Terri-Jane Yuzda


Who Can Work in North America?
The Rules Keep Changing



If you are considering working internationally or coming to Canada for work, consider this: immigration rules often dictate who can work in North America, and these rules are changing almost weekly. With the most recent changes in March 2003, it is important to obtain the latest work visa information and advice when considering work across borders. Asking a few questions ahead of time can help prevent unforeseen delays at the border or costly rescheduling.

Working in the U.S.A.

The Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, formerly US INS, is the authority dealing with both immigrants and non-immigrants to the U.S. Over the last few months, BCIS has implemented several security measures to deal with security threats.

For example, BCIS has begun monitoring all non-immigrants in the U.S.A. A visitor's place of birth, as well as citizenship, is very relevant to the new Department of Homeland Security now responsible for U.S. border functions.

One effect is that people born in Arab and Muslim countries are routinely fingerprinted, photographed and examined under oath upon entry, causing frustration and delays. In two well-publicized cases, people traveling on Canadian passports were returned to their country of birth - and without notice to Canadian authorities.

Regulations governing entry requirements to the U.S. have also been significantly tightened. As of March 17, Commonwealth citizens who are permanent residents of Canada are no longer automatically visa-exempt. Unless their country participates in the Visa Waiver Program, they now need a visa to enter the U.S.

The Visa Waiver Program allows citizens of participating countries to enter for up to 90 days without a visa, for purposes of tourism or business travel. The program currently applies to most European countries.

For the time being, Canadian-born citizens enjoy a number of benefits. They do not need a visa for short-term visits. They can apply for a U.S. work permit at the port of entry (bringing prepared documentation is advised), thereby allowing Canadians to bypass the lengthy processing times at the service centres. Most beneficial of all is NAFTA, which is below.

Working in Canada

The rules for Canadian immigration also changed, in June 2002. Coming to Canada permanently as a skilled worker is now more difficult, although obtaining permanent residence if you are working temporarily on a work permit has become easier.

Obtaining a work permit is a two-step process. The employer must first prove that no qualified Canadians or permanent residents are available, which takes about 6-10 weeks. If approved, the employee can then apply for the work permit, which may take anywhere from a few days to several months depending on whether an entry visa or medical examination is required.

Some work permits can be issued without the employer step. These include work permits under NAFTA and GATS, or for intra-company transfers which provide significant benefit to Canada.

Work permits are generally granted for one to three years and can be extended. Spouses (including common law spouses) can usually work, and minor children under 18 can attend school.

Canada now accepts permanent residence applicants who have flexible skills to become successful in the Canadian economy, regardless of their occupation. They must obtain 75 points on a 100-point scale using selection criteria such as education, language ability, work experience and ties to Canada. Generally speaking, the most qualified candidates are holders of Canadian work permits.


NAFTA facilitates the movement of professionals between the U.S., Mexico and Canada. For example, engineers can obtain a Trade NAFTA, or TN, work permit for the U.S. simply based on their registration and a job offer from a U.S. employer.

In general, professionals who are NAFTA citizens can work for an employer in any of the three countries if: (1) their occupation is on the list (engineers and geologists are covered); (2) they meet the specific criteria for their occupation in the destination jurisdiction; and (3) the employer needs a worker in that capacity. A NAFTA work permit is valid for one year and can be renewed.

Further Information

Navigating the maze of changing regulations can be a daunting challenge, with real consequences and risks involved. If you have questions or concerns, visit the listed websites or contact the writer.

Peter A. Veress is a founding partner in VRV Immigration Consulting Ltd., a full-service immigration consulting firm providing expertise on Canadian, U.S. and international visas for individual and corporate clients.

More Information

Reach Peter Veress at
(403) 269-2224 or pveress@vrv.ca.

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