Career Advice Tuesday: Working in the US for Canadians

June 30, 2009

Hi Lee and Mike,

I am an Information Security professional with over 10 years of experience. I have heard about the TN-1 visa which allows for Canadians to work in the U.S. Can you put me in touch with recruiters in the U.S. who specialize in placing Canadians in U.S. companies and are familiar with the TN-1 visa process?

Thank you,
Looking to Expatriate

Hi Future Expat,

Mike here – I’m taking lead on this one, as this is a subject that is near and dear to my heart, being a Canadian and having been in the USA on nearly every visa classification allowable. Neither of us is a lawyer, and you should have legal counsel when dealing with these issues, but I’ll give the layman’s interpretation.

Let’s start with the basics. The US government has a non-immigrant visa program that allows US companies to hire workers that have skills that they can’t find in the USA. The goal of the program is to allow people who have qualifications that can’t be matched by an American citizen to come to the US and work in their chosen field.

There are two programs: the original, normal visa program, and the special programs available to Canadian and Mexican citizens under NAFTA. I’ll give an overview of each category that is relevant to the information security pro:

1. H-1B – This is the most popular visa for non-immigrant workers from any company. The H-1B requires that the company offers the job to a US citizen (usually through public postings in classified ads and the like), that they pay the worker a “competitive wage”. The visa is valid for 3 year terms, renewable once – after six years, a visa holder either has to return to their original company or apply for immigrant (i.e. Green Card) status. Note that the H-1B is the only “transferable” visa – you can switch companies on an H-1B, unlike the other two visa categories I’ll mention.

2. L-1A – This is an “intracompany transfer” visa. If you work for a multi-national company, you can transfer from the foreign division of the company to the US version. Note that this visa is not transferable, so once you’re in the US, you can’t then change companies. However, this is a “dual-intent” visa like the H-1B – once in the US on an L-1A, you are able to apply for immigrant status.

3. TN – The TN is a visa category available to Canadian and Mexican citizens under NAFTA. It was originally a one-year renewable visa, but has been expanded to three years (to the utter relief of all TN visa holders). The Visa isn’t transferable, so you have to apply for a new one each time you join a new company. This can be a pretty intense experience – I have had a border guard yell and taunt me for being “stupid” because my lawyer used the wrong job title in one paragraph of my letter.

Unlike the H-1B and L-1A, the application criteria for TN visas are very narrow – it is not enough to prove that the hiring company needs you, but that you fit in a particular “category” for the visa. The three that usually apply to information security professionals are:
- Software Systems Analyst – requires a 4-year degree in software engineering or computer science. The job category requires that you will work in direct support of a computer and software system. This is easiest to fit if your job is likely to involve application security or application penetration testing.
- Software Engineer – requires a 4-year degree in software engineering or computer science. Related experience may or may not be considered, but the job description needs to be tailored to show how the job is related to software engineering.
- Scientific Technologist – For those that don’t have a degree in computer science, the Scientific Technologist is the only option. Unfortunately, it’s an ugly category – it requires that the applicant will be working in direct support of a professional engineer and learning the disciplines of engineering. If your boss doesn’t have a formal degree in engineering, this one won’t work.

The TN is unlike the other two visas in that it is a “single intent” visa – you have to maintain proof that you intend to return to Canada at the conclusion of your visa. This usually involves having a permanent mailing address in Canada, a bank account, etc. While this may not seem like an issue, it’s worth noting – as someone who fell in love with an American, being on a TN would have kept us from getting married as it would have caused the TN to be invalid (we solved that by getting married while we worked in Canada for a couple of years, and getting the green card once we came back).

As far as recruiters, you don’t need one who specializes. Any recruiter who has been around for a while has dealt with the process for a candidate – I’ve had two different well-known infosec recruiters (Lee is one) deal with my TN process over the years. And most companies don’t care: in the 10 years I’ve been in the industry, I have had only a single company decide that they didn’t want to deal with the visa process, and that was because they had multiple qualified candidates. If you’re qualified for the job and you’re a great fit, the visa process is a very simple and relatively inexpensive one for the company to go through (< $10,000 total). Even if they’ve never done it, the lawyer you get will walk them through the process.

The real key will be to find a company that wants you aboard – the visa is going to be an after-thought in most situations.

Mike & Lee

Posted by mmurray | Filed Under Career Advice Tuesday, Uncategorized 

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