“How long will you be staying in the US?”
The immigration officer waves me forward.
“Just a week. I’m flying home on Friday”
“Why do you have two checked bags?”
I’ve flown to the US hundreds of times on business, but I’ve never heard that one before… Maybe that second coffee was a bad idea. The caffeine might be making me look nervous.
“I have a few meetings in New York, I need a suit.”
“Welcome to America.”
He stamps my passport - I’m the latest recipient of a B-1 “Temporary Business Visitor” Visa.
I’m in, but the B-1 won’t let me stay for long. Over a one year period I can only be in the US for a maximum of four months. Not quite enough time to build a business.
If you’re a foreign entrepreneur doing business in the US, you know the B-1 Visa dance well. But there’s something better than the B-1 Visa.
Your Newest Friend: The L-1A Visa
After three years of growing my startup in Canada and flying to San Francisco and New York for meetings every month, my co-founder and I decided we needed a permanent US presence to take things to the next level. This is the story of how I navigated the alphabet soup of US Citizenship and Immigration without an immigration lawyer.
But before we get into my story, two big caveats:
First, I am not a lawyer.
This is just the story of what worked for me. Please don’t take this as legal advice.
Second, I am Canadian, white, male, in my 30s, have an engineering degree, and speak English without an accent.
I have no idea if any of these things affected my experiences crossing borders, but I figured I should mention them up front.
Learning the A-B-Cs of US Citizenship and Immigration
I started off like every other aspiring immigrant: by going down the Google research rabbit hole. It turns out there are a lot of US Visa classes - 35, to be specific. Luckily, I’ve run into enough walls to narrow things down: for startup founders like me, the best Visa seems to be the L-1A. So what is it?
The L-1A is an “executive transfer” Visa, which allows a foreign company (my startup in Canada) to transfer an executive (me as co-founder & CEO) to a US company that’s related to the foreign company (my startup in Canada’s newly incorporated US subsidiary). Sneaky? Maybe - but very effective.
What US Immigration (Probably) Wants to See
If you’re anything like me, you probably hate filling out government paperwork. But surprisingly, the application for the L-1A involves just one government form: the I-129 “Petition for non-immigrant worker”. The bulk of the application is “supporting documentation” about me, my foreign startup, and our new US subsidiary.
The US Immigration website has a great section about understanding the L-1 Visa requirements where you can get a feel for the supporting document expectations - but to be honest, even with the examples, I struggled with what to include.
That is, until I started thinking about the application process like providing due diligence information to an early stage investor. Think about it: a venture capitalists wants to know that you’re an honest founder with a real business, and plan to use her investment dollars to build a company. The US Immigration Department is no different.
Like an investor, US Immigration probably just wants to know that you’re an honest person, have a real company and that you’ll use a US Visa to try to expand your business into the United States.
Immigration Due Diligence
Early in the process I called the US-Canada border in Blaine, WA with a few application questions. The response from the immigration official set the bar: most people applying for the L-1A come in with “the equivalent of Moby Dick in supporting documentation.” I figured I’d err on the side of completeness when it came to my application. Here’s what the final product looked like:
In the end, it’s no Moby Dick - it’s three times that - but in truth, the application was only one of those three binders, with two duplicates. You see, when you apply for the L-1A, you need to give US Immigration two copies, with original signatures on both. I kept the third copy for reference.
I divided my application into three main sections:
Employee Transferee: this section was all about me.
Foreign Company: this section was all about my startup in Canada.
The US Company: this section was all about our newly incorporated US subsidiary.
Here’s what I put into each of these sections:
The Employee Transferee
This section was all about showing who I am, that I really am an executive, and that I’ve been an executive for at least 1 out of the last 3 years while employed by my startup. Here’s what I included:
I just printed it from my LinkedIn profile.
An Offer Letter
This was drafted by me and signed by one of the Directors of my Canadian company to affirm that I had been employed by the Canadian company for three years as the CEO and that I was being sent to the US to set up a US subsidiary.
The letter mentioned what my salary would be, when I was supposed to start, and what my duties would be. This was probably the hardest thing to write since it’s an “offer letter” for a job I already had. In the end it was pretty simple, and here’s a picture of what the finished product looked like:
My tax returns for the last three years.
I figured this would help show I had been employed by my startup for the last three years in Canada.
The I-129 Petition.
This is merely the formal form I originally mentioned above.
A copy of my I-94 record.
This is a US government record of when I entered/exited the US. You can find yours by typing your passport number into this website.
The Foreign Company
This section was all about showing that my foreign startup was a real company that had real employees and a real office and did real business. Here’s what I included in this section:
1. Our certificate of incorporation. It looks official, so I figured it was a good place to start.
2. Our articles of incorporation. I think document this might be called different things in different countries (maybe “charter” or “bylaws”), but it’s basically the rules for how your company is going to run, how you elect directors, and all that other legal stuff.
3. All our share certificates. I included copies of all of our share certificates because I figured they’d make us look very official, and also show that we have investors and have raised at least a little bit of money.
4. The lease for our Vancouver office. I’d read somewhere that it was important to show that the foreign company has real operations, and I figured a lease with a floor plan was a good way to show this.
5. Photos of our Vancouver office. For the same reason, I included a bunch of photos of the office with all our Canadian staff at their desks looking busy. I’ve heard that office party photos (e.g. company Christmas party with employees drinking and being merry) are also good. Your results may vary.
6. My investor deck. I figured there was a chance I’d be asked about the business during the interview at the border, and if there’s one thing I can do in my sleep it’s talk to somebody about my startup using my deck. Always be ready!
