US work visa options for entrepreneurs

If your market is the US or if you are looking to get funded by US investors, then you would be most likely looking to move there as well.

There has been a recent surge in entrepreneurs applying and getting into incubator and accelerator programs in the valley, so I thought I’d put together a quick guide for entrepreneurs who are looking to move to the US for work.

There are multiple options for short term stay in the US, but to be able to work, realistically you only 5 options – H1B (work permit), L1 (company transfer), E2 (investment)EB2 (advanced degree and exceptional candidates)O (exceptional ability candidate).

The US is a notoriously hard place to get work visas for, so you should plan appropriately. While there is talk of a startup visa, expect that to take a few years to be in effect if at all. You can also obtain a B visa for temporary stay or visit, but that’s for meetings alone and technically will not let you setup your company or allow you to work.

Of the 20+ entrepreneurs, (who were interested in moving to the US) I have spoken with over the last few months, 11 have received visas for work in the US and the rest had their visas rejected. The high rejection rate had nothing to do with their company or ability, was the sense I got. It is still a largely hit or miss process for most entrepreneurs to obtain US work visas.

If you are the CEO / founder of the company and want to remain being the CEO or have a large controlling stake, then E1/E2 and O visas are the only type that will work. The E visas require you to invest over $1 Million in capital, so be warned.

The H1B and EB2 visas are more traditional work visas, used by most, but you will have to work for  the company, not as a CEO or founder (among other things). Couple of the co-founders I have spoken with, had one co-founder, who decided to stay in the US be the CEO, while the other resigned as CEO and then apply as an engineer in the H1 B category.

Only 1 founder had applied under the EB2 category, and he had a PhD, which he was told was a big reason for the lawyer to suggest that category.

The O visa has started to get more popular, but the documentation required is a lot is what I have heard. This includes making sure you have a lot of press about you and the company, a few recommendations, etc.

None of the product founders I had spoken to tried the L visa, but I know that it was a popular choice a few years ago for services entrepreneurs. This is a company transfer and is valid for 5 years, and has two options, L1A (executive and management) and L1B (exceptional category).

Those are the 5 different options for getting work visas and move to the US.

Many founders I know are also taking the route of getting a B1 visa, hiring a key co-founder or executive in the US and planning on making quarterly trips for work.

P.S. This post is not legal advice, so please do talk to a qualified lawyer in the US who practices immigration law before you decide on the best course of action for you.

7 thoughts on “US work visa options for entrepreneurs”

  1. When I explored working in the USA, the most popular way and is today also is to go there on a B1 visa, set up a company thru a local rep in Delaware, work from India without salary for a few months, and then apply for a L-1 as management. The L1 postulates that the Indian company is either setting up or taking over the US office and you should have been working in The Indian company for a min of 1 year. This is dicey if your startup is new… However it offers most flexibility.
    You do need a decent lawyer who may charge upto USD 3500 to present yr case.

  2. Would love to know which startups tried this approach and are actually successful. Feels like (i could be wrong) another complexity for entrepreneur to handle in already complex puzzle. He/she should rather focus on solving problems which can be solved from where he/she is.

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