Since 9/11, touring the USA as a Canadian musician has never been more difficult. Things have gotten worse since Trump took office. Horror stories abound of bands being held at the border in interrogation rooms for hours/days on end, all because they lacked proper documentation.
What Constitutes Touring the USA?
Whether you are showcasing for free, playing a private unpaid event, or doing a full-blown tour, you need proper documentation. It is a common misconception that if you are playing an unpaid gig in the USA, that you don’t need documentation. Different standards apply to different types of shows. To be sure, always call the Canadian Federation of Musicians (CFM) rep in your area (see here).
Real World Examples
Calgary musician Chad VanGaalen, who is signed to Seattle label Sub Pop, has vowed that touring the USA will not happen again following an unpleasant experience a few years ago. VanGaalen says he was detained for hours by American officials in Calgary because the $3,000 work visa he purchased to perform concerts in the U.S. had expired by two days.
Abbotsford’s You Say Party took that chance on touring the USA and was caught. As a result, the dance-rock quintet was banned from performing in the U.S. for five years. The band had applied for their visas, but embarked on a tour before they were actually approved. So they told the border guards they were heading to L.A. for a recording session, and left out the information about the live performances confirmed while there. When border officials found additional dates on the bands’ tour itinerary, things turned sour.
“It was really awful,” says singer Becky Ninkovic. “They wouldn’t let us go to the bathroom. I was crying. I was a total mess. The officers were so intimidating; it was really a scary experience.”
VISAs and Fees For Touring the USA
Canadian musicians who want to perform in the United States can legally enter the U.S. to work by obtaining a P2 Visa in advance. The P2 Visa is intended for artists, entertainers, and athletes, and by far the simplest way for a musician to obtain one is through the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). There is an agreement in place between the AFM and the Department of Homeland Security that allows the AFM to petition on your behalf, streamlining the process incredibly, while people can learn about working laws from Labor Law Compliance Center that help with this information.
The P2 is not a temporary green card, and it doesn’t allow you to add dates after it is received. It is a work visa valid only for the contracts that are submitted at the time of application. Once the P2 application is submitted, no more dates can be added to it. You must apply for another P2 if you wish to add more performance dates. The maximum length of time given for a P2 can be up to one year, if there are no more than 30 days between contracted dates.
The current fee for applying for a P2 Visa is $460 USD, plus a $100 CAD fee to AFM Canada for administration costs. An additional $20 fee is applied for each additional musician in a group. For example, the administration fee for a 4 piece group will be $160 [$100 + $60 for the 3 additional musicians]. You may also incur Fedex charges for shipping documents to Toronto.
The above also applies to applications for technical crew and other essential supplemental support [i.e. tour managers, back-up singers/dancers, etc.]. One crew person will be an additional $100 (over and above the musician administration fee); two crew members would be $120.00.
When Should You Apply for a VISA?
P2 Visas should be applied for at least 120 days in advance (this varies – always contact the office for current turnaround times). If this is impossible, you can apply for “Expedited Processing,” which takes 25 days and costs $1,225 USD, in addition to the $325 mentioned above (these fees have likely increased).
CFM provides an up-to-date package of P2 documents online in Sodapdf format. These documents can be downloaded, printed and completed by the member before bringing them in to our office for final processing of the visa application. Click here for the package.
Checklist for Touring the USA
Before considering touring the USA, here is what you need:
1) Get a passport, make sure it’s valid.
It must be valid for a minimum of six months after the date you intend to return from your professional activities in the US. When the expiry date on your passport is getting close, don’t push it. Apply for a new one (prior to the expiry date) sooner rather than later.
2) Get confirmed gigs.
Evidence of work in the US is required to qualify for any artist work permit. You cannot obtain a permit to look for gigs.
3) Get a work permit
- P-1 Visa: for bands who are “internationally recognized”.
- P-2 Visa: for musicians who are emerging artists as well as those of international recognition who qualify under a USCIS approved Reciprocal Exchange Program. If you’re an AFM member, no matter your present career status, you fall under the AFM Canada/AFM USA USCIS approved Reciprocal Exchange Program.
- P-3 Visa: for soloists or groups that are culturally unique i.e., musicians performing folk music from their home country.
