Business immigration basics for startups

Travelling to New York for an important meeting with an investor? Spending a few weeks in London to trouble-shoot for a major new customer? Great – just don’t get stopped at the border. Business immigration requirements vary by country, but there are common practices that make it easier to plan international business assignments. Countries usually have specific immigration laws to address the needs of short-term travel on business trips, training opportunities in other countries and work assignments of varying lengths. The permitted activities, duration, source of compensation, qualifying education/experience/investment required, etc., are often key distinguishing characteristics. Special visa privileges may be afforded to citizens of designated countries by treaty.


Countries tend to aggressively enforce prohibitions against visa overstays and unauthorized work. The companies involved, as well as foreign visitors, may be subject to a range of civil or criminal penalties. It is important to maintain compliance documentation to protect the ability to secure visas and work permits.

Types of visas

Business travel visas
Often the same type of visa will authorize travel for tourism and short business visits, so long as the visit does not involve productive employment. Key factors to consider generally include the scope of activities planned in the destination country, the citizenship of the employee, the source of compensation during the trip and the length of stay. Length of stay and source of compensation are often the least important of these factors!

In most countries, business travelers are allowed to visit customers, attend meetings, negotiate contracts and carry out similar activities for the benefit of the employer back home. In contrast, most countries consider it a violation of business traveler visa status to engage in productive employment that benefits the destination company, including things like providing training or installing/servicing equipment.

The normal requirement to apply at an embassy or consular post to have a visa issued prior to travel is waived by many countries for tourists and short business travel. Visa waiver benefits are usually based on bilateral agreements between specific countries and limited to citizens of those countries.

Training visas
Visas to authorize training assignments are often available. Some permit the trainee only to shadow local workers to observe how work is performed or for classroom-type settings. Others may permit on-the-job training with a productive work component.

Work assignment visas
Although there are many names and types of work assignment visas around the world, most countries have some type of visa for: (i) the transfer of experienced employees between offices of multinational companies in different countries; (ii) workers with desirable education and skills; and (iii) investors and qualified employees based on business investment.

Work permits

Besides visas, some countries will separately require a work permit for travel on work assignments. Work permit requirements differ by country, often ranging from basic obligations to provide appropriate working conditions and compensation, to more detailed obligations like showing that local workers are not available and will not be displaced by the work permit applicant.

Residence permits

Many countries also require the employee to receive a residence permit or otherwise register their new address in the destination country with local authorities. National security and crime prevention are the common rationale. Background checks for criminal and military records are not uncommon.

Family members

Derivative visa benefits usually facilitate the travel of qualified family members. Who qualifies to accompany the employee often depends on how the destination country defines family. While a spouse and unmarried children generally qualify, there are variations around the age by which a child ceases to qualify and which spousal relationships are recognized. Family values in some countries result in derivative visa status being available for other members of the employee’s household, such as parents and other dependents.

Plan ahead

Do not rely on quick fixes that create big problems in the future. Tourist visas are for tourists and not business travelers. Do not rely on obtaining a proper visa once you have reached your destination. Countries often require visitors to depart and apply for the proper visa at a consular post outside the country—often in the country of last residence.

Plan for lots of paperwork

Concern about the spread of contagious disease results in many countries requiring medical and physical exams.

Translation of documents into the language of the destination country is normally required. The documents that need to be translated vary, but often include birth and marriage certificates, academic transcripts and work experience letters.

Some countries accept photocopies of required documents that are certified as accurate. Many countries require official records be subjected to the apostille process involving authentication by both the government controlling the issuing authority and the destination country’s diplomatic post in the destination country.


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