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US Business Visa Guide

US Business Visa Guide

If you’re looking to travel to the US for business, whether for a short visit or perhaps you’re planning a longer-term move, you’ll need to ensure you meet the relevant entry requirements. This may mean that you need a work visa, or you may be eligible to travel visa-free, provided you have secured prior authorization.

Failure to secure the correct permission to travel and to carry out your intended activities can result in you being detained at the border and potentially being refused entry. Not only would this result in the inconvenience of not being able to see through any business commitments you had planned while in the US, any such issues would also be noted on your US immigration records, which can impact your eligibility for future US immigration applications and attempts to enter the country.

In this guide, we consider the main options for foreign nationals planning to go to the US for business.


Do you need a visa to travel to the US on business?

If you’re a national of a Visa Waiver country, your business trip will last no more than 90 days, and you hold a current e-passport from your visa waiver country, you may be eligible to travel to the US under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Under the VWP, you will not need to apply for a US visa, but you will need to have passed the security pre-screening and been granted ESTA approval.

The nature of your intended activity will also be a factor when travelling under the VWP. While certain business-related activities are permitted under the VWP – for example, to meet with a prospective client, attend a business conference or inspect prospective new premises – but you cannot undertake gainful employment while in the US under the VWP. To work in the US, you will instead have to apply for the relevant visa. For example, foreign journalists coming to the US on assignment should not travel visa-free. They should instead apply for the I media visa.

If you’re not eligible for ESTA, the most common business visa options to consider include:


B-1 visa for business visitors

The B1 visa is intended for business visits to the US that last for up to 6 months and can cover the following business-related activities:

  • Selling – this will not allow the B1 holder to sell or take orders for American goods during their time in the US, however, they may meet a client to sign contracts, take orders for goods produced in their home country, display samples of their goods, or set up an exhibition booth.
  • Service engineer – the B1 visa may be used to travel to the US to install, repair or service commercial or industrial machinery or equipment purchased from a business in the UK.
  • Speaker or lecturer – to take up an unpaid speaking engagement that lasts no more than 9 days at any institution which is:
    • a higher education institution
    • a government research organisation
    • a non-profit research organisation
    • an institution which is related to any of the above
  • Business venture – you may visit the US to look for business premises, either to buy or lease.
  • Conference – to participate in a convention, conference or seminar that is educational, professional (connected with one of the professions), or business-related. You may also present a paper at a conference as long as your presentation is unpaid. Where you act as a speaker or lecturer, the same rules apply as already mentioned in the Speaker or Lecturer section.
  • Researcher – you may participate in unpaid, independent research that will not benefit any US institution.
  • Medical elective – as a medical student of an overseas medical school, you may travel on the B1 visa to take up an unpaid elective clerkship at a US medical school hospital.
  • Voluntary work – taking part in a voluntary service program that will benefit a US local community, where the work is unpaid, does not involve any form of selling, and is organised by a recognised religious or non-profit charitable organisation.
  • Work in the Outer Continental Shelf – in certain circumstances, the B1 visa may be suitable to persons working on the Outer Continental Shelf.

As part of your application, you will need to provide evidence of your planned business activities and that you can cover the costs of your time in the US, including your return travel.

You will also be expected to satisfy your local US embassy that you intend to return to your home country when your visa expires. As such, you must provide evidence in your application and during your interview of your status in your home country and your connections with that country.


H1B visa for speciality occupation workers

The H1B visa is a petition-based, non-immigrant visa. This means that in order to be eligible, you must first secure a qualifying job offer with sponsorship by a US employer who must obtain permission from the US government before they can employ a foreign worker.

For the vacancy with the US employer to be suitable, the position must be in a ‘specialty occupation’ and require a bachelor’s or higher degree or equivalent, and this requirement must be the norm for the industry. For the purpose of the H1B visa, specialty occupations are those which require specialist knowledge in the related area and usually a bachelor’s or higher degree. Additionally, an unrestricted state licence, registration or certification may be required from the applicant.

Under the H1B visa cap, there are 65,000 visas available, with an additional 20,000 visas for applicants with a master’s degree. As this is a hugely popular visa, there are generally far more applications each year than there are available visas. As such, registrations are selected using a lottery system. There is an annual window for H1B registrations, which typically closes within the same month.

Unlike other temporary worker visas, the H1B visa is dual intent. This means that it may be entered into with the intent to use it as a path to US lawful permanent residency.


L1 visa for intra-company transfers

The L1 visa allows a foreign employee of an international company to transfer to a parent, branch, subsidiary, or affiliate of that company based in the US. It may also be used when a foreign employee of an international company visits the US to set up a parent, branch, subsidiary, or affiliate of that company.

The foreign company must already be conducting business in the US and with a minimum of one other country.

Any employee applying for a L1 visa must have worked for their employer overseas for a minimum of one continuous year within the last three years, and intend to work in the US in an executive, managerial or specialist capacity for that same employer.


E visas for treaty traders & investors


E-1 Treaty Trader

The E1 visa is specifically for those who are engaged in ongoing, substantial trade between the USA and a business in their own home country. It is possible to use this visa to establish trade with other countries, but more than half of the overall trade must be with the US. To be eligible for the E1 visa, you must also be a national of a country that has a treaty of commerce and navigation with the USA and provide evidence that you are an essential employee to the foreign business, in either an executive role, supervisory role or have appropriately specialized skills.

E-2 Treaty Investor

The E2 visa is for entrepreneurs and business owners from US treaty countries who wish to run a business in the USA, either through setting up a new business or investing in an existing business. Either of these options is seen as an investment in the US economy.

Further eligibility for the E2 visa includes:

  • half of the business which you have invested in must be owned by nationals of a treaty country
  • the investment must be substantial and sufficient to ensure that the business or enterprise can run successfully
  • the monies invested must be deemed to be put at risk, that is, should the enterprise fail the investment will be lost
  • this is an actual enterprise or business, with an active investment
  • the business or enterprise must have a significant, positive impact in the US or generate more than enough income to support you and your dependants
  • you must have complete control of the monies to be invested
  • you will be in charge of the enterprise or business yourself


Need assistance?

NNU Immigration are specialist US attorneys. We provide expert guidance on US immigration routes and support applicants through the petitioning process and interview stage to ensure the correct permission is obtained before travel. For advice on your US entry options or for help with an application, contact us.

This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.


Founder & Principal Attorney Nita Nicole Upadhye is a recognized leader in the field of US business immigration law (AILA) and trusted adviser to large corporates through to SMEs, providing strategic immigration and global mobility advice to support employers with both US and UK operations to meet their workforce needs through corporate immigration.

Nita successfully acts for corporations and professionals, entrepreneurs, artists, actors, and athletes from across the globe, providing expert guidance on all aspects of US visa and nationality applications, and talent mobility to the USA.

Nita is an active public speaker, thought leader, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals

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