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The ultimate guide to the TN Visa

In this guide, we provide an overview of everything you need to know about the TN visa.

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The ultimate guide to the TN visa

Citizens of Canada and Mexico who are looking to work and live in the United States may want to first consider the TN visa before other nonimmigrant work visa classifications. The TN visa is available to only Canadian and Mexican citizens so this alone increases their chances of a successful application. Plus there are no annual quota limits or company sponsorship requirements in this visa category, much unlike most of the other U.S. work visas. 

In this guide, we provide an overview of everything you need to know about the TN visa, from eligibility criteria and application processes to extensions and even getting a green card. 

What is the TN visa?

The TN nonimmigrant visa was created under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as a way of facilitating temporary employment in the United States for approved Mexican and Canadian citizens. The purpose of the NAFTA treaty was to strengthen the trade and business relations between the three North American countries, the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Thanks to the TN visa, thousands of people from Canada and Mexico have been able to establish long-term working relationships as NAFTA professionals in the United States. For this reason, self-employment is not permitted on TN visa status. 

Keep in mind that only bonafide citizens of Canada and Mexico may apply for the TN visa. Legal permanent residents of either country are not eligible. There are two different types of TN classifications awarded -- the TN-1 visa for Canadian citizens and the TN-2 for Mexican citizens. TN visa applicants need to be qualified under one of the approved professional occupations on the NAFTA list and must adhere to nonimmigrant intent while they are on TN status. 

TN visa period of stay 

Current U.S. laws and regulations allow for TN nonimmigrants to stay in the U.S. for periods of up to three years. Even better, this length of stay may be extended indefinitely in three-year increments, as long as they satisfy the conditions under the TN classification. The reality, however, is that things are quite as straightforward. The actual period of stay for TN visa holders in the U.S. depends on a few key factors. 

U.S. immigration officials typically focus on how long your TN position is expected to last and if they are not convinced that the TN nonimmigrant’s position in the U.S. requires the full three years length of stay, they can decide to admit the individual for a shorter period. For instance, if you were applying to enter the U.S. on a TN visa as a web designer creating a new website for your U.S. employer, obviously it wouldn’t take a full three years to complete such a task. Similarly, a management consultant on TN status who is entering the United States to oversee a merger or acquisition by the U.S. employer will probably not last up to three years. 

Immigration officials will use their discretion to determine how long your TN position will last and issue the length of stay accordingly on your Form I-94. The United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency oversees this adjudication at the various U.S. ports of entry. Your U.S. employer can help you obtain the full three-year period of stay by providing a job offer letter clearly outlining your duties and stating how the position will last.

Nonimmigrant intent 

TN visa holders must establish what is known as"nonimmigrant intent." This simply means that they must demonstrate to the U.S. immigration authorities that their TN visa status is finite and that they intend to eventually return to their home countries. Admittedly, the concept does sound strange given that there is no limit to the number of times TN nonimmigrants can extend their status, but failing to take this into account can have dire consequences. As such, even taking steps towards permanent residence, including marrying a U.S. citizen while on TN status can be considered a violation of nonimmigrant intent. 

NAFTA Strike Provisions

All TN visa applicants are subject to NAFTA’s strike provisions, which posit that if the U.S. Department of Labor certifies that the applicant’s potential place of employment is the subject of a strike or labor dispute, then the TN petition may be denied. This is especially true if the applicant’s entry into the U.S.  would affect settlement efforts of the dispute. However, if the strike begins after the applicant has already entered the United States, he or she will not be required to leave the country. 

TN visa requirements and application processes

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has listed the following general eligibility criteria for TN nonimmigrant status:

  • Must be a citizen of Canada or Mexico

  • Must qualify as a NAFTA professional and the business activity or job position must be under the NAFTA professional occupations list 

  • Must have a full-time or part-time job offer an employer in the U.S. (but not self-employment)

Bear in mind that most NAFTA professions require at least a baccalaureate degree and experience in a certain field is usually not accepted as a substitute to this degree requirement. Degrees and certificates received from an educational institution outside Canada, Mexico or the United States, must be submitted with a reliable evaluation. In some cases, a certain number of years of experience might also be required in addition to the baccalaureate degree. 

