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Entrepreneur Visas: The 4 Best Startup Visas for Immigrating Business Owners

Priyanka Prakash

Senior Staff Writer at Fundera
Priyanka is a senior staff writer at Fundera, reporting on business financing, law, and news. Previously managing editor at Fit Small Business, she's also a licensed attorney who served as general counsel at a Y Combinator tech startup. She loves helping entrepreneurs launch, run, and grow their businesses.

Immigrants are gaining a growing representation among small business owners. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, immigrants now start 25% of new businesses in the US. This is up from 18% just six years ago. And in diverse states like California and New York, the percentages are even higher.

If demographic trends continue, more and more people will achieve the American Dream by becoming entrepreneurs. However, under current immigration law, there is no such thing as an official “US startup visa” or “US entrepreneur visa.” Entrepreneurs need to work within the existing framework of the immigration system.

Two main types of visas allow immigrant entrepreneurs entry into the US to start or run a business. These are the extraordinary ability visas—the EB-1 or O-1—and the immigrant investor visas—the EB-5 or E-2.

Navigating US immigration laws can be a tough, complicated process, especially for people who have a business to run already. Your main source of advice should be a trusted immigration lawyer. But, here’s some general information about startup visa and entrepreneur visa options and what to expect from the application process.

Entrepreneur Visa Options: Non-Immigrant vs. Permanent Residency Visas

Although immigration laws can get pretty complicated, there’s one basic fact that you need to understand first. There are two types of visas for people who want to immigrate into the United States: non-immigrant visas and permanent residency visas.

Non-immigrant visas grant temporary authorization to enter the country and work here. To continue working here once a temporary visa expires, you have to keep renewing the visa. Different visas have different expiration timeframes and renewal rules. In addition, non-immigrant visas have limits on who can come with you to the country and whether they’re entitled to work here. Examples of non-immigrant visas include the O-1, E-2, and H1-B, which we’ll discuss in detail below.

The biggest problem with non-immigrant visas for entrepreneurs is that their validity is tied to the success of the business, says Laura Rosmarin, an immigration lawyer at Bikkal & Associates, P.C. “Under a non-immigrant visa, you must return to your native country if your business fails or if you decide you no longer want to operate the business,” Rosmarin says. So, while non-immigrant visas are generally easier to get than permanent residency visas, they are not a great option for entrepreneurs who want to stay here long-term. Startup businesses have high failure rates, and if your business doesn’t pan out as expected, you’ll need to leave the country.

Permanent residency visas, in contrast, allow you to get a green card, so you can reside and work indefinitely in the US. These visas are a good option for entrepreneurs who want to settle down in the US long-term. Examples of permanent residency visas include the EB-1 and EB-5, which we’ll discuss more below.

Unless you’re married to a US citizen, in which case you can apply for a family-based green card, you’ll need to apply for an individual or employment-based visa to set up a business in the US. There are two sets of visas that are best for entrepreneurs: extraordinary ability visas and investor visas. Let’s dig into the details of both.

→TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read): Non-immigrant visas grant approval to stay and operate a business temporarily in the US. You have to renew them before they expire. Permanent residency visas allow you to stay and operate your business here indefinitely.

entrepreneur-visas

Extraordinary Ability Visas for Entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurs who have achieved great success in their native countries or have a very promising business idea can apply for an extraordinary ability visa. To get approved for an extraordinary ability visa, you have to prove to the US government that you have extraordinary talent in business or in your particular industry.   

You might have heard people refer to this visa as the “Einstein visa” or “rock star visa.” Often, this visa goes to individuals of national renown, like Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winners, Hollywood actors, and Grammy-winning musicians. Famous recipients include First Lady Melania Trump, British Journalist Piers Morgan, and entrepreneur Josh Buckley.  

But lesser-known individuals, like clarinet players and event planners, also have been successful securing these visas. And the visa provides an opening for driven entrepreneurs with rapidly growing businesses or a great business idea.

The EB-1 and O-1 visas are the two types of extraordinary ability visas. O-1 is a non-immigrant visa that grants temporary status. The EB-1 visa grants permanent residency status and has a higher bar for qualification.

Option #1: EB-1 Entrepreneur Visa

Qualifying for an EB-1 visa is challenging. According to the IRS:

You must be able to demonstrate extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics through sustained national or international acclaim. Your achievements must be recognized in your field through extensive documentation.