- O-1 Visa: for an individual musician who is internationally recognized (the back-up band/support crew, etc., would apply for an O-2 Visa).
For P-2 Visas, contact AFM to obtain one. For all other Visas, you will need a visa processing agent or immigration lawyer for assistance in obtaining these permits. These professional service fees range from $1,500 to as high as $7,000, which is in addition to the cost of the USCIS processing fee.
4) Ensure the permit is valid for all tour dates
O-1 Visas may be approved for up to three years. P-1, P-2, and P-3 Visas may be approved for up to one year. Subject to USCIS approval, all visa classifications allow the possibility of a one-year extension after the initial approval period. The general rule of thumb is that the permit will be approved for the time necessary to complete the work. For example, you won’t get a P-2 for one year if you only have two months of work.
5) Pay all necessary fees
Pay all applicable costs as outlined above, at least 60 days in advance. This will ensure you receive the hard copy/original approval document back from USCIS prior to the date of travel. Having the original paperwork in-hand upon entry to the US, provides for better ease of entry.
As always, email me with any questions, and happy touring.
Do you know if supporting staff (sound engineer) can apply on the same P-1 visa petition as the rest of the band?
I would contact an immigration lawyer on this point. I believe they can but it is not my area of expertise!
Hi, great article!
Any info or lead for a session musician? I am from France and have a work permit in Canada, but just got asked to play with different bands regularly in the US…
I always defer to the expertise of CFM and/or an immigration lawyer.
This is very helpful, thank you for taking the time to put it together.
What if you are a Canadian musician/vocalist who is on a tourist visa and are offered the opportunity to perform with a band but do not take any compensation?
Your best bet is to chat with an immigration lawyer, but I know some artists have been turned away at the border even for free shows.
hi! thank you for your article found it very useful. I have another question regarding a P2 visa performer that plays most of the time in the USA and so has a year long address in the USA and also residency in Canada , how is taxation applied to payments received for those gigs in the USA? Should that person do their taxes in the USA and so get a social security in the USA? Or should it entirely been done in Canada? there seems to be no straight answer on resources online and Taxation Treaty is not clear to a USA state law degree, please advise. Best Regards!
Email me Maria and we can discuss further. Ultimately, you’ll need an immigration lawyer or accountant’s advice.
We are a group of regularly employed business people in Calgary, who are also member/volunteers of a non-profit charitable society that performs local choral concerts for zero remuneration. We have been asked to perform at a one night charity event in the USA in late May. Our travel expenses, return to Calgary, are covered and, as is the case with all of our Calgary performances, we will receive no remuneration. Can we enter the USA with B2 – Tourist Visas?
Sorry Ken, just got to this now. I’m not an immigration lawyer but I think you do need some sort of documentation to perform even if its for free. Unless you just lie about it and act like you’re on a vacation. But that can get you in trouble if they find out. Curious to know how it went and what you did.
We are a cover band based in Calgary and we often receive inquiries to perform in Whitefish Montana for private events (weddings primarily).
Is the P2 Visa required, or is there another visa that would be appropriate in this circumstance? I would prefer to have all of the appropriate documentation in place and also be able to advise potential clients of the requirements
Hi Rob. Whitefish is beautiful. I would chat with your local CFM rep and see what they say. They help my band get Visas all the time, and it’s cheaper and quicker through them. Sounds like you would need a P2, but I’m not an expert at immigration law! Thanks and best of luck
Dear Kurt, I’m an American citizen as well as a permanent resident here in Canada currently. My band mates are Canadian. Are there any unique, easier angles to get my band mates into the states for touring especially if I manage this band.
As well, thanks for all putting together all this insightful information.
All the best
Hi Matthew. I always suggest speaking with an immigration lawyer or your local AFM/CFM rep, as they work in this area every day. It’s ever-changing, especially with the current administration down there. Hope this helps!
What is thecfastest turn around there is for a P2? My husband and I have been using them for 2 years now and were not going to apply until the end of the month, however a commercial producer contacted him and asked if he was available for a commercial in 2 weeks! Help !!
Contact your CFM rep!
Hello just wanting to ask a question for my boyfriend. He is planning on hopefully performing in Miami and possibly other states. It would only be for a max of 7 days to Miami. Anyways, the only thing is that he has multiple charges and convictions in criminal court and I’m wanting to know if he’s even going to be able to travel at all?
