Can a Canadian work legally in the U.S. if their spouse goes to grad school there...and how?
January 29, 2010 10:42 AM   Subscribe

A Canadian friend just got accepted to an American grad school (Chicago) for a 5 year Ph.D program. He'll have funding, but how would his equally Canadian wife make a living in the U.S.? Getting the basic information is not as easy as they expected. What's the skinny?

I apologize if this invites "I am not your Google" responses, but it seems that running searches for things like "international student United States graduate student spouse" doesn't lead to any helpful FAQs. Are there some?

Assume (correctly) that we know nothing. Bonus for personal experience in a similar situation!
posted by Beardman to Work & Money (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Basically it will be impossible for her to work legitimately without a work visa. What is the wife's background? If she's "highly skilled" she may qualify for some special visa. Else she has to find a company to sponsor her.

The two pieces of advice I'd give are: contact the university and see if they can help in some way and don't underestimate how hard it will be for the wife to find legitimate work.
posted by dfriedman at 10:48 AM on January 29, 2010

She will need to get her own visa. Very few visas grants spouses the right to work, only L-1 to my knowledge, though there may be others. Students visas, TN and H1-B visas do not give spouses the right work.

Depending what she does it may be easy to get a TN visa.
posted by GuyZero at 10:51 AM on January 29, 2010

As I'm sure everyone here will say, definitely get professional advice about what can and cannot be done.

The University of Chicago has an Office of International Affairs that can advise foreign students and their dependents. I have no experience whatsoever with the Chicago department but I was an international student at another big US school back in the day and the equivalent department was wonderfully expert in answering this sort of question.
posted by sueinnyc at 10:52 AM on January 29, 2010

Most large universities in the U.S. have an "International Students Office" or some such — for example, here's one I found for the University of Rhode Island (with some pertinent information as well). Your friend might want to contact them and ask what his wife's options would be — they've almost certainly dealt with similar situations many times before.
posted by Johnny Assay at 11:03 AM on January 29, 2010

Your friend shouldn't assume, either, that he'll complete his Ph.D. in five years. It may take much, much longer.
posted by The Michael The at 11:22 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

If they need her income to survive, or if she really wants to maintain her career path, then:

(A) She and her line of work may be eligible for a TN. These are relatively easy (the company doesn't have to jump through hoops) but relatively short term.
(B) If she or her line of work are ineligible for a TN, her next best bet, honestly, is probably to live and work in Sarnia/Windsor/London/Waterloo/Toronto while her husband is in school, and maybe thereafter.

IIRC, she won't be able to (work in the US because of who her husband is) until her husband either gets a green card and imports her as the spouse of a permanent resident, or gets a green card, takes citizenship, and then imports her as the spouse of a US citizen.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:41 AM on January 29, 2010

I am a Canadian who went to graduate school in the US and whose husband worked while living with me in the US.

Most foreign students in the US come in with an F-1 visa -- it's the basic student visa. Spouses and/or dependents will come in on a F-2 visa. People on an F-1 visa are allowed to work on campus (and he probably will, as a teaching assistant), but people on a F-2 visa are not allowed to work at all.

If your friend has a scholarship for his program (that is, he is not paying his own way), he will qualify to get an optional J-1 visa (which is for students or visiting scholars). His wife would then qualify for a J-2 visa. J-1s can only work on campus, but J-2s can work off campus.

That said, things are a bit trickly. The whole theory of letting J-2s work is that they are NOT working to support their student/scholar spouse (though in reality they may be). The student spouse must be fully supported by their own funding/employment. Officially, the J-2 is merely working to keep up their own career and provide for those little things that they need to sustain a culturally appropriate livestyle. I'm serious -- my husband had to write a letter saying how he wanted to work not to pay our rent, but so that we could go out to movies and eat dinner out which was an important part of our oh-so-foreign culture. It was true -- we could afford to eat cheap takeout more after he started working.

First things first: the University of Chicago should have an office for international students and scholars who will hold their hands through this process. They will arrange for the J-1 visa instead of the default F-1, and they will be able to explain how she can apply for her J-2 work visa.

