Visa Options for Entrepreneurs in the U.S.

One of the first questions international entrepreneurs ask each other is, more often than not, “what visa are you on?”. The impression many people have is that it’s easy to get into the U.S., at least if you’re there as a start-up. We entrepreneurs get told all the time that we should be in Silicon Valley, as it’s the hub for a lot of innovation and investments. But, as many quickly discovers, you’ll need a visa – and it’s not always easy to find a visa that fits “up and coming” entrepreneurs. This is one of many instances where I’m happy that YAY is an older company, as it really helped me with my own visa. The way I’ve done it is to start with a B-visa, and now I’m in the process of applying for my L-visa.

B-1 Visitor Visa

This visa is for “visitors of pleasure” or “visitors for business”. There are pretty strict limitations on what you can do on a B1-visa. I’ve been using my B-visa mostly to explore the potential here in Silicon Valley, and setting up an american subsidiary. I’ meeting with potential partners, investors, and networking in general. I’ve set up our subsidiary, YAY Images Inc, and I’ve started interviewing people for positions here. What I can do is run the business fully, get hired, or in any way make any money. The official guide for activities says that you can:

  • Conduct Negotiations
  • Solicit sales or investment
  • Discuss planned investment or purchases.
  • Make investments or purchases
  • Attend Meetings, and participate in them fully.
  • Interview and hire staff.
  • Conduct research.

And you should not be:

  • Running a business.
  • “Gainful employment”.
  • Payment by an organization within the U.S.
  • Participating as a professional in entertainment or sporting events. Source.

The B-visa lets you stay for 3 or 6 months. If you’re under the Visa Waiver program, you’ll have three months. To get 6 months you’ll have to apply for this at your local embassy, for me that’s Oslo. They want to see your itinerary for the stay, your reason for needing to stay more than three months, and also that you can support yourself financially while here. In my experience, getting a 6 month B1 visa was easy. My tasks for YAY was spot on for what the visa can be used for, I would continue getting my salary at YAY, and they would support any expenses with the trip. If you want to run your business, like we want to with YAY now, you’ll need another visa.

The L-1 Intra-Company Transfer

This is the one I’m applying for. The visa let’s executives, managers and employees with specialized knowledge transfer from the foreign company to the U.S. company. When the U.S. company is new, the visa is first granted for 1 year, then it can be renewed for 3+3 years. Since I’ve been the CEO of YAY Media AS since 2008, with pay, and we’re setting up an office here this visa should be “easy” for me to get. Although, easy means you’ll have to hire a lawyer, and you’ll end up with at least 100+ files that you need to provide Immigration to show them that you’re a real manager, from a real company, setting up a real company here in the U.S., and that you have the money to set up, run and pay all expenses. I started this process early this year, but got my first application rejected – they needed more information, such as color photos of my office here in San Francisco.. While the visa is under approval you can stay in the U.S. If you leave you won’t be able to get back until your application is approved. Then, when it’s approved, you can stay for 1 year. You’ll then be staying under a “change of status”-visa. If you during the first year want to leave the U.S., you’ll have to go by your local embassy, and get their approval of your visa status. The L-visa allows you to start your path toward citizenship, in order to get permanent residence (green card). For spouses and children you have the L2-visa, that allows for the spouse to work in the U.S.

The O-1 Visa for “Aliens of Extraordinary Ability”

For great entrepreneurs without an established company, the O-visa might be an option. The O-visa can grant access within science, education, business and athletics + individual on the arts + individuals in the motion picture or TV industries. To apply for the O-visa you’ll need a Nobel prize-kind of award, or at least three of the following:

  • Receipt of nationally or internationally recognized prizes or awards for excellence in the field of endeavor
  • Membership in associations in the field for which classification is sought which require outstanding achievements, as judged by recognized national or international experts in the field
  • Published material in professional or major trade publications, newspapers or other major media about the beneficiary and the beneficiary’s work in the field for which classification is sought
  • Original scientific, scholarly, or business-related contributions of major significance in the field
  • Authorship of scholarly articles in professional journals or other major media in the field for which classification is sought
  • A high salary or other remuneration for services as evidenced by contracts or other reliable evidence
  • Participation on a panel, or individually, as a judge of the work of others in the same or in a field of specialization allied to that field for which classification is sought
  • Employment in a critical or essential capacity for organizations and establishments that have a distinguished reputation (source)

Not the easiest to get, but doable for some people – especially if you start working toward this early on.

E Investment-Trade Visa

This visa is also rather difficult to get, especially for a new entrepreneur. It requires you to show an investment of about $100,000. One way to solve this is to set up a subsidiary, and transfer value from your Norwegian company. But, if you’re new and still bootstrapping, it might be better to find other ways into the U.S. A person may be issued an E-2 Treaty Investor visa if:

  • The individual or firm has the nationality of the treaty country (at least half of the company must be owned by nationals of the treaty country).
  • The individual or the company has made or is in the process of making substantial investment (generally in excess of $100,000 at risk) in a business in the United States.
  • The individual is either the principal investor who will direct and develop the enterprise, or an executive, manager or employee with special skills essential to the company.
  • The investment is not the individual’s sole income source. (Source: American Immigration Lawyers Association)

H-1B Temporary Worker Visa

This is a very common visa, that most (all?) international workers use. For corporations, this is a rather straight forward process, involving lawyers and very detailed monitoring. For startups it’s more demanding. You’ll have to set up a company in the U.S., and then make sure the company qualify as a U.S. employer, with a taxpayer identification number. Then, you’ll need to get an Labor Condition Application approved, – and it’s highly recommended that you get a lawyer to help you with setting this up. If you set it up right, and get yourself or employees over, you’ll have to make sure to track everything they want you to track, as not doing so can get you expelled from the U.S. for at least a year. The visa will grant you 3+3 years here in the U.S., but then you’ll have to spent a year outside the U.S. in order to renew it further. It’s therefore recommended that you start the green card process early, so you can stay – and also your spouse can start working.

Time

Getting a visa takes time.. I started my visa application in February-March, but it didn’t get filed until late April. While the application is under review you shouldn’t leave the U.S. If you leave, you won’t be let in again until the application is approved. You are allowed to stay in the U.S. until your application has been reviewed, even if your B1 date is expired. In late May my application got rejected, they wanted more information. That kind of sucked, as it made it impossible for me to go home and attend a wedding that I’d been looking forward to for months! The last couple of weeks I’ve gathered all the information they asked for, and my lawyer will add it to my application. Hopefully I’ll get approved within 3-5 weeks, and then I’ll be heading for a trip to Norway! While in Norway I’ll have to go to the Embassy again, and get my L-visa approved there as well.

If you want to apply for any of these visas it’s a good idea to get a good lawyer. They can tell you the do’s and don’ts. You want to avoid breaking the visa rules. Also, if your application is missing vital information or contain any mistakes, they might reject it. The price for visas varies. Our lawyer is on a fixed price, making sure we don’t get any surprises when the bill comes. If you need a lawyer I’d be happy to refer you to mine, just send me an email!

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