These are just the general conditions as the USCIS actually has other specific rules depending on whether the applicant is a Canadian or Mexican citizen. For instance, Canadian citizens are generally eligible to enter the United States as nonimmigrants without a visa. The TN classification simply reflects and governs their nonimmigrant status for their period of stay in the U.S. For this reason, the application process differs for citizens of Canada and Mexico. 

Applying for TN visa as a Canadian citizen

If you are Canadian citizens, you don’t have to apply for your TN visa at the U.S. consulate or embassy in Canada. Instead, you can apply for your TN status at the U.S. port of entry or at a designated pre-flight inspection station. You’ll need to provide evidence demonstrating your Canadian citizenship along with other supporting documentation to a CBP officer. Required documents for TN visa include: 

  • Canadian passport and other proof of your Canadian citizenship, such as a birth certificate

  • A letter from your prospective U.S. employer detailing the purpose of your employment, your professional capacity, your educational qualifications for the role and the length of your stay. 

  • Credentials evaluation (if applicable). This involves comparing your credentials from Canada to their relevant U.S. equivalents. 

  • Receipts for any applicable fees

If the CBP officer determines that you are eligible for admission, you will be awarded TN status and admitted into the U.S.

Alternatively, your prospective employer may choose to file Form I-129, Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker to USCIS on your behalf. If approved, you can then submit your approval notice from the USCIS for Form I-129 and your proof of Canadian citizenship to the CBP officer at the designated U.S. ports of entry for admission as a TN nonimmigrant. To ensure a smooth process, make sure to have all supporting documents ready as the BP officer will ask you questions to determine your eligibility based on those documents. 

Applying for TN visa as a Mexican citizen

As of January 1, 2004, Mexican citizens were no longer required to file a labor condition application and are no longer subject to numerical limitation for this visa category. That being said, as a Mexican citizen, you’ll still need a visa to request admission into the United States. You can apply for your TN visa at the U.S. embassy or consulate in Mexico and then be fully approved before heading to the U.S. port of entry for admission. 

There are various steps in this application process and the order in which they occur will typically vary based on the embassy or consulate. Here’s the general procedure: 

1. Complete the visa application form

This is the Form DS-160, Department of State’s Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application, which you can complete online. Once completed, print out the confirmation page and keep it for your interview. If you have any questions about Form DS-160, you can find answers on this page

2. Get the right photograph for the form 

Your photo is a crucial part of the visa application so make sure to meet all the requirements for a suitable photo. Whether or not your photo will be accepted is at the discretion of the U.S. embassy or consulate processing your application. You can check out the requirements for the right photographs for your visa application here

3. Schedule your Interview

Interviews are generally required for visa applicants between the ages of 14 and 79. Ideally, you want to schedule this interview at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in your home country. While it is possible to schedule your interview in another country, applying for the TN visa may be more difficult. In addition, you should consider scheduling this interview as early as possible as waiting times can drag the entire application process along. 

4. Attend your interview

Before the interview, you’ll need to gather the necessary documents and pay the $160 application fee for your TN visa. These required documents include: 

  • Valid Mexican passport

  • The printed confirmation page for Form DS-160 

  • Receipt for the application fee

  • Your photograph to accompany your application

  • Letter of employment from your prospective employer in the U.S., which must also include details about:

  • the purpose of your entry

  • breakdown of your job responsibilities

  • your expected period of stay in the U.S.

  • your educational qualifications and other credentials 

  • arrangements for your remuneration for the duration of your stay

  • any other documents proving that you meet the requirements for the NAFTA profession that you’re entering the U.S. to perform. 

The consular officer may also request additional documents as further evidence of your TN status eligibility. Once your TN visa has been approved, you can follow the same process for admission into the United States as a Canadian citizen. 

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TN visa costs and processing times 

Compared to other nonimmigrant work visas, like the L-1 and H-1B, the TN is actually relatively inexpensive though this depends on how you obtain the visa. If you are petitioning by mail, then you’ll have to pay the $460 I-129 filing fee. However, if you obtain your TN status at the port of entry, you’re only required to pay an application fee of $50 and another fee of $6 for your I-94 arrival/departure card.

