USA Work visas

6 Steps to Getting Your TN (NAFTA) Visa: a Guide for Canadians

Finally had it with Canada?

The US of A, of course, waits for you with open arms. Big portions, big salaries, and (its own flavour of) big problems await. Will you heed the call?

Of course, there are many ways to enter the States. And “open arms” is a decidedly inappropriate term for the US immigration and visa system – the reality is a complicated and intricate web of forms, fees, and requirements.

Luckily, Canadians have a trump card – the TN visa, a way for professionals to work temporarily in the United States. Originally created as part of NAFTA (free trade agreement), the TN visa is relatively easy to obtain as long as you can classify yourself as one of the non-immigrant classes (professions) listed in Appendix 1603.D.1

As someone who has successfully done this twice (entered the US on a TN work visa) and has talked to many others with similar stories, I wrote the following as a quick guide for any Canadians considering relocating south of the border.

Without further ado, the 6 Steps to successfully moving to the USA on the TN NAFTA work visa:

Step 1: Decide that you really do want to live in the US

Even if your plan is only to live in the USA temporarily, moving is a major life decision and should not be taken lightly. Think about what this move will mean for your relationships (e.g. with friends, family). Be honest about why you’re looking to move – if you have personal problems back home, expatriation is unlikely to make them go away.

Financial matters present a whole new area of consideration. Take taxes, for example – depending on your personal situation, you may very well be treated as a Canadian tax resident even after departure (this topic deserves its own blog post). In short: the rest of the process is going to be easier once you have committed to the decision (and have taken the time to understand all the pros and cons).

Step 2: Obtain an offer of employment from a US company

Once you have decided that a move to the States makes sense, it’s time to get a US job offer. While this is easier said than done, keep in mind that thousands have walked this path before you – US employers are already used to processing applications from Canada.

Treat this just like any job search. Prepare a solid résumé, ensure that your LinkedIn profile is up to date, and above all: have a very clear idea of what you are looking for. Hiring managers will have to make a special case for you as a foreign applicant – make this easy for them by preparing a 10-second elevator pitch for yourself (e.g. “I’m a data scientist with a specialty in Natural Language Processing looking to join a world-class R&D team to further my skills”).

If you don’t know where to start, I recommend networking with talent agencies specializing in your industry (e.g. management consulting) with offices in the US city you’d like to relocate to. Contact at least a couple of recruiters on LinkedIn and try to schedule a quick phone call. Be able to quickly answer the following:

  • What’s your background?
  • What is your area of expertise? Specific technical skills?
  • What are you looking to get out of your next career opportunity?

It’s likely that before you land a job offer, you will be asked to fly down to the US for an in-person interview (after multiple phone interviews to confirm your eligibility). Don’t be daunted – take it seriously, and treat it as the valuable experience that it is.

Step 3: Have a conversation with your new employer about your residence status

You won’t need to initiate this yourself – your potential US employer will already be aware that you’re applying from Canada and as such will require a work visa. There will then be a discussion (likely involving their HR department) about the best path for your specific situation – the TN visa has a high chance of coming out on top (more on this later).

Note: if the company is unwilling to sponsor work visas, I still recommend proposing the TN visa as a solution – it’s a far easier work status to obtain than some others (e.g. the H-1B), and the actual visa cost is just $50.

Even if you have secured a US job offer, do not quit your current job in Canada until you are absolutely sure that your new employer understands your situation and is willing to proceed with your transfer (whether as a TN status applicant or otherwise). As detailed below, this is not an instant process.

Important: before signing any offers of employment, make sure you are satisfied with all employment terms (read all of them carefully). If you’re going to negotiate compensation and/or relocation package, now is the time to do it. At the very least, ask if the company would be willing to sponsor your relocation – the worst they can say is “no, you’re on your own [for flights and initial housing].”Tip: check Glassdoor for a rough idea of market salaries for your chosen position (job title), industry, and location.