To evaluate extraordinary ability, the USCIS uses a point system, and you have to earn at least three points. Examples for entrepreneurs are three of any of the following:

  • A top-tier firm, like Khosla Ventures or Andreessen Horowitz, has invested or agreed to invest money in your company.
  • You have been accepted into a well-known startup incubator, like Y Combinator or Techstars.
  • Your business has been covered by a top tier US-based or international publication.
  • You have been contracted as a public speaker for high-profile industry events or conferences.
  • Evidence that your business already commands a million- or billion-dollar valuation.
  • You received a prestigious business award or small business grant, within the US or internationally.
  • Your business owns a valuable copyright or patent.

As this list demonstrates, EB-1 visas are tough to obtain. But if your company is an industry leader or you have impressive business experience, then this could be an avenue to permanent residency in the US. EB-1 visas get preference over other types of visas, except for family-based green cards.

Option #2: O-1 Entrepreneur Visa

The O-1 visa is similar to the EB-1 visa because both are reserved for highly qualified people. However, the bar is slightly lower for O-1 because this is a temporary, non-immigrant visa. According to the IRS:

The O-1 nonimmigrant visa is for the individual who possesses extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics, or who has a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry and has been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements.

To qualify for an O-1 visa, the beneficiary must demonstrate extraordinary ability by sustained national or international acclaim and must be coming temporarily to the United States to continue work in the area of extraordinary ability.

To qualify for the O-1 visa, you still have to show extraordinary talent with similar evidence as EB-1, such as winning a business award or receiving media coverage. Although this is a temporary visa, you can renew the visa indefinitely as long as you’re operating the business. But if your business fails or you decide you want to pursue other opportunities, you can’t stay in the US any longer.

→TL;DR: Extraordinary ability visas are an option for business owners that are very well known or have received a prestigious award of some kind. If top-tier investors put money into your business, then you might qualify for an extraordinary ability visa.

entrepreneur-visas

Investor Visas for Entrepreneurs

The biggest hurdle to getting an extraordinary ability visa is that your approval depends on the USCIS officer’s evaluation of your entrepreneurial past and your business’s future potential. “Whether you go for EB-1 or O-1, the criteria are subjective,” Rosmarin says, “which makes it hard to qualify. Some entrepreneurs immigrate through an investor visa instead.” 

Investor visas allow entry into the US in exchange for investing money into a business—the business can be your own—and creating jobs in the US. Fortunately, your investment doesn’t need to come from your own savings. The money can come from a business loan, as long as the following requirements are met:

  • The loan is a secured business loan, backed by personal assets of the investor that are located in the US (e.g. a personal residence in the US).
  • You must be the principal borrower and sign a personal guarantee on the loan.

For investor visas, there are two options based on how much money you’ll be investing in the business.

Option #3: EB-5 Entrepreneur Visa

Out of the two investor startup visas, the EB-5 visa is more challenging to get. The cap on the number of visas EB-5 is 10,000 per year, so this is a pretty exclusive program. The EB-5 visa is available to entrepreneurs who meet both of the following requirements:

  • Make an investment of $1 million or more in your business (as mentioned above, the money can come from your own savings or a business loan).
  • Create or preserve 10 permanent full-time jobs for qualified US workers.

The minimum investment required, Rosmarin says, is lower in certain economically underserved areas, called Targeted Employment Areas. In such areas, the minimum investment that you need to make is $500,000 instead of $1 million. To show that you meet the requirements, you have to submit appropriate documentation to the government, such as a business loan agreement, investment agreement, a business plan, and copies of job advertisements.

Option #4: E-2 Entrepreneur Visa

For many business owners, the $1 million investment requirement is far too high. If that’s the case for you, you might consider the E-2 “treaty investor” visa. In fact, there’s no specific minimum investment amount for the E-2 visa. Experts agree, however, that it’s hard to get approved for an amount less than $100,000 since the purpose of investor visas is job creation in the US.

To be eligible for E-2 visa, your native country must have an investor treaty with the US. Currently, there are nearly 80 such countries, but some countries that are a major source of immigration—India and mainland China for example—aren’t on the list.

