How to Get Your Band Out of Canada Get in the Van

As an up-and-coming Canadian band, you can only drive across Northern Ontario so many times (I’d argue just the once) before feeling the need to try your luck south of the border. Getting your music out of Canada makes plenty of sense: it can be a breakthrough experience, if not financially, at least promotionally and creatively. Whereas 15 years ago, the U.S. and Europe may as well have been Jupiter in terms of accessibility to Canadian bands, a growing number of international successes have helped reel those destinations in. Now, it’s just the moon, not nearly so hard to shoot for — that is, if you survive the paperwork.

Until 9/11, Canadians could enter the U.S. with a driver’s license or other photo ID. Now, valid passports are mandatory for every member of the band and entourage. Canadian passports cost $87 and take a few weeks. If you slack off, the absolute drop-dead turnaround time is next day, but it’ll cost you $70 extra. Downloadable forms and information are available at Passport Canada’s website: A criminal record may prevent you from crossing the U.S. and other borders, but with the proper accreditation, you might be able to get around this. Various agencies can help square you away; for more info check out Before you head out, take note of the Canadian consulates nearest the cities you’re playing in. If you have visa problems, or you get into any kind of legal trouble, it’s the job of consular officials to help sort you out. Plus, they might want to come to the gig.

American Work Permits
There are several permits that will allow your band to gig in the U.S. Most commonly, the P2 Exchange Artist Visa allows entry based on an approved schedule of dates. The American Federation of Musicians union can facilitate the application for P2 visas, so if you and your band-mates are members, talk to the union first. The P2 takes at least 60 days’ turnaround, although you can expedite it by shelling out $1,000 U.S. or so.

Depending on the kind and number of shows booked, you might also be a P1-B Specific Event, a P3 Culturally Unique Artist, or for visits of less than 90 days, the B-1 Visitor for Business Visa is a possibility. In any event, individual visas must be granted to each member of the band and crew.

In each case, rafts of paperwork must be completed and filed. Included are the application forms, as well as evidence of your qualifications such as letters from your label, publisher, booking agent and/or clubs where you are playing, copies of your passport, and fees starting around $100 (U.S.) per person.

More detailed information is posted at the website for the Consular Services at the U.S. Mission in Canada, (click under Foreign Nationals, Visa Categories).

Some Canadian law firms and emigration agencies offer U.S. visa application services; however, they can be pretty expensive and there’s no guarantee your application will be successful.

Crossing the 49th Parallel
Before crossing the U.S. border, bands should have everything together including a complete gear manifest (a list of your gear, including serial numbers and model numbers, so you don’t get dinged by Customs coming back into Canada). You should also have ready a personnel manifest setting out names, addresses, dates of birth, positions in the band and all other personal information for everyone travelling. Keep a photocopy of each passport and visa with you, and remind every member of your crew to leave a copy of their passport and visa info with a trustworthy soul back home.

Most visas (P2 included) are processed at the border. You will receive approval in the mail but the final visa is granted at the border itself, so be sure to bring the approval letter and all other applicable documentation to the border. Lastly, bring along your merch manifest (see Meet and Greet).

EU Work Permits
To play in the UK, you’ll need a WP3 – Work Permit Application for Athletes and Musicians ( The application process and paperwork required are similar to the U.S. visa process. Plan at least two months, probably three, in advance to get your paperwork processed.

Canadian citizens and other non-EU passport holders will need valid passports to get into the UK or the rest of the EU. EU citizens can freely work in any member state, but non-EU citizens may have to apply for work visas in each of the countries they plan to gig in. However, depending on the nature of the tour and where it takes you, the articles of the Schengen Agreement may apply, and you might only need one catchall work permit. (The Schengen Agreement covers most of the EU except Ireland and the UK. It’s a convention among EU nations to, among other things, harmonise entry requirements and visas for non-EU travelers.)

Doing your homework before booking any gigs overseas is essential. The best sources of information for visa requirements (assuming you don’t have a booking agency) are the embassies themselves; many have Cultural Attachés who can explain and in some cases facilitate the process. A list of foreign national embassies and consulates in Canada is available from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, menu-en.asp.

Flying With Gear
Depending on the airline, allowable luggage per traveller clocks in at around 20 kilos. This may allow you to bring a suitcase and one instrument, but unless you’re ready to pay substantial overweight charges, you may have to leave the bass cabinet at home. Always phone the airline in advance to let them know you’re bringing musical equipment with approximate weights. Some airlines will dedicate space in their "special care” luggage stream. Everything will be put through security, so don’t lock flight cases unless you want the luggage monkeys bashing off the locks for a look inside.

Check your visa requirements to ensure that your gear manifest conforms. If you are shipping your equipment separately, you may need a formal "carnet”: an international shipping manifest that states that the gear is being used in conjunction with a work visa. In that case, consider engaging a shipping broker. They’ll be able to find you the best rates on shipping and they do the paperwork.

Travel, gear and health insurance are a very good idea and are probably offered by the same company that insures your apartment, jam space or vehicle. If your Strat gets nicked at a gig, or your lead singer dips his wick into someone contagious, you’ll need a fast-acting replacement strategy and cash for the bill.

Allison Outhit with research by Adam Countryman

Frequently Asked Questions

We’ve been offered a gig in Detroit. It’s only one night — do we have to get a work permit?
As far as U.S. Customs and Immigration are concerned, there’s no such thing as a one-night stand. If you are getting paid then you must have the proper accreditation.

My band got a showcase at South by Southwest. We don’t get paid. Do we have to get work visas?
Bands travelling to the U.S. to perform a label showcase, a promotional appearance or to play a no fee performance at a festival may not require a visa. They must provide adequate proof at the border that they will not receive any payment, such as a letter from the booker. For union members, the American Federation of Musicians will write a letter (for a small fee) claiming that you are only in the U.S. for showcase purposes.

We don’t have a booking agent in Europe, but we’re going to record our next CD in Sweden and we think we can book a couple of shows there. Should we get a Swedish agent?
If you’re at a good intersection of brains plus enthusiasm, you can manage the paperwork yourself. Having said that, bringing an agent in, even for a one-off tour, has the benefit of putting all that boring admin stuff on someone else’s plate and freeing your psyche up for creativity. Just make sure you research the agent to make sure she or he knows what’s what.

We’ve been offered a little indie tour in the UK, but getting all the visa shit together is way too much hassle. We’re thinking of flying to the UK as tourists and borrowing gear when we get there. Is that cool?
Well, it’s not cricket. You might get away with it, but if you get caught the consequences could be very bad for you personally and for your career as a musician. You could be expelled from the UK, which is going to be expensive, embarrassing, and could result in it being very difficult and costly to re-enter the country legitimately in the future. On the other hand, immigration officials snooping around pubs and bars might be looking for illegal dishwashers, not bassists. Know the odds before you play this kind of game!