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A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer looks toward a car coming toward him Saturday, May 30, 2009, at the border crossing between the U.S. and Canada, in Blaine, Wash. (Elaine Thompson)
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer looks toward a car coming toward him Saturday, May 30, 2009, at the border crossing between the U.S. and Canada, in Blaine, Wash. (Elaine Thompson)

Start: Tony Wilson

Travelling on business? Don't say it's tourism Add to ...

In my last column, I looked at the problem of being stopped at the U.S. border, and what you should and should not do if you’re barred entry for a minor criminal event from your wayward youth.

This time I’ll examine the issue of business travel to the United States and work authorizations under NAFTA.

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Business Visitor Status

If you’re a Canadian who wants to enter the United States for business, it’s essential to know the “permissible business activities” that will normally allow you to sail through.

If you’re entering the country on behalf of your Canadian business or Canadian employer for the following reasons, you will normally qualify as a “business visitor” and gain access with relative ease:

1. To engage in a business meeting.

2. To attend a conference.

3. To negotiate a contract.

4. To take orders for goods manufactured abroad on behalf of a Canadian (or foreign company).

There are a few additional scenarios that make Canadians eligible for business visitor status, but the ones above are the most common.

Problems occur when people say they’re going to the United States for “tourism” when it’s clear they’re not, or when they’re going down for actual “paid work” without being formally permitted to work there.

Saba Naqvi is a Vancouver immigration lawyer licensed to practice in both British Columbia and California. She regularly assists corporations and individuals with Canada-U.S. immigration matters. I spoke to her at length about business travel south of the border.

She says some Canadians believe that by virtue of the existence of NAFTA, or by simply being a Canadian citizen, they have a “right” to enter the United States without being scrutinized. That’s not true. So if you’re trying to enter the United States for business, it’s not a good idea to tell the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer you’re going for pleasure.

Misrepresentations have serious legal consequences. You might not get to return to the United States.

Besides, the officer can look through your briefcase, your luggage and your laptop, and that large stack of business cards or marketing brochures in your suitcase underneath that nice Zegna business suit might not be consistent with telling the officer you’re going on a beach holiday.

If you’re denied entry, don’t try again at a different border crossing on the same day thinking you have a fresh chance with a new officer. Denied admissions are updated in a centralized U.S. database and they are accessible immediately at every U.S. port of entry.

So trying to scoot through at a different border crossing in your aloha shirt claiming you’re going on a holiday on the same day you were refused enter in your business suit because you looked like you were going to engage in work is a strategy that could jeopardize your ability to enter the United States for the rest of your life.

Ms. Naqvi says if it’s clear you’re travelling to the United States on a quick business trip to attend a meeting, a conference, or to negotiate a contract on behalf of a Canadian company or employer, there shouldn’t be a problem at the border. All things being equal, Canadian business visitors will qualify for admission. But if the trip is expected to be longer, or you are doing more than negotiating a contract, you might need to produce additional information to the officer substantiating your business purpose for travel.

It can be helpful to have a recent letter from your employer concisely outlining the purpose of your business visit, the limited duration of your stay, confirmation of your Canadian employment, confirmation that you are being paid by your Canadian employer, and confirmation of your Canadian residence.

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