Dear Sophie: Do we need a visa to explore the US market?
Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.
“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”
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My husband and I plan to visit our daughter during her spring break. (She’s an F-1 international student at a U.S. university.) In between spending time with our daughter and sightseeing, we’d like to explore the feasibility of expanding our business in the United States.
Do we need to get a special visa to do that?
— Multitasking Mom
Thank you for reaching out to me before your trip! Conducting business activities while in the United States on a tourist visa is one of the most common mistakes that founders make. I mention this and a few other situations in my podcast episode on immigration pitfalls that startup founders should avoid. Doing business while in visitor status can jeopardize your ability to live and work in the United States or to enter the U.S. in the future.
To answer your question, yes, you will need either a B-1 business visitor visa or ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) Visa Waiver Program if you are not a citizen of either Canada or Bermuda. Citizens of Canada and Bermuda do not need a visa to visit the U.S. for certain business visitor activities for less than 180 days.
Before I dive into the specifics of B-1 visas and ESTA, the Visa Waiver Program, as it relates to business, let me just say that it’s never too early to meet with an immigration attorney to discuss your long-term goals and immigration options. I recommend that international founders such as you and your husband talk with an immigration lawyer even before you make your first business-related trip to the United States.
Immigration issues will matter for you both and any international talent you hire should you decide to expand your business here. What’s more, your reasons for coming to the U.S., the visa you obtain, what you say to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers when you arrive in the U.S., what you do while you’re in the U.S., and when you leave could all affect future visits or stays in the U.S.