Visas for Non-Citizens Wishing to Start a Business in the United States

Citizenship and residency are not required to start a small business in the United States. Some small business opportunities may allow you to reside in the United States if you qualify for an L-1 or E-2 visa. While the L-1 visa is only granted for up to one year at a time, the E-2 visa can be granted for up to two years and is indefinitely renewable.

L-1 Visa Requirements

An L-1 visa is generally limited to foreign nationals who have owned or operated a business outside of the United States and are looking to expand their businesses by opening a U.S. branch. The business plan for an L-1 visa application should include documentation showing a physical office for the business, as well as how the individual plans to support an executive position in the United States for at least a year. If after a year the new branch is successful, the U.S. government may extend the L-1 visa for another year.

E-2 Visa Requirements

To obtain an E-2 visa, an individual must research and write a successful small business plan showing how they will support a new, profitable business in the United States. To qualify for an E-2 Visa, the individual must be a national from a country with which the United States has a Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation. If the small business that you will start will be a corporation, at least 50% of the members must be nationals from a treaty country.

Other Visa Requirements

The U.S. government requires that the investor invest a substantial amount of money in the proposed business. While there is no set limit, the amount of money invested must be enough so that the business is likely to succeed. The government determines this by comparing how much an average U.S. investor would invest in the type of business proposed. This method of comparison can have many variables, and the U.S. government has wide discretion in determining if the proposed business meets these standards.

The government will also look to see if the business funds have been irrevocably committed, which means that the investors should be able to show that the money is actively in the project itself. Additionally, the small business plan must show that the proposed business will improve the local economy and not just provide for the investor's family. Previous success of a similar business can be a good way to demonstrate this. Improving the local economy can also be shown directly by the expected profits of the business, expected number of employees, and/or whether the investors have another source of income outside of the proposed business. The U.S. government will also look to see whether there is documentation that supports likely revenues of the proposed business. If the business is a franchise that is well known, profitability may be easier to demonstrate.

Other Considerations for E-2 and L-1 Visas

While the E-2 and L-1 visas allow an individual to reside in the United States for a substantial amount of time, the individual must usually keep a residence outside of the United States as well. Further, it's important to note that both of these visas apply only to an individual, which means that spouses and dependents may not work or live in the United States unless they qualify independently.