Canadians travelling for business in the US may remember a bygone era when passing through the border was merely a matter of flashing a passport and mentioning a meeting. As many travellers have painfully discovered in recent years, it’s no longer that easy. Even a relatively small mistake at the border can put a sudden end to your business plans in the US, possibly for years to come.
Canadian business travellers should equip themselves with ample, detailed documentation and choose their words carefully when explaining the purpose of the trip to an inquiring customs officer.
Border agents first became more cautious in 2001, when the threat of terrorism loomed largest, but many Canadians travelling for business have experienced even stricter controls in the last five years.
US border officials now see themselves as the first-line of defence in protecting the American labour market. To that end, any individual border agent may take a very active role in evaluating the purposes of a business trip. Since each agent exercises that authority differently, business travellers may encounter a wide range of questioning, and need to prepare for the strictest possible scrutiny.
Even if you are travelling for a meeting, don’t be surprised if the border official asks you if the work will be of economic benefit to an American company, whether an employee in a comparable position could perform the same work, and which expenses the US company will be covering.
The American government defines a visitor for business as “a person engaged in international business activities related to research and design, growth, manufacturing and production, marketing, sales, distribution, after-sales service, and other general services reflecting the activities in a complete business cycle, and receiving no remuneration from a US business source.”
Most Canadians travelling for business in the US, on behalf of a Canadian company, will seek B-1 status, which can be obtained quickly right at the border. The B-1 does set certain limits on the types of business a traveller may conduct in America:
The B-1 is the easiest and most common way to travel for business in the US under NAFTA. If this is how you plan to pass through the border, make sure you bring documentation that proves your Canadian residence, as well as a letter from your employer stating the purpose of your visit and confirming your employment in Canada.
Beyond the basics of documentation, there are certain things you should avoid saying:
1. I only work in the US occasionally, but I’m paid in Canada.
As much as possible, avoid using the word “work.” It’s better to give the positive reasons for your visit, in language that’s consistent with the requirements for business visitors, i.e., “I’m meeting with business partners to negotiate certain sales transactions for my company in Canada.”
2. I don’t do any work in the US; I just have people who report to me in the US.
Whether or not those employees recognize you as their manager, this statement gives the impression that you are doing managerial work, which does not fall under the parameters of a B-1 Business Visitor permit.
In fact, managers are by far the most likely to be turned away at the border. Executives, managers, and “employees with specialized knowledge” need to apply instead for an Intracompany Transfer visa (L-1). Like the B-1, this visa can also be obtained on the day of travel, but check the requirements, since extensive documentation is required.
3. I have Nexus or Global Entry, so I thought it was okay.
A Nexus pass may allow you to bypass customs, but it doesn’t alter any immigration laws or compel a border agent to treat you any differently. Nexus is a good way to save time, but don’t expect any sort of special treatment because of it. You still need to prove your trip matches your visa.
4. I’m in sales. I work out of Canada, but have some clients in the US.
To qualify for B-1 status, the profit or reward from the purpose of your business trip must accrue to a Canadian company, not to a US entity. The above statement is technically acceptable, but make sure that it’s very clear that your Canadian employer doesn’t have any US presence. Otherwise, you’ll need to apply for a working visa or an Intra-company Transfer.
5. I’m just a consultant; I’m going to work with a U.S. client, but I don’t work in the US.
Consultants face some of the toughest challenges crossing the border for business, since they are likely to be paid by a US organization. If you are performing activities “not directly involved in gainful employment” and that fall under the standard B-1 categories, then state what they are. Otherwise, apply for a working visa.
6. I only spend a couple days a week in the US.
If you are conducting business in the US with that degree of regularity, the border agent is likely to ask a lot more questions:
If you make this statement, get ready to back it up with a lot of supporting documents.
7. I’ve been doing this for years, and have never had any problems.
The B-1 status stipulates that the business being conducted is temporary. If you are continually returning to the US, it suggests that this isn’t the case. This statement attempts to turn the tables on the border agent; it implies that he or she is treating you unfairly. If this is your tactic, be prepared to have the tables turned again: you may find yourself justifying your work history in the US.
Above all, don’t say you’re travelling for pleasure if you’re travelling for business. Misrepresenting the purpose of your trip is a reliable technique for getting banned from the US for up to five years.
More than 4 million business people cross the border every year. By avoiding these mistakes and equipping yourself with the right documentation (including the right visa), you can keep expanding your business dynamically in the US.
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