Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.
“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”
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Does the United States have a startup visa? If not, what are the best visas for startup founders?
If my friend is a Dreamer in the U.S. who is undocumented but wants to found a startup, is it possible?
—Cheerful in Chile
Much to be cheerful about for your friend today as DACA is back! DACA is “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” and it provides work permits for people who were brought to the U.S. as children. Some of the basics to see if your friend might qualify for DACA are if they were under the age of 31 on June 15, 2012; if they came to the U.S. before they turned 16; and if they have lived in the U.S. since June 15, 2007. USCIS announced that it is accepting first-time DACA applications, renewals and advance parole documents to travel in two-year increments. This is great news for many folks for whom the U.S. is truly home, who have been educated here or served in the armed forces, and who want to further contribute to the tech ecosystem and economy.
Besides DACA, what other options are there for founders to move to the U.S. in 2021?
To be clear: The U.S. does not currently have a startup visa (you can read more about it in my op-ed in the Times of San Diego). According to the National Foundation for American Policy, if the U.S. had established a startup visa in 2016, it would have created 1 million to 3.2 million jobs over 10 years. I’m doing all I personally can to contribute to the creation of the U.S. Startup Visa or possibly the resurrection of International Entrepreneur Parole as we look ahead to the Biden/Harris administration.
That being said, we have solutions, advanced information and creative options, some of which I can share here with you. Check out 7 of the Most Startup-Friendly Visas Explained. Coming out of COVID in 2021, here are the most common visas and green cards that work for many founders. As immigration law is very nuanced, often people contact me to find specific alternative strategies that better suit their long-term goals.
B-1 visa for business visitors
The B-1 is a nonimmigrant (temporary) visa that enables entrepreneurs to explore the U.S. market. Under a B-1 visa, a founder or entrepreneur cannot be employed in the U.S., but can come for a business trip. This means you should not do any paid or unpaid work for a U.S. entity on your trip. However, some activities for founders are OK, such as meeting with investors, negotiating contracts, interviewing and hiring staff, and establishing an office. A B-1 visa typically allows for a maximum stay of one year — six months under the initial application and a six-month extension. It’s usually best to spend less than half the time in the U.S. on B status to ease future entries.
Founders who are citizens of designated countries, including Chile, can qualify for the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) visa waiver program, allowing them to travel to the U.S. for business for 90 days or less without first obtaining a visa. ESTA cannot typically be extended or changed once you are in the United States.