Updated November 2, 2020:

From Procter & Gamble to Google, some of the greatest companies in America have been founded by immigrants. In fact, according to a report by the Partnership for a New American Economy first and second-generation immigrants have founded up to 40 percent of the Fortune 500 companies today, making a significant contribution to the fertile American economy. Unfortunately, many of these entrepreneurs had to overcome various hurdles to be allowed entry into the United States of America (U.S.A.).

In August 2016, President Obama proposed the International Entrepreneur Rule, which stated that foreign entrepreneurs may be allowed to temporarily enter and stay in the U.S.A. for up to five years without a visa. Although it is possible that President-elect, Donald Trump, will seek to terminate this proposal, foreign entrepreneurs who are currently ready to create a startup and wish to stay in the U.S.A., may still have options at their disposal.

Before getting a visa

Interested parties should start by reviewing the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Entrepreneur Visa Guide. The next essential step is to find an experienced immigration attorney. Getting a visa to start a company in the U.S.A. can be a lengthy and complicated process, so being well-informed on the requirements and process will greatly increase the chances of success.

Next, it is vital to have a clear business plan prepared. Many visas have eligibility requirements that demand a well-thought-out business plan.

Type of Visas for Entrepreneurs of Startups

Stay for 90 days or less

  • Visa Waiver Program: The U.S. Department of State offers the Visa Waiver Program for foreign entrepreneurs who plan on staying in the U.S.A. for 90 days or less (please click here for further details and the list of applicable countries). Under this Visa Waiver Program, foreign entrepreneurs are allowed to engage in business, including negotiating contracts, and may be allowed entry into the U.S.A. ¬†several times with a waiver before needing to apply for an actual visa.

Stay for 3-6 months

  • B-1 visa: A foreigner is allowed to stay in the U.S.A. for up to six months on a B-1 or B-2 visa, but the B-1 visa allows the foreigner to conduct business. Those who do not qualify for a waiver, consider the B-1 visa a great option for a temporary stay to conduct business. Please note that the B-1 visa can also be extended once by six months, and only allows the foreigner to conduct business, and not to work for another person or business (i.e. as an employee).

Stay for 1-3 years

  • L-1A visa: For managers and executives for foreign companies, there is the option of the L-1A visa. The foreign company must be incorporated back home, and with the L-1A visa, a manager or executive can open an office in the U.S.A. and stay for an initial period of one year, once they have proven to belong to a legitimate business. Managers and executives with specialized knowledge can come to the U.S.A. on an L-1B visa for up to three years.
  • E-2 visa: Foreign entrepreneurs that have at least $100,000 available to invest in their startup business in the U.S.A. may prefer the E-2 visa if their country of origin is on the list of eligible treaty countries (please click here for a list of treaty countries). The E-2 visa allows them to stay in the U.S.A. for up to two years.
  • H-1B visa: For foreigners who will be considered as an employee at an American company, H-1B visa allows for a stay of up to three years. Applicants will need an American sponsor, and even a foreign co-founder of an American company can qualify as an employee under this H-1B visa if they meet the various requirements including occupation type, salary, and others (please click here for the complete list of requirements). This H-1B visa can also be extended once by three years.
  • O-1A visa: For foreigners that have extraordinary abilities/special talents that can be demonstrated (e.g. foreigners that have created an app or software that received substantial media coverage), there is the option of staying in the U.S.A. for up to three years on an O-1A visa. The O-1A visa requires an American company to sponsor the applicant (please click here for the complete list of eligibility requirements).
  • F-1 visa: The F-1 visa is a student visa. As long as the foreigner is enrolled at a university approved by the USCIS, the F-1 visa is granted for stay in the U.S.A. for the duration of the enrolled program. F-1 visa holders will need to leave the U.S.A. within 60 days of finishing the program. This F-1 visa gives holders the opportunity to obtain a lot of technical experience, and to start networking with potential business partners. F-1 visa holders can also work in their field for one year at each educational level under the F-1 OPT program. This work can be done during or after the school program and participants can have dependents accompany them on an F-2 visa.
  • J-1 visa: A J-1 visa is similar to the F-1 visa, except it is granted for researchers, scholars, and visitors in programs that promote cultural exchange. J-1 visa holders can stay for the entirety of their program, with an additional 18-36 months for training upon completion of the program, depending on their education level. J-1 visa applicants need a sponsor, such as the government or university, and can work for this sponsor while in school, and may also be eligible to work for someone other than that sponsor if they meet certain eligibility requirements.

Stay permanently on visa

  • EB visas: EB-1, EB-2, EB-3, EB-4, and EB-5 are employment-based visas that provide a permanent residency option. EB-1, EB-3, and EB-4 visas require meeting certain requirements, (please click here for a complete list of requirements), and a sponsoring employer. An EB-5 visa can result in permanent status, but recipients must invest $1 million in a company and either save or create 10 American jobs. If starting a company in a rural area, recipients only need to invest $500,000. An EB-2 visa is for individuals holding advanced degrees who can show that their startup will benefit America. There are exemptions that can avoid the sponsoring employer requirement.

Those foreigners who wish to come to the U.S.A. to get started on an entrepreneurial path can post their legal needs in UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel's attorneys have an average of 14 years of experience and can help find the best option to get the entrepreneur into the U.S.A. legally. Out of all applicants, 95% of lawyers are screened out from UpCounsel, ensuring the highest quality in legal assistance.