So You Wanna Sing in the USA: A Canadian Guide to P2 Work Permits
A couple of months ago, I did my first paid Young Artist Program in the U.S.A. It was a wonderful experience - new friends, great music, and lots of singing. Plus, there was liquor at the gas stations, there were words without u's, and I saw my first possum. It was a hoot.
However, from a logistical standpoint, there were some hoops I needed to jump through before I could legally work south of the border. Quite a few Canadian colleagues have asked me about the process I took to get a work permit as a musician (specifically the P2 Work Permit), so I figured I'd write down the steps I took, with the hope that a fellow musician can have a straightforward experience in procuring a permit.
What is a P2 Work Permit, you ask? It's a non-immigrant permit that allows Canadian citizens to work in the U.S.A. as an artist or an entertainer, either individually or as part of a group. Pretty handy, no?
I'm warning you now - this blog entry is not going to be easy reading. It will be long, dry, and full of scary dollar signs and aggressive hyperlinks. But if that U.S. contract is calling your name, and you just HAVE to get out there and sing, then I'll try to make this as painless as possible for you.
So, without further ado - here's my (by no means official or exhaustive) guide to getting that work permit for your U.S. gig!
P.S. A big THANK YOU to everyone I pestered all those months ago while I was cobbling together info about the P2 permit - couldn't have done it without you! Thanks especially to Mike Fan, Sydney Baedke, and the many, many people I pestered at the Toronto Federation of Musicians.
*DISCLAIMER: The fees and requirements listed here are subject to change! This info was current at the time of writing, but it is not an official guide. If you're submitting an application for a P2 Work Permit, be sure to check out the official guidelines at the CFM website here.
Things to Consider
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the permit process, there are some things to think about before you apply:
Money: The permit ain't cheap (we're talking in the $800-$1000+ CAD range here, depending on a few things). There are administrative and processing fees, and some of these fees are in USD, meaning they fluctuate due to the currency exchange rate. I pretty much broke even for the contract I did. It's important to do a bit of a cost-benefit analysis - not just financially, but also in terms of potential experience, contacts, and exposure gained during your program. Financially, is it a wise move for you, and if you can justify the money, is the potential for learning and career advancement worth the cost? Up to you!
Processing Time: The maximum processing time for a P2 permit can be up to 120 days before the first gig (though it is usually processed in under 90), and in order to submit an application, you need to send in a countersigned contract. Not to mention, it can take a little while for the application to arrive at the U.S. office, meaning you need ample time to make sure you have all your materials assembled and submitted. You can purchase Premium Processing, for which an application must be sent in 30 days prior to your first gig as opposed to 90, but that costs substantially more - specifically, an additional $2,500.00 USD 🙃.
If you haven't jumped ship and have decided that the pros outweigh the cons, allons-y!
Step 1: Join the Canadian Federation of Musicians
In order to be eligible for a P2 Work Permit, you must be a member of the Canadian Federation of Musicians (CFM). There's no way around this; as per the CFM website:
"The American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada (AFM) is recognized by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) as an authorized petitioner for P2 work permits on behalf of AFM members, and their support personnel."
You must include membership verification as part of your application package, so make sure you get this done ASAP.
However, from what I know, you can also join directly via your major city's individual branch of the CFM. This of course doesn't include every Canadian city, but if you're lucky enough to live in a place where there's an existing branch, then you can likely join via their specific website. Here's a comprehensive list on the CFM website of the various Canadian branches.
Now, if you're really pressed for time and need to get that application in ASAP, what you can do (and what I did, as suggested to me), is submit your application through the general CFM website link, and then contact a representative at your local branch to see if they can fast track your application. I was able to get my membership in about a day's time, which wasn't too shabby!
As far as cost goes - I looked up my receipt, and can see that I paid $160.00 CAD for New Member Local Initiation Fees, and another $36.00 CAD for Regular Membership Dues for 2023, for a total of $196.00 CAD. I am not sure if membership dues fluctuate based on location (I'm located in Toronto), but regardless, that's already a pretty big up-front cost. The upside is that if you're already a CFM member, your next P2 permit will cost substantially less, since you'll already have paid the CFM membership fees. Small victories!
Step 2: Assembling and Completing the Application
You've got your CFM membership, you've got your wallet, and you've got your courage. Next up is to assemble the application package (here's a link to the actual form).
As applications go, this one is pretty straightforward, especially if it's an application for you as a solo performer in a mainstage production and/or YAP. The CFM website has a handy dandy checklist on their website (bless them), as well as a general information/instruction sheet - give both of these a thorough read before you submit anything.
However, because I'm nice, I'll give you a TL;DR version of the application components, so you can get an idea of what you're in for 😊:
Application Form (for solo musicians, only parts 1,2, and 3 are required)
Membership Verification (either a copy of the front and back of your membership card OR include email verification of membership from your local branch)
U.S. Work Permit Fee sent via money order
Administration Fee via money order, certified cheque, or cash
Identification for each musician/crew member (i.e. copy of the biometric page of each valid passport)
Signed contract(s) including the following info: location of work, dates, all musicians' names, employer/engager contact info & signature, compensation
Itinerary (only required if performing at more than one venue)
I'm sure you saw the part about fees, and are probably wondering how much they are. I've provided a breakdown for just ONE (1) solo musician - if you're bringing crew, or if you're part of a group or a band, then kindly check the website instructions for more details.
