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Ask HN: Would a startup sponsor my visa?
68 points by evjan on July 31, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 56 comments
Are U.S. start-ups able/willing to help foreign (European) developers get an employment visa, or is this too much hassle for a smaller company? Have you done it in the past?

EDIT: I rephrased the question, as it was meant to be general. I myself am not going anywhere for at least 1 year. I am merely planning my career on a long-term basis during this weekend.

I was lucky enough to get a startup to sponsor my H1B. It was a big investment for them since I'd cost them a large chunk of money and time before I'd written a single line of code. You spend most of the process feeling guilty for taking time from extremely busy people's days to go through huge email discussions with lawyers and filling out forms. When you actually land at the company people will wonder why so much time and effort was taken to ship someone in from abroad rather than hiring locally.

From the employee side there's also risk, while you can switch jobs on an H1B it's not trivial and startups have a tendency to go under (luckily my current employer is kicking ass so my chances of an unemployment related deportation are very close to 0 but it still worries me at times). Having your company go under is never fun, that coupled with facing a deadline to find another job with visa related friction slowing the process down is not something I'd like to try.

On the upside working for a US startup is an amazing experience. Ireland has some hardy souls trying startups but it's like another planet over here. A lot more energy and enthusiasm around starting something new and people don't treat startups like a last ditch attempt at employment which is nice.

We'll, let's look at the figures.

A H1B costs $8k max. A startup salary starts at $80K per year. Would you pay 10% of salary to get a good candidate? In this job market, in a heartbeat.

We're currently in the process of sponsoring two foreigners for H1B visa, and we're a small bootstrapped startup, so yeah it's definitely possible.

The legal costs are fairly high, but we have been working with the 2 applicants for several months already, so I'm comfortable sponsoring them. I would not have done it based on a resume and job interviews alone.

I'd be happy to answer any questions if you need more details.

oh, and to address some of the other comments here, my understanding is that it's illegal for the applicant to pay for the legal costs.

Also, as employer we cannot underpay the applicant. Part of the application process requires us to disclose the salary offered and document prevailing wages for the same position in the same area. Should the salary offered be too low, the visa would be denied. (many requirements in the application process are designed to protect American jobs)

Yes. Thanks for pointing that out. H1B visa holders make a very minute percentage of the total number of foreign workers. The visa laws are meant to protect American jobs but there are some loopholes that are being utilized to misuse the visa (around 20% misuse is reported).

I have been trying to find a startup in NYC to work with but haven't found the right one yet.

> I am merely planning my career on a long-term basis

I would suggest that if you're planning for the long-term and want more job security, stay away from startups. Too much can wrong and you'll have too much too lose if they go belly-up and/or don't have people that can competently handle your immigration paperwork.

I moved from the UK to the USA in 2001. I came here on a J-1 visa (18 months), then got an H1-B (6 years) and finally got a green card through marriage. I worked for a federal government agencies - they were throwing H1-Bs at everyone and had a dedicated team for handling foreign/immigration issues. When I transferred from government work to 'Company B' their HR screwed up my immigration paperwork so bad that USCIS issued a deportation notice and I lost my job. Nightmare scenario given that I had a mortgage, and my partner was 7-months pregnant, commuting 10 hours a week, working F-T and finishing up her MBA.

Visas/immigration (and attorney fees) have been a pain in the rear for the last decade. I think I'll pay Uncle Sam the $700 just to become a citizen so I can sleep better...

I'm vaguely curious about this too. What a lot of people don't know is that there a special visa for Australians to work in the US, called an E3 [1] that (IIRC) came about only 5-8 years ago as part of a settlement of a trade dispute (basically the US blocks Australian wheat imports on quarantine grounds but the real issue is Australian agriculture isn't subsidized and is competitive with US agriculture, which is hugely subsidized).

Anyway, an E3 visa is actually MUCH easier to get than a H1B visa. For a H1B visa you have to "prove" that the job qualifies (Labor certification) and that you can't find anyone locally to do it. The first part is a formality (getting an LCA from the Department of Labor). The second is the hard and expensive part.

For an E3, you only need to do the first part.

So if you can't find people locally, consider employing Australians. I am curious on the cost and hassle of doing this from the employer's side too.

Anyone had any experience with this?

[1]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-3_visa

I'm an Australian working in the US on an E3 visa. The ease of getting an E3 was definitely an advantage for me.

I recently joined a startup and did all the leg-work myself, without a lawyer. The only thing the company needed to do was fill out an LCA, which I don't think has any fees associated with it. I then went to a US consulate in Canada, completed the visa interview, and made my way back into the US to begin work.

Thole process went smoothly for me - was there anything specific you wanted to ask?

I too am on an E3 but my employer (and their lawyers, more specifically) dealt with it all the paperwork on their end. All I had to do was provide them with copies of my degrees and so forth, get a packet of paperwork from them (including the LCA certification), make an appointment with the local consulate and then go. I got my passport back (with visa) the next day.

What I am curious about is:

- How many startups know about the E3?

- How many would be willing to go through what seems like a lot less hassle of sponsoring an E3 (vs the far greater hassle of an H1B)?

