This post is based on my personal experience. I’ve linked to resources on the US Homeland Security and US Consulate websites but am not affiliated with them.
Our journey started a year ago when our ad agency, Adfluent Media was in its sixth year of operation. Even though we are based in Toronto, a thriving tech hub, we felt like we were constantly hitting a brick wall with our Canadian clients — who made up less than ten percent of our business. Meanwhile things in the US were rapidly growing. Pair that up with a long and harsh Canadian winter and I was often Googling “how to get a US visa”!
That’s when I discovered there was a lot of out dated and inconsistent information. Which prompted me to write this post to share my experience as a Canadian applicant. I’m not an immigration lawyer so I did have to hire one to help me get through the copious amount of paperwork but hopefully these 9 steps and tips can help you navigate through some of the daunting process…
First off, what is an E-1 Visa?
It is for business owners that already have existing business relationships with US partners. This non-immigration visa therefore, allows Canadians to live and work there so they can continue engaging in international business. The visa I got is good for five years. After that, if you show you can sustain your business, it will be renewed for another five years (indefinitely).
You can get more details about this visa here.
To qualify your business needs to…
- Be Canadian or a nation of a country with which the US maintains a treaty of commerce
- Carry on substantial trade
- The principal trade exists when over 50% of the total volume of international trade is between the US and the trader’s treaty country
Even though this doesn’t sound overly complicated, I still recommend consulting with a lawyer. I’m really happy with the one I worked with from PwC so if you need a referral, send me a msg.
Our ad agency qualified — being a Canadian incorporated company who has been providing digital strategy services, media buying and online lead generation to US clients since 2010.
Point two (above) however, is pretty vague. Even our lawyer couldn’t pinpoint an amount to define ‘substantial’ but he believed we had a really strong case… in the last two years, we generated close to $2 million in US sales .
More important than the total amount though is the consistency and duration. For example, a company that does $10k every month will look more favourable than another company that has only done a one time transaction of $50k.
Note: closely related is the E-2 Treaty Investors visa so you may want to look into that to see if you better qualify under their requirements.
What are the nine steps involved with getting an E-1 Visa?
- Fill out a Nonimmigrant Visa Application DS-160.
This is an online form requesting basic details such as your birthday, education, if you visited the US before, passport info, etc. You’ll also need to provide an estimated date of arrival and a contact in the US (I just used my friend). Make sure you have a current photo (yes, you can take a selfie but you’ll need to bring in actual passport photos for the consulate meeting.)
Each primary applicant and their spouse + children have to complete one. Luckily you don’t need to finish it in one sitting but you can save your work and come back to it later.
Time commitment: 60 minutes for each applicant.
2. Create a 5 year business plan
By far the most time consuming part of this process was creating a biz plan. Aside from the ones I made up in university ages ago, I actually have never written a plan for a ‘real’ company! It ended up being 22 pages!
I included EVERYTHING! A SWOT analysis, a target market profile, an advertising strategy, a sales pipeline and a team hierarchy including future positions I plan to hire for. Yep all the key terms drilled into you in b-school are coming back to haunt you in real life! My accountant then helped me prepare the financial statements and a 3 years projection.
Time commitment: 16 hours
3. Scanning documents
I scanned EVERYTHING! This is when you will kick yourself if you don’t have a binder of your legal documents organized — birth certificates for you + your family, marriage license, university diplomas, client contracts, company corporation and shareholder documents, screenshots of your website, customer testimonials, etc. Anything that could be proof of operating a business involving US partners, you should make digital copies. I even included the 300 invoices I issued in the most recent 24 months!
Time commitment: 3 hours
4. Submitting documents and booking the consulate interview
My lawyer prepared a 70 page package for me both in digital and hard copies (that I had to sign-off on). It included a reference letter explaining why I’m applying for the visa, my business plan, the legal documents I scanned, my financial statements, sample invoices and insertion orders. He also submitted it to the consulate online and helped me book my interview. You are given a 2 week window and can chose your own date.
