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Are you an international founder trying to figure out your best US visa options? We walk you through your options.

U.S. Visa Options for International Startup Founders – The Complete Guide

This is a guest post from our friends at Legalpad!

Launching a U.S. business is an exciting endeavor! However, if you’re not a US citizen, being able to live and work in the US can be a sticky situation. We’re here to help. Learn about the most common work visa paths for startup founders in this guide from Legalpad. Get in touch with Legalpad!

Work visas don’t have to be a roadblock on your path to launching a U.S. business. If you are interested in living and working in the U.S. as a business owner, you’ll need to secure a work visa. The work visa options span the alphabet so we’ve narrowed it down to the most common options for startup founders. 

O-1 for individuals with extraordinary ability 

The O-1 visa grants individuals the ability to temporarily live and work in the U.S. for three years.

Who qualifies?

‘Extraordinary ability’ basically means that the visa is awarded to individuals at the top of their field in technology, business, science, or the arts. You must meet at least three of the eight criteria to be eligible. The O-1 is based on accomplishments, not credentials. Unlike the H-1B, the O-1 does not require a college degree or have salary requirements. As such, people from a wide variety of backgrounds, from venture-backed founders to graphic designers may qualify. Check out this post to go deeper on the O-1 criteria.   

What are the other benefits?

You can apply any time, from anywhere in the world, but you’ll need to incorporate your company in the U.S. You can apply for a 3 year extension of the visa as many times as you need to, as long as you continue to meet the qualifications. An O-1 visa approval is often a stepping stone to applying for permanent residency. If your goal is to live in the U.S. long term, then moving from the O-1 to green card may be a path for you to consider. 

E-2 Investor Visa

The E-2 visa allows nationals from certain treaty countries to make an investment into a U.S. business and thereby enter the U.S. to work for that business. Startup founders often provide the seed money to start their companies. If that investment qualifies the founder for an E-2, they are able to run the company and live in the U.S.

What are the other benefits?

The E-2 visa is valid for five years and your dependents can attend school or work. 

TN for Canadian and Mexican Nationals 

Canadians and Mexican nationals working in certain fields (mostly STEM) can apply for this 3-year visa if their post-secondary education matches their job offer. Canadian candidates can apply directly at the border with a passport, application and documentation. Mexican citizens can apply for this visa by mailing an application to USCIS.


We hear about the H-1B program in the media a lot. It is often seen as a default option for tech workers. The H-1B is a temporary work visa that allows employers to hire workers in a specialized field. 85,000 H-1B visas are issued annually. There are almost always more H-1B applicants than there are available. To address the demand, USCIS runs an annual “lottery.” About 30% of applicants are randomly selected. 

L-1 Intracompany Transferee 

The L-1 visa allows companies to temporarily transfer managerial or specialized knowledge employees from overseas offices. The L-1 isn’t super common in the startup world, but it’s an option for companies that have employees overseas that need them in the U.S. temporarily. You must have at least one year of work experience as an employee of the company before you can transfer to the US on an L-1 visa. 

Taking the next steps

Securing a work visa can seem daunting at first. Finding the right legal partner and mapping out your goals and timeline goes a long way. Don’t let work visas disrupt your plans. It’s never too early to discuss your options. Our friends at Legalpad specialize in U.S. work visas for international startup founders. They are always available to hop on a call and help you put together a plan for yourself, or your teammates that may need immigration or work visa support. Get in touch with Legalpad here.

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