There is no other place like Silicon Valley, the tech Mecca of access to great talent, capital and countless prospective clients. For some founders, moving to the Valley is the only option to succeed. However, as we all know, immigrating to the US can be really tough.
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I’ve been through the excruciating, year-long process of getting an American visa. Along the way, I’ve learned about the different visa options available if you’re moving to the US in hopes of establishing a company.
I’m a former software engineer turned entrepreneur, and the following advice is based on my personal experience. Please note that nothing in this article should be considered legal advice.
B1/B2, F1/F2, waiver and J US visa
To start, moving to the US is expensive. In my opinion, when your company is in its early stages, it makes more sense to go with temporary visa options: business visas B1 and tourist B2, student/student’s spouse visas F1/F2 or exchange visa J1.
If you’re lucky enough to be from one of the visa waiver countries, the open-door, 90-day policy might suit your needs just fine.
In August 2011, a few months after launching Quote Roller, our team decided to participate in number of conferences around San Francisco. I learned more in those three months than I had the whole year before.
After my first Valley trip, I just kept flying back to absorb more of this incredible experience.
- B1/B2 – Tourism and business
B1/B2 allows you to stay in the U.S. for up to six months. You can participate in conferences, validate your ideas, talk to potential customers, interview prospective employees and the like. But you can’t work for any American company, including your own.
- F1/F2 – Student visas
If you need more than six months and are really early on with a startup, consider one of the post-graduate entrepreneurship programs at Stanford or Berkeley. Both universities have great courses on technology entrepreneurship, strong networks of entrepreneurs, a bunch of events, and mini-ecosystems like Stanford’s startup accelerator.
Going to a university may get you a few years in the country on F1 visa. But make sure you’re ready to be a full-time student.
- J – Internship visas
Interning at a startup is a great opportunity to gain experience. You can find a paid internship and develop your own ideas while learning from a Silicon Valley company.
However, unless you’re a top-notch engineer, it will be hard to find a startup (host company) that will handle J visa applications.
H1-B, L-1A, and O-1 US visa
Let’s say the world needs what you’ve built, and you have enough money to pay the bills and employ people. Now you’re looking to expand to the largest software market in the world, raise a good round of investment and hire the best sales and marketing talent out there.
First and foremost, it’s definitely time to hire an immigration lawyer to guide you through your visa options. Let’s go over three options that I considered for myself: H-1B, L-1A, O-1.
- H-1B – Temporary worker visa
H-1B is a non-immigrant visa allowing an American company to temporarily employ a foreign worker for a specific position. H1-B could be a good option for a technical co-founder, but difficult for a CEO because:
- There are a limited number of H1-B visas issued each year. There is already a line out the door of companies trying to get H1-Bs for their prospective employees. You need to apply before all the visas are gone. The H1-B cap in 2014 was reached in the first week.
- H-1B requires a high salary. The fact that you’re well-compensated by stock won’t impress immigration. Be ready to pay yourself over $80,000 per year (+/- $20k depending on location) with a heavy taxation.
- The immigration office needs to be convinced your startup is an active business. You may be asked for such things as a business plan, existing revenue, vendor contracts, last year’s tax papers showing decent cashflow, office leases, etc.
- You’ll need a sponsor to sign the H1-B petition. You’ll need to set up a company and hire a US citizen who can act as a sponsor before you can apply for H1-B.
- L-1A – International workers visa
The next option is L-1A. L visas are made for transfers within companies. This is ideal for, say, if your company is incorporated in your homeland, and you’re looking to transfer someone to the US to open a child company here.
L-1A is specifically made for executives within foreign companies opening offices in the US Immigration officers are going to look at your company’s staff count, current revenue, payroll and cash in the bank. You will need proof of a physical office back home. A lease agreement for an office in the U.S. may also be requested.
- O-1 – Individuals with extraordinary abilities visa
After consulting with a really good immigration attorney, it turned out that I qualify for O-1. You may qualify for it as well. Among other more standard requirements, there is a list of things you need to submit – a minimum of four of these pieces – to prove that you’re “extraordinary”:
1. Copies of articles, papers and other publications you’ve written
Did you write any articles about running a tech startup? Were those articles published in any media outlets? Have you written on the topic of design, software engineering or online marketing?
Find all the pieces you’ve written, no matter how small or insignificant you think they are, and let your immigration lawyer determine their value.
2. Evidence of judging the work of others
Were you judging projects at a hackathon or other startups on some demo day? All those things may count in your favor. Round up all the articles that mention you judging competitions and events to discuss with your immigration lawyer.
3. Articles written about you
Have you been featured in newspapers, websites or technology blogs? Have you won any pitch sessions that were later written up? Keep those articles scanned and web pages printed as PDFs.
4. Awards received in recognition of professional accomplishments
My startup won a few “Startup of the Year” awards in Belarus and Russia. If you have similar awards, they may qualify.
If you haven’t yet won any awards, why not to participate in local competitions? It can only help your business to gain press.
5. Memberships in professional organizations requiring high level of achievement
This item is a little bit more challenging, but don’t fret. More likely there are quite a few business organizations in your homeland that you can join. For instance, I was a mentor and lecturer for a few startup incubators.
6. Evidence of original contributions
Hiring a good immigration attorney is crucial for success in obtaining the visas above.
Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it sure buys more freedom. E visas are treaty trader and investor visas. The E-2 visa requires a moderate investment, but getting E-2 is relatively easy and fast, which makes it a great choice for a founder of a growing startup.
Unfortunately, not all countries are on the treaty countries list; as a citizen of Belarus, I didn’t qualify for an E visa. If you’re planning to go E-2 route, be sure to consult a good immigration attorney.
Are you ready?
Immigration to the US might be a hard path, but it can also be very rewarding. Don’t get discouraged if your visa applications are rejected. I was rejected once too, but sticking with the process was totally worth it.
By relocating to Silicon Valley I plugged myself into an ecosystem of extremely smart people with immense industry experience, from whom I can learn every single day. Here, I was able to set up an office and find and hire fantastic team members whose contribution is essential to the success of our company.
I wish you the best of luck growing your business and, if you find that relocating to US is essential to this growth, choosing the right visa option for yourself.