If your native country is on the list, you’ll have to show evidence of your investment with a business loan agreement, bank account balance, or investor agreement. You’ll also have to provider other business details, such as your employer identification number and business licenses.

Shar Behzadian is the founder of TravTribe, a marketplace that helps travelers make money from affiliate partnerships with travel brands. She was born in Iran and attended San Francisco State University. Later, as an entrepreneur in residence at Stanford’s Peace Innovation Lab, Behzadian developed her business idea and met potential investors.

Behzadian says, “I got an E-2 visa and an investment from an angel investor who is now my co-founder. I was an immigrant and a first-time startup founder. I persisted, burnt out, but then stepped back into the game.”

→TL;DR: Investor visas are an option for entrepreneurs who are investing a certain amount of money and creating jobs in the US. The minimum investment is generally $100,000 and can come from personal savings or a secured loan.

Meet Jerry McCann, Cofounder of Travtribe. Shar and Jerry met last summer over coffee. He was just returning from 20 years of nomadic life in +65 countries. He spent the last two decades leading Interpeace and Habitat for Humanity in Africa, engineering peace and empowering local communities. ⠀ When they met, Shar just started building the tribe of nomads at TravTribe HQ, as an entrepreneur in residence at Stanford Peace Innovation Lab. TravTribe was born out of Shar and Jerry’s respect for borderless minded travelers: NOMADS CAN CHANGE THE WORLD! You can follow his journey around the 🌎 @mccann_travtriber #TravTribe #digitalnomads #nomads #travelbug #nomadic #travellifestyle #TravTribeTeam #aroundtheworld #travelabroad #wanderlust #offthebeatenpath #TurnTheWorldInsideOut

A post shared by For Digital nomads (@travtribe) on

Other Entrepreneur and Startup Visas

Extraordinary ability visas and investor visas are typically the best options for entrepreneurs who want to operate a business in the US. There are other visas which you may come across during research and that you can discuss with your lawyer.

For example, the H-1B visa is a non-immigrant visa that’s popular within the tech industry and other specialized industries. This visa usually requires an employer sponsor, but small business owners can sponsor themselves under certain conditions. To self-sponsor, a company needs to have a board of directors or other external governance body.

Another option for entrepreneurs with advanced degrees is the EB-2 visa. To qualify for this visa, you must hold an advanced degree, like a PhD, that’s relevant to your business. This is primarily an option for entrepreneurs in the health and science fields.  

→TL;DR: Other visas might be an option for some entrepreneurs. The H-1B could be a good fit if your company has a board of directors. And the EB-2 visa is for entrepreneurs with advanced degrees.

Will I Qualify for a Startup Visa?

Immigrating entrepreneurs who want to create a new business in the US or expand their business here have to face an uphill battle. You need to find financing for your business, choose the right type of visa, and gather all your documentation together before submitting your application to the government.

Applying for a startup visa or entrepreneur visa can take several months, even years. According to Rosmarin, the length of time depends on the type of visa you’re applying for, the office that will be processing your application, whether you use a lawyer to put your application together, and whether there are special circumstances—such as having multiple business partners or family members who’ll be accompanying you.

Here is a table showing current processing times and issuance rates for the entrepreneur visas we’ve mentioned:

Type of Entrepreneur Visa Number Issued in 2016 Current Processing Time
O-1 Visa
101,930
1 to 5 months
EB-1 Visa
42,862
4 to 7 months
EB-5 Visa
9,947
1.5 to 2 years
EB-5 Visa
353,067
3 weeks to 4 months

 

This data is based on the USCIS’s Yearbook of Immigration Statistics and estimated case processing times. If you need your visa more quickly than these estimated time frames, expedited processing is available for an additional fee.

The best way to set yourself up for success when applying for a visa is to submit all relevant documentation. Think of everything that an immigration officer might want to see about your business, such as your business plan, financial statements, business licenses, or funding agreements. Even job ads and letters to employees can help document your case.

Sam Marley, who is British, and Daniel Arvidsson, who’s Brazilian and Swedish, are the cofounders of Blurr Technologies, a social media photo sharing app. They secured $225,000 in venture capital from top tier angel investors and applied for an extraordinary ability O-1 visa.

