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Ask HN: How to get a U.S. Visa (and work on your own startup)?
54 points by jhuckestein on May 16, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 47 comments
I've been living in the Bay Area (in Berkeley) on a J-1 research visa for half a year, fell in love with the startup community and now I need to extend my stay. As a "researcher" at UC Berkeley I was able to work on my own projects and engage in the nearby startup scene without problems.

Now that I need to find a legit job allowing me to stay in the U.S., I'm afraid that I will not be able to work on my own projects as much anymore. In Germany I used to work as a freelance consultant. Is it possible to get a Visa doing freelance work? Or part-time work?

Another question is what kind of Visa I can get? Apparently regular H1-B working Visas are handed out only in April, so I'm out of luck. Is it easier to get internship Visas?

The next-best thing to working on my own projects would be to work for an early stage startup (the earlier, the better). Is it even possible/economical/easy for a small startup to acquire a working Visa for me?

I should talk to a lawyer but I figured that HN is more likely to provide me with the "dirty" tricks of immigration ;)

I am not a lawyer.

* there are no dirty tricks and short cuts, IMO.

* you can apply even now. there is NO limit on the number of applications to be recd by USCIS. Only, if there are more eligible applicants than the limit, there will be a lottery.

* there are consulting companies which specialize in visa workers. talk to them find out whether they can sponsor you. However, if you are not working on the speciality/project that you get your visa approved for, you may be violating the visa conditions.

* approach a attorney specializing in immigration and work visas. the fees are upward of $2500 for the entire process.

* you cannot get visa as a self-employed person. The application has to be sponsored by an existing US company. Sometimes you are even asked to produce tax returns of the sponsoring company for last 2-3 years, if the visa officer suspects you are self-employed etc.,

* you get to know the decision on your application some time b'n july and october. * if approved, your visa will be valid from oct 14.


You could get an E2 visa and be self employed. You need to have funds invested in the start-up usually more than $50,000.

However, with Walsh and Pollard, (20 I. & N. Dec. 60, 63 (BIA 1988)), the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) held that substantial investment of $15,000 was sufficient.

An E2 visa has no route to a green card and usually needs renewed every two years.

You best bet would be to find employment in the US and have them sponsor your visa/GC.

I believe, in those cases, you also need to have a business plan that says you are going to hire a lot of Americans relatively quickly.

You also need to look like a business in the eyes of the law -- this means getting real office space and whatnot. So you can't plan on a super-lean ramen-profitability period.


Is that for the H1-B visa? Just to clarify: If a company wants to hire me on an H1-B visa starting Oct. 14 it is still possible and will cost upward of $2500 for the entire process?

What are my chances of getting a visa this way?

Yes, this is for H1B.

The $2500 is what I know to be the fees my attorney charged my company for the whole process.YMMV. Some companies, esp those "specializing" in visa workers might ask you to bear the cost.

This year the stampede to file the application is less because of the weak economy. Finding a sponsor is a tougher task here.

If you can manage to find a employer/sponsor + you have good credentials(which you might have, given your UCB pedigree), you have a good chance of landing the visa this year.

> Some companies, esp those "specializing" in visa workers might ask you to bear the cost.

This is highly illegal. Don't do this. Don't go through all these shady "consulting" sweat shops. My suggestion is to look for jobs at non-profit institutions such as national labs, hospitals/medical centers (Mayo Clinic etc.)/university medical centers, universities (all state universities), university owned research labs (like ARUP etc.). They will sponsor your H1B (Non-Profit) which has NO quota. Search for more on this.(There's H1B Profit and H1B Non-Profit)

If you're really that desperate, search for jobs at the above entities that are based in the mid-west and south. They need a lot of smart people but not everyone's willing to move to their shitty place. Your immediate goal is to survive in the States as a legal non-resident so don't be too picky on Alabama and the bible belt.

It's not completely illegal, there are some costs associated with an H1B application that it is legal for the employee to pay. Just not the entire cost.

