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Visa Information for Canadian Singers: Studying and Working in the U.S.
Nick Olcott, Maryland Opera Studio
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Original Content6/26/2013

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Three websites to consult

Visa info: U.S. government website

Visa info: Artists from Abroad website

Info about working while a student: University of Maryland website

Studying in the U.S. — Visa information

* Tip from Maryland Opera Studio graduate:
“Every school has some sort of office for foreign students. Get to know that office and make friends with the people in it. They know or should know everything! Don’t get frustrated by some of the absurdities of the U.S. system. For instance, the University of Maryland Office of International Services is not allowed to make international telephone calls. So you can’t expect them to return your calls. You have to call them.”

Canadian Citizens do not need visas to study in the U.S. You do need to obtain an I-20 (or DS-2019) Certificate of Eligibility from the university that you plan to attend. At the time you receive the I-20 (or DS-2019) you will be registered with SEVIS, the student tracking system. You will be assigned a SEVIS number, and be required to pay a registration fee (see the U.S. government website for complete information).

* Tip from Maryland Opera Studio graduate:
“Canadian students don't need a ‘visa.’ And, yes, they hassle you at the border when you call it that. Call it the I-20.”

Once you have the I-20 and are registered with SEVIS, you will have the same status as those holding an F-1 visa, which is what other foreign students need to have. You have F-1 status, but not an F-1 visa.

* Tip from Maryland Opera Studio graduate:
“So now you have these pieces of paper from your school that are signed by the border, the school and yourself. You always have to travel with these papers (along with your passport), and you must have them renewed and signed when you go away for holidays or when you cross the border.

Working as a student with F-1 status

On campus
As a student, you can work 20 hours a week in an on-campus job. But check what kind of financial aid you are on. Many schools (including the University of Maryland) give financial aid in the form of assistantships, which count as on-campus work. You may not be able to accept other on-campus employment.

Off campus
With F-1 status, while you are currently enrolled in school, you can work 20 hours a week during the semester and more hours during breaks with a Curricular Practical Training (CPT) authorization. This must be work closely associated with your field of study. You may be required to set up an independent study course with the school and receive credit for the work, as well.  See the University of Maryland website for details or check with your school’s office for international students.

In the 12 months immediately after graduation, you can take paid work closely related to your field of study by applying for an?Optional Practical Training (OPT) authorization.

* Tip from Maryland Opera Studio graduate:
You do have to pay us taxes. Keep records of the taxes you paid. Make sure you mark down many days you stayed in the States when studying.”

Young Artist and Summer Programs

While still in school
Check carefully what sort of program it is. If it is a “pay to sing” arrangement, where you are paying for the program, you do not need work permission. The same MAY apply if the program pays living expenses only and no stipend or salary. (Check with the company for details).

If the program pays, you can do it as a CPT or OPT (see above).

If you’re not in school
Check with the program. They will tell you whether they consider foreign applicants. Again, the “pay to sing” and “living expenses only” programs are generally fine. Some programs (such as the Washington National Opera Domingo-Cafritz Young Arist Program) will apply on your behalf for an H-3 (trainee) visa. This allows you to remain in the U.S. for up to two years to receive professional training in the specific field, including other training programs. It also covers mainstage performances with the parent company, which are considered incidental to the training program. It does not cover mainstage work at other opera companies.

* Tip from a YAP administrator:
“H visas usually take three months to process. Plan ahead.”

* Tip from a Maryland Opera Studio graduate:
Get all the information and follow all the rules. One wrong move and you can either be in an embarrassing situation where you get kicked out of your paid YAP or end up being kicked out of the U.S. It's really strict.”

Professional gigs

O–level visas
Any singer who is not a U.S. citizen or who does not hold a U.S. green card, including Canadians, and who is engaged with an opera requires valid immigration/visa status. U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) classifies opera singers and other performers (including stage directors, concert pianists, etc.) in the same category as athletes — they require an O visa to work. O visas in general are for people of “outstanding or exceptional ability.”

The fine print about O-level visas:
A complete application for an O visa, submitted to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), will have the following:
  • Proof of upcoming engagements in the U.S. (ideally in the form of a fully-executed contract with a company); this will set the duration of the visa. If any new contracts are signed while the singer is in the U.S., the O visa can be extended. If a singer has contracts with multiple companies, they can all be included in a single visa application.
  • Evidence supporting the claim that the singer in question possesses “outstanding or exceptional ability.” Typically this comes in the form of overwhelmingly positive publicity, for example newspaper reviews that say remarkable things about a singer’s ability. If such publicity does not exist, letters of recommendation from experts in the field as well as programs from significant performances that feature the singer can be used. In total, there should be a minimum of six documents used as support.
  • Other basic components of the application include: resume, publicity biography, passport information, and any evidence of past visas that were approved (O visa or otherwise); the application fee at regular processing is $325.
  • Once the application is approved, the singer will receive an approval notice form (DHS form I-797), which they can then use to make an interview appointment at their local American Consulate. The purpose of any visa interview is to confirm that if a visa is granted, the person still has ties in their home country that will prevent them from immigrating fully. Usually a day or two after the interview, the passport is returned with a visa stamped in it. Canadians are actually the one exception — they do not require a visa interview. They just need to take their I-797 with them through passport control when they enter the U.S. However, they MUST enter on or after the date that their visa starts to have legal status. Canadians can travel freely to the U.S., but to have legal status they must enter the country with their I-797.
  • Visas usually take three to four weeks after submission to DHS to be approved.

A way around the O-level Visa

If a singer not well-known enough to get O visa, a reciprocal arrangement exists between the Canadian union, American Federation of Musicians (AF of M), and the U.S. union, American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA). If you are hired to work with a U.S. company, you can go to an AF of M office and join. The company can then work with AGMA to get you a P-2 visa. This takes two months at least. The cost to join includes initiation fees and dues.

* Tip from a Canadian opera company manager:
“The level of difficulty in joining AF of M varies among its various offices. Ask around where it’s easiest to join.”

* Final tip from a Maryland Opera Studio graduate:
These things are never free! So be prepared to front money.”

Many thanks to the following people who shared this information:

Maryland Opera Studio Graduates:
Aaron Agulay
Andrea Hill
Erin Passmore
Melissa Schiel

Opera Professionals:

David Mozur, Washington National Opera
Michael Heaston, Washington National Opera & The Glimmerglass Festival
Paul Johnson, Dean Artists Management
Nicholas Russell, Boston Lyric Opera
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About the Author: Compiled from various sources by Nick Olcott, Maryland Opera Studio
May 2013
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