For Foreign Nationals, the Degree is the Easy Part, Putting it to Work is the Hard Part.


Landing a professional job in our current market often requires a degree, technical skills and a lot of persistence. As if that was not enough, foreign nationals entering the market face an added burden, obtaining a work visa.  Many are familiar with the H-1B professional work visa; it provides temporary work authorization for individuals who are sponsored by U.S. companies to fill professional positions in their field of study.  The H-1B visas are limited to 65,000 per year and when our economy picks up so does the speed at which they are exhausted.  In fact, this year, the 65,000 visas were exhausted within a week of becoming available.  So to add to the stress of finding a job, there is the necessity of all stars aligning, that is, the interview, selection process, explaining to the potential employer that they will have to jump through some hoops to have you if they really want you and oh yes, all must be timed precisely so that you are one of the lucky ones to get a visa in the 5 days they may be available this year.  The logistics involved is enough to make many want to throw in the towel before the hunt has even begun.

While the foregoing is the case for many, citizens of Canada and Mexico find themselves in a unique class, with more options and more control over their job search.  The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) created special economic and trade relationships for the United States, Canada and Mexico. NAFTA is an underutilized tool for certain foreign nationals seeking to enter the U.S. job market.  NAFTA provides temporary work authorization to citizens of Canada and Mexico who are seeking employment in designated professions in the form of a TN nonimmigrant visa.  There is no limit to the number of TN visas available each year and applicants may apply for a TN visa at any time during the year.  This allows job seekers to obtain work authorization within as little as two weeks after landing their job.  With the TN visa, professional Canadian and Mexican citizens are able to seek entry into the United States so that they may engage in professional business activities in the United States.

The list of designated professions includes, but is not limited to, engineers, lawyers, accountants, architects, computer system analysts, economists, graphic designers, college or university teachers, dentists, pharmacists, physicians and biologists, to name a few.  Also included within the list are the minimum educational requirements and other qualifications of the profession.  With few exceptions, each profession requires a baccalaureate degree as a minimum requirement to qualify for the TN visa.  Where that is not the case, the list provides the acceptable alternative to the bachelor’s degree.  Some professions also require experience in addition to the degree.

So you ask yourself, is licensure required?  The answer is that licensure is not one of the requirements for NAFTA professional to obtain the TN visa.  However, licensure may be required to practice the profession in the United States; as such it is referred to as a post-entry requirement which is regulated by the appropriate state or federal authority.

Applicants currently in the United States in lawful nonimmigrant status may apply for a change of status to a TN visa with U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services and await a decision on their application here in the United States.  Alternatively, applicants may apply directly with the Consulate in their home country to obtain a TN visa.  All applicants are required to present sufficient evidence that they meet the following requirements to qualify for the visa:

  • Applicant is a citizen of Canada or Mexico
  • Applicant will fill a professional position on the NAFTA list
  • Applicant meets all educational and/or experience requirements of the NAFTA position
  • Applicant will work for an employer in prearranged professional business activities on a part-time or full-time basis in the United States
  • The position with the employer is a professional one, requiring the skills of a NAFTA professional

If approved, the TN visa is granted for an initial period of 3 years and may be renewed indefinitely.  Benefits exist for family members of the TN visa holder as well.  Spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21 may apply for derivative TD visas to accompany the TN visa holder to the United States or they may follow to join the TN visa holder at a later date.  TD visa holders are not eligible to obtain employment authorization; therefore, the TN visa holder must prove that he will be financially able to support his family in the United States.

It is important to note that a TN visa is not a path to lawful permanent residency.  A TN Visa applicant must maintain nonimmigrant intent, meaning that the TN visa applicant must prove that his visit to the U.S. will be temporary in nature and that he will return to his country after completion of the prearranged activities in the United States.   Many professionals utilize the TN visa as a bridge from their F-1 student visa to an H-1B visa.  Doing so allows flexibility in securing a position with an employer and allows the employer to get to know the employee and determine if in fact the relationship will work before committing to sponsoring the employee on an H-1B visa, making this visa a win for both the employer and the employee.

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