Immigrant Founders, Here are your Visa Options

April 11th, 2019

Venture Lane got together with the Ellis Project, immigration attorneys Jeff Goldman and John Wilson, as well as One Way VC Co-founding Managing Partner, Eveline Buchatskiy, to discuss how foreign-born entrepreneurs can manage their immigration status in order to successfully build a company in the U.S. Facilitated by Shannon Dooling, Immigration Reporter at WBUR, the conversation was full of actionable information that current and aspiring founders can apply to their own immigration journeys.

Key Takeaways

  • Start planning early! It takes time to collect the necessary documents and find the most suitable visa option for you, so you should always be thinking ahead
  • Do your research and consider all the options available to you (e.g. do you have a direct relative or a significant other who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, does your country have an investment treaty with the U.S., etc.)
  • While in the past investors inquired about a founder’s visa status as a part of the due diligence process, nowadays this will come up much earlier in the conversation. However, don’t let your visa status stop you from fundraising – investors tend to be understanding and can sometimes help you with your visa status (shoutout to One Way VC for taking great care of immigrant founders!)

Visas

  • OPT: If you go to school in the U.S., you’ll typically have at least 12 months to work after graduation. However, if your degree was in STEM, you can apply for an additional 24-month extension. While on OPT STEM extension, check regularly with your school to ensure that your SEVIS record is active and you’re not out of time
  • H1B: If you own less than 50% of your own company, you’re eligible for a corporate cap H1B visa and could file to enter the H1B lottery. In order to qualify, you will need to prove a valid employer-employee relationship (e.g. you can be terminated, are being paid median salary, etc.)
    • Cap-exempt H1B could be an option for you, if you don’t get selected in the lottery. Universities like UMass Boston can sponsor cap-exempt H1B visas for entrepreneurs under the Global Entrepreneur in Residence Program, provided that the entrepreneur works part-time at the university (e.g. teaching, mentoring students, etc.)
  • L1-A: If the company was started outside of the U.S., and you’ve worked outside of the U.S. in a managerial role for at least a year, you may be eligible for an L1-A visa. However, make sure you check with an attorney before selecting this option because it might cause some difficulties in the long-run (e.g. if the company is sold)
  • O-1A: This visa is reserved for individuals of ‘extraordinary ability,’ but it is not impossible to get. The more you can prove you are a thought leader in your area, the easier it will be to qualify. For example, having patents and publications under your name, press articles written about you and having received relevant awards on a national or international level all add brownie points to your application, making it easier to qualify

While starting a company as an immigrant can be hard, it’s always good to be aware of the possible options and use this information to plan accordingly. We know plenty of successful entrepreneurs who’ve built valuable startups on the above visas, proving that despite the odds, it can still be done and you don’t have to put your dreams on hold.

Good luck!

Leia Ruseva
Co-Founder, Ellis Project