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We all know that most tourist visas have a stipulation like:

"you can't work in XXX while on a tourist visa"

or

"If you're entering XXX with the intent of working or doing business you need a business visa"

And I've heard a few differing opinions on what "work" actually means in this context. Usually it falls into one of two categories:

  1. "Any activity that you're being paid to do, regardless of where that payer is"
  1. "engaging in the local economy, either by getting a job, hiring local workers, meeting with clients, or potential business partners, etc."

To me the second one makes more logical sense. If you look at the fact that most of these laws have been around for a very long time, it makes more sense that they are designed to stop tourists from disturbing the local economy(other than by injecting cash). I can't imagine that stopping someone taking a phone call, or sending a telegram, or checking some work emails was the main driving force behind these clauses.

I think another way to phrase it is "would you be allowed to respond to a work email?". Because often times people who argue that definition 1 is the true definition, may say "Sure, you could probably check an email or take a phone call from your job back home, but you couldn't do [some larger task]". And to me that's really a matter of degree, rather than classification. Checking/responding to an email for a non-local job, and doing a spreadsheet are just different degrees of "work being done for a job outside of the country being visited". Whereas something like sending an email or making a phone call to a local business/person you want to engage in business with, while maybe a small task, I'd argue goes against the intent of the law, and would require a business visa.

My main question is, does anyone know of anything that goes into more detail on this topic with actual sources from legal experts, clauses in immigration laws, or specific listings of permitted/prohibited tasks?

The best I can find is from the USCIS website where it defines the reason for applying for a US B-1 Business Visa as:

Temporary business visitor to conduct activities of a commercial or professional nature. For example, consult with business associates, negotiate a contract, or attend a business conference

To me that suggests that this visa is for those seeking to do work in the local USA economy, rather than those who may want to respond to a work email, for a job in their home country. Most countries I have looked at, that give examples of the type of work for which you'd need a work visa, all list activities of engaging in the local economy. None that i've seen would prohibit something like "responding to a work email" or "accepting a job in your home country while in the country you're visiting". Even though colloquially those would be things we'd consider "work" rather than "personal/recreational" activities.

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    The concept of remote working during short term visits, to state it mildly, is completly underdeveloped in most immigration laws. Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 3:54
  • @MarkJohnson yes, I would think many country's tourist visa clauses may be older than the internet, so remote work wasn't even a thing when they were written, so you could argue remote work is not prohibited by a law that was written before the concept really existed. Obviously at the end of the day the country will apply that law how they want, though I was just curious to know how far in or out of the legal boundary a lot of these remote work activities are.
    – Peter
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 4:59
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    @MarkJohnson Also a person with a job back home means the chance of them coming in to illegally find work is substantially lower.
    – Peter
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 7:27
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    "To me that suggests that this visa is for those seeking to do work in the local USA economy": the US government disagrees. See In the Matter of Hira. There is a good deal of ambiguity and it's easy to find gray areas. This may be an intentional preference for the "I know it when I see it" approach. This makes sense, because nobody wants to prevent a tourist from spending an hour or two dealing with work e-mails over a 2 week visit, yet doing the same activity for six months at 40 hours a week is another story.
    – phoog
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 11:26
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    Also note that whether work of a certain nature or whether a certain quantity of work is permissible under immigration law is a different question from whether or when the income connected to that work becomes subject to income tax under the nonresident taxation scheme (or for that matter when the worker becomes subject to the resident taxation scheme). Under US tax law, income arising from work performed in the US is taxable in the US regardless of the employer's location. There is a de minimis exception, but it's pretty, well, minimal ($3000 if I remember correctly).
    – phoog
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 11:31

1 Answer 1

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TL;DR: there's no one list. You'll need to talk to an immigration attorney in the country you're looking at.


This is a question of law and precedent, and the definitions may vary from country to country. So there's no one single answer, and even for a specific country the answer may not be definitive and clear-cut.

This is intentional. Laws are intentionally written vaguely and with ambiguity. This allows much more flexibility in enforcement, covers situations unforeseen by the lawmakers, and gives more power to the judicial system to interpret the laws.

Laws don't always have to make sense, or be reasonable, or logical. These are subjective terms, and you don't always know the motivation of the lawmakers, the political landscape that lead to these laws and the cultural background of the local society. What makes sense to you may not make sense to them, and vice versa.

The eventual result of the legal process depends on the facts and circumstances, as well as the actual law. If the law defines "work" as "being a salaried employee of a local employer", does being self-employed constitute a violation? If the law defines "work" as "doing something you're being paid for" - does taking employment for no pay constitute a violation? Both cases could be detrimental to the local workforce.

On the other hand, if you're a digital nomad working for your foreign employer remotely from the beach - is it "work" in the sense of the immigration law? After all, you're not affecting the local workforce and are actually contributing to the local economy by being there, aren't you?

Different countries handle these issues differently, and you need to understand how the country you intend to be in handles it. It may be much stricter, not allowing any work, for pay or free, for local or foreign employers, contract or salaried. Or it may not be very strict, allow remote work for foreign employees, or volunteering, or what's not.

Keep in mind, that in addition to the immigration definitions there are other considerations: labor law, social security/national insurance laws, income taxes, VAT (especially for contractors), etc. You may not be violating the immigration law, but you may end up not complying with the other laws, or the other way around.

There also may be some treaties between some countries removing or reducing barriers. For example it is much easier to get a US employment visa for a Canadian than it is for most of the rest of the world, or any EU citizen can work anywhere in the EU.

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