So I moved to Portland last month. I’m still settling in, but I do have a job, part of a house, a beautiful but self indulgent sports car, some friends, and a sad American vacation allotment.
Moving to Portland was not part of the plan. It just kind of happened, thanks to a wine-fueled what-the-hell job application, a NAFTA loophole, and some good timing.
It took a bit of research to figure out the NAFTA provisions, so here’s the process in a bit more detail for anyone else thinking about moving south.
Step 1. Fall In Love With Portland*.
*Or somewhere equally good so it’s worth uprooting your life with an international move.
The editor of the Willamette Week, Portland’s version of the Georgia Straight, recently wrote, “Portland has become an idea as much as a place in the national landscape.” And it’s a compelling idea, one that continues to draw alterna-teens from the flyover states, and college grads grappling with the reality of a freelance future, to this land of fixies and shared houses and small batch everything. Most of the people I meet here tell me some version of the “I came to Portland for (insert short time frame and/or transient purpose) and then I just stayed.”
It’s probably because Portland is an easy place to love. It’s full of all the things I love about the rest of the Pacific Northwest – a land of green trees sandwiched between big skies and blue water, populated by foodies who do yoga and environmentalists who bike to work during the week but keep a car for weekend warrior activities and trips to the hardware store. Portland reminds me of my lovely Vancouver, but warmer and cheaper and more neo-hippie.
I first heard of Portland in 2007 when I toured a group of Portland Metro politicians, urban planners and journalists around the Vancouver suburb I was working for at the time. That trip landed me my most flattering professional press coverage to date as Mayna, the dark-eyed and athletic looking city planner, and also piqued my interest in the place.
Step 2. Land A Job.
This is an optional step. In fact it’s quite common to rock up to Portland without a job and remain unemployed for as long as you can. This city is often referred to as ‘the place young people go to retire’ and I can see why. The cost of living in Portland is lower than many other cities with similar levels of urban amenity, and there are so many fun things to do that frankly a job just gets in the way of your budding bourbon habit.
I came to Portland like so many others, unemployed, planning to be here for a month and then move on. But I applied for a job on a whim, used my friend’s local address so I wouldn’t get screened out by HR, and they made me an offer. It’s an interesting job at a company that is hard to get into so I figured I should take it. When you say “I want to live in Portland” for years and then the universe hands it to you on a platter, it’s rude to refuse.
Step 3. Collect Your Visa Paperwork.
So here’s where the NAFTA stuff kicks in. The free trade agreement lists 63 professional categories that are eligible for a TN (temporary NAFTA?) visa. To obtain a TN visa, you need to have the required level of education and professional certification in a TN-eligible profession and a job offer in your field from an American company. If your paperwork checks out, Homeland Security will grant you a temporary employment visa for up to three years with the possibility of extension.
There are a few routes to getting a TN visa. You can obtain one from the American embassy at home before you move, or you can apply and be processed at the same time as you cross the border on your way into the United States. If you choose the latter, you can enter the United States by land or air. I flew in, and I was able to apply for and obtain my visa as I cleared Customs at YVR. I had all my paperwork in order and it was surprisingly easy.
So the paperwork. I had to provide a letter from my employer, addressed to Homeland Security, stating the terms of my employment. The letter has to describe the type of work you will do and the duration of the appointment. I had heard that Homeland Security can be picky and bureaucratic so I had my boss send me a draft and I peppered it full of planning words like strategic and land use and consultation. I also had my employer say that the job was a three year contract with the possibility of extension. Technically, TN visas are temporary so Homeland Security wants to see evidence that you’re planning to move home at some point.
I also had to provide my passport and originals and copies of my degrees and professional certifications. There is a USD$50 fee, payable in American cash or by credit card.
Step 4. Show Up Early And Be Polite
I dressed as if I were trying to get bumped up to business class and checked in a full three hours before departure in case Homeland Security decided to leave me in a windowless room for an hour just for kicks.
As is often the case at the dentist, I prepared for the worst and it was all over in 20 minutes. When I selected employment as my entry reason at the automated kiosk, an officer escorted me to a waiting room. With lots of windows. After 10 minutes, another officer called my name and took me into another, smaller room. Still well-lit. The second officer looked over my papers, asked me some questions, reminisced a bit about his last trip to Portland, and stamped a three year work visa into my passport.
On my first day of work, my employer needed to see that visa stamp, along with a copy of my I-94 record of border crossing that I was able to print from Homeland Security’s website. Then I started working and they started paying me.
Step 5. Have A Bill Sent To Your American Address
Most administrative aspects of setting up a life in the United States will require proof of your local address. A utility bill in your name, sent to your American address, is the most widely accepted form of proof of address. I don’t have utilities in my name here so I changed my address with my Canadian bank right away. I’ve been able to use the first statement they sent here as proof of address for everything I’ve needed so far.
Step 6. Get A Social Security Number
Down here you need a Social Security Number (SSN) to pay taxes, open a bank account, even set up a post-paid cell phone plan. To apply for an SSN, take your passport with visa stamp, a copy of your I-94, and a piece of mail with your American address to a Social Security Office. Bring a book; it can take a while. An SSN will be mailed to you in a couple weeks. Call to check on your application regularly though – mine fell through a bureaucratic crack and the resulting delay was a hassle. The ‘no news is good news’ philosophy does not apply when you are waiting on something you need from the government.
Step 7. Establish Your Non-Resident Canadian Status
Canadians living abroad full time for more than a year can establish non-resident Canadian status so they don’t have to pay tax in Canada while they are gone. This is important because while taxes and the cost of living may be lower in parts of America, wages are often correspondingly lower too. Paying Canadian taxes on an American salary does not pencil.
To establish non-residency, I cancelled my Canadian health care and rented out the property I own to someone who is not a family member. I am keeping my Canadian drivers license but I’ve purchased and insured a car here in Oregon. It’s okay to keep Canadian banking active, but send a letter to your bank notifying them that you are moving abroad. My bank now treats me as a foreign investor until I resume residency in Canada and handles any tax implications of this change in status.
So that’s it. Now I’m looking forward to a lovely fall in the Pacific Northwest.