As reported by Forbes, over half (55%) of billion-dollar startups in the United States have at least one immigrant founder. These founders are drawn to the U.S. for various reasons, such as access to angel or venture capital funding, opportunities offered by accelerators, expansive networks, language proficiency, and vast market potential.
Startup accelerators such as YC and Techstars are designed to speed up your startup’s growth. Their program offers mentorship, comprehensive support, and a structured framework for a specific duration, usually for 3 months.
To apply for a startup accelerator, you should have more than just an idea – ideally, a prototype or product. The program provides access to mentors and experienced entrepreneurs who will help you develop your product, refine your business model, and connect with investors. The goal is a “demo day” presentation to potential investors and stakeholders.
After a successful demo day, you might decide that the United States would be the optimal location for your business. This leads to a pressing question: “What steps do I, as a foreign startup founder, need to take to remain in the U.S.?“
Often, founders hastily pursue a particular visa without considering which option would grant them the greatest freedom in the shortest possible time, without proper strategizing.
There are many aspects that need to be considered, like salary payment requirements or a work permit for the founder but also a spouse.
In this article we will focus on the most popular visa options that can be obtained as a founder.
Applicable Visa for Joining the US Startup Accelerator Program
But first, let’s get started with the options that allow you to attend the accelerator program in the US.
Most founders and startup entrepreneurs often opt for the B-1, which is a temporary business visitor visa. This visa permits a stay of up to 6 months and is typically valid for a duration of 10 years, allowing for multiple entries, with each visit lasting up to 6 months. Under this visa, founders can pitch to investors, conduct market research, attend conferences, and participate in startup accelerator programs.
Additionally, B-1 visa holders can apply for an extension of their stay or even request a change to a different nonimmigrant category after they arrive in the U.S. If you need to extend the stay within the US to establish your business or complete an accelerator program, your status can be extended for 6 months, and the request can be done online by filing Form I-539 (Application to Extend). This extension allows you to finalize all the necessary business setups and seek guidance from an experienced immigration services provider to develop a comprehensive long-term immigration plan tailored to your profile and specific requirements without leaving the U.S.
The B-1 visa offers a high degree of flexibility. However, there are restrictions, the most important for founders are: you are not permitted to work (for example, present yourself as the CEO of the US company, as the CEO position suggests active work for the company) and receive a salary from a U.S.-based company while on B-1 status.
Alternatively, founders from selected countries, including most of Europe and Australia, may be eligible for the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) visa waiver program. This program allows for a stay of up to 90 days in the U.S. without needing a visa interview. However, it’s important to note that if you enter the U.S. on an ESTA, you cannot extend your stay or change your immigration status during your visit.
Neither a B-1 visa, nor ESTA are considered a work visa.
Remember, various visa options are available for individuals looking to move to the United States, and the most suitable one depends on your specific situation and goals.
How to stay, live and work in the US?
If your objective is to manage your startup in the US, you will need to consider other options than a B1 visa. It’s crucial to understand each visa category’s specific requirements and limitations to make an informed decision that aligns with your long-term goals for your startup in the U.S.
O-1 Visa for Startup Founders: A Great Choice!
Most international founders of venture-backed startups, particularly those who have graduated from Y Combinator, Techstars, and other startup accelerators, are eligible for the O-1 visa, a temporary work visa for individuals with extraordinary ability.
This visa is initially valid for 3 years, and there is no limit to the number of times it can be renewed as long as the individual continues to meet the qualifications. One of the reasons why the O-1 visa is considered ideal for many startup founders is its flexible criteria and the opportunity it provides for seeking permanent residency.
To qualify for the O-1 visa, you must meet specific criteria demonstrating your national or international recognition and exceptional achievements in your field. You must meet 3 of the 8 criteria below:
- Awards: receive nationally or internationally renowned awards in recognition of exceptional excellence.
- Membership in associations: must be a prestigious association that requires outstanding achievements.
- Publications about you and your work in the field: the material must be published in major trade publications or media outlets for your significant work in your field.
- Judging: participate as a judge on a panel or individually evaluate the work of others in your field.
- Original contribution: make original and significant contributions of scientific, scholarly, or business-related nature to your field.