Landscape shot of Yosemite National Park
Access to the National Parks: just one perk of living in the US (Pictured: Yosemite)

Step 4: Apply for TN status in the United States

There are two main methods to getting a TN visa:

Option A:
  • Your US employer files form I-129 (Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker) on your behalf, potentially with premium processing (faster option – USCIS will try to respond within 15 days)
  • Once US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approves this form, your employer will notify you and forward you the approval notice.
  • You will show up to a port of entry (the CBP maintains a list of recommended processing centers for first-time Canadian TN applicants) with the I-129 approval notice, the original I-129 application (with supporting documents), and proof of your Canadian citizenship (e.g. passport) and declare that you’d like to “enter on a TN visa”
  • The CBP (Customs and Border Protection) reviews your case and makes a decision at the border regarding your application. There’s often a series of questions (out of scope for this post). If all goes well, you’re granted TN nonimmigrant status for up to 3 years. Welcome to America!

Total cost: $325 (I-129 filing fee) + $1,225 (premium processing, if chosen)
Time required: depends entirely on I-129 processing times. Without premium processing, can easily take 2-4 months.
Advantage: can be done far in advance of the proposed visa start date (up to 6 months)

Option B:
  • You show up to a port of entry with proof of Canadian citizenship (e.g. passport), your original University diploma (not a photocopy), University transcript, and a letter from your employer stating your qualifications, credentials, and proposed responsibilities as part of your new. As in Option A, you simply state that you’d like to “enter on a TN visa.” This must be done within a few days of the proposed employment start date.
  • The CBP reviews your case (and all supporting documents) and makes a decision regarding your application. If all goes well, you’re asked to pay $50 (they take credit cards) and granted TN non-immigrant status for up to 3 years.

Total cost: $50 (paid by applicant at the border)
Time required: once the letter and supporting documents are ready, you’re good to go (typically 1 week with competent legal assistance)
Advantage: much faster option

Note: while some have pulled it off successfully, I do not advise writing the TN support letter yourself. In most cases, your employer will ask an immigration lawyer to draft this and brief you on the particulars.For both options A and B, you should be well rested before the day of your entry in the US – you will be asked for details about your job, academic credentials, application, etc. I always advise to give clear, concise answers – everything is being logged in the CBP system and it helps no one if you use long and flowery language.

Think this is all a little too complicated? The TN visa is the easy one – just wait until you find out how one applies for a Green Card!

Step 5: Prepare for work in the USA

Before you bust out the champagne, there are just a few more things to take care of:

    • Once you’re in the States, make sure you update USCIS with your new address in the US (you can do it online). You have to do this every time you move addresses while in America.
    • Go to your local Social Security Office and register to get a Social Security Number (SSN). Like your SIN number in Canada, this is a prerequisite to get pretty much anything done in the States
    • As soon as you can, make a photocopy of the TN stamp in your passport (scan and send to your company’s HR department to keep on file)

(Optional): go through the TD process for any dependents

If you have dependents (i.e. spouse and/or children), they may be eligible for special TD status once you have received your TN status. See the table at the bottom of the official USCIS TN page for more info.Short version: they can remain in the States for as long as you maintain your TN status, can study in the US, but can’t work.

Step 6: Make a decision about your continued stay in the US

You have seen the TN referred to as a non-immigrant visa (e.g. not a “dual-intent” visa). This means that it’s designed for people working temporarily in the US – if you decide to pursue Permanent Residency status (i.e. Green Card), you will need to first obtain an immigrant visa (e.g. H-1B).

You can technically renew the TN indefinitely, but greater scrutiny will be placed on those who are attempting to renew it a second time (6+ year stay in the US). You will be asked about your intentions to remain in the States, and why you have not yet applied for an immigrant visa yet.

While I have done my best to cover the basics here, there are many details we had to gloss over to keep the length of this post reasonable. If you’re interested in this path, you probably have some questions of your own. Feel free to get in touch and I’ll be happy to answer. Bon chance!

For general information about moving to the United States, please see our USA Immigration Guide.