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Business Visa Basics

Immigration law and how it applies to you and your new business

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Q: I plan to start a homebased business with an initial investment of $10,000. Do I qualify for a business visa?

A: It depends. The Immigration and Naturalization Service(INS) issues many types of visas, classified as "immigrant" (you plan to stay in the United States) or "nonimmigrant" (you don't) types.

There are about 140,000 immigrant visas distributed on the basis of certain "employment preferences." That means some workers leapfrog over others because of their potential contribution to the U.S. economy and society. If you qualify for one of those visas, you can use your employment foothold to launch a new business. They are good for six years.

Immigration law is too complex for sound bites, but you qualify for a preference:

  • if you hold an advanced professional degree (as a teacher, lawyer or engineer, for example) and seek a job using that degree.
  • if you're a professional with skills that took at least two years to acquire (say, for instance, you're a home-builder with a full range of skills).
  • if you've invested at least $1 million in a business ($500,000 in less prosperous areas of the country). Under this preference, the new company must create full-time jobs for at least 10 U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

There are also nonimmigrant visas for those not planning to stay in the United States or seek citizenship. Three categories of nonimmigrant visas may apply to you:

  • An E-2, or treaty investor, visa, is available if you're from one of about 65 countries that have commercial treaties with the United States. To qualify, you must actively manage the business and make a substantial investment in it. These E-2 visas are good for five years and include your spouse and children. You apply through your country's consulate rather than the INS.
  • A B-1 visa, good for six months, is available for investigating investment opportunities, setting up new businesses, providing services for a foreign company or going to a professional conference. This type of visa is clearly temporary, so it wouldn't help you set up a long-term business.
  • An H-1B visa, used extensively for those with high-tech experience, is for temporary professional workers. It's valid for three years and can be renewed for up to six.

How you start your business depends on many factors: your skills, the type of visa that best suits your goals and abilities, the amount of time you need to remain in the United States, etc. Consult with an immigration specialist to explore your options.

Joan E. Lisante is an attorney and freelance writer who lives in the Washington, DC, area. She writes consumer-related legal features for The Washington Post, the Plain Dealer, the Spokane Spokesman-Review and the Toledo Blade (Ohio). She is also a contributing editor to LawStreet.comand

In her practice, Lisante is counsel to and was counsel for Zapnews, a fax-based customized news service for radio stations. Previously, she served as Assistant District Attorney in Queens County, New York, and Deputy District Attorney in Nassau County, New York.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.