- Authorship of scholarly articles: must be published in reputable professional journals or major media outlets.
- Previously employed in a critical or essential capacity by an organization with a distinguished reputation.
- High remuneration: having a high salary or other forms of compensation, either currently or in the near future.
E-1 or E-2 visa: Treaty Traders or Investors
The key differences between the E-1 and E-2 visas are that the E-1 visa requires a history of trade between the U.S. company and the home country’s company and does not require a financial investment in a U.S. business. On the other hand, the E-2 visa requires an investment of capital into the U.S. business but does not require any trade between the treaty country and the U.S.
For founders to qualify for an E-1 visa as treaty traders, they must fulfill specific criteria. Firstly, they must be a citizen of a treaty country. Additionally, the founder must intend to work as a founder, trader, or employee in a U.S. startup where at least 50% of the company shares the same nationality as the founder. Furthermore, the company must engage in “substantial trade,” which refers to significant and regular international transactions between the U.S. and the home country.
When it comes to E-2 visa, the founder must meet several requirements to be eligible for this type of visa. Firstly, they must be a citizen of a treaty country. Secondly, a substantial investment must be made in the US startup, which is subject to a partial or total loss in case the business fails. The founder must also be able to develop and direct the business or play an essential role as an employee. Moreover, the majority of the owner of the U.S. startup must belong to individuals who are citizens of the same treaty country as the founder. Additionally, the business should have the potential to generate more income than just support the E-2 beneficiary and their family. It is super important to create well-paying jobs and reinvest in future growth.
E-2 visa holders must be cautious of equity financing as it may dilute majority ownership by their nationality, jeopardizing their visa status. Careful planning is essential if ownership may fall below 50%.
L-1A Visa – new US office set up
The L-1A visa is for foreign managers and executives relocating to the US. It can be beneficial for founders with an established startup abroad who have worked for the company for at least 1 year and want to open a U.S. office.
L-1A status is valid for 1 year initially and can be extended for 2 more years.
The L-1A status also offers a direct path to a green card, specifically the EB-1C category for multinational managers/executives. This allows founders to seek long-term residency in the U.S. and continue their entrepreneurial journey through company sponsorship if they decide to remain in the country permanently.
The Long-Term Plan: A Path to Green Card
Obtaining a green card, also known as a permanent resident card, offers a more permanent solution for startup founders committed to growing their businesses in the U.S.
A green card grants an individual permanent resident status, allowing them to live and work in the U.S. indefinitely. Green Card is normally issued for 10 years and can be renewed without proving eligibility again.
Unlike nonimmigrant visas, which have time limitations and require periodic renewals, a green card provides long-term stability and security for startup founders who wish to establish a lasting presence in the U.S.
Among the various employment-based green cards available, the EB-1A (Employment-Based First Preference Category) or the EB-2 NIW (Employment-Based Second Preference National Interest Waiver) are often recommended for startup founders due to their typically faster processing times.
The process of obtaining a green card based on employment generally involves 2 steps:
- The initial stage involves submitting form I-140 and establishing your eligibility to file the green card application. It’s normally filed as a self-petition, so there is no requirement that this green card must be sponsored by the employer. The timeframe for approval of the petition can vary, depending on the type of petition, ranging from a few weeks to potentially over a year.
- In addition to theI-140 petition, a separate green card application (Form I-485) is required for you and your dependents, including spouse and children under 21. It can be filed concurrently with your I-140 petition or after its approval.
EB-1 Route for Startup Founders and Entrepreneurs
The EB-1A green card is designed for individuals with exceptional ability in sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics.
This category of a green card is known for its expedited processing timeline, although the eligibility requirements are stringent.
To qualify for the EB-1A, prospective beneficiaries must meet at least three of the following criteria, which are similar to those for the O-1A visa:
- Received a prestigious or nationally or internationally recognized prize, acknowledging outstanding excellence in your field of expertise.
- Membership in exclusive, invitation-only organizations or societies.
- Professional or trade publication profiling or major media coverage about you and your work.
- Served in a panel judging the work of others.
- Made significant contributions to the fields of science, education, art, business, or sports.
