Can you start a business with an F1 Visa

Apr 17, 2020 by

Time spent abroad is filled with novelty and self-discovery as you experience new cultures and how other people live. Countless opportunities arise for international students, and never a day without welcome surprises. In particular, there’s excitement behind the thought of one day starting your own business. Whether it’s introducing an invention or some novel method of solving a problem, it’s your adventure to undertake. However, while you may be rushing to get started, sometimes it becomes unclear how to begin – or if it’s even legal. First, it’s important to understand the basics of how employment works in F1 Visa status before starting your business.

F1 Visa Status

As per USCIS, the F1 Visa allows you to enter the U.S. as a full-time student at a college, university, seminary, conservatory, academic high school, elementary school, or other academic institution or language training program. Ultimately, your enrollment must culminate in a degree, diploma, or certificate.

After the first academic year, F1 Visa students are eligible to work in various forms.

  1. On-Campus Employment
  2. Off-Campus Employment
  3. Curricular Practical Training (CPT)
  4. Optional Practical Training (OPT)

More information on the eligibility of students to work on an F1 Visa can be found here and here.

It’s important to note, any off-campus employment after the first academic year must be related to your area of study and be authorized by your International Student Office and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) prior to starting any work.

Starting a Business on a Student F1 Visa

Generally, students in F1 Visa status are prohibited from ‘engaging in business’ because they are supposed to be in the U.S. to focus on their education. At the same time, immigration law does not expressly forbid F1 Visa students from ‘establishing’ their own business. The phrase to highlight here is ‘preliminary business planning,’ which is not considered ‘engagement.’

To elaborate: there’s a sharp legal difference between ‘establishing’ a business and ‘engaging’ with or working for it. The usual rule is that an F1 Visa student is forbidden from working for a company – even one s/he starts.

Immediately it’s clear that establishing/starting a business is not the problem. The real question becomes whether you can actually run your own business.

How to Lawfully Run a Business as an F1 Visa Student

As aforementioned, with employment, it must be demonstrated that it concerns itself with your program of study or major. There are some status modifications an F1 student can make that would allow him or her to work for a business they established. The CPT work authorization mentioned above is one way; the other is OPT, also previously mentioned.

In certain circumstances, F1 students on CPT or OPT may be eligible to qualify as self-employed business owners. But first, the onus is on you to demonstrate this business relates directly to your studies. In addition, you must be able to obtain any required business licenses.

The good news is that it isn’t difficult to suggest a tenable connection between your business venture and program of study. Connecting your business ideas to a major or course of study is to demonstrate how you’re using skills learned at school. Whether it’s products or services, it’s an opportunity to develop and apply pragmatic tools both in and outside academia. In many ways, it is similar to working on a thesis and doing your own research. This can be articulated clearly by working closely with your International Student Office.

For example, one area a lot of international students gain interest in is digital inventions i.e. apps or other software. As a student studying computer science applications, developing software for a company you established would directly relate to your studies. It’s an area that allows flexibility and creativity; however, it’s also a highly competitive field. And as with any business venture, it is important to protect your ideas by familiarizing yourself with intellectual property (IP) law.

More information on software patents can be found here.

You’re in Business! Now What?

There are a few things to get organized immediately

  • Write your business plan
  • Pick your business location (if there’s a physical space)
  • Choose a business structure
  • Pick a name for your business
  • Register your business
  • Get required licenses and permits

Protecting Your Business

After that’s settled, next you’ll want to distinguish yourself from competitors and protect yourself.

IP is one of the key aspects to set a plan for early since it can define the success or failure of your business in the long term. On a fundamental level, this is about protecting what is unique to your business so that others may not steal and profit off your ideas without you.

One of the most vital aspects of IP for F1 student start-ups are patents. It is also perhaps the most powerful tool enabled by IP law. A successfully granted patent gives a temporary monopoly for 20 years, enabling you to be the only seller of a particular product in a competitive market.

This typically covers inventions with a unique function. Whether it’s something new in design or solves a problem in a novel way, it falls under the umbrella of patent law. And while securing your interests should be clear, how to do so can be ambiguous. Generally, understanding how to get a patent is laborious and detracts from time spent developing your business. Hence, the importance of hiring a professional patent attorney.

J.D. Houvener a Washington DC patent attorney, stresses the importance of consulting a patent attorney in all steps of the patent application process.

“Patent attorneys have experience in patent searching, writing patent applications, and in the final review process. It’s a wise investment in one’s business if they want to avoid legal battles and exponentially increase the chances of receiving approval and the profits that come with it.”

In Conclusion

F1 Visa status does not prohibit you from establishing, nor engaging in, a business. However, you must work closely with your International Student Office and receive permission from both them and the USCIS. This is done by demonstrating a direct relationship between the business and your area of study.

Of course, starting a business is only a part of the process of running a business. You must also research, plan, and protect your ideas by familiarizing yourself with the law, especially IP law. And with the help of a professional, you can avoid extensive legal battles surrounding accidental infringement or other violations. Ultimately, you can come out being a successful business owner and make a good deal of profit.

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