Entrepreneur Visa Options
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Visa Options for Entrepreneurs in the United States
The United States Visa system was not established with entrepreneurs in mind. Nonetheless, there are several types of visa that either individually or collectively could serve a foreign entrepreneur’ s purpose of entering the United States for any number of purposes.
In this article, we discuss popular temporary visitor, employee, financier, and trainee visas.
Temporary Visitor or Networker Visa
A number of countries have treaties with the United States that includes a Visa Waiver Program. This allows individuals from these countries to come to the United States for up to 90 days without a Visa. If the desire is to stay more than 90 days (or you are outside of a VWP country), you can apply for the B-1 visa.
B-1 Visa - This visa could be useful for entrepreneurs who wish to visit the United States to participate in business activities of a commercial or professional nature. It allows the entrepreneur to visit for work purposes (meetings, events, contract signings, closing sales or estates, etc.), but it does not allow the entrepreneur to remain and work in the country. The visa generally grants for up to 6 months (based upon the nature of the visit).
The most popular employee visas are the H1-B, L-1, and O-1.
H1-B - This is a temporary work visa for individuals with a bachelor’s degree. There are 65K visas available in this program. There are an additional 20K for individuals with a masters degree from a US university. This program is not really designed for startups. First, the employer must apply on behalf of the employees. This would mean that the startup must have some established operations in the US before applying. Second, an entrepreneur cannot be her own employer for purposes of this visa. One way to get around this is stating that a major startup investor hired you as an employee. The key is that the company must be able to hire/fire and supervise the employee and adequate finances to support operations and the founder. This generally requires a separate board of directors to supervise the entrepreneur. Finally, the program is geared toward established, large companies, which could prejudice smaller or startup companies when applying. The visa lasts for 3 years and could be renewed for a maximum of 6 years.
L-1 - The L-1 vis is primarily targeted for employee transfers between foreign and US subsidiaries of a company. As such, the entrepreneur would need to be employed by a foreign, related company for at least one year before applying to be transferred to a US company. Also, the foreign business must have operations or own a subsidiary located in the US. The visa lasts for 1 year to set up a new company in the US, but it can be renewed multiple times for up to 7 years. This visa also allows an accompanying spouse to apply for a work visa.
O-1 - The O-1 visa can be the most difficult to demonstrate for most entrepreneurs. It allows foreigners with extraordinary ability in the fields of arts, sciences, education, business, or athletics to acquire a visa to work in the United States. The difficult part is providing your expertise, recognition, or status in one of these fields. There are several established categories for providing extraordinary ability, such as: awards and prizes, society membership, published papers or books, media recognition, etc. Remember, the standard is international acclaim. You must also state that you wish to continue your work or pursuits in the United States. The length of stay will be determined by the USCIG.
There are primarily two recognized visas for investors wishing to invest funds in businesses in the United States.
EB-5 - The EB-5 program is a green card program. It allows the entrepreneur (and her spouse and children — under 21 years of age) to apply for permanent residency status. The requirements are that the entrepreneur make an investment of either $1M or $500K (in an under-employment area). The investment must be to create a new business, grow a business, or turn around a failing business. The investment must create at least 10 permanent, full-time jobs for US workers within 2 years.
E-2 - This visa is meant for entrepreneurs (from one of a group of designated treaty countries) who is setting up a business (and investing a “substantial amount” of money) in the United States. This is likely the only visa that is targeted toward entrepreneurs. There is no single rule for how much money must be invested in the new business. The investment must be significant with regard to setting up the business. The visa can generally be granted for up to 5 years, but it can be renewed indefinitely. This visa allows an accompanying spouse to seek a work visa. The drawback is that there is no official path to permanent residency status with this visa.
There is one primary visa for individuals coming to the United States to train (rather than carry on work).
J-1 - This visa applies to individuals accepted into an approved program within the United States. The program must be for “the purpose of teaching, instructing or lecturing, studying, observing, conducting research, consulting, demonstrating special skills, receiving training, or to receive graduate medical education or training.” The visa will be approved for the length of the program. This visa may serve some of the training and connecting purposes of the entrepreneur, but it is not a long-term opportunity for opening a business within the United States.