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How to Start Your Own Business in the US

You prefer being your own boss to a nine-to-five schedule? Get informed about opportunities for self-employment in the US. Entrepreneurship is highly appreciated in the USA. Obviously, self-employment isn’t for everyone – but it could be right for you! Find all info on running a business in our expat guide.
Successful self-employment starts with a good business plan!

Visa Categories for Entrepreneurs

It is rather difficult to come to the US with the explicitly stated goal of working as a freelancer or independent contractor, or of running your own company. Successful visa applications, both for immigrant and non-immigrant visas, often depend on a US employer sponsoring your claim.

There aren’t that many possibilities for expats to start their own business right away. However, a few visa options could be of interest. We recommend you to check out the details provided by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services.

  • The EB-5 Visa is an immigrant visa for alien entrepreneurs. They must invest at least $500,000 in a new commercial enterprise and create ten full-time jobs for US workers within two years.
  • The E2 Treaty Investor Visa applies to non-immigrant workers from a country with which the US has entered into a treaty of commerce and navigation. If a national of such a country wants to temporarily live in the US in order to develop a new business, they also need to invest a substantial amount of money. However, this category does not mention a specific minimum sum. The investment is dependent on the size and nature of the business.
  • For nationals of treaty countries, the E1 Treaty Trader Visa is another option. It covers non-immigrant applicants who’d like to carry out trade between the US and their country of origin. Trade does not only refer to import and export. It, too, includes exchanging services, as well as fields like international banking, tourism, or transportation.

Options for Expat Spouses and Long-Term Residents

The spouse or dependent of a visa-holder might want to look into self-employment as well. Especially for traveling spouses, work as an independent contractor can prove a valid way of starting a new career.

However, if you come to the United States on a dependent visa, you are often barred from working without a special permit. However, depending on your visa category, you may apply for a so-called Employment Authorization Document. Although this permit explicitly refers to "employment", this may include employment in your own business. If you want to make sure that the EAD allows you to work as an independent contractor or a small business-owner, contact the USCIS or ask an immigration lawyer.

For other expatriates and visa-holders, self-employment may not be an option. However, if you have already been working in the US for a while and consider switching to self-employment, you should get in touch with Citizenship and Immigration Services. You can also talk to an attorney to explore your options.

Of course, if you have a Green Card, are married to a US citizen, or have applied for US citizenship, things will look very different. Then there are often no more obstacles to becoming self-employed.

Ways of Becoming Self-Employed

Once you have ensured that self-employment won’t interfere with your immigration status, you can think about the issues that come with setting up your own business. Firstly, you should consider what kind of entrepreneurship will be best for you.

  • Maybe you’d like to keep working in your current field, but independent of an employer. For example, you could be a software developer employed by a US IT company, who decides to quit their job and go free-lance.
  • Other people decide to buy an existing business or become part of a franchise, for example, in the fast food industry.
  • Perhaps you want to really do it all by yourself: You are planning on founding and developing your own company.

While all three options require research and preparation, the third one is probably the most time-consuming and labor-intensive, but potentially the most rewarding one. You might not become the next dotcom millionaire, but in ten years, you may look back proudly on a decade of running a SME (small and medium enterprise).

First Steps towards Self-Employment

Most initial steps towards running your own business are the same in the United States as anywhere else in the world. Start by asking yourself if you are the right type of person for this venture. For example, if you don’t like making decisions, are afraid of taking risks, or cannot work long hours, you should probably think twice before giving up your current job.

Moreover, you need a viable business idea and the know-how to do market research. You want to open an upscale bakery that sells cupcakes and petit fours? The most delicious recipes will not be worth it if there are two other cupcake cafés in the same area, or if you choose a business location in a run-down, unattractive neighborhood.

Having a clear idea of the products or services you want to offer, as well as analyzing your potential market, is the basis for writing your business plan. A detailed business plan also requires further skills and knowledge, for example:

  • to chart the management structure of your future enterprise
  • to develop a strategy for marketing and sales
  • to deal with legal and financial issues, such as funding or business structure

Advice for Small Business Owners

The US Small Business Administration offers valuable resources for everyone interested in becoming their own boss. Not only does their website give you step-by-step information on coming up with a business plan. It also provides tips on finding a mentor – an established and experienced business owner who can guide you through this process.

The SBA District Offices, as well as the Small Business Development Centers found in many cities, can serve as a starting point for advice and training. You might be a great web designer or wonderful copy-writer, but you may not know anything about accounting, intellectual property laws, or other aspects essential to your business plan.


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