- . Authored and published scholarly articles in professional or trade publications.
- Exhibited or showcased work in recognized venues or platforms.
- Played a lead position in a reputable organization.
- Command a high salary or compensation for your work.
- Achieved commercial success in your field.
The EB-1A has a most complex visa application process. Ideally, you should be well-positioned to meet more than the minimum of 3 criteria to ensure filing a solid extraordinary ability visa petition. You should be qualified as a professional who rises to the top 1% in your field of expertise.
EB-2 NIW (National Interest Waiver)
The Green Card category, known as EB-2 NIW (National Interest Waiver), is for individuals who possess outstanding skills and expertise in the fields of science, arts, or business.
To qualify for EB-2 NIW, startup founders must have either an advanced degree or exceptional ability and demonstrate that their work or skills are in the best interest of the United States.
To fulfill the criteria for the advanced degree qualification, you must have the following:
- A bachelor’s degree along with at least five years of relevant experience in your field, or
- A master’s degree or higher.
Alternatively, to meet the exceptional ability qualification, you must demonstrate at least 3 of the following:
- 10 years of experience in your field
- A license or certification in your profession
- A high salary that reflects your exceptional abilities
- Exclusive membership in professional organizations
- Noteworthy achievements and exceptional abilities
Furthermore, to satisfy the national interest requirement, you must provide evidence that your work and skills:
- Are of significant merit or national importance
- Will contribute to the advancement of your field
- Will benefit the United States by creating job opportunities or making substantial contributions to the economy.
For more information about EB-1 and EB-2 NIW, read “United States The Promise Land for Startup Founders – Find the best option to conquer the green card – EB-1A or EB2 NIW (National Interest Waiver)”.
When considering immigration options to stay in the US as an international founder or entrepreneur after completing Y Combinator, Techstars, or any other startup accelerator program it’s crucial to understand your specific goals and intentions clearly.
Whether you want to test the waters, scale your startup, work on multiple projects, or establish a foothold and return to your home country, each situation requires different recommendations and strategies.
We covered the most common questions/scenarios below table that allow you to understand better which type of temporary visa might be best for you:
Table with non-immigrant visa types
If you would like to discuss your immigration situation, brainstorm, or better understand how we can assist you, please schedule a call with me or my team here. We offer YCombinator and TechStars founders perk of 15% of the regular fee for O-1 preparation, up to 50% discounts on Green Card preparation and other benefits.
* This article is for informational purposes only and does not provide direct legal advice.
What type of visa do international founders use to participate in Y Combinator and Techstars Accelerator Programs?Most founders and entrepreneurs of startup companies choose the B-1 visa or ESTA. B1 is a temporary business visitor visa typically valid for 10 years, allowing for multiple entries, with each visit lasting up to 6 months with the potential for an extension for additional 6 months. ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) allows for a stay of up to 90 days in the US without needing a visa interview. However, it’s important to note that if you enter the US on an ESTA, you cannot extend your stay or change your immigration status during your visit.
As a holder of a B-1 visa, what short-term option do I have for remaining in the United States after completing a startup accelerator program?As a B-1 visa holder, you can apply for an extended stay of 6 more months within the United States. This extension will enable you to complete all the necessary business setups and seek guidance from an experienced immigration services provider to develop a comprehensive long-term immigration plan that is customized to your profile and specific requirements, all without having to leave the U.S. This is a great option, however, if you plan to stay in the US longer than 6 months, it’s better to leave and apply for a visa that allows you to stay and work in the US.
What are the best options for an international founder to stay in the U.S. after completing Y Combinator, Techstars, or any other accelerator program?O-1 visa: a temporary work visa for individuals with extraordinary ability. This visa is initially valid for 3 years and can be renewed indefinitely as long as the individual continues to meet the qualifications. EB-1A: green card is designed for individuals who possess exceptional ability in fields such as sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics. EB-2 NIW (National Interest Waiver): for individuals with outstanding skills and expertise in science, arts, or business. To be eligible for the EB-2 National Interest Waiver (NIW), startup founders must possess either an advanced degree or exceptional ability and demonstrate that their work or skills are in the best interest of the United States.