Disclaimer: I'm an F1 Intl. student in the US.

USCIS requires H1B petitions filed for an employee to be paid by the petitioner (employer). All those shady sweat shops who used to take poor Joe Schmoes' money for filing got raided big time in NJ and other areas.

That's just the uscis fee. The employer is allowed to make you pay some portion of the legal fees.

my understanding was that if you have an H1b, it is /only/ okay to work for the company that the H1B is for; so it'd be illegal to work on your own stuff (unless your own company got you the H1b)

Of course, I'm also not a lawyer.

I am not a lawyer, but I am an immigrant in the US. As FraaJad said there are no short-cuts and no tricks.

Let me start by saying that you can't be self-employed. The US immigration service is employment based which means you have to have an employer to sponsor you. There are exceptions to this but you have to be "an alien of extra-ordinary abilities" - I am not sure what that entails but regardless of what anyone tells you here, you should talk to a lawyer and you can always ask him/her about it to see if you qualify.

Furthermore the H1-B is given for a particular alien for a particular skill-set that can only be applied for the position that the H1-B was petitioned for. That means that you can't work directly on and be compensated for anything that the H1-B petition does not cover - naturally that means any and all side-projects.

H1-B's are not handed out in April - the process of applying starts in April - so in theory you can apply for the 2010 H1-B quota starting April 2010 to March 2011. For several years the quota was drying out in less than a month but I don't think that has been true since 2009.

My advice - approach a lawyer to see what your options are - you will potentially have to find a company to sponsor your H1-B but that pretty much eliminate any chance of you working on your projects.

Lastly - the $2500 is made of two parts - the application fees to the USCIS for the H1-B and the lawyer fees. As far as I understand this - this is a cost that has to be incurred by the company that is sponsoring you. You should know this - furthermore this can be a deal breaker for startups because of

a) The cost

b) As FreeJad said - the business needs to prove its own viability and it's need to hire a foreign national. I have talked to several startups where this was an issue since they were just boot-strapping

Good luck.

...and it's need to hire a foreign national...

That reminds me to a funny story. A few friends of mine used to be in an (internationally) rather popular rock band in the 90's (if you're over 30, it is quite possible that you've heard of them). They have stopped playing together since then but now, after many years, they decided to do one last world tour. Given that they're all British citizens, they had to get a US working visa for the concerts in the US. To get the visa, they had to actually prove that the fans wouldn't be exactly satisfied with the performance of a similarly named tribute band (formed by US citizens). I know that this is required to keep foreign "commodity musicians" from playing in bars and restaurants but sill quite funny, considering their (former) popularity.

(In the end, they managed to get their visa.)

O1 visa is an option, though not easy to get. If the H1B quota is reached, then they'll reissue in April, though you can't start work till the fall.

For your J-1 are you sure there's no 2 year home residency requirement?

I hope not. My visa lasted only 6 months and IIRC the 6 month J-1 doesn't have the home residency requirement.

Your other option is to apply for an F1 student visa and enroll as a full-time student. If you have money and decent academic profile then this is one of the last route to extend your stay, take classes in fall and spring, intern in summer (and if possible, in spring too while taking classes if the company/startup is based locally), and try to graduate in 1 or 1.5 years and then apply for OPT and find a job.

If you're applying for a PhD, chances are that you will get a nice RA position and everything will be covered..You can always leave your academics if you get a job after a year -- which might look extremely bad on you but it's you first and then comes the rest of the world. You can always take part-time classes after you get a job to make up to them.

J-1 visas with minimum residency requirements have something like "Two year rule does apply" written in the passport. People who come sponsored by program like Muskie have that limitation

Go back. Get a business visa from your country, come and do business in the US. Alternatively, there is a thing called the 'startup visa' being contemplated. But I think it will get enacted from the end of the year. It requires you to have already got vc funding from an American vc, which u may get if ur startup is good.

