Dear Sophie: Do we need a visa to explore the U.S. 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.”

Dear Sophie,

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

Dear Multitasking,

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.

A composite image of immigration law attorney Sophie Alcorn in front of a background with a TechCrunch logo.

Image Credits: Joanna Buniak / Sophie Alcorn

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.

B-1 Business Visitor Visa

If you plan on exploring the U.S. market for your business during your trip, apply for a B-1 business visitor visa, which is a non-immigrant (temporary) visa that allows you to be in the United States for up to six months at a time. The B-1 business visitor visa and the B-2 tourist visa are usually issued together as a single B-1/B-2 visa.

When you arrive in the U.S., it is important that you and your husband enter the U.S. in B-1 status and tell the customs officer that you intend to conduct business as allowed under the visa in between sightseeing with your daughter. You cannot work or get paid in the U.S. while you are here on a B-1 visa. Some of the business activities typically allowed under a B-1 include:

  • Conducting research
  • Interviewing prospective employees
  • Negotiating a contract, such as a lease agreement or employment contract
  • Meeting with investors or customers or potential investors or customers
  • Consulting with business associates
  • Attending a scientific, educational, professional or business conference
  • Participating in short-term training

For application info or to check if the U.S. embassy or consulate in your area is scheduling appointments for B-1/B-2 visitor visas and if so, the approximate wait time for appointments, go to the U.S. Department of State Visitor Visa page.

ESTA Visa Waiver Program

Depending on your country of citizenship, you and your husband may be eligible for the ESTA visa waiver program. The program enables citizens of 40 countries to travel to the U.S. for business for stays of 90 days or less without first obtaining a visa. If you’re eligible, you may want to consider applying for ESTA, particularly if you expect to make several trips to the U.S. to lay the groundwork for expanding your business.

Like the B-1 business visitor visa, ESTA does not enable an individual to perform work in the United States even if the activity is subject to an agreement with a client that is based outside the United States. Like the B-1, ESTA enables individuals to come to the United States to perform certain business activities, such as attending a conference, meeting with customers or potential customers, or collecting data or information. You can check on your I-94 card if you were permitted to enter specifically for business if the notation is “W-B,” which stands for “Waiver-Business” – as opposed to WT, which indicates tourism.

Enjoy your time with your daughter, sightseeing and scoping out the U.S. market!

All the best,


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The information provided in “Dear Sophie” is general information and not legal advice. For more information on the limitations of “Dear Sophie,” please view our full disclaimer. You can contact Sophie directly at Alcorn Immigration Law.

Sophie’s podcast, Immigration Law for Tech Startups, is available on all major platforms. If you’d like to be a guest, she’s accepting applications!