The processing time also depends on how you obtain your TN visa. Applying at a port of entry could take only a few hours. If you are petitioning by mail, however, then the processing time will typically depend on the caseload of the USCIS service center handling your application. Generally, an I-129 petition can take about six months to process, but applicants can choose to pay for premium processing, which will expedite the processing time to 15 calendar days.

Keep in mind that while premium processing does speed up the processing time, it does not guarantee that the USCIS will approve the petition. The only guarantee here is that the USCIS will process the petition within 15 calendar days and if they fail to do so, they will refund the premium processing fee. 

TN application denials

The USCIS or CBP may deny a TN visa application for a number of reasons, including grounds of inadmissibility, such as a previous criminal conviction or there is no match between the job offer, the TN profession and the applicant’s degree. As mentioned previously, the USCIS doesn't allow for a combination of experience and education as a substitute for TN professions that require at least a Bachelor’s degree or any other specific licensure requirements. Applicants who are looking to use such a combination are better off applying under the H-1B visa. 

If your TN application has been denied, you have the option of applying again, however, it might not be as straightforward as the initial application process. For instance, returning applicants often have their applications reviewed with heightened scrutiny. In some cases, CBP officers may be reluctant to overturn the application denial decision of another CBP officer, especially where the applicant is unable to satisfactorily overcome the issues that warranted the denial in the first place. As a returning applicant, you’ll need to specifically and fully address any issues before you will be granted admission into the United States. 

TN visa extension/renewal

You can extend or renew your TN visa status by having your TN employer file Form I-129 with the USCIS along with proof of your citizenship and education level, and a letter explaining why the extension is needed. The moment the TN status expires or the job ceases to exist, the TN nonimmigrant will be required to leave the U.S. There is no grace period in this instance, unlike the H-1B leeway period. If approved, the TN status will then be extended for another three years. 

It’s important to note here that there are specific time periods and processing times that cover petitions for extension. For example, the TN employer can only file to extend their TN employee’s status within the last six months until the end of the current TN visa. Extension petition processing times tend to vary, but can take anything from two to four months. Premium processing service is available, however, keep in mind that the USCIS may still request for additional evidence or supporting documentation, which can delay the process. 

Reapplying for TN status 

Another option would be to simply return to your home country and reapply for TN status at the U.S. port of entry, just like you did the first time. For many TN nonimmigrants, especially from Canada, this option is a much quicker way to extend their authorized stay in the U.S. on TN status since they get to skip waiting for the USCIS to adjudicate on the I-129 petition. Obviously, it’s important to ensure that all the required documents are in order and that your current employment satisfies the TN visa requirements.

Changing employers while on TN status

TN visa status may be employer-specific but as long as you can get a new employer that satisfies the requirements for having a TN employee. Of course, you’ll need to have an approved TN status for the new employer before you can begin working with them. It’s a violation of immigration law to work with an employer other than the one recorded on your I-94 card. Generally, you can effect your change of employer in one of two ways:

Via Form I-129 

For those changing their TN employers but working under the same professional occupation, they can do so by filing Form I-129 with the USCIS. This option allows TN visa holders to remain in the U.S. while processing their change of employer. The downside, however, is that the processing time may be lengthy, especially if the particular service center handling the application has a lot of backlogs. There’s also the  Form I-129 filing fee. Still, the TN visa holder and the prospective employer could always opt for premium processing. 

At a port of entry 

This is essentially applying for a new TN status under a new employer. So it follows the same process except this time, the TN nonimmigrant will present a job offer and letter from the new employer along with other required documents to the CBP officer at the port of entry. Note that these types of applications will be subject to the same level of scrutiny as initial TN visa applications so it’s important to apply the same attention to detail. This option lets the TN visa holder enjoy the convenience of receiving a decision on their application within the day as well as avoid USCIS filing fees.

TD visa for TN visa dependents

Legal spouses and children of TN visa holders may also relocate to the United States. The children must be unmarried and not older than 21 years old as of the time the visa application. As a dependent visa, TD nonimmigrants are allowed to stay for as long as the primary TN visa holder’s status is valid. Like the TN, the TD visa comes with an initial three-year period of stay and has no limits on how many times holders may extend or renew. Similarly, TD-1 visas are awarded to eligible dependents of Canadian citizens while TD-2 visas are awarded to eligible dependents of Mexican citizens.