U.S. Work Permit Fee (paid to Department of Homeland Security)
If you are paying for Regular Processing (up to 120 days, though usually processed in under 90), then you're looking at a money order of $460.00 USD.
If you are paying for Premium Processing (up to 30 days), you're looking at one money order of $460.00 USD and one additional, separate money order of $2,500.00 USD.
Remember - this is via money order only - it must be sent from a certified Canadian or U.S. bank, and double check that the payee info and signatures are all correct
This fee is non-refundable
Administration Fee (paid to American Federation of Musicians)
The fee is $120.00 CAD for one musician
Payable via money order, certified cheque, or cash
This fee may be refundable
Let's just examine the total fees, for one musician, rounded up to the nearest dollar. As I type this, the currency rate shows that the USD work permit fee is about $612.00 CAD for Regular Processing and $3,935.00 CAD for Premium Processing. Added to the $120.00 CAD Administration Fee, we have:
Total for Regular Processing: $732.00 CAD
Total for Premium Processing: $4,055.00 CAD
If your eyes are rolling in your head after seeing those dollar sign amounts, I completely understand. Like I mentioned earlier, it's a good idea to do that cost-benefit analysis. What sort of financial situation does this put you in? Does this contract provide housing, per diems, etc., or will those be additional costs for you? Is the price of the visa worth the potential of what you will gain from the program? As mentioned, I pretty much broke even for what I gained financially from the contract, but in terms of what I learned and the new friendships and connections formed during my time in the States, the cost of the work permit was totally worth it. It can be hard to estimate what kind of experience you might have before you get to the gig, so all I can advise is to do your research and ask questions. I can only hope that your experience will be amazing, and a wonderful step forward in your career!
Since you're still reading at this point, and somehow made it past the very scary costs, I'll provide a picture of Tilly the cat, free of charge, for your viewing pleasure:
Step 3: Submitting the Application
You're almost there! You've filled out the application form, you've assembled your money order(s) and cheque and/or cash, and you're ready to submit your documents.
You can submit the application independently, according to the info provided by the CFM: "Complete application packages should be submitted by courier or Xpresspost, Attn: Artist Immigration Department American Federation of Musicians, #202 - 150 Ferrand Drive, Toronto, ON M3C 3E5."
However, what I recommend (and what I did personally) is to submit your application in person at a CFM office, and have it reviewed by an Artist Immigration Administrator, free of charge. If you'd like to take advantage of this service, you can email email@example.com . I will say that I'm not sure if this service varies by location - I imagine that you should be able to have your application reviewed via email regardless of where you're located in Canada, but it's unclear to me if you're able to simply drop off your application in person at any CFM office rather than mail it on your own. Hopefully that option is available across the country!
While I was filling out the application, I naturally had a million questions, and I was able to get all those questions answered via email by an Artist Immigration Administrator at my local CFM branch. The CFM resources, in my opinion, are super accessible, and really made the big, scary paperwork a lot less daunting.
Whatever you choose, whether it's help via email, or help in person (or both, in my case), there are lots of options available for you to make sure that your application is filled out properly, and gets to the right place at the right time.
After Submitting the Application
You finally did it - you shelled out the money, got the paperwork done, and...now what? How do you know where your application is, what the status is, and when it's been approved?
I waited about six weeks before I got antsy, so I once again reached out to my point of contact at the Toronto CFM branch to see if I could get a status update on my application. They directed me to the USCIS website and told me that I could check on the status by entering my receipt number for my application (which they also provided). Once your application has been approved, the status will change from "My Case Has Been Received" to "My Case Has Been Approved".
I submitted my application directly in person on either February 1st or 2nd, and got my approval on April 12th, so I waited about ten weeks for approval. I've heard of some artists getting their approval in under a month, and for some, it took almost the full 90 days, so you just never know. All the more reason to get that application in ASAP!
Once your application is approved, you will receive an official letter in the mail that will allow you to cross the border as a P2 worker, as well as instructions on how to present that letter/what will happen depending on how you cross the border (e.g. air, land, sea, etc). I took a plane to the U.S., and it was super straightforward: I showed the officer the letter, he thought it was pretty darn cool that I'm an opera singer, and I went along on my merry way.
Congratulations! You Did It!
And thus concludes my guide to the P2 Work Permit! Like I mentioned before, this is not an official guide; it's simply my own experience of successfully applying for a permit and getting the very cool chance to sing in the U.S. However, I hope it can help make someone's application experience a little more manageable, or even just help to put this option on the radar for Canadian singers who want to expand their horizons a bit. Wishing you a happy and relatively stress-free application process - you got this 💪🏼!