Thanks for your replies hopefully
Kristie from Canada
It all depends on the border guard that he gets. Tough call. Getting them pardoned is the best option.
Hi Kurt. This article was really helpful. Thanks.
I’m a Canadian musician & occasionally get offers to play a one night club date or teach for a day (minimal $). No extensive tour, just one offs from time to time.
Have they made it so expensive that it’s not possible to do any of these single dates – that only musicians with longer tours can even consider it?
If so, you would think the powers that be would make a less expensive option for these situations. Otherwise, its been very poorly thought out, as it doesn’t take this likely very common situation into consideration.
I totally agree Roly
Thank you for this information so helpful. With a P2 visa that is approved am I allowed to enter the states and exit and re-enter the states for shows?
I would discuss this with CFM as they stay up to date on the specifics of P2s and what they entitle you to. It’s always changing.
Hey Kurt, I am dual citizen (Canada/ US) and am thinking about planning a some dates in the US. If I was going to have Canadian musicians backing me up what would i need to obtain for them to tour with me? very informative article thank you
Contact your CFM/AFM rep and ask, but sounds like they would need P2 Visas.
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Thank you for the kind words!!
My son is Canadian, he creates beats and sells albums on line! He has a small following and on occasion gets a request to DJ at a show in the US! They will pay his expenses and pay him a small amount for the show! Is it worth all the hassle and expense, and more importantly, is it realistic to apply for a permit for an occasional show? Thanks
If he plans to get more shows in the USA going forward, he should always do it by the book or risk being banned for years or possibly life. They are strict and that’s an understatement! So I guess it depends what his long-term goals are, and maybe he can string together a few dates in a row to justify the VISA.
Hi There, Is it necessary to join the union to obtain a permit if you are performing in a state that is “the right to work”, with no union affiliation? The venue is very skeptical to sign a union contract? Can you advise me the proper and legal direction?
I’m no immigration lawyer nor am I a union lawyer, but my understanding is that any performance in the USA requires a VISA if you are a Canadian.
Hi, quick question; does a Canadian citizen need any sort of visa or letter to enter USA to record music?
When it comes to recording, there’s a limited exception: A recording artist is permitted to come to the U.S. as a visitor to use recording facilities in the U.S., for recording purposes only, provided the recording will be distributed and sold only outside the U.S., and no public performances will be given. Otherwise, when recording artists enter the U.S. to record albums, they are required to obtain an appropriate artist visa. Contact your AFM rep for a more info.
Hi everyone, as a Canadian passport holder I obtained P2 visas (one year validity each time) for seven straight years through the CFM reciprocal agreement with AFM, from 2001 to 2007. Having a P2 is the BEST way! It works great. Plan ahead to save the expedite cost. Here’s some advice I’d like to share:
1) If you feel the cost is too much to get a P2, and you want to risk doing US gig(s) while claiming entry as a tourist, be aware that if you get caught, you will likely be denied entry, miss your flight, and possibly be banned for 5 years or life. So don’t plan shows with paying customers coming to specifically see you, or have your name advertised at those gig(s) on the internet. Remember if you act nasty or smart to the officer, you could be denied entry for 5 years at the touch of their red button. Triple the risk of getting caught if you have an online presence where simply googling your name reveals you’re a professional musician. Musicians are known to US CBP (Customs and Border Protection) agents as being able to easily pick up shows at the drop of a hat. The moment you admit to being a musician (or they find out in their database or online search that music is your profession) they’ll note that in the system, and you’ll always face the risk of denial into the USA.
If you state you’re going into the US “as a tourist” don’t ever admit you’re going to sing or play ANY music while you’re there. The moment you do, they will most likely deny you entry. Don’t “admit” (as a conciliatory half-truth) that you “might sing a song” at your friend’s wedding. Emphasizing “for free” will change nothing and make them even more suspicious. Such an admission will likely lead to the agent denying you entry.
List your occupation on the form as “Teacher” (not musician). If asked what kind of teacher, say “music teacher” (aren’t we all?). That worked well for me in my pre-P2 years.
