The TN Visa and the 3 year degree: TN Visa: What You or Your Client or Employee Need to Know Before the Border


As part of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the TN Visa allows Mexican and Canadian citizens to live and work temporarily in the United States for up to three-year increments, with extensions granted in up to three-year increments as well. While the TN visa has an incremental time limit, there is no overall cumulative limit on how many years an individual can live and work in the United States under TN visa status. There is also no annual cap on how many TN visas can be issued.

To qualify for TN status, the visa holder must be a citizen of Canada or Mexico. Permanent residents without citizenship cannot qualify for this particular visa. The TN visa holder must also have a US bachelor’s degree or professional license or its equivalent to qualify for this particular visa. TN visa holders can bring dependents with them to live in the United States during their TN stay. While dependents can attend school, they are not permitted to work. TN visa holders can exit and reenter the United States at any time during their stay under TN visa status. However, individuals cannot petition for a green card under TN visa status because it is NOT a visa of dual intent. TN visas are granted at border crossing and require petitioners to have all of their evidence and documentation – including evidence that their job is a TN visa qualified job, and that they are educationally qualified for their TN job – ready at the border.

There are three main problems that arise for TN visa candidates.

First, because this particular visa is granted at the border, their success is largely based on the mood of the border security guard. This is not a problem for the most part, but problems can and do arise, particularly when candidates return to the border to get their TN visa renewed. The best way to address this issue is to advise your client to reapply for their visa in advance of its expiration. That way, if they run into any trouble when they get to the border, you can help them get the evidence and documentation they need together and organized to try again before their visa expires. There is no grace period with a TN visa. Your client must leave the country as soon as it expires. Always advise your clients to give themselves some leeway. The other thing your client can do to avoid this issue is to have all of the necessary documentation ready and in order right there at the border. Advise your client to be pleasant and polite even if the person they are dealing with is having a bad day.

The second problem TN visa candidates may run into has to do with their job. Not all jobs are TN visa qualified, and it is not always straightforward which ones are and which ones are not. For example, candidates coming to live and work in the US as “management consultants” can run into trouble because while being a management consultant is a TN visa qualified job, the job “manager” is not. In the same way, a candidate with a job as a “computer systems analyst” may run into trouble because while an “analyst” is a TN visa qualified job, a “computer programmer” is not, and the job descriptions can be very similar. The way to get around this problem is to have evidence and documentation to clearly show the nature of your client’s TN job. Be prepared with the ad for the job opening, as well as proof that similar jobs for similar companies require a license or bachelor’s degree or higher, and that the duties and expectations of your client’s job meet the requirements for jobs that are TN qualified. Talk to your client, your client’s employer, and your client’s evaluator to determine exactly what is needed at the border to clearly show your client’s job is a TN visa qualified occupation.

The third reason TN visa candidates can run into trouble at the border has to do with education. Candidates with degrees earned outside of the United States need to show that their bachelor’s degree or license is the equivalent of the US bachelor’s degree or license needed as qualification for their TN job. Candidates with three-year bachelor’s degrees in particular run into trouble because they cannot simply bring their educational documents and have USCIS understand what these documents mean at face value. CIS sees the missing fourth year and denies the visa. If your client has a three-year degree, your client needs to also have an evaluation of their foreign credentials to show US equivalence. However, CIS trends regarding how these equivalencies can be reached validly change.

There are two ways credential evaluators can typically address the missing year in a three-year bachelor’s degree for a TN visa. First, we can take a close look at the academic content of your client’s degree broken down into classroom contact hours. We can then use the Carnegie Unit conversion to convert classroom contact hours into hours of college credit – fifteen classroom contact hours means one college credit hour - and use this comparison to show that your client’s three-year bachelor’s degree does in fact have the minimum of 120 credit hours that a US four-year degree has. The other option is to convert three years of progressive work experience in your client’s field of employ into one year of college credit, as is typically accepted in the 3-1 equivalency rule.

Up until about four years ago, when we combined work experience with a three-year bachelor’s degree, border guards turned our clients away. We would then show that the three-year degree is the equivalent of a US four-year degree through the Carnegie Unit credit hour conversion. This method usually worked, but was not always approved. There was absolutely no reason for border guards to not accept the work experience conversion, but for whatever reason they refused to accept this equivalence.

THEN THINGS CHANGED! For the past four years, we have had complete success in client TN visa approval when combining work experience with college credit.

CIS trends change. Don’t wait until your client gets to the border to know what they will be dealing with. Talk to a credential evaluation agency that understands the intricacies of your client’s TN visa, international education, and CIS trends.

Reprinted with permission.

About The Author

Sheila Danzig is the Executive Director of CCI,, a foreign credentials evaluation agency. For a no-charge analysis of any difficult case, RFE, Denial, or NOID, please go to or call 800.771.4723.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.