Canadian Musicians Travelling to the U.S.

(For more information about going to the US, Nashville in particular, please check us out the S.A.C.’s upcoming workshop:  The Road To Nashville:  Strategies for Canadian Songwriters Heading to Music City on June 7th at 6pm EST.  Click Here for details.)

by Allister Bradley

As I hear more musicians asking about the complexities of crossing the border to do business, I want to share what I’ve learned in my similar travels.

This article is NOT intended to substitute for legal and/or formal advice from the appropriate authorities on the subject. I am not a lawyer, immigration expert or border agent – I’m just a guy who asks a lot of questions. If I were to suggest a “best” information source for such questions, it would be the AFM offices in Toronto. The staff at the AFM were invaluable in supporting my recent trip for business in the U.S.

This article is also NOT intended to help you duck the rules and cross the border to work illegally. While I applaud your intentions (it is WAY TOO DIFFICULT AND EXPENSIVE to legally tour the U.S. as a Canadian musician), I can’t be held responsible for your potential incarceration…

KNOW YOUR OPPONENT: First, I would suggest that you try your best to understand the interests of the various agencies with whom you’ll need to deal if you’re crossing the border as a musician, for any kind of business trip. Primarily, there are security interests, immigration interests, and customs interests (and please forgive me if I leave out any other important agencies). Think about how each of these relate to your travels, and how you can provide documentation to satisfy those interests.

Are you planning to work while in the U.S.? If you expect to get paid for that work, you’d better have a P2 or similar work visa, which require application long in advance of your trip. If you are working but not getting paid, you probably don’t require a visa, but should have some documentation describing your work plan.

Are you travelling specifically for the purpose of attending an event, or hiring the services of an American person or company? No work visa is required for such trips, but documentation of the event, registration, appointments, etc. will greatly reduce your chance of headache at the border.

Are you planning to take anything of value, relating to your work as a musician, into the U.S. or back into Canada? U.S. and Canadian Customs will both potentially take interest in the goods you are carrying across the border, and without appropriate documentation, you may be forced to declare the value of the goods and pay duty – even if you brought the items with you from home.

Are you planning to stay in the U.S. for a long period of time? While I have no experience with U.S. Immigration, you should research their allowances and requirements for documentation.

MY TRAVEL STORY: Not too long ago, I travelled from my Ontario home to a recording facility in Hopatcong, New Jersey (Barber Shop Studios – highly recommended) to record the bed tracks for my third album. Accompanying me were two of my favourite musicians, Adam Bowman (drummer) and Matthew Lima (bassist). The purpose of the trip was specifically for hiring the services of the studio to record audio; I had won free recording time in a songwriting contest (Yay, me! And thank you, Mike Pinder), and was paying for additional time at the studio.

So what documentation did I need to bring with me to satisfy the eager-to-say-no agents on the U.S. side of the border crossing?

  • A letter from the staff at the songwriting competition (SongWars) supporting my claim to have won recording time
  • A letter from the recording studio confirming my appointment to record, and the quote for my additional costs
  • Documentation confirming my reservation to stay at the hotel we had booked
  • A letter from the AFM endorsing that the purpose of my trip was for the stated purposes, and not for performance-for-pay
  • A complete inventory, with model number and serial number of every piece of musical gear in the van (drums, cymbals, guitars, keyboards, underwear, etc.), stamped by Canada Customs BEFORE crossing the bridge into the United States

Without this list of documentation, we surely would have had issues crossing the border. The van was brimming with instruments, and Adam’s passport number triggered a long list on the border agent’s computer of his previous legitimate travels into the country. The agent, in fact, excitedly thought he had “caught” us travelling without a P2, since Adam was listed on so many previous visas, until I educated the agent on the point that we didn’t need a visa for this trip. He called in a supervisor, desperately searching for some reason to deny us entry, but the supervisor confirmed that we knew more about the requirements then either of them did.

SUPER-IMPORTANT NOTE: perhaps the most valuable piece of documentation for you to bring is the detailed list of all significant items in your luggage – guitars, recording devices, computers, etc. Canada Customs will want you to prove that you did not buy or sell any such items while you were in the United States. Have your list stamped/signed by a Canada Customs agent before you leave the country, and offer the list for inspection when you return. YES, this permits Canada Customs to inspect your luggage before they will certify your list, and again to inspect your luggage upon your return. It is a small price to pay, considering that Adam once returned to Canada with a full drum kit, to have Canada Customs demand payment of duty and taxes on the value of the drum kit. Adam was lucky enough to reach, by phone, a clerk at his local music store, who was able to reproduce and fax a copy of the sales receipt for the drum kit. There are many similar stories of musicians travelling legitimately, but without sufficient documentation to avoid bureaucratic trouble.

So, best wishes for a fruitful trip, whatever the nature of your travels, and may you suffer no headaches crossing into or out of that country to the immediate south of us…


Click Here to visit Allister’s Songwriter’s Profile.