Time commitment: The time varies obviously depending on how busy the consulate is but from when we submitted everything to my actual interview, the wait was a month.
5. Take US Visa photos
Within two weeks of your consulate interview, you will need to get photos taken. They should be in colour and measure 4×4. I highly recommend this little father-son shop in Chinatown. (Yes, they speak English!) Cost is $8 for 3 photos. Service is professional, friendly and they are amazing with kids!
6. Meeting with the US Consulate
There are seven offices across the major cities in Canada but all initial applications are done in Toronto (located downtown on Simcoe Street). If there is a registered company, an employee of the company can go to a different consulate in Canada. For example, if you wanted to bring a Canadian worker to the US, they could apply at a different consulate in Canada because your company is registered. But the initial registration process + first applicant has to go through Toronto.
The interview as expected is the most nerve-racking part! Both myself + my husband had to attend. It was rapid fire questioning so be well prepared to answer as directly as possible and in plain English! No time for long explanations! This was tricky for us as there are quite a few tech and advertising jargon in our business and the inteviewer had a difficult time understanding so we felt pretty frazzled…
Which eventually led us to not getting the visa on the same day but being placed on a ‘pending’ status. <– What a disappointing and anti-climatic ending here! And we were requested to submit additional information of how our relationship began with our American clients.
Tip: Aside from legal documents, passports and ID’s + your two US Visa photos, you are not allowed to take anything into the consulate building. Definitely NOT your phones but not even your purse/wallet. We didn’t know this until we got there (by Uber so of course, we had our phones but luckily the Staples across the street has a storage service for $5 and you can leave it with them). You will also get finger printed.
Time commitment: It was the fastest 10 minutes of my life!
7. What if you don’t get approved and have to submit additional supporting documents?
Hopefully you will skip over this section and be on your merry way across the border but if your situation is similar to ours — you are given the dreaded ‘green slip’ — you will need to go home and dig through your archives.
As thorough as I was with presenting my case, my interviewer wanted it ALL. My lawyer also noticed that he’s been seeing tougher expectations and demands since the Trump Administration (not surprising at all). So the next day I went back to my online application and uploaded two extra client reference letters, multiple client email threads, screenshots of our tracking platform and invoices from the most recent quarter.
8. Then I waited and waited some more…
I’m not going to lie but this step was brutally taxing mentally and emotionally. Once you are in this ‘black hole’ administrative processing period, there is no indication of how long it will take to get the visa. The site says ‘a few weeks or longer’. Ummm thanks! Basically everyday is a waiting game. And if you are a planner like me, you will flipflop between what if scenarios, you will endure panic attacks ‘what if they disapprove my application?!’, you will pray for time to hurry up, you will try your dang hardest to not think about it but it will be on your mind. Every other hour!
Tip: you are allowed to followup on your status but even if the suspense is killing you, be mindful how many emails they get. I sent 2 emails to check-in over the two months I waited.
9. At last, good news arrives!!!
At almost the two month marker, we received an email. It was not customized but a general notification congratulating us that our visas have been approved! Rejoice!
We followed the instructions to drop off our passports, visa photos and a bank draft of $40 USD (per person) at the consulate mailbox located in the Canada Post office at Yonge & Lawrence. (If you live far away or don’t have time, you can also send a courier.)
One week later I received my shiny red, white and blue US E-1 Visa! 🙂
How much does this visa cost?
We got a quote from three law firms ranging from $6000 to $10,000 CAD. We went with one that was mid-range because the team of lawyers were more familiar with the adtech industry. In addition to legal fees, each applicant has to pay $200. And don’t forget the cost of photocopying, passport photos and courier services which adds up to another $150.
Note: Even if you decide not to live/work in the United States right away, the visa is stamped in your passport and effective immediately.
After a lengthy and expensive process, it all worked out! Since this is such a popular search topic, I hope you found my post helpful. If you have questions or wish to share your own experiences, please leave a comment.