- How much less hassle is it really?

In my experience, most employers don't know about it, and startups are not much different in this case.

Once you explain that it is similar to the TN visa for hiring Canadians, most people are fairly relaxed about it.

I'm an Australian on my 3rd E3 visa, it is much much easier than an E3 for everyone involved from what I have heard from collegues. The first E3 visa I got was for a startup, and they got ripped off big time with a $5k 'expeditied processing' fee from their lawyer.

In reality all it costs is a few hundred in applications fees (at the consulate) and a trip to Australia. The paper work for the employer is free (LCA) and usually takes 10 days.

I don't think many non-Australians know about the E3. I told my employer (very) late in the process that I needed sponsorship, and explained how easy it was to get an E3 and that I was willing to do all the work.

I think this helped as I imagine the last thing a startup wants to waste time on is dealing with bureaucratic immigration issues, but I can't say for certain.

I'd be willing, if you were well qualified.

So that probably means an experienced hire. What about relatively unexperienced new grads? Do they have any hope in joining a startup on a visa?

Only if the sponsoring company can demonstrate that there are no available US citizens with the same qualifications. The fewer qualifications involved the less likely it is to be able to demonstrate this.

In the bay area, given the current market, any reasonably funded startup would likely work with you, assuming you passed interviews, etc.

It may be somewhat easier at a company that's dealt with the process before, but most valley startups will have access to experienced immigration attorneys.

The issue is interviewing in the first place- you'd have to fly out specifically for the interview and hope that it works out. Quite a financial gamble if you do it repeatedly...

Yes, that would be a lot of money. Do companies do interviews over video-chat at all?

Yes, that is how I got my current job was through a couple rounds of video chat. I'm a Canadian citizen working at a US startup through an I-84 work visa.

I've heard of it happening, but more often with companies in Saudi Arabia an the like, where they have to try harder to get people.

There's a threshold, just because of the cost involved. In general, if a startup is big enough to be able to afford it, they'd gladly sponsor you.

A previous company I worked at sponsored somebody after their second round of funding.

I've recently had some experience with this and it seems only about 60k h1b visas are available each year (year starts in September).

http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis/menuitem.5af9bb95919f... If you want to see a count down for the 2012 quota

I've been told that most of those go to larger companies and that startups might find it harder to get them (this is anecdotal though)

I am in your exact situation, I plan to leave everything I've behind and hit the states or Canada in one year or so and as far as I know there shouldn't be any problem for any kind of startup to get you in(legal wise), of course there's the money problem, the startup has to choose if you are worth the money they are going to spend on lawyers and other expenses (~$10k as I've heard) but nothing that a good resume can't beat, also you can offer to pay for the expenses as I am willing to do.

> there shouldn't be any problem for any kind of startup to get you in(legal wise)

Have you spent five minutes to Google this?

* Excepting the premium processing fee, H1B holders can't pay for their own legal costs.

* H1B holders can be "passively" involved in other companies, including founding them, but cannot derive any benefit from them. (Confusing!)

You could work for a startup in the USA simply for wages, but that would be certifiably insane. The usual answer is to assign ownership to the investor(s) or American employees and have some arrangement whereby you'll get the benefits later, but that involves a degree of trust in investors that I don't have, personally.

See http://danashultz.com/blog/2011/05/06/can-i-get-an-h-1b-visa... , http://danashultz.com/blog/2011/01/18/visa-basics-for-foreig... .

There are ways to get around this, which are pretty similar to money laundering (look it up in a dictionary sometime). Some lawyers are willing to do this, others aren't. Be aware that a lawyer specializing in individual immigration cases is not going to jeopardize their relationship with the US Gov't just for you.

Also, even if you conceive of some scheme to get around this, be aware that startups are often very distracted. I tried to join one in the 90s, where a relative of mine was even the CEO, and the relationship was hot/cold for months. One week it was "yes, we're totally doing this!" and the next it was "um, not the right time, wait a month more!"

From what I can gather from those two links and the original memorandum, you need to show that you are an employee. They are worried about three scenario's:

* founding your own company and hiring yourself (especially if you do that on borrowed money it would make it too easy to immigrate)

* contractors (not sure why)

* job shop employees

The first item is where ownerships comes in. You're not allowed to be in control of the company, because you could prevent it from firing you. So that clearly rules out having >50% ownership.

However, I don't see how it rules out stock options for say 10% ownership? Particularly because, if I understand correctly, stock options don't give you any control until the company goes IPO.

The easiest way to find out: are there any startups that have given out stock option, without jumping through legal hoops?

> You could work for a startup in the USA simply for wages, but that would be certifiably insane.

...why? It would just be like, y'know, having a job.

Because you could get a similar and higher-paying job with zero risk by applying to one of the bigger companies.

I'd definitely contend that a job with a bigger company would not be 'similar'. I previously worked at a "bigger company" and the job was utterly miserable. The startup I work for gave me stock in the company, but I wasn't actually expecting it- I would have worked there anyway.

As long as you're getting decent pay I see no reason to stay in a miserable corporate job if you don't want to be in one.