7. A one-page business summary. On the off chance that I didn’t get to explain the business using slides, I included a one-page summary that’s easy to read and gives the US Immigration officer a quick way understand what my startup does.
8. A management team summary. I wrote up a one-paragraph description for each of the members of the management team, advisors, and board of directors. I figured the person reading the Visa application would feel more comfortable if he/she was able to put faces to names and bios.
9. Our US expansion plans. I wrote up a four page summary of our US expansion plans. I described why it was important for us to setup a US office, and I included an organizational chart of what the reporting structure of the foreign and US companies would look like in one year. I also included 3 year pro-forma financial projections. See? It really is like investor due diligence!
10. Examples of past press coverage and brochures. I printed some of the top media hits we’d had over the years. I also included a few of our partners’ brochures that had our logo on them. I figured this would show that we were a real company because journalists had bothered to write about us and our partners had bothered to include our name and logo on their marketing materials.
11. Our financial statements. I included printouts of the P&L and balance sheet from quickbooks for the last three years.
12. Our Canadian corporate tax returns. I included copies of our Canadian corporate tax returns for the last three years since these are perhaps the most “official” evidence that we are a real company.
13. Our shareholders agreement. I think in some countries the “shareholders agreement” is included in a company charter or articles of incorporation, but in Canada we usually have two documents instead of one. I included our shareholders agreement just in case they had any questions about shareholder rights.
14. Annual general meeting minutes. I included our annual general meeting minutes for the past two years. Riveting reading, to be sure, but it certainly isn’t something we could have made up easily.
15. Our bank statements. I’ve read somewhere that one of the things that US Immigration looks at is whether or not there is sufficient financing or financial resources in place to support the US expansion. With this in mind, I included copies of our bank statements for the last two years. We have bank accounts with both a Canadian bank, and with Silicon Valley Bank. SVB is great about helping foreign startups get US bank accounts - our recommendation.
The US Company
When we decided that I was going to move to the US and that I’d be applying for an L-1A Visa, we knew we’d need a US affiliate company. For reasons that are above my pay grade, it seems that Delaware is the best state to incorporate in. With that in mind, we got our law firm to incorporated a Delaware C Corporation and had the new US company sell all of its shares to our Canadian company.
This made the new US company a wholly owned subsidiary of our Canadian company. This was pretty simple and gave me an easy way to prove that there was a “relationship” between the foreign company and the US company that I was being transferred to.
Since the US company was freshly incorporated, there wasn’t much documentation to provide, but here’s what I included:
The articles of incorporation & bylaws. This was all the documentation we really had for our newly incorporated US company, so we just included all of it.
The Delaware certificate of incorporation. Again, looks official - so in it goes.
The stock purchase agreement. This was a signed agreement between our Canadian company and our newly formed US company for the US company to sell all its shares to the Canadian company, thus showing a “relationship” between the two entities.
The lease for US office space. This can be a bit of a chicken and egg problem, since it’s hard to lease space before you’re in the US, but when I was in the US on a B-1 Visa I rented a desk in a coworking space in San Francisco. So technically, I had a lease for office space to show US Immigration. I made sure that the lease included a floorplan of the co-working space, since I’d read that US immigration likes to see floorplans.
Photos of our US office space. I had a pull up banner from when Shelfie presented at Startup Grind, so I set it up next to my desk in the coworking space and got somebody to take a picture of me working at my desk.
Our US IRS EIN application. Every company that employs people in the US needs to have an IRS (that’s the US Tax Agency) EIN (which stands for Employer Identification Number). The application is super simple and you can actually do it over the phone any time of day or night and they’ll mail you a letter with your EIN within a week. It’s funny how convenient the government makes it for you to get things that help you pay your taxes.
And that’s it.
Here’s What Happened Next
For Canadians applying for the L-1A Visa, the process is a little different than for citizens of other countries. As a Canadian, you simply get all of your documentation together and then on the day you’re travelling to the US, you apply in person at any of the 14 US Ports of Entry that can process L-1A applications on-site.
For non-Canadians, I believe the application process involves mailing your application to US Citizenship and Immigration Services. But as I warned, I’m a Canadian non-lawyer, so please don’t take my word for it - check with USCIS for the mechanics of how you should apply.
With all of my documentation in hand, I arrived at Vancouver International Airport 4 hours early for my flight to San Francisco. I checked-in, cleared security, and headed for US Immigration pre-clearance. I told the US Immigration officer that I wanted to apply for an L-1A Visa and he escorted me to secondary screening.
In secondary screening a female officer waved me forward. I handed over my two duplicate application binders. She looked skeptical as she flipped through the first few pages and then asked where my I-129 form was. I’d mistakenly put it towards the back of Employee Transferee section. She scolded me for not putting it “front and center”.
She told me to have a seat and wait while she reviewed my application.
After about 30 minutes, she waved me back and said that everything looked like it was in order and that I could go to the cashier to pay the application fee.
I paid the $825 fee with my credit card.
She stamped my passport with an L-1A Visa valid for 1 year and renewable thereafter for up to 6 more.
Easy as (American) Pie
The whole process was surprisingly easy once I got my head around it. In hindsight, I’m surprised there are so many immigration lawyers who charge thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to help entrepreneurs secure US Visas.
That said, peace of mind is priceless. I’ll never again worry about the number of bags I check - and if I’m ever asked, I’ll answer “I have two checked bags because I’m going to Silicon Valley to work on my startup”.
In my research I found US Citizenship and Immigration’s website to be surprisingly good. If you’re interested, here are the pages I found the most helpful: