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Immigration options for business students, entrepreneurs, and investors

interstride logo by Interstride
October 27, 2022

This blog post was co-authored by Aaron Blumberg, Partner & Attorney at Fragomen. Because most visas in the US require employer sponsorship, there are not a lot of options for business students, entrepreneurs, and investors. To help, Fragomen compiled a guide for aspiring business people on their distinct visa options.

What are visa options for business students, entrepreneurs, and investors?

There are two main pathways to work in the US – permanent immigration through a green card and temporary immigration through a work visa. Both of these paths are available to business owners and investors, but the specific visas that you qualify for will depend on your specific circumstances. Also, keep in mind that if you work for a US business overseas, you do not need a US visa, but you do need a visa if you run an online business while residing in the US. Finally and unfortunately, there is no “Entrepreneur Visa” in the US so we are stuck trying to fit entrepreneurs into visas normally reserved for employees.

Nonimmigrant visas for business students, entrepreneurs, and investors

The most common nonimmigrant work visa is the H-1B. This temporary US visa is for working in “specialty occupations” which require a bachelor’s degree or higher in a specific field of study. H-1B is an employer-sponsored visa for part-time or full-time work. Unfortunately for entrepreneurs, this means you cannot be self-employed on an H-1B. If you are a business owner/entrepreneur, you may qualify for an H-1B if you have a supervisory body such as a Board of Directors. 

To apply for an H-1B, your US employer must register for the H-1B lottery in March for employment commencing October 1 of that year. There are a limited number of H-1B visas issued per year and due to this, a lottery is held each year to determine who is eligible to receive one of the limited numbers of H-1B visas. Note that you have a higher probability of getting one if you have a master’s or doctoral degree from a university in the US including accredited business schools. The H-1B visa lasts up to six years with the possibility to extend longer if you are seeking permanent residence.

Visas for business students and recent graduates

Most international students in the US study under an F-1 visa. One benefit of this visa is that it includes Optional Practical Training (OPT). Using OPT, international students can remain in the US and work a job related to their area of study for up to 12 months after graduation; this includes self-employment. There is also an option to extend OPT for 24 more months for certain STEM majors including business statistics and business analytics, but self-employment is no longer an option during the 24 month extension period.

The other common visa for international students in the US is a J-1. Students on a J-1 visa can apply for Academic Training with their university’s J-1 advisor. Similar to OPT, Academic Training allows international students to work a job related to their field of study during or after program graduation. Academic training is valid for up to 18 months but cannot exceed the length of the degree program. STEM majors and doctoral students may be able to extend Academic Training to 36 months total.

L-1 visa

L-1 is a work visa for intra-company transferees as it requires one year of employment abroad for a multinational corporation before they can transfer you to the US. After one year of employment abroad, you can transfer to a US branch, affiliate, parent or subsidiary of the same company. This is a great option for entrepreneurs who have already established a business abroad and now want to open a related business in the US.

There are two types of L-1 visas:

  • L-1A is for executives and managers and lasts up to seven years. This visa can also be used to open up a new office for your business in the US, but you must meet specific goals within the first year to continue the visa. 
  • L-1B is for specialized knowledge workers and lasts up to five years. Workers must prove that they have specialized knowledge with evidence.

Visas for treaty traders and investors

E-1 (Treaty Traders) and E-2 (Investors) visas are other common options for entrepreneurs and investors. Both visas are good for 2-5 years depending on your country of residence with unlimited renewals possible. Unfortunately, only certain nationalities qualify for the E-1 and E-2 visa; notably, China, India, Russia and Brazil do NOT qualify for the E-1 or E-2 visa.

To qualify for an E-1 visa, you must carry on substantial trade (over 50%) between your country of citizenship and the US. For an E-2 visa, you must invest a substantial amount of capital in the US or be the director of an enterprise that you invested in.

Extraordinary ability visa

The O-1 visa can work for business people who are at the top of their specific field. To apply, you must prove that you meet the required criteria for extraordinary ability. Fragomen’s immigration experts can help you determine if you qualify for an O-1 based on your work as a business person by reviewing your resume and business accomplishments. This visa is valid for three years initially and can be extended an unlimited number of times in one-year increments. 

Nationality-specific work visas

There are several different types of visas that are specific to certain countries:

  • TN for Canadian and Mexican professionals
  • E-3 for Australian professionals
  • H-1B1 for Chilean and Singaporean professionals

Canadians and Mexicans are only eligible for a TN visa if they work in an occupation in this list. While business owners and investors don’t qualify, business persons who are employed to directly support certain STEM occupations may be eligible for a TN visa. The visa lasts three years and can be renewed in three-year increments. 

International entrepreneur parole 

International students interested in starting their own businesses may struggle to remain in the US legally. International Entrepreneur Parole for start-up owners is a solution to this problem. Parole is granted on a case-by-case basis, and you must prove that your start-up business has the potential to provide a significant public benefit to the US. The start-up must be less than five years old but have already shown rapid growth and job creation. You must be a main investor in the start-up business and hold a central role.

Immigrant visas for business students, entrepreneurs, and investors

Immigrant visas are known as green cards in the US. There are five employment-based categories for green cards:

  • EB-1: Priority workers
  • EB-2: Advanced-degree professionals with exceptional ability
  • EB-3: Professional, skilled, and unskilled workers
  • EB-4: Special immigrants
  • EB-5: Employment creation (investors)

EB-1A may be a good option for entrepreneurs because they can self-petition for this green card. To qualify, a candidate must prove that they have extraordinary ability in their field similar to the O-1 visa. Business professors and multinational executives and managers may also apply for EB-1B and EB-1C, but they must have employer sponsorship. 

EB-2 requires employer sponsorship and an advanced degree such as a master’s or doctorate. However, if you apply through the National Interest Waiver, you can self-sponsor. This may be a good category for STEM entrepreneurs whose businesses will greatly benefit the interests of the US. Conversely, EB-3 always requires employer sponsorship, but only requires a bachelor’s degree. 

EB-4 is not specifically relevant for business students, entrepreneurs, or investors. Instead, entrepreneurs and investors should look closely at EB-5. EB-5 requires a minimum qualifying investment of $1,800,000 or $900,000 if you are investing in a Targeted Employment Area (TEA). A TEA is a rural area or area with high unemployment. The investment made must create or preserve at least ten jobs for US workers within two years. 

How to apply for a green card

The green card application process for most green card categories is comprised of three steps:

  1. PERM Labor Certification
  2. I-140 Immigration Visa Petition
  3. I-485 AOS or consular processing

If you are applying for an EB-1 or EB-2 National Interest Waiver, you will skip step 1 and start at step 2.

Find the right immigration advice with Fragomen

Immigration laws are complex and constantly changing. To set yourself up for success in the immigration process, start preparing early. Keep copies of all paperwork and evidence of your specialized knowledge and accomplishments as a business person. 

Options for business students, entrepreneurs, and investors vary on a case-by-case basis, so it’s recommended that you do not take immigration advice from friends or from social media. Instead, seek advice from a professional advisor or immigration lawyer. Fragomen’s immigration experts have decades of experience to help you find the best options for immigrating to the US. 

The contents of this post are intended for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice.