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Ask HN: How to Be an Entrepreneur in the US, if you aren't American
42 points by samirahmed on Oct 30, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 17 comments
At the moment, I am a student at University in America? I am sure that there are people here who are not American who are entrepreneurs in America? How do you go about doing it, and what are the barriers that you faced?

Being an international student at a US university you will get 12 months of OPT (Optional Practical Training) once you graduate. It is a free pass which allows you to work without any restrictions for one year in the same field of your degree. If you have your company registered by the time you graduate, you can use the OPT to work for the same. The OPT can be extended for another 17 months if the company is enrolled in e-verify (free registration with the USCIS). So, you can effectively get 29 months of work authorization without any external help.

If you company is successful and generates revenue/raises money in the first ~12 months you can file for your own H1B. I am not a lawyer but talk to the immigration officer at your university and also to a lawyer and you will get more information.

Can an international student (on OPT) file for a company registration? I was on OPT, moved to H1 this month, can I also file for one?

The FAQ for OPT on US immigration and customs site says a student can start a business and be self employed during the post completion OPT period. http://www.ice.gov/doclib/sevis/pdf/opt_policy_guidance_0420... (7.2.1, pg 17)

As long as it is legitimate and all the legal paper work is done properly, i think it should be fine. Of course, there might be some who register a company just for getting a work authorization and i assume the USCIS will have verifications to make sure you are running a real business and not just a one on paper.

zengr, since you have already moved to H1, i don't think it will be applicable for you. I am also on OPT working for a startup and i am moving to H1 shortly.

Company registration isn't restricted at all. Some state's LLC can be single-person, non-resident filed, after all.

The restriction you'll run up against is being employed by the company you form, and having it support your visa.

To do it the right way as a solo founder, you need to go the E2 Investor route. It's painful, but doable.

The critical parts to being an entrepreneur are to build a product, raise capital, manage a company and sell the product. For each of those pieces, you need a good professional network. Co-founders to build a product are easy to come by if you are studying for an engineering degree, but finding people for the other 3 pieces of the puzzle are equally or more important and are difficult for an engineering student. So, you have to spend an incredible amount of time networking both within the town/city you are in and in other major tech hubs. You will need to search for and attend every possible free/cheap gathering of techies and through them find people to help with the 'other 3 pieces'. But then there is this other big hassle that looms over everything else.

American immigration laws are specifically designed to keep people out, and that is the biggest barrier you will face. The only way around it is to find a local co-founder and sponsor an H1B visa through the company showing yourself as an employee. There have been recently proposed changes to the H1B rules allowing a sole founder to sponsor their own H1B provided they have investors investing in the company and the company has a board of directors. You will also need to wait a little for enough such cases to go through the USCIS to determine what's the winning formula for such H1B visa approvals. In parallel with all of your other efforts at finding people, you will hence have to find a good immigration lawyer who will also work on a project basis at low rates. Of late, USCIS has be onerous in demanding documented evidence for H1B cases, so you can very well rule out applying entirely by yourself.

The gist is that although it's possible, it's very hard to be an entrepreneur straight out of college if you are not from the country. The shortest route is to fall in love with an american (citizen) girl and marry her. And I don't say that in jest.

Depending on your qualifications, you can also get a H1-B job from a major US corporation and convert it into a green card. Being sponsored as the spouse of a US citizen is probably faster (especially if you are from a country where employment-based green cards don't have a current priority date), but the USCIS are suspicious of marriages and the process can be somewhat gruelling. You also end up with a temporary green card until you have been married for two years.

Do you realize how long the process of getting an employment based green card takes? Oddly enough, it is possibly the longest way to obtain US residency. 5-7 years from the start is probably the average, and 10+ years is not unheard of. Most of that time the application is simply sitting idle on a shelf in some government office waiting to be processed. Illegal immigrant who crosses Rio Grande at the same time as someone on H1B submits his paperwork has a decent chance of getting legalized faster (there was at least one if not two amnesties while I was waiting for my GC, and each one slows down the legal queue because understaffed USCIS offices divert resources to process "undocumented" aliens). Getting GC through marriage or some refugee program is much, much faster.

It would be nice if US voters at large were a little more aware of how immigration laws work in practice.

[EDIT] I am in no way suggesting the marriage route, just pointing out that there are many countries with enormous backlogs and for people coming from those countries converting H1B to GC for the purposes of starting a company may, unfortunately, not be a viable option.

Actually, I have first-hand experience of this process. My comment was not made offhand.

It took less than 18 months from starting work as a H1B to receiving my green card. I started the green card process a month into my job. 8 How come? The system is ridiculous; I am lucky enough to have been born in the UK, and not in one of the countries with long years of backlog. I also did a Master's which qualified me for EB2. Between these, my priority date was current so the processing time was simply paper shuffling. Given the suspicion of USCIS around marriages and the process I am going through with my husband's green card, I certainly wouldn't take such a blasé attitude to marriage if you are also, fortunately and entirely randomly, in a current priority class.

I can tell you what I do. With a turist visa, I spend 1 month in the US one month outside the US. Also after you create a corp you can request a H1B through that corp(a lawyer charges $5,000), but you have to pay yourself a salary(that means you need to pay taxes), I am planing to do this once I raise money.

Start networking as much as you can. Get to know successful American and foreign entrepreneurs and tell them you're interested in US startups. Ask if they need help. Find out who's working on various problems, and if any of these companies use any open source code you can contribute to right now.

My advice :

Take some money from your country, create a startup in the US with a local guy. When you are able to make money, then if you make enough money, you can even sponsor yourself or go get some investors => you'll be able to sponsor yourself.

You can be an entrepreneur any where in the world. Why does it have to be in the US?

Payment gateways can be a problem when your company is not US-based.

Paypal, WorldPay, ...

There's the obvious allure of Silicon Valley given the investor/startup culture there. I suspect the question was probably more focussed around SF than the US in general.

Just to clarify.

I am in currently in the US in Boston, MA.

And yes I am more interested in the advantages and start up culture of Silicon Valley and SF

OP is apparently currently in the US. "Start where you are now" is a good rubric for most things.

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