For the past year or so, I have been working on a US-based startup from my home country (UK). I am in charge of all things technical, ie: website, software development, design, etc...

As the company has now received investment, I need to travel to the US in order to work with my colleagues in person. As I am a co-founder and shareholder in the startup, it is imperative that I now work in person, rather than over Skype/etc... However I am unable to figure out which visa I should apply for. Here's why:

  • I am a UK citizen (born and bred in the UK. I lived here my whole life), so I could apply for an ESTA. However an ESTA only allows you to perform certain business activities such as signing contracts. I need to be able to sign contracts and work in the US. Also I will most likely have to stay for longer than 3 months at a time.
  • I could apply for a B visa, however that does not enable me to work in the US.
  • I can't apply for an H-1B visa, as I don't have a degree. After I finished school I did study at the university for a while. However I ended up dropping out mid-way (I was bored and wanted work on my software development projects).
  • I can't apply for an L1 visa, because our startup is based in New York. It has no division in the UK.
  • As I am not an investor, I cannot apply for an E2 visa. I have spent a few grands on certain technical expenses, but that does not classify as an investment, nor is it anywhere near the $100k minimum investment requirement.

The things I want to work on while in the US:

  • Sign legal contracts.
  • Have meeting with investors.
  • Work on all things technical (develop the required company software, work on databases, etc..).
  • Work with colleagues on business side of things (as well as technical) - meetings, presentations, conferences, marketing, etc...

A few things to note:

  • I am not interested in migrating to the US. The UK will always be my home, I am purely traveling for business.
  • The startup has been established and is a legal private company in the US.
  • Should the company become profitable, I will earn money via dividends (or by selling shares), as I am a co-founder and shareholder. I will NOT be a paid employee.
  • I may be paid for travel/living expenses (initially), ie: travel costs, hotel/Airbnb rent, renting a car, etc... (I would either be paid directly, or the costs could fall under "company expenses", depending on what the US visa permits).
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    "However an ESTA only allows you to perform certain business activities". No. An ESTA only allows you to fly to the US. It is not a visa, it is a pre-clearance for traveling to the US. You were probably thinking of the Visa Waiver Program. – user67108 Apr 11 '18 at 11:13
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    @Supertecnoboff Sounds like a situation where it would be worth consulting an immigration lawyer? – Traveller Apr 11 '18 at 11:25
  • I see, ok I will try and contact the US embassy in London, see if they can help with the correct Visa choice. Although I doubt I'll get a reply. – Supertecnoboff Apr 11 '18 at 11:39
  • Do you have a ownership interest in the company? – user102008 Apr 11 '18 at 13:19
  • @user102008 Yes. See the second paragraph: "As I am a co-founder and shareholder in the startup..." – phoog Apr 11 '18 at 18:21

Let's start by clearing up some confusion. ESTA is just permission to get on a plane to the US. The thing that admits you to the US is called the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). When googling what you are allowed to do, search for VWP, not ESTA. (To be fair, lots of people say ESTA when they mean VWP). Being British you are (very probably) eligible for VWP.

VWP gives you the same permissions that a B1/B2 gives you. Let's look at what you want to do:

  • "Sign legal contracts." No problem
  • "Have meeting with investors." No problem
  • "Work with colleagues on meetings, presentations, conferences, marketing, etc..." Almost certainly no problem.
  • "develop the required company software etc." No, absolutely not. This counts as work, and neither VWP nor B1/B2 will let you do it. You are allowed to meet with colleagues to discuss how you are going to develop the software, but you can't actually do it.

Also a VWP is not going to give you more than 90 days in the US. For that you would have to apply for a B1/B2, but even then you would not be allowed to work.

By far the best way to do this is to have your meetings in the US under the VWP, plan the work, even hold design and requirement discussions, then return home and do the actual work in the UK. You can fly out reasonably frequently for more meetings. The only other way is to get some kind of work permit that allowed you to work in the US. I believe that work permits are obtainable if you can show that you have specialized expertise that is essential to the work and is not generally available.

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