That $10k number surprises me too. I did the reverse a few years ago, going from Canada to Switzerland to work on a research project. It cost me about $200 for the work visa, and no legal fees. I don't see why a) Canada would be more expensive, or b) why a startup would be different than a university in this respect.

Ah sorry, most likely that number doesn't apply to Canada, everything is cheaper there :).But lets wait for someone that has some better numbers and enlighten us.

It's probably higher because America is protectionist when it comes to jobs.

Thankfully, Canadians working in the U.S. have a much easier time. Cost me less than $80 to get a work visa.

$10k is plain wrong. It's $2500 for the application (paid to the gov't) and decent lawyers typically charge $2500. Greencards on the other hand are much more expensive, $15k-$20k.

I've done it twice now (one initial application and one transfer) and the fees were nowhere near $10k. I think they were $5k, max.

$10k? Wow. If that is true it is much more expensive than I thought.

Don't take it as granted but here's an older thread where $15k-$20k is speculated http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2397020.

There are startups willing to go through the troubles of H1B sponsorship. Engineers are in demand and the (typically) $5k it costs is a small number when signing bonuses can be much higher. There have been periods where this was a timing problem, and a small gamble, but the past couple years and this year there has been a significant drop in applicants. What this means is that your H1B is all but assured if you're qualified.

I'm currently in San Francisco with a H1B at Academia.edu, a reasonably well-funded startup (not that early stage, but still only 5 developers and very much a great startup atmosphere), so it happens.

Also, they/we did/do interviews through Skype, so no flights. Though interviews being convenient does not make them any easier :)

(ps: we are hireing: http://www.academia.edu/hiring)

I myself left Europe in 2001. It wasn't easy. I attempted to get sponsorship from 77 businesses but no luck.

I finally settled agreeing to work for 3 months unpaid internship, at the end of which I got my first job in Australia.

It ain't easy to wing it, so be ready to think outside the box.

I did something similar for US. Got there on internship visa (J-1 I believe) for 6 months, and then was offered an FTE on H-1B. Back then in 2006 the yearly H-1B were "released" in late May or early June I believe, and they finished in a month or so, so this might be good to take into consideration when planning. I believe a good time for the employer to file application is in April or May, and then the H-1B is typically ready in September.

After the internship some other option came up for me back home in Sweden so I never used my H-1B.

Note: This was not for a startup, but for an established company with HR and all that stuff. But the timing aspects should still apply I believe. As a side-note I eventually moved to Singapore, and getting an "employment pass" (equivalent to US H-1B) here was extremely smooth, comparing to all the work to get the H-1B for US.

Thanks! Australia has crossed my mind as well, I might go there instead.

I was accepted for a startup in Philadelphia from Europe; but the salary was quite low. So a sponsor may push the salary quite low; for them you would have an advantage in this case.

We're hiring. We will sponsor a work visa for the right person, and would consider exceptional new grads. http://careers.thinknear.com

Does it have to be a startup?

There's a huge continuum between fledgling startup and entrenched multinational. There exist smaller multinationals where you can still have a huge impact.

I am on a visa myself at a small 4-person startup that has only raised seed funding, so yes it is possible if you are a strong candidate.

You could work for a European startup which has offices in the US, work for them in Europe for a year and then transfer out on an L1.

Yeah, I'd love to hear about this too! Anyone with experience for/against this?

I would like to know this as well. Do you mean H1B visa?

I wouldn't be too picky, as long as I had a piece of paper allowing me to stay and work in the country for a longer period of time.

I'm interested in this as well (again, on a long term basis, not going anywhere any time soon). However, I am concerned that the type of visa would restrict my employment options once in the country. First, I believe they are often linked to one company, and not trivially transferable? I.e. if I quit, I will have to leave the country more or less immediately? Second, even with saved money, I'd have to jump through hoops in order to take a month between jobs (since I'd be unemployed)? Third, becoming self-employed is not an option since I can't sponsor my own visa?

I'd like to be proved wrong, but these issues are deal breakers for me, which probably means I won't get to work in the US, except on short secondments.

As I understand it (I'm looking for a job in the US too), if you switch jobs, the new company more or less needs to redo all the paperwork that the old one has done; and yes, being self-employed is not an option.

I also believe - but am not sure - that once you have a visa that lets you work in the US, any current tourist visa you have is cancelled, making staying there when you're between jobs is a major undertaking (at least in my case, I think it means a trip back home and to the consulates here to get the visa changed, so that may not matter all that much.)

I've just done this- you're mostly correct, but with an important caveat.

If you switch between jobs, you can start working for your new employer as soon as you've sent off the paperwork- you don't have to wait for them to process it (which can take many, many months). However, you cannot have a gap between jobs- your employment must be continuous.

So, something like taking some time off before you start at the new job would be frowned upon?

Depends on your old employer. If you get on well with them and they are OK with your leaving, you could conceivably use your vacation time at the end of your employment with them.

That makes working on visa a little difficult, doesn't it?

So, what can you do?

Sorry, I was unclear. It was meant as a general question, if start-ups are willing to do so. I am staying put for at least 1 more year where I am right now.

But thanks for asking!

never too much hassle if there is a mutual click

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