With the superior-rated universities, state-of-the-art health facilities, and unparalleled levels of freedom in the United States, immigrant entrepreneurs from around the globe have set their sights on the U.S. as a place to call home.
They come seeking a brighter, freer, and more secure future for themselves and their family members. One of the primary ways immigrant entrepreneurs can relocate and access virtually unlimited business opportunities is through the robust U.S. visa system.
The United States provides more than a handful of startup visas to choose from that can offer startup entrepreneurs access to programs that meet their unique and specific needs. Ultimately, these programs allow them to invest in the U.S. workforce, to conduct business and grow a company here, and to create a life for themselves and their families.
Not All Visas are Created Equal
There are distinct differences between immigrant visas and non-immigrant visas when it comes to the rights and privilege associated with each. In broad terms, all visas are separated into two groups – permanent resident and non-immigrant visas.
Permanent Resident Visas: These visa holders retain permanent resident status. Permanent residents are able to live, study, and work freely and indefinitely in the United States.
Non-immigrant Visas: These visa holders are allowed to enter the country on a temporary basis while fulfilling a specific purpose. This type of visa includes tourism, education, and employment.
Entrepreneurial and Investor Visas: This category of visas contains a variety of programs that fit the needs of foreign nationals seeking to enter the United states for business purposes. They are specifically tailored to entrepreneurs and investors.
There are five specific types of visas available to eligible immigrant entrepreneurs, including the following:
- H-1B Visa
- E-2 Treaty Investor Visa
- L-1 Visa
If you are a foreign national seeking permanent employment in the United States, then EB work visas should be your first stop. There are five separate EB visas, ordered in terms of priority. Each requires either very specific or highly advanced skillsets.
Learn more about each of these programs below.
The EB-1 Visa: First Preference for Employment-Based Immigration
The first preference employment-based visa, the EB-1, addresses three separate classes of individuals:
- Foreign nationals with exceptional abilities in any of the following areas: arts, athletics, business, education, science; or if they are nationally or internationally acclaimed (no job offer required)
- Researchers and professors with a proven track record for excellence and currently pursuing tenure
- Executives and management team members for multinational companies
Specific qualifications are outlined for each type of EB-1 visa the foreign national may apply.
The EB-2 Visa: Second Preference for Employment-Based Immigration
The EB visa with second preference is called the EB-2 visa. It is very similar to the EB-1 in that it calls for a high-level skillset. However, applicants are often required to provide additional evidence that proves their specialized capabilities.
Foreign nationals may apply for the EB-2 visa when they fall into one of the following categories:
- Advanced degree-holders and those with experience that equates to an advanced degree who have received a job offer
- Applicants with exceptional skillsets in the arts, business, or the sciences
- Workers requesting that labor certification (or PERM) be waived because their employment in the United States would be beneficial to the U.S. economy
Each unique application requires the applicant to submit relevant evidence including but not limited to proof of experience and/or copies of degrees and professional licenses. EB-2 applicants may also submit applicants on behalf of their spouse and children who are married and under 21 years of age.
The EB-5 Visa: A Fifth-Preference Option for Employment-Based Immigration
The fifth and final EB visa, aptly named the EB-5 visa, is directly linked with the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program. Whereas the EB-1 and EB-2 visas provide opportunities for highly skilled foreign nationals seeking employment in the U.S., the EB-5 visa is tailored to foreign investors.
This program allows investors to obtain a green card through an investment directly either in a qualifying EB-5 projector via a regional center.
As with the EB-2 visa, EB-5 investors’ immediate family members (spouse and unmarried children under 21) are eligible to apply for U.S. permanent resident status when their investments fulfill EB-5 criteria. The primary requirements for the EB-5 program include the following:
- An investment amount totaling either $900,000 or $1.8 million minimum, depending on whether EB-5 project is in a targeted employment area (TEA)
- Evidence that EB-5 investment capital has been obtained through lawful sources
- Investment capital remains at risk for the duration of the investment period.
- The investment capital is used to create and fund 10 new, full-time jobs minimum for U.S. workers.
While processing times vary widely based on an investor’s origin country, the EB-5 program is still viewed as one of the quickest ways to immigrate to the United States.
Besides the EB visas we’ve detailed above, there are four additional types of visas that, depending on your unique needs and circumstances, may work better for you.
The H-1B Visa: An Option for Specialty Occupation Applicants
The H-1B visa is reserved for applicants who have secured an employer sponsor and have already received a job offer. It is a non-immigrant visa for “specialty occupations.”
Some of the basic qualifications include the following:
- A bachelor’s degree or experience equivalent to a bachelor’s degree
- Proof from the employer that they were unable to find a U.S. citizen or resident first
Note that due to delays in visa processing, it often takes several months before an applicant can begin working.
The E-2 Visa: For Investors Meeting International Treaty Requirements
The E-2 visa is similar to the EB-5 visa in that it is targeted at foreign national investors. However, it involves an additional layer of legislation. Eligibility is determined based on treaties between the U.S. and the applicant’s country of origin. Whereas EB-5 applicants can come from anywhere, E-2 investors must be from specific countries outlined in the various treaties.
Another difference between the E-2 and E-5 programs is the investment amounts. Instead of a specific minimum investment, E-2 applications are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The Foreign Affairs Manual (or FAM) is used as a guide to determine whether an investment in a certain project qualifies as “substantial.”
Additionally, E-2 investors must retain 50 percent ownership in the business or operational control. EB-5 regional center investors, on the other hand, do not necessarily have to engage in business management of the new commercial enterprise (NCE).
The L-1 Visa: To Facilitate International Intracompany Transfers
The L-1 visa allows multinational employers to transfer employers from foreign affiliates, branches, and subsidiaries to the U.S. There are two specific types:
L-1A Visa: These are designated for managerial- and executive-level employees
L-1B Visa: These are designated for staffers with specialized knowledge but who aren’t necessarily managers or executives
The O-1 Visa: For Foreign Nationals with Extraordinary Abilities or Achievements
This non-immigrant visa grants foreign nationals who prove exceptional in their skills or achievements and are recognized nationally and internationally temporary residence in the United States.
O-1 visa-holders are required to work in their field, and this visa is limited to the following occupational categories: the arts and motion pictures, athletics, business, education, and the sciences.
Note that there are also O-2 and O-3 visas available to the counterparts of O-1 applicants that allow temporary relocation in the U.S. with them.
O-2 Visa: These visas are allocated for counterparts deemed “essential” for the O-1 visa holder’s work (an agent for an actor, for instance).
O-3 Visa: These visas allow an O-1 visa-holder’s immediate family members to relocate with them.
Which Startup Visa is Right for You?
As you can see, there are a number of opportunities for foreign national entrepreneurs and investors to immigrate to the United States. That said, these paths are only viable for specific immigration scenarios.
It is imperative you carefully consider your own needs and goals before applying to any of these visa programs.
Are you seeking permanent residency in the U.S.? Do you intend to secure a high-level position to exercise your business expertise in a given industry? Or are you planning to blaze new trails by founding a brand new startup here? Perhaps you would be more comfortable investing in a commercial enterprise in the United States instead.
Once you have your goals outlined, an experienced immigration attorney can help you narrow your visa options and provide guidance and advice throughout the visa process.