The o1 is for geniuses. So see if u are eligible.

There are no hacks. Be legitimate. Being an entrepreneur is to be so :)

You cannot work for an US company on a business visa.

There are lots of tricks that big companies use to get their workers to wherever they want them to be. Some argue the entire H1-B program is such a trick.

However, as far as I can tell, there aren't any great loopholes for startup founders.

From the US government's perspective, lean web startups don't even make any sense. Why would you want to move to a foreign country to start a business that has no premises, makes no significant purchases, requires no investment, will likely have few employees for the first few years, and has a 9/10 chance of failing? I know that your reason is "Bay Area culture" and proximity to VC, but that is not acceptable to the US government, and they don't have a huge incentive to help you.

All the options I'm aware of involve a work-for-hire arrangement with an existing US concern or entrepreneur. Then they can use the H1-B, or other employment visas. You can't officially be self-employed, so you can't be an owner. Presumably you want something like stock options instead. You'd have to have an extraordinary degree of trust in your American partners.

The other option is to come in as a business entrepreneur. Likely you will need to prove you're spending at least tens of thousands of dollars and hiring lots of Americans. As I mentioned elsewhere, then the US government is going to want you to have normal business expenses, like for instance, an office.

H1 visas are not just handed out in april....the so called quota is started to fill in April. You can still apply for a H1B as far as an employer is ready to sponsor your visa.

I am not a lawyer and none of what I say below should be considered as legal advice.

To work in the US you need a visa but to own a company you do not need one.

I have heard of people doing the following: 1. Create a company with 1 more person. 2. Apply for a H1B to work in that company.

To be able to make a case for getting a H1 in this manner, you might want to get some of the following: 1. Letters of intent to buy your future companies offerings from customers 2. A detailed business plan on how much revenue you will be making out of this company. 3. Proof using the above 2 that your company would be able to support a salary for you.

Its not easy but I've heard of at least one case that has done it. If you use searyc.com I think you'll find the guy who actually managed to pull this off. A story about him was featured here.

There is a much more obvious route but I'm guessing you know that one already.

I doubt very much that this works (it may have in the past). I'm currently in the H1B process, and the government wants my employer to demonstrate that they already have a going concern, ie. they want - past tax returns - proof of at least 2 years of significant revenue and profits - demonstration of some minimum number of employees for some period of time.

That's true. It's gotten stricter once they busted all the bidyshops in new jersey. However i think it's best to ask a lawyer and make sure it's not possible.

This is a really difficult thing to do so you really have to try all possible angles and this is one.

searyc.com doesn't exist. Whats the domain? I'd be interested in reading the story.

What if you already have a company that has has enough revenue to support you from US customers?

I think he meant searchyc.com.

I don't think you can get a visa as a self-employed. Small start-ups hiring H1-Bs are very unlikely because it is a long and expensive process, unless you have a background that is truly unique and valuable. Think about the research you have developed at UC Berkeley, maybe you can find a start-up that matches your research and wants to invest in a visa sponsorship.

I think it's easier for a big company to hire H1-Bs because they already have an infrastructure to handle that (lawyers, immigration experts, etc...). I myself immigrated to the US through that path. Maybe you can work for a big company and do something on the side?

As far as I know, the government issues visas any time of the year. There is a yearly cap, so maybe they already reached the cap for 2010? I don't know, but it's easy to look that up (go to USCIS web site).

Then that cap must be reached for this year. At least I think that's what one small startup willing to go through the process with me indicated.

No, it's not. USICS issued a new memo in january, which made H1B hard to use for bodyshops(~consulting companies). As a result only 25% of total quota is currently submitted and numbers are rising very slow(1-2% a week).

I'm in the process of switching from a TN to an H1B, and the cap is not filled. They're probably assuming it is similar to 2008 and before, when the cap was typically reached within a day or two after they started accepting applications.

Getting married to an American woman (or man) will get you a green card.

