How to transition from a TN Visa to a Green Card

In this guide, we take a look at what it takes to switch from a TN visa to green card status as well as how to make the transition as smooth as possible.

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How to Transition From a TN Visa to a Green Card

There are a number of nonimmigrant visa categories that enable foreigners to live and work in the United States temporarily, one of which is the advantageous TN visa. With relatively lower application costs and no annual quota limit, the TN visa is the ideal way for Canadian and Mexican citizens to enter the U.S. But while this visa classification does come with an array of benefits, it may prove to be a problem if the TN nonimmigrant decides to seek permanent residency (a green card). In this guide, we take a look at what it takes to switch from a TN visa to green card status as well as how to make the transition as smooth as possible.

TN Visa Overview 

The TN visa is a nonimmigrant work visa designed under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the United States, Canada and Mexico. For this reason, it is only available to Canadian and Mexican citizens who then enter and work in the U.S. as NAFTA professionals. Keep in mind that the candidate must be a bonafide citizen of either Canada or Mexico —lawful permanent residents of these countries do not qualify for TN visa status. Another requirement is that the TN nonimmigrant must have a job offer from a U.S, employer whether in a part-time or full-time position and the role must fall under the approved NAFTA list of professions. Self-employment is not allowed on TN status. 

The TN visa is divided into two categories -- the TN-1 is for Canadian citizens while the TN-2 is for Mexican citizens. However, the specific eligibility criteria and application processes are quite different for Canadian and Mexican citizens. For instance, citizens from Canada may apply for TN status at a U.S. port of entry since the law doesn't require them to have a visa before they can enter the U.S. This is not the case for Mexican citizens who are required to obtain their TN visas before they can proceed to the port of entry. 

TN visa dependents 

One of the benefits of the TN visa is that it also allows for eligible family members of the TN nonimmigrant to also enter and live in the U.S. on a derivative status visa, known as the TD visa. However, they are not permitted to obtain work authorization for employment in the U.S. By eligible family members, we mean the legal spouse and unmarried children below 21 years old of the TN Visa holder. Parents, siblings, domestic partners and other family members do not qualify for TD visa status. If they seek entry into the United States as well, they will need to apply for a B-1/B-2 Visitor visa or any other applicable transfer category.

TN Visa period of stay

Since it is a nonimmigrant visa, Canadian or Mexican citizens on TN can work and live in the U.S. for an initial three-year period, after which they must extend their status regardless of how many years they plan on staying. Extensions are awarded indefinitely so it’s a simple matter of remembering to file the necessary extension documents every three years. That being said, TN visa holders must still demonstrate their intention to return to their home country even though they can continually renew their TN status. 

Can TN visa holders transition to a green card?

This is one of the most common questions that TN visa holders ask, especially after they have spent some time in the U.S. The short answer is yes, it is indeed possible to obtain permanent resident status as a TN visa holder. However, the process is quite complicated and if not executed properly, could lead to severe repercussions including being banned from entering the United States. 

The first thing to keep in mind is that since the TN visa is in the non-immigrant category, it does not automatically lead to a green card. The first hurdle is that the TN visa is not considered dual intent so applying for permanent residence in the U.S. while on TN status is a direct violation of the terms of their stay.  

Dual intent restrictions

Simply put, dual intent means that a person living and working in the United States in a nonimmigrant status can apply for permanent residence without putting their nonimmigrant status at risk. At the time of applying for the nonimmigrant visa, the candidate must have originally declared to U.S. immigration officials that he or she intends to depart the U.S. upon the expiration of their visa. However, he or she can simultaneously intend to stay in the U.S. on a permanent basis. Needless to say, this may well be one of the stranger concepts under U.S. immigration law.

This same law states that certain nonimmigrant statuses, such as the L-1 and H-1B visas are considered dual intent--but unfortunately this does not apply to the TN visa. Instead, TN nonimmigrants must maintain bona fide nonimmigrant intent, meaning they must demonstrate to the inspecting officer that their proposed stay is only temporary. 