Know that once you’re flagged as a musician who never had a P2 (at least once in your past showing that you know how to abide by the rules), you could face problems even going to Disney with your kids on a legitimate vacation. Always pray that you’ll get a good agent.
So if you choose NOT to get a P2, you “may” be able to get into the USA and do gigs under the radar “for a season.” But once you’re flagged, denied, or identified as being a “professional musician,” pray and hope that you won’t be banned, and then from that point on, you really need a P2. It’s really the only “sure” way to avoid problems. IMHO, best to get the P2 before you get into any problems, because if you’re banned for whatever reason), five years is a long time, especially if you need those US gigs (or if your kids like Disney).
2) If you decide to get a P2 visa, do this: since you’re allowed to have up to one year validity on your P2 visa, get the most bang for your buck by securing lots of gigs, and AT LEAST ONE one contracted event (using the CFM’s official contract form) every month, for 12 consecutive months. I did this every year and it worked great. I had a friend (club owner) in NYC who signed the CFM contract agreeing that I would sing in his venue the second weekend of every month (must not be more than 30 days between gigs allowed according to P2 rules). It costs the same amount to do this, but it gives you a whole year of hassle-free entrance (assuming your entry dates coincide relatively close). Did I sing every month? No. Was that a problem? Never was for me, for “planned gigs fall through sometimes” and that’s not an issue to the CBP. But having a P2 each year enabled me to come and go into the USA as a professional musician WAY easier. Having the P2 shows the CBP officer that you know how to do it properly, and he’ll likely extend his hand in warm welcome most every time. BUT be cautious about taking other well-advertised gigs that are not on the P2. In this day with internet, if your name shows up in a search as doing any gig that is not on the P2, you can lose the P2 in a moment and be banned for 5 years or for life.
3) If you’re planning to bring CD’s with you for sale from Canada, especially through US customs and border agencies pre-clearance locations like Calgary, be aware that you’re technically not allowed to bring such items in with you, because US CBP stations at airports in Canada have no pre-clearance facilities (where you can pay duties and tariffs, not that there are any). Better to ship the CD’s if you really need them at your gigs, or have a backup plan if the agent says you can’t bring them in (eg a friend waiting behind a few extra minutes for you, just before the US CBP area, who you can give the CD’s to if they’re denied), and have alternate CD’s for the venue available if this happens. Allow extra time for this matter. If you have a flight to another country via a US city, be aware that USCBP could still deny your CD’s (even in bags checked through all the way to the other country). They did that to me a lot. It was very frustrating.
Thanks for this Steve, very helpful
I’m a dual citizen (US/Canada) living in Canada. Do I need P2 visa if I’m traveling to the US to play shows with a Canadian band?? They all have their P2’s but are unsure if I need one as well since they will be paying me.
Hmmm. Best to call your AFM rep on this.
Your article is very helpful and even inspiring. I’ve been playing/performing around western Canada for 10+ years but always felt the US paper work daunting. I took a chance in 2008. Banned for five years. Oops. “A common misconception is you don’t need a visa to play a free show in the US”. These guys are serious.
I’ve been putting it off for years but after your article I think I’ll giver a shot in 2019.
PS: AoE was the first live band I saw when I finally turned 19 in 1992. California Dreamin’, New Westminster.
Ha! Wrong Kurt. Sorry bud!
Hi Pernell. This article was written several years ago, so some points might need updating. But please enlighten me as to what parts are wrong from your perspective.
I spend my winters in New Orleans. I am not a professional musician but I know many pros who ask me to sit in from time to time. I don’t accept a penny for this even if I sit in for the whole gig. Obviously I can’t arrange a visa ahead of time because I have no idea when I will be playing.
I am pretty good but still technically an amateur. Am I going to get in trouble if found out?
I don’t think so but you never know with the current administration. Especially if you’re flying with an instrument in tow. The musician in me says don’t worry about, the lawyer says be careful.
Interesting article. I am curious if you know whether there are any restrictions if you are travelling through the US to board a cruise ship on which you will be performing in international waters?
Ooh – good questions Larry. Because they are international waters, there might be a loophole there in terms of the US tax question. But I would discuss with your accountant and/or an immigration lawyer to be sure. Or your local CFM rep if you are in Canada. Hope this helps
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