You have a great idea and the U.S. would be the perfect place to grow your business…but you know immigrating to the U.S. is tough. While starting a company in the U.S. can be complicated for foreign entrepreneurs, you may have several viable options available to you.

If you are in the early stages of your start-up and still exploring the idea of moving to the U.S., visiting on a B-1 Visa (Temporary Business Visitor) or via the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) might make sense. Keep in mind that there are very strict guidelines on what activities you can participate in if you enter the U.S. using one of these methods.

For those keen on operating in the U.S., let’s explore some longer term solutions. While the bar is very high for some of the visa options below, don’t be intimidated by them. Many founders have successfully used these categories to operate their companies in the U.S.

Non-Immigrant Visa Options

A non-immigrant visa allows you to come to the United States temporarily to work and live. Generally, non-immigrant visas are processed quicker than immigrant visas. A non-immigrant visa might be the right option if you intend to return home upon setting up the business. Options you might consider include:

O-1A — Extraordinary Ability or Achievement

Only individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement in the sciences, education, business, or athletics are eligible for an O-1A visa. The standard for obtaining an O visa is very high, requiring a showing of the highest level of achievement and recognition in your field, such as internationally recognized awards, major publications, membership in selective organizations and high salary. You must submit details of your intended project, research or other activities in the United States, including an itinerary and contractual terms with the sponsoring employer. The O visa is limited to three years, but you may obtain unlimited one-year extensions throughout the life of the project. Learn more about the O visa here.

L-1A  — Intracompany Transferee

If you are already working for a company and planning to establish a start-up branch, affiliate or subsidiary in the United States, you may qualify for an L-1A. This type of visa permits a company to transfer its executives and managers to the United States to set up the American-based office. The visa is initially granted for only one year for employees setting up a new office. You may pursue extensions in one-year increments for up to seven years.

E-2 – Treaty Investors

To obtain an E-2 treaty investors visa, you must invest a substantial amount of money into an enterprise in which you have at least 50 percent ownership or control. However, you must be a national of a country on the list of U.S. Department of State’s Treaty Countries to qualify. If you are from a treaty country and can invest enough funds, an E-2 can be extended indefinitely after an initial two years.

Immigrant Visas Options

Do you plan to remain in the United States permanently? Your start-up can be the basis for a green card application. The main pathways to employment-based permanent residency include:

EB-1A – Extraordinary Ability

EB-1A visas are reserved for individuals with extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics. As with the O non-immigrant visa, the standard is very high. One of the primary benefits is that you can self-petition, which allows you greater freedom to pursue your goals.

EB-1C – Multinational Manager or Executive

The EB-1C is specifically for managers and executives who are starting a U.S. business. The requirements are similar to L visas, prompting many companies to petition first for non-immigrant status and then apply for the EB-1C while working in the United States.

Other Immigrant Visas 

The EB-2 National Interest Waiver Program (NIW) and EB-5 visa may also be plausible visa options for some entrepreneurs. The EB-5 visa tends to be cost prohibitive (investment of $500k or more) and is not commonly used by start-ups. The EB-2 NIW requires you to demonstrate how your work in the U.S. is of national interest.

Business immigration laws are complex and the rules are in constant flux. How does one choose from so many visa options? For starters, find an immigration lawyer that is an expert in these categories and has extensive experience with start-ups. For example, a lawyer may be very skilled at H-1B/L-1 visas, but have limited (or no) experience with EB-1/O visas.

Ready to start your journey? Explore Ask Ellis’s network of experts today.

Related Articles: Choosing Between the EB-1 and O-1 Visa

*The content and materials available via Ask Ellis are for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice.

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