5 Visa Options for Startups


Finding the right candidate takes time. Especially for a startup, where teams are often small and personal chemistry is just as important as professional know-how. When you’ve finally found the perfect candidate, you shouldn’t have to worry about the actual hiring process – even if that candidate needs a work visa.

To help you navigate the visa “alphabet soup,” we’ve outlined the two primary visas options you should know about when considering hiring a foreign national at your startup. We’ve also contrasted these visa categories with a few other, less common but still potentially appropriate visa options. 

Let’s jump in.

The two most popular visa for startups

H-1B visa for specialty occupation workers

The H-1B visa is one of the most popular US work visas, and certainly the most talked about. By way of background, the H-1B is a temporary work visa that allows employers to hire highly-trained foreign workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher (or its equivalent in years of experience) in a specialized field. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has a cap of 85,000 new H-1B visas each year: 65,000 for individuals with a bachelor’s degree or higher, and an additional 20,000 to those who have a US master’s degree or higher. Some employers are exempt from this cap, including nonprofits, hospitals and universities. The visa is good for a maximum of six years.

While many H-1B recipients are doctors, lawyers, academic researchers and professors, most H-1B visas are awarded to tech companies who hire STEM professionals such as software developers, data scientists and other types of engineers.

So why is the H-1B the first visa on this list?

First and foremost, it’s a great fit. H-1B visas are granted to specialty occupation workers who have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Most startup employees, especially those hired at the very nascent stages of the startup’s life, check all the boxes: talented professionals, whether in IT, marketing, operations, legal, etc., who are highly educated and extremely talented.

Second, the H-1B visa is affordable compared to some of the other visa categories. Sure, there are always going to be lawyers who charge an arm and a leg, but as tech startups automate the H-1B visa process, fees are going down and accessibility is going up. Startups don’t have to sacrifice hiring a good employee because it’s too expensive to get them onboard. 

And finally, it’s fast. The H-1B visa, along with a handful of other visa categories, are eligible for Premium Processing, which shaves months off the adjudication timeline. There’s a $1,410 fee for this fast-lane process, but when time is of the essence, it can be the difference between hiring your ideal candidate before the end of the month to help hit a major milestone or missing that hire, and that milestone, altogether.

O-1 visa for individuals with extraordinary ability

Sometimes referred to as the “genius visa,” the O-1 is a sought-after visa that not only provides work authorization in the US, it also provides some bragging rights. USCIS defines the O-1 as a work visa for an individual with “ extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics, or who has a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry, and has been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements.”

In other words, the O-1 visa is awarded to people at the very top of their field. Until recently, the O-1 visa was viewed as exclusively for nobel scientists and movie stars. However, an increasing number of STEM professionals and startup founders are successfully obtaining the O-1. Entrepreneurs with funding or those that completed an accelerator program may qualify for the O-1, and can easily compile the evidence required to submit an application. 

There are several major differences between the O-1 and the H-1B:

  • There’s no time limit for the visa holder. While both H-1B and O-1 visas are granted for three-year increments, H-1B visas can only be extended once for a maximum of six years (there are some exceptions, e.g., for people who are waiting to get their green card) whereas O-1 visas can be extended indefinitely.
  • There is no prevailing wage for the employer. H-1B employers must show the ability to pay a federally-set minimum salary based on the occupation type, geographic location, etc. Employers who want to bring an O-1 visa recipient on board aren’t subject to these requirements which can be great for startups who tend to give out more equity than salary in the early stages.
  • There’s no degree requirement. H-1B visa candidates must hold at least a bachelor’s degree in their specialty field. But with tech startups increasingly foregoing strict degree requirements in lieu of practical ability, that can present issues when your ideal candidate has been coding since before they could walk but never received a university degree in computer science. Luckily, the O-1 visa looks at accomplishments rather than credentials, giving that coding-since-birth candidate a chance.

In many ways, the O-1 is the ideal visa option for entrepreneurs. However, there are extra hoops you have to jump through as compared to the H-1B visa. The O-1 visa usually requires much more evidence than the H-1B visa. To prove that an individual is at the very top of their field, they need to provide evidence of their accomplishments, accolades, letters of affidavit from important people, etc. This evidence-gathering often ends up taking more time than for the H-1B visa. In addition, and often partly because of this extra effort, lawyers usually charge more for O-1 visas.

Still, the O-1 is an excellent option that is in many ways better than the H-1B visa. If you have a candidate on your hands that may qualify for the O-1 visa, give it a shot. Plus, the O-1 is also eligible for premium processing, so you can get an answer within 15 days of submitting your application.

Other options to consider

Now that we’ve covered the two major visa categories that are best suited for startups, let’s take a look at a few others. The following additional visa categories are also perfectly viable, but they’re more specific in their requirements and so are only truly relevant to a subset of employers that meet certain criteria.

TN visa for NAFTA professionals

This visa was created as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and provides work authorization for Canadian and Mexican nationals. The requirements are actually quite similar to the H-1B visa, but the TN has the benefit of not being subject to an annual cap of 85,000. 

Canadian citizens can apply directly at the US border. Border officials just need a passport, visa application, and underlying evidence. Otherwise, the employer can apply on behalf of the Canadian candidate by submitting a TN visa application to USCIS by mail. Luckily, the TN is also eligible for premium processing, similarly allowing employers to get the visa adjudicated within two weeks. Mexican citizens have a slightly different scenario in that they can’t apply directly at the border, so the employer is required to submit the TN visa application by mail.

L-1 visa for an intracompany transferee

The L-1 visa allows companies to temporarily bring over managerial or specialized knowledge employees from overseas offices. This means that US employers who are either based overseas or at least have a qualifying overseas presence, can bring a manager or, more importantly, a specialized worker such as an engineer, data scientist, marketing analyst, etc. to a US office.

While not a traditional startup employment situation, US offshoots of foreign companies often operate as startups – they might work out of a co-working space, get insurance and benefits through a US-based PEO, and have a totally separate budget. So when it’s time to bring on a new hire, they have the benefit of a talent pool overseas. .

E-2 visa

The E-2 visa allows nationals of certain treaty countries to make an investment into a US business and thereby enter the US and work for that business. Indeed, 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 US.

That said, the E-2 visa is also available to an employee of a treaty investor, as long as that employee is the same nationality of the employer/investor, qualifies as an “employee” under relevant laws, and is either hired as an executive or worker with special qualifications. The latter scenario is more common: a US startup is created by a foreign founder/investor and that founder wants to bring over an employee from their country of origin.

Which path to take?

Ultimately, determining which visa is the best fit is something you should discuss with your legal services provider. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be armed with a good idea of the visa landscape and which visa might be best for you. At the end of the day, work with an immigration provider that gets you so you can stop worrying about hiring and spend your time building your business.