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How to start a business or get a startup job in the US if you weren’t born here? This Pitt legal series explains visa options

A University of Pittsburgh webinar shared different visas available to aspiring immigrant entrepreneurs and startup employees.

In the United States of America. (Photo by Courtney Hedger on Unsplash)

For some people, founding a startup is a matter of having a good idea and enough money to fund it. Others, however, have a more complicated set of circumstances. Those who seek to live and work in the United States but were born elsewhere face challenges such immigration legislation stalling depending on the administration, or employees being wary of hiring them due to fears of appearing to take jobs from domestic tech workers.

If you’re not a US citizen but feel you’re destined to lead in the US business world, all isn’t lost. As part of its Smart Start Legal Series, the University of Pittsburgh hosted a panel discussion last week — “How to Start a Business on an F-1 Student Visa” — outlining the options aspiring immigrant entrepreneurs or startup employees have in navigating the visa process.

But that process is complicated. Larry Lebowitz, an attorney who specializes in immigration law at Dentons Cohen & Grigsby, an international law firm with a Pittsburgh office, told the webinar’s attendees that it’s better for non-citizen entrepreneurs and workers to err on the side of legal caution no matter what path they chose in order to avoid unpleasant surprises for themselves and potential business partners in the future.

“There are various stages of the immigration process, all the way through somebody becoming a citizen, where there are questions raised if somebody broke the law, including if someone [was] working without authorization, [which] can have major consequences,” Lebowitz said. “You’ve just got to be really, really careful with this stuff.”

Scroll to the bottom of the Start Smart Legal Series webpage to download the full slideshow, and for a quicker overview, here are a few of the options for entrepreneurs who weren’t born here, per Lebowitz:

F-1 visa

An F-1 visa allows a person to enter the United States to become a full-time student at an accredited college, university, seminary, academic high school or other academic institution. While in the country under this kind of visa, a student isn’t permitted to have a full-time job. But if they obtained permission via Optional Practical Training, they’d be allowed to temporarily work in a field directly related to their area of study. Under these guidelines, they could start a business — but there are limits about when and how the student could work, as the company wouldn’t be allowed to provide services or be compensated for them.

TN visa

A nonimmigrant NAFTA Professional Visa, aka a TN visa, was designed to allow Canadian and Mexican citizens to work in the United States for a US-based company that has a relationship to a company in the country they’re from. A TN visa is valid for up to three years and can be renewed.

E2 visa

An E2 visa allows individuals from countries with trade treaties with the US to come to live and work in the states if they have a sustainable investment in a business located in the US.

O-1 visa

An O-1 visa is for individuals who have “extraordinary” abilities in areas such as their education, the arts, sciences and even athletics. This visa allows residency for the carrier temporarily.


Individuals who qualify for EB-1A are at the top of their fields be it the sciences, the arts, athletics, or education. This differs from the O-1 because it offers performant residency.

EB-2/NIW visa

An EB-2 is a national interest waiver, meaning an individual is being offered permanent residency, without a job offer, because their work could benefit the country as a whole. This typically means a person working on a life-saving vaccine, a new kind of therapy, or a kind of technology that could add to the country’s security.

“We’ve done many of them for Pitt and CMU graduates. The idea is that if you have at least a graduate degree and you are doing work that is somehow in our country’s national interest, you can self-petition for a green card,” Lebowitz said. “The policy behind it is if there’s somebody who is so valuable to the country, because he or she is bringing knowledge and expertise. … We’re going to reward that person to facilitate him or her staying here.”

EB-5 visa

An EB-5 visa is for investors who are eligible if they can make an investment into a commercial US enterprise with the plan to create or preserve at least 10 permanent full-time jobs for US workers. This visa gives permanent resident status and can apply to a person’s spouse and or children.

Green Card

Obtaining a Green Card, aka a Permanent Resident Card, means a person can live and work in the US permanently. The four ways a person can obtain one are by marrying a US citizen; coming to the States seeking asylum; entering into the Diversity Visa Lottery Program; or through sponsorship from a US company. Should a company choose to sponsor an employee, Lebowitz said, it’d have to first show that there was no qualified US citizen who can take the job.

“The company is not taking a job away from a qualified and interested US worker, which is a way that the government ensures us workers are not adversely affected by the green card process,” Lebowitz said. “But it’s a difficult process, as you can imagine, showing that there are no US workers out there who are qualified or interested in this position.”

L1 visa

L1 visas are for inter-company transfers, meaning an employee would be transferring from a foreign company to a related company in the States. This visa isn’t one you can apply for. Instead, the US company must petition for the visa on its employee’s behalf. A benefit of the visa is that it allows workers to live in the US for extended periods of time and extends immigration benefits for the employee’s spouse and children.


Are you an immigrant entrepreneur, and did you use any of these visas when you were starting out? If so, what was that like, and what do you wish you’d known? Are there any options we didn’t list that could be helpful? Whatever the case, feel free to let us know at

Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
Companies: University of Pittsburgh

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