Keep in mind that the definition of dependents refers only to immediate family members (spouse and young children). Parents, grandparents, siblings and other relatives are not eligible for TD visa status. If the application is approved, TD nonimmigrants will then be issued their own I-94 record. 

What are the requirements for a TD visa?

The prevailing condition here is that TD visa applicants must be able to provide evidence of their spousal or parent-child relationship with the primary TN visa holder. Examples of such evidence include marriage certificates, birth certificates and any other supporting documents, such as a wedding photo album or a copy of the wedding ceremony program and wedding invite. 

The application process also differs between TD nonimmigrants who are Canadian citizens and those who are not. 

Like with the TN application process Canadian citizens at the port of entry, TD visa applicants who are citizens of Canada may also apply in the same way. This is ideal where the TN visa holder and all their dependents are filing at the same time. In this instance, they can also avoid having to bring separate pieces of evidence at the port of entry since one set of documents can cover their entire family’s application. 

Applying as a Mexican citizen or any other non-Canadian citizen

Again, similar to the TN application process for Mexican citizens, applying for a TD visa involves filing a visa application form, scheduling an interview and going through consular processing. This process is also done in the U.S. Consulate or Embassy in the TD nonimmigrant’s home country. If the application is approved, the TD visa will be stamped on their passport after which they can proceed to the CBP officer at the port of entry who will issue their I-94 record if everything is in order. 

The TD visa stamp is only valid for a year in the case of Mexican TD dependents while the validity for TN spouses and children who are non-Canadians will vary on their citizenship. 

Change of status to TD visa 

If your dependents are already in the U.S. on a different visa classification, they can file Form I-539, Application To Change/Extend Nonimmigrant Status with the USCIS to transition to TD visa status. Filing processes and information may differ depending on the age of the children. 

Employment authorization for TD visa holders

Unlike other dependent visas such as the L-2 and H-4 visas, the TD visa does not allow for employment in the U.S. TD visa holders looking to obtain work permit will have to switch to a different visa category before they can gain employment in the U.S. That being said, TD nonimmigrants may enroll in any U.S. educational institution.

Breaking down TN visa taxes

The income tax system in the United States is based on either citizenship or residence, meaning TN visa holders are likely to be subject to taxes on their world income both in the U.S. and their respective home countries. For first-timers, the process can be somewhat daunting since there are a number of considerations to figure out initially, such as residency status, income tax treaties and totalization agreements. 

What are the federal taxes that TN visa holders should pay?

Generally, there are three main tax categories that you would be expected to pay as a TN visa holder -- Federal Income Tax, Social Security and Medicare taxes and Federal Unemployment Tax. Which one you actually file will typically depend on the relevant tax treaties and totalization agreements between your home country and the United States, as well as your residency classification.

  • Federal Income Tax -- If you are classified as a resident alien, then you have the same obligations as a U.S. citizen and are required to file your Federal Income tax the same way. This also means filing Form W-4, Employee's Withholding Certificate, with your TN employer. On the other hand, if you are classified as a nonresident alien, then your taxes will be subject to the specific guidelines contained in Chapter 9 of IRS Publication 15 Circular E Employer’s Tax Guide.

  • Social Security and Medicare -- While TN visa holders are generally liable to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes, paying them actually depends on their country of citizenship and its Totalization Agreement with the United States. For instance, Canada has an existing Totalization Agreement with the U.S. so Canadian citizens on TN status are not required to pay Social Security taxes. 

However, this is not the case with Mexico as their Social Security Totalization Agreement with the United States has not yet come into effect, meaning Mexican citizens on TN visa status have to pay these taxes. Another possible exception is if your TN profession is not subject to Social Security taxes and Medicare taxes as outlined in the IRS Employer’s Tax Guide. 

  • Federal Unemployment Tax -- The Federal Unemployment Tax Act (FUTA) requires employers to pay this tax to cover unemployment compensations on both the federal and state levels. As of 2020, the FUTA tax rate is listed at 6.0% although the wage base for the tax may vary from state to state. It is important to note that the unemployment tax is not withheld from the wages of TN visa holders as it is the employer who solely bears the obligation. 

