Ever since the glory days of the American dream, the United States has been a coveted destination for many foreign entrepreneurs who wish to build a startup business. However, creating or expanding your business to the U.S. is not as simple as one might hope. In fact, it can be downright frustrating. However, to make things easier on you, we’ve put together a list of the various routes you can take in order to launch or prepare to launch a startup in the United States.
Before You Establish Your Business: Early Stage Startup Visa Options
Making an international move to the United States is far from cheap. If your company is still in its elementary stages, it may be best to start with a temporary visa such as the B1 business visa for USA, the B2 tourist visa, the F1 student visa, or the J1 exchange visa. Another option, though a very short term one, is the visa waiver program. These options allow you to gain invaluable knowledge that may help you prepare to establish or expand your business to the U.S.
Tourism and Business: B1 and B2 Visas
With a B1 or B2 business visa for USA, you may stay in the United States for a period of up to six months. During this time, you will be allowed to attend meetings and conferences, interview possible employees for your business, and build relationships with potential customers. However, you will not be permitted to work for a U.S. company during this time—it is important to note that this includes your own company.
Students to Entrepreneurs: F1 Visa
With an F1 visa, you will be able to stay in the United States as a foreign student. In order to qualify, you must uphold a full-time course load. After graduation, you are permitted to remain in the U.S. for up to 60 days before returning to your country of citizenship. As an F1 student, you may also be able to apply for a green card through change of status.
With an F1 visa, you will be able to attend university and expand your business knowledge. You also have the option to participate in the Optional Practical Training program (OPT) in order to gain field experience in your area of study. Once you have completed the OPT program, you may be eligible for an investor visa through change of status—it is important to note that it is easier to obtain a visa through change of status than it is to apply for one from your home country. This is when you may actually launch or expand your startup company. However, the business must be related to your area of study. If you’re looking to gain practical knowledge and remain in the U.S. for a few years before officially establishing your business, this could be a good option for you.
Interns: J1 Exchange Visa
If you want to gain business knowledge and make professional contacts that will help when establishing your startup business, interning at a U.S. company could be an invaluable experience for you. With a J1 visa, you will be eligible to work as a paid or unpaid intern for a qualified American company. However, this option works best for those in specialized areas, such as engineering.
Visa Waiver Program
If you are from one of the participating countries, you may be eligible for the visa waiver program (VWP). VWP allows foreign citizens without visas to come to the United States for a period of up to 90 days. If your company is just getting started, this could be a good option that will allow you to attend conferences and meetings in the United States.
Startup Visa Options for Established Businesses: Work Visas
If you have the necessary funds to start a business and you’re ready to hit the ground running, then it’s time to explore your work visa options. Before pursuing any of these options, it’s best to consult with an experienced immigration attorney who can help guide you through the process.
Passive Investor: The H1-B Visa
The H1-B visa is a temporary, non-immigrant work visa that allows you to work for a U.S. company. While you are in the U.S. under an H1-B visa, you may be able to expand your foreign startup to the U.S. However, you will not be allowed to work for your own company; you can only be a passive investor. This is a considerable drawback for anyone who wishes to be an active participant in the company. Additionally, the H1-B visa has some other constraints as well:
- There is an annual cap of 85,000 visas. You will need to apply as soon as USCIS begins accepting applications in April. In the past, the 85,000 visa cap has been met in a matter of weeks.
- You will need to provide a variety of documents to USCIS in order to prove that your startup is an active business. This includes a report of existing revenue, tax papers, a business plan, vendor contracts, etc.
- You will need an employer to sponsor your H1-B petition.
International Workers: The L-1 Visa
The L-1 visa may be a good option for you if your company is already established and doing well in your country of citizenship. L-1 visas are intended for companies that wish to transfer executive employees to an office in the United States. If you found your startup in your country of citizenship, you can use this visa to open a branch in America. It is important to note that USCIS will be paying close attention to your company’s current amount of staff, revenue, payroll, and cash flow. You will have to prove to them that your company is full functioning and well-established in your home country. They may also want to see proof of your foreign bank account and your lease agreement for the U.S. office location.
Extraordinary Abilities: The O-1 Visa
The O-1 visa allows you to work and conduct business in the United States so long as you possess “extraordinary” abilities. In order to prove that you meet these needs, you will need to provide proof of the following:
- Articles or other publications you’ve written
- Articles written about you
- Awards you’ve received in recognition of your professional accomplishments.
- Any professional organization memberships you have
- Original and substantial contributions to your field of expertise
Treaty Traders: The E1
The E1 visa is intended for entrepreneurs who wish to trade or conduct business within in the United States. This visa allows you to travel in and out of the United States as needed for business purposes. You will be allowed to stay in the U.S. as long as your business meets the requirements. While it is a temporary visa, you may apply for unlimited renewals. The E1 visa requires you to be of an executive level, which, as the owner of your business, you should qualify for. In order to meet the other qualifications of the E1 visa, you will need to:
- Be a citizen of a country that maintains trade treaties with the United States.
- Prove that your company has over 50 percent of its holdings within a treaty country in trade with the U.S.
- Show that you are establishing professional relationships that will be instrumental to the organization both in the U.S. and in your country of citizenship.
You may also be able to bring your immediate family members with you to the United States as derivative beneficiaries. This includes your spouse and children.
Investors: E2 Visa
E2 visas are intended for people who have invested a significant amount into a business venture. As the owner of your company, you may easily meet this requirement. However, there are other requirements you must meet as well:
- Have substantial investment in your business, typically a minimum of $500,000.
- Show that you have significant interest in the success of the business. As an owner who relies on the business for income, this shouldn’t be difficult to prove.
- Prove that your business will create jobs for United States workers.
- Your business maintains at least 50 percent of its operations in the U.S.
Even if you meet the requirements above, the E2 also has many qualifications that are not strictly defined. Legal counsel can help you navigate these “gray-area” requirements.
Now that we’ve covered the basic options for launching or expanding your business in the U.S., you can start creating your game plan. However, even with all these tips about startup visa options, conducting business abroad can be a long and complicated process. To increase your chances of success, it’s best to consult with an attorney who specializes in business and immigration law. To talk to the experts at Katz Law Office, Ltd., submit a request today for a free consultation.
Check out this infographic from designer and foreign entrepreneur Anna Vital:
None of the advice contained in these materials serves as a substitute for individualized legal representation by a licensed attorney with experience in the practice area.