How do UK entrepreneurs gain visas to relocate to the US?

A look at how British entrepreneurs with US ambitions can gain all-important visas to relocate there


The aim here is to case study the UK entrepreneurs that have successfully made the move to the US. We shall look into the best ways a UK entrepreneur can secure a US visa and relocate their start-up to hubs like Silicon Valley.

Despite the abundant resources online, researching US Visas can be an overwhelming endeavour. This article will focus on ways a UK entrepreneur can secure the O-1 Visa.

What is the O-1 Visa?

The O-1 Visa appears to be the most popular visa for UK entrepreneurs who want to move to the US. Although not impossible to obtain, it is the most difficult. In order to qualify for this visa you need to be able to provide evidence of the ‘extraordinary ability’ of rising to the top of your field. It is also important that your abilities and contributions have received national and international recognition.

The O-1 Visa application mainly consists of acquiring supporting documents to prove your ‘extraordinary ability’. These include:

  • Published material in major publications
  • Invitations to conferences
  • Awards or honours received
  • Evidence of membership to professional associations
  • Press releases profiling you
  • Judging panel participation
  • Evidence of high salary
  • Being employed in a critical position for a reputable company
  • Recommendation letters from experts or thought leaders in your field
Who sponsors ambitious entrepreneurs for an O-1 Visa?

To get an O-1 Visa you need a sponsor. In this case, your start-up is the sponsor. Immigration lawyer Chris Wright states: “If you establish a corporate entity, that entity would file the petition for an O-1, but the US immigration authorities can and do challenge that structure, so it becomes vital that you hold no more than 49% of the entity’s equity, such that one can defensibly argue that you do not control it.

“Oddly, this policy shift was actually stated by the US Citizenship & Immigration Services with respect to H-1b visas (on the basis that the company must have the right to fire the employee, and that if the employee controls the company, that right can’t be present by definition), but the thinking appears to have bled over to O-1 petitions to a certain degree.

“Maddeningly, US immigration authorities won’t say how much equity is too much – but by way of an example, petitions are routinely approved where for business partners, each holding 45%, with investors holding another 10%, so that appears to be a model the government will grudgingly accept.”

Having spoken to a number of British entrepreneurs who have been through the process it seems there are six rules you need to accept before embarking on your visa application.

1. Be realistic about your chances

The first step for any UK entrepreneur is to speak with an immigration lawyer to see if they currently have sufficient proof to qualify for the O-1 Visa. Andy Mcloughlin, co-founder of Huddle, which has expanded into the US in the past year with him relocating says: “Most large corporate law firms have an immigration department but you’ll get better, cheaper, more personal service from a specialist firm”. “Spend some time speaking with them in detail about you and your business – the more they know the better they will be able to advise you. Most importantly, be realistic – unless you’re either a complete rock star or have an existing business making meaningful revenues you’re going to find it tough.”

2. Apply to Y Combinator

I asked Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, an incubator in Silicon Valley, if applying to Y Combinator was a good way to secure a US visa. He stated: “In practice it seems to be, because lots of English founders we’ve funded have gone on to get visas of various types. A significant number have even managed to get O-1s.”

3. Get lots of press coverage

Jude Gomilla, co-founder of HeyZap, who was accepted into Y Combinator in 2007 pointed out that the O-1 Visa was the only visa that enabled him to start a company as a UK founder in the USA. He explained that, “a large amount of time went to compiling the evidence, getting reference letters signed, documenting awards and press coverage”. Despite the challenges of securing a visa, Jude Gomilla takes an optimistic approach. His advice to UK entrepreneurs is: “Hustle really hard and see getting a visa as a challenge that you can hustle your way to completion.”

4. Focus on the visa first

Kulveer Taggar, co-founder of TagStand, also accepted into Y Combinator 2007 and 2011 claims that the biggest difficulty was the time taken for the whole process. “Obtaining reference letters was time consuming, but not impossible.” Asked what he would do differently if he had to apply for the visa again, he explained he would prioritise it and do it first as “it’s a massive distraction”.

5. Get supporting evidence

Tim Van Damme, a well-known web designer at Instagram, came from Belgium on the O-1 Visa when he was working at Gowalla. He echoes the view that prioritising is important in order to get through the required paperwork. “For months we were working on scraping together articles I wrote, work I did, and endorsement letters from industry leaders.” Tim’s situation took 11 months and three weeks. He emphasises that it’s a rough process. “Be prepared to work remotely for a while before you make the actual move.”

6. Don’t expect it to go smoothly

Ben Way, founder of The Rainmakers, who was featured on ‘Secret Millionaire’, secured an O-1 Visa but had a frustrating experience in obtaining it. A documentary called Starting-up in America explains the difficulties he faced. I asked him what the best visa is for a UK founder? “Quite simply there is no best visa for a UK entrepreneur to go for, each have significant flaws and challenges associated with them. Anybody who wants to run a business in the US, firstly should not expect to get it, secondly put aside £6,500 for the cost and thirdly expect it to take six months from start to finish.”

Conclusion

Getting an O-1 Visa is not an immediate undertaking. It takes planning. Simply look at the requirements of getting the O-1 Visa and start working towards ticking them off. Most of the people interviewed, stress the importance of getting hold of a successful application to know what it takes. Finally, use a lawyer with a great track record of getting the O-1 Visa.

William Channer is the founder of Dorm Room Tycoon , a podcast show which broadcasts interviews with top entrepreneurs and thought leaders. You can follow William on Twitter: @williamchanner

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