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What about state taxes?

Many states in the U.S. have their own income tax systems and you are expected to pay the tax as long as you are earning wages from within the state. Most of these states follow the federal tax income rate, though you can typically expect that they might be slightly higher. Another thing to note is that many states do not recognize taxes paid outside the U.S. to a foreign country or province (foreign tax credits) when imposing certain taxes. 

Substantial Presence Test

This test determines your tax residence as a TN visa holder and involves counting the number of days that you have been physically present in the United States for that fiscal year. If you have resided in the U.S. for up to 183 days in that calendar year, then you will be categorized as a resident alien and must file your taxes the same way as a U.S. citizen or green card holder. Otherwise, you will have to file your taxes as a nonresident alien for that year. 

TN visa tax filing 

As a resident alien on TN status, you are required to file Form 1040, Individual Income Tax Return along with your Form W-2, Wage and Tax Statement. However, if you’re a nonresident alien, then you’ll file either Form 1040NR or 1040NR-EZ, along with your W-2. 

Switching from a TN visa to an H-1B Visa

Due to the similarity in requirements for both the TN and H-1B visas, it is not uncommon for TN visa holders to qualify for the H-1B visa. Each visa comes with its own set of advantages and downsides, so the first step is to carefully consider them before making the switch. For example, while it is a lot easier to enter the United States on a TN visa, it is not considered dual intent and therefore cannot lead to a green card, whereas the H-1B is a dual intent visa. 

The H-1B visa allows companies in the U.S. to employ foreign workers with at least a Bachelor’s degree in specialty occupations (usually in the STEM fields).  Like the TN, H-1B visa applicants must first obtain a job offer from the U.S based employer before beginning the application. Once granted, the H-1B visa is valid for a maximum stay period of six years. 

Another great benefit of the H-1B visa is that spouses are able to obtain work permits. Spouses and young unmarried children of H-1B visa holders are eligible to enter the U.S. on an H-4 visa. Unlike TD spouses, H-4 spouses obtain employment authorization documents and work pretty much anywhere in the United States in any form of legal employment. 

TN to H-1B Change of Status Process

The process of transitioning from a TN visa to an H-1B visa is essentially the same as applying for an H-1B from scratch. There’s no special procedure involved, though since the TN visa holder is already in the U.S. at the time of the application, they may be able to avoid consular processing and simply file for their change of status with the USCIS. 

Like most work visas, the H-1B visa application process begins with the U.S. employer filing the petition and submitting all required documentation. Your current TN employer may be willing to file this petition on your behalf, but if not, then you’ll need to find a new employer to sponsor your H-1B petition. There is an annual limit on the number of H-1B visas issued in a fiscal year -- 65000 visas for regular applications and 20000 visas for applicants who hold at least a Master’s degree. 

The USCIS receives so many of these petitions within a single year that they decided to introduce a lottery system to decide on which applications are included in the quota for that year. The lottery season usually begins on the first business day in April and typically runs for only a few days until the quota limit is reached. There’s also the matter of obtaining a Labor Condition Approval (LCA) from the U.S. Department of Labor, which usually takes a couple of months to process.

If your petition is chosen in the lottery and your qualifications meet all the requirements for an H-1B visa, then the next step is to file Form I-539, Application To Change Nonimmigrant Status with the USCIS, for your change of status. You’ll then be able to start working with the employer that sponsored your H-1B petition on October 1st of the same year.

H-1B fees and processing times

The processing time for H-1B applications is fixed -- April to October. This means applicants should have already gathered all the necessary requirements long before then. Premium processing is also available but is never a guarantee that the applicant will be issued the visa. In terms of the fees, sponsoring employers are required to pay the standard filing fee, along with fraud prevention and detection fees, training fees and in some cases, Public Law 114-113 fees. 

In any case, the important thing to note is that the H-1B visa lottery is very competitive so there’s never a guarantee of getting selected. As such, you may want to first make it through the lottery process before making a firm commitment to leave your current TN employment.

