Artist Manager’s Toolkit: Visas for performing in the US and Canada

Robert Baird, president of Baird Artists Management Consulting, gives IAM readers an introductory guide to the often highly complex world of applying for performance visas – for both paid and unpaid appearances

North America has always welcomed artists and entertainers from around the world, and there are a number of non-immigrant visa options available to foreign artists wishing to travel to North America on a temporary basis to perform. The need for a visa for any foreign artist wishing to work temporarily in North America is triggered either by the fact of ‘performance’ in the United States or, in the case of Canada, by the musician’s nationality.

In the United States a performance of any kind – paid or not – requires a visa. Unfortunately, there is a misconception that if an artist does not get paid for a performance in the United States, a visa is not required. The artist may quite rightly feel that a performance that is free should not trigger any kind of visa or work permit application; however, this is simply not the case in the US.

For Canada, citizens of certain countries are required to obtain a visitor visa in order to enter the country, but other than that, artists are welcome to perform in Canada without any other requirement. You can determine if you need a visitor visa to enter Canada by going to

Visas that allow a foreign musician to perform in the United States include the O-1, P-1, P-2 and P-3 visas, as well as supplementary visas which allow essential technical and other support staff to accompany artists. The visa process is handled by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and it’s a complex and lengthy process – each of these visas had its own applicability and requirements, and it’s important that artists and entertainers (and especially their designated agents) understand the options and apply for the appropriate visa. In this way, certain problems and issues that may arise in connection with the visa petition can be avoided.

The O-1 non-immigrant visa is available to an individual artist or entertainer who possesses ‘extraordinary ability’ in the arts, as evidenced by national or international acclaim.

The P-1 non-immigrant visa is available to members of an entertainment group that has been recognised internationally as outstanding in the discipline for a sustained and substantial period of time. At least 75 per cent of the group members must have been with the group for at least one year.

To obtain these visas requires the filing of a petition with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) by the US employer of the artist or entertainer; a US agent representing either the employer, the artist, or both; or a person or entity authorised by the employer as its agent. The petition must be completed to exacting USCIS standards and must be accompanied by a consultation letter from a USCISdesignated American labour/non-labour organisation supporting the petition; as well as copies of a signed contract for every performance in the United States; an itinerary; a completed beneficiary chart; passport biographical data pages; a complete biography; letters of recommendation from distinguished references; documents providing evidence of extraordinary ability in the field (ie press reviews, other published materials, awards etc); and, of course, the requisite fee. These requirements are daunting and the procedure is fraught with frustration, as USCIS will often return an application if it has not been completed properly or request additional evidence if the support material is not sufficient to justify approval.

Other non-immigrant visas available are the P-2 classification as part of a reciprocal exchange programme between the United States and another country, and the P-3 non-immigrant visa for artists or programmes determined to be ‘culturally unique’ by USCIS. Once a petition has been approved by USCIS, the artist or entertainer is required to attend a US Embassy or Consulate to obtain the actual visa.

For Canada, the entry visa application is considerably less complicated, and can even be done in most cases online or through designated visa processing centres. It’s a good idea to facilitate your entry into Canada by having a copy of your performance contract with you, or a letter of invitation from the relevant Canadian organisation confirming your performance dates, fees and so on.

Knowledge of the visa process in both the United States and Canada is important to all artists and entertainers, and it is well worth the effort of getting to know it. I welcome any questions and concerns on this subject – please feel free write to me via the editor ( I promise to answer each and every email I receive.