International Entrepreneurs Now Have an Immigration Pathway to the U.S.

President Biden restores the 'startup visa' program for entrepreneurs from foreign countries.

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By Tahmina Watson

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

It's taken almost a decade of advocacy work, but international entrepreneurs now finally have a viable immigrant pathway to come to the U.S. and start their own businesses

The International Entrepreneur Rule, which was created under the Obama administration and stymied under the previous administration, was restored on May 10 by President Biden. The rule will serve as a "startup visa" of sorts, available immediately to startup founders from around the world and those who are already in the United States. It represents an exciting time in U.S. immigration history, as it's the closest we've come to having a visa specifically for foreign entrepreneurs full of brilliant ideas, armed with investor funding and eager to create companies and generate jobs in the U.S.

The IER is available to founders able to demonstrate that their company would be of significant public benefit to the U.S. While it only grants permission to work — not live permanently — in the country, the IER gives entrepreneurs who've long held a vision for operating a business in this country the option to finally do so.

Related: The Best Business Funding Options for Immigrant and Refugee Entrepreneurs

So, who can use this "startup visa"?

There will likely be three broad categories of entrepreneurs who will use this program:

  • Those who are outside the United States, who have U.S.-based investors.
  • Those who are attending U.S. schools for education or accelerator programs for training, and are part of a startup cohort.
  • Those who are on work visas, such as the H-1B, L-1, O-1 and E-2 visas, who want to start their own companies with funding from U.S. investors.

To apply for the program, the entrepreneur must either have raised $250,000 from a "qualified investor" such as venture capital investors, angels or accelerators. If not, they must have raised $100,000 in awards or grants from a city, state or federal program. If one hasn't raised quite enough of the requisite funds, there's a little wiggle room to prove you are worth being allowed into the program.

The program also requires that the entrepreneur owns at least 10% of the company, has a household income of at least 400% above the poverty line, plays a central role in the company and will need to prove its potential for rapid growth. The entrepreneur's family will be allowed to stay in the U.S. with them, and the spouse will be granted work permission (which is a notable benefit, since many visa categories do not have this privilege.)

Entrepreneurs will be initially permitted to stay for 2.5 years, but can have their stay extended for another 2.5 years. The hope is that after five years, they'll qualify for another visa category or a green card. While the application will be paper-heavy and needs significant preparation, the main goal is to get entrepreneurs into the U.S. and help them grow their businesses.

The timing of the restoration of this program is significant. The National Foundation for American Policy reports that over 50% of American startup companies valued at over $1 billion (aka unicorns) were started by immigrants. The U.S. economy needs jobs for Americans facing a myriad of issues, including housing, health, and more — and this program is a creative way to build new jobs.

Related: The International Entrepreneur Rule and Innovation: Why Immigrants Help — Not Harm — the U.S. Job Market

Tahmina Watson

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Immigration Lawyer

Tahmina Watson is an award-winning attorney and the founder of Watson Immigration Law in Seattle, where she practices U.S. immigration law focusing on business and investment immigration.

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