TN visa to a green card

The TN visa is one of the best visas available to Canadian and Mexican citizens but unfortunately does not offer a direct path to permanent resident status. As a non-dual intent visa, attempting to obtain a green card while on TN status is a direct violation of the original nonimmigrant intent terms of your entry into the United States. 

Green card through a dual intent visa 

There is no way around this dual intent restriction and that's why one of the most common ways to obtain permanent residence as a TN visa holder is to simply transition to a visa category that allows for dual intent. In this instance, there are three main visa classifications that you can switch to -- the L-1, H-1B and E1/E2 visas. Of these options, the H-1B visa seems like the easiest even with all its complex application processes. 

The L-1 intra-company transferee visa caters to foreign workers who are executives, managers or in a specialized knowledge capacity. The foreign company transferring the worker must have a qualifying relationship with a U.S. company whether as a parent, sister company, subsidiary or affiliate. Additionally, the L-1 applicant must have worked with the foreign company outside the U.S. for at least one year in the last three years before entering the U.S. This means that even if the TN visa holder meets all the qualification requirements for the L-1 visa, he or she must first depart the U.S. and work outside for a minimum of one year before re-entering the United States. 

The E-1 and E-2 visas are treaty dependent visas that require the TN employer to be currently engaged in trade or commercial services with other NAFTA countries or for the TN visa holder to make a considerable investment in the U.S. 

Green card through family-based immigration

Generally, there are two ways to obtain permanent residency under this method. The first is by marriage to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. Of course, there are several conditions to fulfill, but if fully met, then you’re well on your way to getting your green card. 

The second way is only possible if you have close family members who are already living in the U.S. as green card holders. They can file an immigrant visa petition on your behalf, though the process will not be as easy as obtaining a green card through marriage. 

Green Card through consular processing

Under this method, TN visa holders can return to their home countries and file a green card application with the USCIS from there. The main issue with this process is that the wait time can be quite lengthy, especially if there are a lot of applications at the time. Plus you cannot continue with your TN status while your immigration intent is pending with the USCIS. If approved, however, you can then head to the U.S. embassy or consulate for your interview and subsequent adjustment of status from TN to permanent resident. 

Current state of NAFTA, TN visas and the new USMCA 

There has been a lot of reports about the uncertainties surrounding NAFTA and by extension, the TN visa. Naturally, current and potential TN visa holders have been wondering what to make of these reports and whether their status may be affected. The good news is that NAFTA is not going anywhere, although it is expected to be ratified under a new agreement to be known as the United States Mexico and Canada Agreement (USMCA).

As of May 2019, Canada had already begun ratifying the new agreement as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced it in Canada's Parliament. A month later, Mexico also ratified the new agreement with its Senate approving the new accord in an almost unanimous vote.

By July, the United States had begun discussing the terms of the USMCA but were unable to reach a unanimous decision. The Democrats were insisting on tighter labor standards and increased environmental protections. In December 2019, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi announced that these allowances had been granted and that the Democrats were ready to support the new agreement, which was then forwarded to Congress. The U.S. Senate gave its bipartisan approval for USMCA in January 2020. 

What this means is that President Trump can no longer withdraw the United States from the existing NAFTA agreement as was previously feared. 

Living in the U.S. with a TN visa

The TN visa remains one of the best ways for Canadians and Mexicans to live and work in the United States. And while this guide aims to provide you with an overview of everything you need to know about this visa classification, it’s equally important to at least have an idea of the next steps after receiving your approved TN visa.

For instance, newcomers to the U.S. are often surprised to know that their credit history doesn't automatically transfer with them to the United States. This means financial institutions in the U.S. are have no record of their financial history and may therefore be unwilling to provide them access to basic credit services like credit cards, apartment rentals, phone plans and even student loans. Those that are willing to provide such services often do so only after large downpayments and sometimes higher interest repayments. 

If you find yourself in this situation, Nova Credit's Credit Passport® technology can help. This document essentially translates your Canadian or Mexican credit history so U.S. lenders and creditors have some semblance of a U.S. credit score that they can use to evaluate your application for credit cards, loans and other products. You can use these credit services to establish a U.S. credit and start building a local credit history. 

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

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