His ability to work on campus will start immediately -- her work permit will not. She won't be able to apply for a work permit until AFTER they move to the US (and thus activate their visa status); after her application it may be 2-3 months before the work permit arrives (and she can't work before then). (We were lucky at about 7 weeks -- slow time for the office). There will be a fee for the work permit -- $300? I don't remember.) That said, they may be able to take a short trip to the US, activate their visas, make their work permit application and then come back for a "visit" to Canada (you are allowed any length out -- I was in Britain for 2.5 years while still maintaining an active visa status with the US), all before moving all of their stuff. But I didn't suggest doing this.

If at any point he changes his visa -- extends it, for example -- she'll have to get a new work permit. So he should try to get his original visa for as long as possible -- for a 5 year PhD program, he should try to get at least 6 years. I think mine was issued for 6 years right away, though my program was also officially 5 years. The schools don't care, and it saves everyone trouble should he need to run over. (Even if he finishes the PhD in 5 years, he may want to stay registered for an extra year if he hasn't picked up a good job in his fifth year -- it's easier to be on the job market as a registered student than as an unemployed bum).

By the way -- as Canadians, they will have the easiest visa time of all international students. As of 2008, Canadians could get their visa when crossing the border (whether flying or driving), and we paid $6 USD each (they need the exact change in USD). My British friend had to get his through the US embassy in London and paid some $100+, and my Indian friend had a mandatory paid interview which cost her lots, and then the cost of a full-priced visa on top.

But they should double check all processes and fees with the US consulate/embassy in Canada, and with the office for international students at UChicago. The US consulate/embassy will charge you for being on the telephone with them (about $2/min), but it's worth it to be sure you have everything straight.
posted by jb at 12:08 PM on January 29, 2010

Oh -- please do feel free to send me mefi mail if your friend wishes more details.
posted by jb at 12:09 PM on January 29, 2010

I'm Canadian and I worked on a TN visa and I'm now doing a PhD in the US so I know a bit but check with both the university involved and the DHS (4 international students at my school were just kicked out of the country because their department screwed something up - apparently it's all the responsibility of the student).

Anyway, getting a TN visa was really easy for me as a Canadian. If the wife has qualifications in one of the included fields (i.e. a BA or a BSc), and a job offer for a <1 year position, she should be able to get one at the boarder. You can get an indefinite number of TN visas as long as you go back to Canada every year to get a new one.

Otherwise I think that working in the US might be really hard. On preview, I agree with jb that we have it a lot easier than everyone else.
posted by hydrobatidae at 12:13 PM on January 29, 2010

She should ask the school for advice, as they will have had other spouses who want to work. As a general rule, spouses of students are not allowed to work.

Given that she's Canadian, a TN visa is very easy to get as long as she has at least an undergraduate degree and wants to work in a related field. The school is likely to know absolutely nothing about this option, but the information is fairly easy to come by online. These expire in a year, but can be renewed fairly indefinitely, though not forever.
posted by jeather at 12:14 PM on January 29, 2010

One thing about the J1 visa: it does have a few more restrictions about post-degree work in the US than the F-1. That is why the F-1 is the default, even for those who qualify for the J-1. That said, you should find out exactly which degrees from Canada are required to return back to Canada for 2 years after a degree on a J-1 visa. (It may not be all; Canada, for example, does not have a dearth of historians or political scientists).
posted by jb at 12:18 PM on January 29, 2010

And I just remembered something else -- on both F-1 or J-1 visa, if you want to bring in your spouse under the F-2 or J-2 status, the amount that you have to show the US gov't that you have to support yourselves will be higher than it is for just one person (but not twice as high -- about 1.5 times). Exactly how much this money is will depend on the local cost of living; his funding may or may not cover his own amount. (I was accepted to two US graduate schools, with similar levels of funding at each, but the amount the US gov't wanted me to show that I had was $500 greater than my funding for one place, because of the higher cost of living.)

If they have savings, this is sufficient. They just say that they have $25,000 (or whatever is required) including his funding and their savings, and then she works and they don't have to eat into their savings. Again it goes to the fiction that the J-2 is not working to support themselves or their spouse.

If they don't have savings (and can't borrow any savings, such as from a family member), it may be easier to go the TN route, but I don't have experience with those visas.
posted by jb at 12:29 PM on January 29, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for all the helpful information. jb, I'll mefi mail you if they have more questions--they're very grateful for all your input.
posted by Beardman at 8:24 AM on January 30, 2010

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