TN visa to green card – How do you do this?

There are three main ways to make the transition:

  • Switching to a dual intent visa and then applying for permanent resident status

  • Family-based immigration

  • Consular processing 

Let’s take a closer look at these options so you can make an informed decision on the most suitable path to a green card. 


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TN visa to green card through a dual intent visa 

Under this method, there are three main dual intent visas (L-1, H-1B and E1/E2) that you can switch to, after which the employer that sponsored the new visa can then file an employment-based green card on your behalf. 

Switching to an L-1 visa

The L-1 intra-company transferee visa is a great alternative to the TN visa, though it has some pretty strict eligibility criteria. It caters to multinational companies seeking to transfer their executives, managers and specialized employees to their offices in the United States. Like the TN visa, there is no quota cap on the number of L-1 visas issued in a fiscal year and there is no specific education requirement. Additionally, the company can file a single petition for multiple L-1 visas at the same time through a process known as a blanket petition. 

Under the L-1 visa, applicants have two options - L-1A for managers and executives in the company and the L-1B for employees who possess specialized knowledge relating to the company’s interests. For many applicants, this can prove to be a hindrance since the requirements for either option are quite strict. Plus it means that the L-1 applicant must already be employed by a multinational company outside of the U.S. for at least one year before the L-1 petition. There’s also the requirement of the multinational company having a qualifying relationship with e U.S. company whether as a branch office, parent, subsidiary or affiliate. Last but not least, L-1B applicants must prove that their specialized knowledge is unique and of a specific high-standing capacity.

The process will be lengthy though. If your current U.S. employer has an office abroad and is willing to sponsor your L-1 petition, then you’ll have to go work at the abroad office for a minimum of one year before the employer can begin the L-1 application process. Nevertheless, if you are able to meet these requirements, the L-1 visa does offer one of the surest paths to a green card.

Switching to an H-1B visa

The H-1B is the most popular nonimmigrant work visa available mainly because it is available to citizens of other countries, unlike the TN visa. However, the requirements for an H1B visa are quite similar to that of the TN visa, so there is a good chance that you’d qualify. The prevalent condition is that you hold at least a Bachelor’s degree and a job offer from a U.S. employer that requires that degree. An H-1B visa is a great way to obtain a green card since you’re already in the U.S. and it’s a matter of asking your current TN employer to file the petition on your behalf. But there’s a catch. 

Because it is open to all foreign nationals, the H-1B visa gets so many petitions every year, so the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) awards them under an annual cap of only 85,000 visas per fiscal year. 65,000 of that quota is for regular petitions while the remaining 20,000 is reserved for applicants who possess a Master’s degree. Now in order to determine which petitions to process, the USCIS holds a lottery on the first business day of April every year. This means that the probability of your H-1B petition being selected for processing is entirely up to chance. 

Regardless, the H-1B visa is likely your best bet when it comes to adjusting your status from TN visa to permanent resident. If your petition does get picked in the lottery and the USCIS approves it, then you simply need to file for a change of status and will officially be on H-1B status by October of that same year. The H-1B visa is valid for a maximum of six years with no further option for extension so be sure to begin your green card application process as soon as possible. 

Switching to an E1/E2 visa

Thanks to the NAFTA treaty, Canadian and Mexican citizens on TN visa status are automatically eligible to apply for the E-1 treaty trader or E-2 treaty investor visas, both of which are dual intent. While this visa category does come with its fair share of steep requirements, some TN visa holders may actually find it much easier to obtain than the L-1 and the H-1B. 

For instance, one of the key requirements for the E-1 visa is that your current TN employer maintains commercial relationships with countries that are under NAFTA. By virtue of this same agreement, Canada and Mexico are already in one form of commercial relationship or the other with the United States and with each other. So as a TN visa holder, you already meet this agreement if you have such an employer. 

