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Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Everything You Need to Know to Get Started

How to become an immigrant entrepreneur
Credit: Evgenia Parajanian/Shutterstock

Immigration is a cornerstone of the American identity, but it's also a cornerstone of American entrepreneurship. From industrial titans like Andrew Carnegie to modern corporate leaders like Elon Musk, non-native business men and women have shaped the American economy for hundreds of years. The Center for American Entrepreneurship found more than 40 percent of the companies on the 2017 Fortune 500 list were founded by either immigrants or children of immigrants.

Despite this presence, experts say immigrating to the U.S. is complicated and, at times, difficult. The visa application process alone can be difficult to navigate, and long processing times add to the complexity of starting or joining a business in the United States. However, there are some important steps to take to fully understand the process and better position yourself for success once your business is up and running.

The United States, like any government, regulates who enters and lives in the country through a visa program. Visas are extended to tourists, students, family members and business men and women. There are several types of work visas you can apply for. The ones detailed below are some of the main visas foreign workers can apply for. This list does not include the EB-5 visa, which only pertains to foreign investment. For a complete list and step-by-step application details, visit the USCIS website for more information. 

The H1-B is a special visa meant for temporary workers. You'll need at least a bachelor's degree to qualify in some cases, and they're most often used for highly technical work. Kamal Bathla, president and founder of Maestro Technologies, said that his company acquired another company and now sponsors a few H1 workers.

Bathla emphasized that these types of workers are usually only brought in when the company can't find a native-born employee with the skills needed for a project. This makes the H1-B visas more applicable to highly skilled workers.

"Having an ability to hire someone, as long as you exhaust all the options of hiring someone local, it's important," Kamal said. "That's why you go out to hire or someone – someone with an H1 – because you can't find someone local."

While Bathla said it was not difficult for his company to bring in a new employee, Eileen King English of the New Jersey-based immigration law firm Harrington King English LLC said that H1 visas can often be a major barrier for some immigrants because of the highly skilled nature of the requirements.

"It is a difficult route," she said. "When you're a for national and you want to get an H1-B for yourself or for your company in the U.S., that's difficult … They [the visas] all have a hurdle to overcome to do it."

The L1 visa program is for company executives and "special skills" employees who need to be relocated to a company branch within the United States. The L1 visa can also be used to establish new branches of a foreign company in the United States. It's broken up into two levels: L1-A and L1-B. The L1-A program is meant to "transfer an executive or manager from one of its affiliated foreign offices to one of its offices in the United States."

You can view the full definition of executive or manager on the USCIS website. The L1-B program is for a "professional employee with specialized knowledge" who needs to be transferred from a foreign office to an existing office within the U.S.

Like the L1-A visa, the L1-B has some fine print that's important to review and understand before applying. In the case of the L1-B, the full definition of "specialized knowledge" includes knowledge of internal company processes, products, services, research, equipment, techniques or management.

Unless you're looking to open a new company branch in the United States, the L1 program is for workers who are already employed by a company that's looking to send them to the U.S. for work. It's similar to the H1-B in that the person interested in working in the U.S. needs to already be employed by a company who has the means and corporate infrastructure to send them there.

These visas are treaty-based visas – only countries that have special agreements with the U.S. can qualify for the E-1 and E-2 visas. The list of countries does not include China, Russia or India. The E1 and E2 visas are for individuals looking to come to the U.S. to either start a new business or join an existing one. The E1 visa is for "treaty traders" while the E2 is for "treaty investors." You can read more about this distinction here. According to King English, there are extensive reporting requirements for these visas if you're looking to use it to extend your company into the U.S.

"The documentation required by the Department of State to show for a new office is just a high burden in terms of a five-year plan and showing the money you've already invested in the U.S. and how that money's going to be used -- all of those things," King English said. "It's not a straight path."

While the documentation may be extensive, it is not impossible. The key, however, is whether your country of origin has a treaty with the U.S. These visas also need to be renewed every two years, depending on your specific situation. 

Jalal Maqableh immigrated to the U.S. from Jordan and works for the Shenandoah Valley's Small Business Development Center. He specializes in immigration entrepreneurship – particularly with helping business owners who are new in the United States get their operation up and running.

"The most important businesses for immigrants, most of the time, is shopping and food," Maqableh said. "People are looking for the traditional stuff, like clothes and accessories, and the things that they used to use before coming to the United States."

Maqableh said this inspires a lot of immigrant entrepreneurs to open their own shops stateside to represent their culture and provide the kinds of goods and services that were available in their native country. He said this can present some challenges.

Before establishing a business, Maqableh said it's important to consider who the customers will be. It's a good idea to open a store that caters directly to one culture, but it's possible to be even more successful by opening a business to other cultures in the community as well. Examples of doing this can include providing English menus, working with other community leaders and marketing the business to the general community. By setting up a business that caters to both a traditional cultural community and the wider culture within an area, Maqableh said business owners can maximize their reach.

"If you go to an Arabic, Halal or Latino store and you don't know the language and the culture, you will leave," Maqableh said. "The culture there is preserved for the local people, but Americans like to try new things and discover new things. There is potential there if you communicate, if you have signs in your language and in English, or if you contact the local community."

He also said it's important to do some research and speak with community experts and leaders to find out if a business idea makes sense in the United States. Maqableh gave an example of an entrepreneur who wanted to start a copying center in his local community. While copy centers were a booming business in some countries, Maqableh explained that there's little demand for copy center services in the U.S. because several businesses, such as Walmart and Staples, may already provide those services within the community.

When thinking about starting a business, it's important to shoot for a wide customer base and ensure that there is demand for the product or service that you're looking to provide.

The other thing Maqableh pointed out is the legal processes for starting a business are likely different in the U.S. compared to some other countries. He highlighted state and municipal requirements, as well as how long it takes to set up inspections and receive safety permits.

"People were organizing their businesses and they are ready to open," he said. "They have the safety people coming to check the fire alarms, but because they didn't arrange the proper permits, they're forced to wait six months to fix the problem."

The detailed rules and laws for starting a business vary by state and town. It's important, however, to be aware of the different regulations that need to be adhered to. Maqableh said paying attention to these laws is a crucial part of successfully opening and running a business in the United States.

Traveling to the U.S. for work, or opening your own business once you're here can be difficult, but it's not impossible. By working with professionals like Maqableh, it's possible to succeed as a newly arrived entrepreneur.

Matt D'Angelo

Matt D'Angelo is a Staff Writer based in New York City. After graduating from James Madison University with a degree in Journalism, Matt gained experience as a copy editor and writer for newspapers and various online publications. Matt joined the team in 2017 and covers technology for Business.com and Business News Daily. Follow him on Twitter or email him.