It was an incredibly long process to document all that we have accomplished in our professional careers,” Arvidsson said. We had to provide testimonial letters, articles, and interviews, to show how extraordinary we were to qualify for the visa.” As part of their application, they also included documentation of a $10,000 prize from Northeastern University and a $25,000 prize from WeWork, the global leader in shared workspaces.

Under the current administration, Rosmarin says her firm has seen “a greater issuance of Requests for Evidence and Denials in all areas of business immigration. Therefore, these cases must be heavily documented.” Keep these documents safely in physical files, or ideally, in secure cloud-based storage.

When applying for an entrepreneur visa or startup visa, finding a good immigration lawyer is key. Hiring a lawyer can shave weeks off the application process. A lawyer will make sure you’ve included everything you need to include, so there are fewer back and forth requests for additional paperwork from the government. They’re also familiar with handling complex cases, like a business with multiple partners, perhaps from different countries.

→TL;DR: The qualification requirements and timeline for getting an entrepreneur visa vary by visa type, the office that reviews your file, and whether you have an easy or complex case. Hiring a business immigration lawyer can help save time and ensure accuracy.

What If I Need Money to Start or Grow My Business?

Starting and running a business in the US can be costly. When applying for a visa, you’ll need to show that you have a reliable source of funds for your company.

If you’re already a US permanent resident, then the same loan options that are available to US citizens are generally available to you as well. But if you’re on a temporary non-immigrant visa, getting funds is harder.

Here are some business financing options that are available to non-citizens:

  • SBA loans: SBA loans are government-backed business loans that are offer low interest rates and long repayment terms. Fortunately, SBA loans are open to non-citizens as long as the loan is secured and the business is at least one year old.
  • Equipment financing: Equipment loans are another option for non-citizens because the asset underlying the loan—the equipment—serves as collateral.
  • Commercial real estate loans: For the same reason as equipment loans, commercial real estate loans are also an option for immigrant entrepreneurs. These are secured loans with lower risk for the lender.
  • Online loans and lines of credit: Some online lenders, such as BlueVine and Kabbage, have looser restrictions than banks and are more willing to lend money to non-citizens.
  • Business credit cards: Business credit cards are available to non-citizens and come with several perks, such as rewards points and introductory 0% interest offers.
  • Venture capital: Between 2006 and 2012, one-third of venture-backed companies had at least one non-citizen founder. Venture capitalists work with high-growth companies and provide funding in exchange for equity in your company.
  • Crowdfunding: Most online crowdfunding portals allow citizens of any country to post a campaign and raise funds from the public.

During your search for business financing, remember that your international background can be an asset. Blurr Technologies’ Arvidsson says, “Investors always judged us more on our ability as entrepreneurs [than our status as immigrants]. We used our international background to show how we were able founders. After immigrating to the US when we were in school, we had to learn how to deal with new environments and situations.”

The most important metric when applying for business loans is your credit. Lenders look to your credit to evaluate how likely you are to pay back a loan. Non-citizens often have no credit history or a short credit history. You can build credit in unexpected ways, such as paying rent on time and becoming an authorized user on a responsible person’s credit card. Building credit over time helps you qualify for better, lower-cost loan products and more funding.

→TL;DR: Several financing options exist for entrepreneurs who aren’t US citizens. The best way to qualify for affordable loan products is to build good credit.

Start by Choosing the Right Entrepreneur Visa for You

Under current US law, there’s no such thing as an official startup visa or entrepreneur visa. Would-be entrepreneurs need to work within the current framework of immigration laws to set up and run a business here.

Fortunately, there are a few different startup visas and entrepreneur visas that can help you get here. The extraordinary ability visas are available to entrepreneurs who have received a lot of recognition in their native countries and want to tap into US markets. And for entrepreneurs who have the committed backing of an investor or lender, an investor visa is possible.

Whichever route you go, make sure you keep business documentation in a safe place and have a lawyer to help you through what can be a long, complicated process. Plus, changes might be around the corner. Immigration is a hot topic right now, and there could be big changes ahead for entrepreneur visas.  

Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Priyanka Prakash

Senior Staff Writer at Fundera
Priyanka is a senior staff writer at Fundera, reporting on business financing, law, and news. Previously managing editor at Fit Small Business, she's also a licensed attorney who served as general counsel at a Y Combinator tech startup. She loves helping entrepreneurs launch, run, and grow their businesses.

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