The most frequent question that I ask U.S. businesses is "Are you doing business in Canada or doing business with Canadians?" It is an important GST/HST question. If a business is merely doing business with Canadians, it is not required to register for GST/HST purposes. If a non-resident business (also applies to resident businesses) are doing business in Canada, they may be making taxable supplies in Canada and may be required to register for GST/HST purposes.
The phrase "doing business in Canada" is a term of tax art. The phrase "doing business in Canada" is not defined in the Excise Tax Act (Canada). The phrase has been considered in many income tax and sales tax cases. As a result, a determination is made on a case-by-case basis. The Canada Revenue Agency has issued administrative statements to inform suppliers on factors they consider in making a determination. In many cases, it is recommended that a non-resident supplier apply for an advance GST/HST ruling (usually in cases where they want a decision that they are not doing business in Canada).
I have been asked to look at this issue more than any other GST/HST issue. I could give many examples that cross many forms of businesses. I will give two of my more recent examples.
Example #1: A U.S. company provides specialized services to clients. They design and develop custom computer programs and implement the program after completion. Employees of the U.S. company spends months (sometimes over a few years) at the clients' premises. In recent years, the U.S. company was retained by a few Canadian companies for big and small projects. The U.S. company has established a Canadian bank account in which it was paid for its services.
This company was doing business in Canada and needed to register for GST/HST purposes. It did not matter that the U.S. company did not have its own offices in Canada and only worked at the premises of its clients. Given the amount of time that the U.S. company spent in Canada performing services on Canadian soil, it was easy to determine that the company was carrying on business in Canada.
Example #2: A U.S. company with a business location in the United States very near the Canada/U.S.border sold goods. While Canadians could cross the Canada-U.S. border, buy goods, and be responsible for taking the goods across the border, This was not what usually happened. The U.S. company regularly delivered the goods f.o.b. Canadian customer's front door.
If the U.S. company delivered the goods infrequently f.o.b Canada, it may have been considered to be doing business with Canadians. If the U.S. company delivered the goods f.o.b U.S. business and the customer arranged for shipment across the border, the U.S. company may have been considered to be doing business with Canadians. However, the reality was very different. Based on the actual activities of the U.S. business, they would likely be considered to be carrying on business in Canada.
The facts are always very important. Even if you have asked this question before and are attempting to NOT carry on business in Canada, it is important that non-residents of Canada ask what is the practical reality. Based on my experience, non-resident businesses often get into difficulty because employees change the game plan without knowing why things are being done a certain way.
"Are you carrying on business in Canada" is an important question to ask.