a port of entry such as an airport or land-based border crossing, but the ultimate decision of whether or not you’ll be allowed inside the country rests with the border agent.

What is the Visa Waiver Program (VWP)?

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows citizens of 38 participating countries to travel to the U.S. for business or tourism for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa. A common misconception is that Canada is one of the 38 participants, but it’s actually not.

What about Canadians travelling to the U.S.?

Canadian citizens are eligible for entry into the U.S. without a visa for up to six months, and commonly travel south for vacations, medical treatments, and business for their Canadian employer. However, this does not apply if you have a criminal record or if you have previously been deported or removed from the U.S. The same rules also do not apply to permanent residents of Canada. However, if a permanent resident is a national of one of the 38 participant countries of the VWP, they will be permitted to visit the U.S. for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa prior to entry.

How does the six-month limit work for Canadians?

The six months (180 days) is not based on a calendar year, but on a rolling 365-day period. If you get this wrong and assume that you can stay from July 1 to December 31, and then continue that stay from January 1 to June 30, you can face serious penalties which could include a travel ban of three years (and up to 10 years on unlawful presence exceeding 365 days). Furthermore, this could result in you being classified as a U.S. tax resident making you subject to U.S. taxation on your worldwide income.

I’m a Canadian citizen and I need to stay in the U.S. longer than six months. What can I do?

First and foremost, get permission in advance. Requests to extend a stay beyond the six-month allotted time must be made before the authorized period of stay expires. The application needs to be made to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) by filing form I-539. There is a filing fee of $375 USD. USCIS recommends that you apply at least 45 days in advance, and you’ll need to have a good reason for the extension to be approved.

Attending a U.S. School

Compared with other nationals, it’s relatively straightforward for a Canadian to obtain student status (F-1 or M-1 visa categories) for study in the U.S. You will need to:

– Be enrolled as a full-time student at a school which is approved by USCIS and obtain an I-20 form from that school.
– Pay the SEVIS fee of $200 USD. The SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) fee helps to cover the operational costs incurred by the Department of Homeland Security to manage the program that contains data relating to students and exchange visitors.
– Be proficient in the English language.
– Have sufficient financial resources to support yourself for the duration of your studies.
– Maintain a residence in Canada which you can return to.

It’s important to note that while you’re attending school your employment options will be very narrow and are often restricted to working on campus. Furthermore, a student visa will allow you access to reside in the U.S. during your studies, but upon completion you’ll be expected to return to Canada.

Moving to the U.S. for work

To work in the U.S., you generally need to first apply for either a non-immigrant (temporary) or immigrant (permanent) visa. Your prospective employer will need to be involved in the process and file a petition with USCIS on your behalf. The petition will need to be approved before you can apply for the visa. It’s important to note that there are very specific criteria and requirements involved when eligibility for working in the U.S. is being determined. These specific requirements are outside the scope of this article.
Another option for select individuals is to apply for NAFTA Professional (TN) status. This allows citizens of Canada and Mexico to work in prearranged business activities for U.S. employers, as long as their profession is on the NAFTA list.* This list includes professions such as accountants, scientists, engineers, doctors and many others.

Other ways to immigrate to the U.S.

If you have immediate family members who are U.S. citizens, you may be able to have one of them sponsor you.

If you don’t have family residing in the U.S. or a U.S. employer, but do have an entrepreneurial spirit, then you could be eligible for an immigrant investor visa. These visas are for those who invest in new projects with the plan to create jobs in the U.S. The minimum investment in these projects is generally $1,000,000 USD, but in certain circumstances this minimum is reduced to $500,000 USD.

For Canadians, visas are issued by foreign government offices in Canada and their fees, requirements and process times may vary. When applying, it can be easy to miss – or misunderstand – something, so you may want to speak with an immigration consultant before submitting your paperwork. Living outside the country for an extended period of time can also impact your financial plan and tax obligations in your home country, so make sure to speak to your financial planner to see if there are any adjustments you need to make.

Aaron Hector, Financial Consultant
Doherty & Bryant Financial Strategists

*Note that with the ongoing NAFTA negotiations taking place between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, it is uncertain what the future of the TN visa status will be.

Information in this article was obtained from the following sources:

uscis.gov
travel.gc.gov
ca.usembassy.gov
travel.state.gov
settlement.org

This article was published in T.E. Wealth’s Strategies newsletter, September 2018 edition. Read the full edition here.

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