tax/work permit question for working in USA


I am a freelance translator/interpreter and have always worked within Canada working to and from French Canadian. I recently get a contract with an American agency to do interpretation at a sales conference in New York for a large corporate customer of theirs. I was interpreting into French for the Quebec contingent. This was a three day deal, five with traveling time with the agency booking the flight and hotel.

When I crossed the border I told the US customs people that I was simply going to get some sun but was not completely comfortable about "lying" about the reason for my trip. This contract is something which will likely be repeated twice a year under similar conditions.

My question is: if I am crossing the border to work in the States, even if for only such a short time, do I need some kind of visa or work permit? Also, I assume that since I send my invoice once I get home and receive their payment by mail that it is handled the same, tax wise, as my other American customers whom I send translations to by e-mail. Am I right or do I have to pay income taxes to the American government?

Thanks for any help.

PS: I asked this question on a forum on, a site for translators and interpreters, and got your address and a glowing recommendation on the forum.
david ingram replies:

I am not a member of the AILA and not a lawyer although I did graduate from the UBC Immigration Practitioners program for immigration to Canada and have been doing this for some 43 years now. My knowledge is mostly gleamed from talking to thousands of people and hearing what happened to them. I also think I wrote the first book on cross border visas under the FTA (now NAFTA) back in 1989.

To my knowledge there is no visa available which will serve your purpose in any acceptable time frame or cost factor if you are being paid by a US entity.

An Interpreter can enter the US to practice their trade for a Canadian business. If a Canadian company wanted you to go to Louisiana to interpret for a Cajun client of the Canadian business and you were paid from Canada by a Canadian company, you could go to Louisiana under the Terms of a B1 Business visitor status.

However, that would NOT qualify you to work at a US conference for a US corporation.

It likely WOULD qualify you to go to the US "with" the Quebec contingent if you were paid by the Quebec contingent.

To work for a US corp or entity, you would need an H1 visa which will take you about 18 months to get at the moment and the US corp has to sponsor you.

With regard to the "getting some sun" comment, you were lucky although hundreds of people say the same thing and get away with it. However, if they had looked at your diary or found a letter from the organization in your golf bag, etc., you would have been turned back and banned from the US for five or ten years at an airport.

If it happened at a land border, you would likely have found yourself in jail for three or four days and had to post a $5,000 US bond to get out. Then it would have been a court appearance and been banned for 5 or 10 years. (I had a gent who was banned for ten years at the Toronto Airport in my office today,) Oh yes, if you were driving a $1,000 car or a $100,000 car, it would have been seized.

As for tax, you should be filing a US Tax return. There is no tax to pay because you can exempt up to $10,000 as an employee (Art XV) and all of it if you were self employed and have no fixed base in the US under Article XIV of the US/Canada Tax Convention (Treaty). When you claim an exemption under the treaty, you have to file US form 8833. I will agree that most do not file the return but if caught, the minimum penalty for failure to file a treaty based exemption (8833) is $1,000 to $10,000 US.