Off-topic: If the OP is a male and gets married to another male (who is a citizen) in Massachusetts, he still won't get a green card because federal law defines marriage as a "legal union exclusively between one man and one woman." Shucks..

Yes. DOMA also prevents the recognition, at federal level (e.g. immigration benefits), of foreign same-sex marriages (e.g. Canada, South Africa, etc.)

A number of countries that do not have same-sex marriage do recognize foreign same-sex marriages for immigration (Israel is one example).

It's Johny boy ;) I think internship visas (H3?) are a good way to get started because they're easier to get. I'm investigating doing freelance on an H1-B. Although it's clearly not allowed to freelance / work for another company that isn't sponsoring you in the US, I'm trying to figure out if there's a way to work for a foreign company that does business in the US.

Paulie! HN unites the world :) (and you should move to San Francisco)

Great advice on this thread.

Insider's tip: if you know somebody who is politically active, see if they can ask a US Senator or House Member to make a call for you. As with anything government-related, those guys can make a call and it clears up a lot of red tape and suddenly there are options you didn't have before.

The O1 is the most consistently successful for a hacker entrepreneur of some repute, but is a pain to get. Definitely look for a lawyer who's done it before (I can't give names, though)

i don't know whether you can extend your existing visa but this should be on the top of your list, also make sure that you find permanent solution for the status for living in USA (or north america)... trust me, H1B or any other temporary visa is not a permanent solution, you're always worried about loosing your status and have to go back to your home country. One small change in immigration law can put your hard work in jeopardy.

i know many who apply for Canadian permanent residency (same as USA green card) so that they atleast have stability and dont have to go back and forth to/from home country. Canadian PR is easy and fast and you can work from Vancouver (closet to silicon valley on canadian side) and in the mean time keep working on your project and on some kind of visa status in USA.

edit: also once you've PR from Canada, you can go to US on visitors visa as many time as you want, this is good if you want to meet VCs or other project related partners/members. Also you can get Canadian citizenship within 3 to 5yrs after PR.

Do I sound like sales guy for canadian immigration :-) anyway find a lawyer who has knowledge of both countries (USA & Canada), again trust me this will immensely helpful for planning your future and stability.

IANAL, but I'm a self-employed business owner on an F1 visa. It seems few people is aware of this option, but AFAIK this is completely legal. Search for "self-employed" here:


Consult with an immigration lawyer. A few months ago, the MIT International Student Association organized a Q&A session with a lawyer and he referred to cases of people getting a visa with self-employment jobs such as blogging.

Also if your on a j1 it's almost impossible to go directly to a h1 without having to spend 2 years outside the country. Consult a lawyer on this But that was something I clearly remember. Things might have changed since then.

I'm in exactly the same position as you.

If you're at UCB then perhaps you can frame your startup as a spinoff company, which universities love. You'd be trading capital for a visa.

That's the best idea I have right now.

Otherwise there's always 20% time at google.

And then the university will sponsor my visa? What kind of visa would that be then?

I have no problems trading capital for a visa :)

> And then the university will sponsor my visa?

That would be the hope.

I guess that more related your startup is to a field of research at UCB the better your chances.

> What kind of visa would that be then?

J1, although possibly H1B (I believe you can switch if you stay long enough as a researcher).

> I have no problems trading capital for a visa :)

That's my intent. It (probably) can't hurt to ask: http://entrepreneurship.berkeley.edu/resources/bel.html

If you're still at Cal then you should talk to international house, they would know lots of good visa consultants etc -- but on the other hand they have to play by the book as they could jeopardize their entire visa sponsorship programme if they do anything wrong... so you won't learn any dirty tricks from them. But maybe you could get work as a tutor etc which would let you stay in the country..?

One of the things required for the H1B is a Labor Certification Application (LCA) where the employer has to demonstrate that they have tried to find americans who could fulfill any position offered, and failed. Unless you're tutoring in a very specialized area, its unlikely they could do that.

Thanks, I will do that :)

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