The United States has entered into treaties with several countries and established the E-1 visa to help citizens of those countries engage in international trading activities. (The authorization for this visa comes from the Immigration and Nationality Act at I.N.A. § 101(a)(15)(E), 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(15)(E); the corresponding regulations are at 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(e) and 22 C.F.R. § 41.51.)
If someone is a businessperson from one of the listed countries, and plans to either engage in substantial trade with the U.S. or work for an enterprise that does, then an E-1 visa may be appropriate. In fact, it may serve the visa holder well for a number of years, as there is no limit on the number of E-1 visas issued every year, and the E-1 can be renewed indefinitely.
Let's review some of the pluses, minuses, and issues surrounding the E-1 visa:
Given what a desirable visa this is, the question becomes who exactly might qualify for one. To qualify for a visa in category E-1, the person must:
• be from a qualifying country
• work for a qualifying business
• be either a 50% (or greater) owner or key employee of that business, and
• be able to show that most of the company's trade is with the United States.
E-1 visas are available to citizens of certain listed countries (ones that have qualifying treaties with the United States). To check whether a particular country has such a treaty in force, see the complete list at Volume 9 of the U.S. Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM), § 41.51, Exh. 1.
At least 50% of the business where the E-1 applicant will work must be owned by citizens of the treaty country. The company may be owned by the visa applicant or by others. If the company is owned in part or in whole by others, and some or all of them already live in the U.S., they may need to have E-1 visas themselves before the company can act as an E-1 sponsor.
Also, the owners from the applicant's country must either live outside the U.S. and be classifiable for E-1 status or live inside the U.S. with E-1 visas. This is complex stuff, so see an immigration lawyer if you're having trouble figuring out whether you might qualify.
For details about what to expect and do during the E-1 visa application process, see U.S. Immigration Made Easy, by Ilona Bray (Nolo). You might also wish to consult an immigration attorney for a full personal analysis of your eligibility, and help with the application process. Using Nolo's Lawyer Directory, you can find a qualified attorney who fits your needs and has taken the Nolo pledge promising respectful service. Look in particular for an attorney with experience in business immigration law (even immigration law has many subspecialties within it).