Similarly, the E-2 program permits citizens from trade partner countries to enter the United States to manage substantial personal investments. For example, if you’re willing and able to make considerable investments to expand a business in the U.S., then you may qualify for the E-2 treaty investor visa. 

In any case, whichever dual intent visa you qualify and apply for, note that the process will often require professional guidance, especially as you try to navigate the nuances between your current nonimmigrant intent visa and dual intent. Consider talking to an immigration lawyer before you begin the application process. 

TN visa to green card through family-based immigration

TN nonimmigrants with close family members who are citizens or permanent residents in the U.S. may be able to apply for a green card through them. There are two main categories under this method: 

Green card through marriage

In this instance, having a spouse who is a U.S. citizen or has the ability to opt for permanent residence (e.g L-1 and H-1B visa holders) means you’ll get included on their green card application as a “dependent.” This is known as “derivative benefits.” The biggest concern here is that marriage is seen as an immigrant intent activity whereas your TN status is strictly on a nonimmigrant intent basis. 

There are generally two ways through which this conflict has been avoided -- Immigrant visa processing or by filing for adjustment of status. Both are equally complicated so which one you choose will ultimately depend on the factors that are unique to your situation. In any case, by the time you’ve been listed as a derivative beneficiary, you no longer need to worry about your non-immigrant intent and you will not lose your TN status either. 

Green card through direct family sponsorship

Family can also help you get a green card. A sibling, an inlaw or some other close relative living in the U.S. with a green card and have lawful permanent residency can file an immigrant visa petition for you. As you’d probably expect, this process will not be as simple as with getting a green card through your spouse.

There are strict requirements that must be fully met when it comes to family-based sponsorship, plus it can be quite tricky because the dual-intent restriction is still there. Again, you may want to consider talking to an immigration attorney first before going too head-on with the application process. This procedure entails filing an application for an adjustment of status to permanent residence at the same time as when your family submits the petition for you. 

TN Visa to Green Card through consular processing

Alternatively,  TN visa holders can simply leave the U.S. and file an application for a green card from their respective home countries. This is known as consular processing. The USCIS will process the petition and issue you a priority date. When that priority date is current, you’ll then need to schedule an appointment with the U.S. embassy in Canada or Mexico and travel there for an interview with the consular officer. 

This process is essentially a ‘loophole’ to the nonimmigrant intent criterion since returning to your home country fully satisfies the requirement that your stay in the U.S. while on TN status must be finite and that you must depart the U.S. eventually. Ergo, no laws have been broken by opting for consular processing. 

However, this great advantage comes with a steep tradeoff -- the wait times for priority dates to become current are typically long as final action dates tend to change on a monthly basis and are usually issued on the beneficiary’s country of origin and the type of green card. If there are too many green card applicants from one country, the date will be pushed back away from your priority date. Outside of this and the U.S. consular officer approves your petition, then you’re all set to adjust your TN status to permanent resident. 

Final Thoughts 

Transitioning from a TN visa to a green card is often a long and complex process but for many, the allure of permanent residency is worth the effort. Hopefully, this guide has provided some much-needed answers. It is indeed an exciting time to be a green card holder since among other things, it allows you to build and maintain your U.S. credit. 

As a TN visa holder in the U.S., you’re probably already aware of how applying for credit cards, apartment rentals and loan services pretty much depends on having a U.S. credit score. But then it’s quite hard to even get a U.S. credit history let alone a credit score when you can't access the credit history you built in your home country. If you find yourself in this situation, you could always use Nova Credit’s Global Credit Passport®. 

This document translates your Canadian or Mexican credit report so U.S. lenders and creditors can use it to evaluate your application for U.S. credit cards and other services. Nova Credit has partnered with American Express®, Petal® and Deserve® so you can apply for a U.S. credit card with your international credit history and begin building your U.S. credit score. 

In addition to Canada and Mexico, Nova Credit also currently connects with credit reporting agencies in Australia, Brazil, India, Nigeria, South Korea and the UK.

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