The L-1 Visa Category

The L-1 Visa category is one of my favorites for a company in the U.S. wishing to employ a foreign worker.  If you qualify for L-1 classification, it should be the visa of choice, even if other types of employment visas are available.   It is designed for a foreign executive or manager of a  multinational company who is being transferred to the U.S. in order to manage a subsidiary of the company.   It is also available to high level employees of foreign companies with U.S. branches who have specialized knowledge which makes them invaluable.

In order to qualify for L-1 classification, you must meet the following minimum requirements:

  • The U.S. company to which you are being transferred is a branch, subsidiary, affiliate or joint venture partner of your non-U.S. employer.   
  • You will be employed at the U.S. company as a manager or executive.  Meaning, you are being transferred to the U.S. to supervise work of other supervisory, professional or managerial employees, or you will be managing an essential function, department or subdivision of your company.  Or you are being transferred as an employee with specialized knowledge and skills.  That is, you have specialized knowledge relating to your company’s products, research methods, marketing techniques, or other specialized procedures.
  • You must have worked for the foreign company for at least a year.
  • You must have worked in the capacity of an executive or manager of the foreign company (if applying as an executive or manager transferee).

What makes the L-1 a good choice?

  • No long queues.  Unlike some other visa categories, there are no annual numerical limitations for L-1 visas.  That means you will not have to compete for a limited number of spaces each year, or wait until a new fiscal year begins before working.  If you are issued an L-1 visa, you may begin working immediately.  Also, premium processing is available for L-1 applications.  Once your L-1 visa has been issued, you may be transferred to the U.S. branch, subsidiary, affiliate, or joint venture partner of your foreign company and work legally in the U.S.     
  • Multiple use privileges.  You will be permitted to travel in and out of the U.S. multiple times on a single L-1 visa and or remain here continuously until your L-1 status expires. 
  • Spouses and children welcome.  Your spouse and children will be able to travel with you under L-2 classification.
  • Spouses may also work in the U.S.  Unlike other types of employment visas, spouses of L-1 visa holders may apply for work authorization while they are in the U.S. in L-2 status.  The best part is that there are no limitations as to the type of work that the spouse can do.  Also, the spouse may work for any employer of his or her choosing, which means the spouse has more opportunities and flexibility than the L-1 visa holder.  However, minor children of L-1 visa holders are NOT authorized to work.
  • Direct Access to Permanent Residence.  After three years in L-1 status, the L-1 visa holder may apply for permanent residence directly without the need for the lengthy and costly labor certification process.
  • Blanket L-1 approval.  Large multination companies who transfer many employees on a regular basis may apply for a blanket approval for L-1 status of their executives and managers, which eliminates the need to submit an individual application for each person.  Transfers may take place on shorter notice because there is no need to get an approval from USCIS.
  • New Branch office permitted.  A foreign company may use the L-1 visa to set up a new branch office, subsidiary, or affiliate in the U.S.  The company to which you are transferring does not need to be an existing concern.  It may be a startup.
  • No minimum education requirements.  Unlike, for instance the H-1B or TN visas, executive, managerial, or key employee transferees are not required to have any minimum level of education to qualify for L-1 status.
  • No “prevailing wage” requirement.   A U.S. employer of an L-1 transferee is not required to pay a certain salary to the transferee.   Keep in mind, however, that paying your transferee a salary that is significantly less than prevailing wages would probably result in denial of the application even though there is technically no prevailing wage requirement because it calls into question whether the person is a high level employee. 

As attractive as the L-1 visa may be, it does have certain limitations.  For instance:

  • You may only work for your sponsoring employer and no other.  If you change employers, you will lose L-1 status.   
  • The maximum number of years you can remain in L-1 status is seven if you are an executive or manager, five if you are a specialized knowledge employee.   You can only get approval for a maximum number of three years upon initial issuance of the visa.  Thereafter, you must apply for extensions every two years until you reach your maximum period of stay.    

Successfully Setting Up a New Office in the U.S

As discussed above, one of the key features of the L-1 visa is that a manager of a foreign company may to come to the U.S. for the specific purpose of starting a new branch office, subsidiary, affiliate, or franchise of the foreign company.  This is ideal for successful companies wishing to expand operations to the large U.S. market.  The form of the new company is not important for purposes of L-1 classification (it doesn’t matter if the new company is a corporation, LLC, partnership, etc.).  Rather, it’s more critical that the new startup be functioning viably within one year of launch (or at the very least, have strong prospects of doing so).  If you are contemplating starting operations in the U.S., here are a few pointers which will enhance your chance of success in obtaining L-1 classification for a new office.

Obtain an Office Lease.   Modern business are lean.  Through the use of technology, they can operate with very little overhead.  Who needs an office when you have virtual offices, temporary spaces, video conferencing, emailing, texting, etc. at your disposal?  It makes sense for a company to try to control overhead as much as possible when stepping into a new market.  However, USCIS does not see things the same way.  In order for you to get approval for L-1 classification, you have to commit serious resources.  One of the most important is to obtain an office lease.  USCIS will look for evidence that you have secured office space for your new business, even if you don’t necessarily need it.  Don’t try to cut costs by leaving out this important step.  The office doesn’t have to be huge with all the finest amenities, just sufficient to support the needs of the company and its employees.

Write a Business Plan.  You will need a business plan to show to USCIS what services or products you plan to sell in the U.S., how you will achieve profitability, what resources you will be investing to start new operations, how many employees you plan to hire to work for you, etc.  The business plan does not need to be as detailed as one where you would submit to investors in order to raise capital.   A reasonable plan can be anywhere from 10-15 pages long.  The longer (and more detailed) your business plan, the better.  A serious business plan is a must.

Prepare an Organizational Chart.  This step does not necessarily take a great deal of time, but an organizational chart is a very important document to be submitted to USCIS.  The chart should clearly lay out the leadership structure for both the existing foreign company and the new U.S. based company.  Remember that you must prove that you are an executive or manager, and your place in the company hierarchy should be high.  If you will be managing a department, make sure you indicate where the department is situation in the company structure.

Obtain the Necessary Registration and Licensing.  Most states in the U.S. require some sort of registration (especially for foreign corporations) before a new company can begin operations.  In certain fields, licensing is required.  To improve your chances, you should accomplish this step prior to filing an application for L-1 for a new business.

Prepare a Support Letter.  You company should prepare a letter addressed to USCIS that explains your role in the company, your qualifications, your work history, what responsibilities you will be in charge of in the new startup, etc.  The letter explains how all the supporting evidence and documentation fits into the big picture.  The letter is key because in my experience, the more information you provide to USCIS, the more favorably they will look at your application.

Even if you do all of the above, there is no guarantee you will be successful with your application because the process itself is subjective and based upon how well you are able to convince the adjudicators at USCIS that your efforts to start a new business in the U.S. are serious and long term.  In the end, a well crafted, well compiled application with all necessary supporting documentation has the best chance of success.  That is why it is critical to work with a specialist who has experience with L-1 cases, especially if you are trying to start a new U.S. operation from scratch.

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