Since you’re interested in starting a company, I’m sure that you’ll also want to work for it. Starting a business and working for it are two entirely separate legal issues.
The most important thing you need to know is these separate activities - starting a company on the one hand and working for it on the other - involve very complex laws requiring highly specialized legal expertise. Failure to comply fully with US regulations could result in serious legal consequences, including deportation and other potentially harsh forfeitures.
Therefore you really need to work with a qualified lawyer to guide you through this process. I know: lawyers are expensive. That’s why we started LawTrades: to enable individuals such as yourself to access much-needed legal services at a price they can afford.
So with that said, this is not intended to offer you legal advice, but only to provide you with some important information so you can take whatever steps you need that make the most sense for your circumstances.
If you’re in your first academic year, you might be able to start a company. However, if it’s located off-campus, you wouldn’t be able to work at it.
If you’ve completed your first academic year, you may be eligible to both start and work at an off-campus company subject to specific restrictions and conditions.
After your first academic year, F-1 students are eligible to work in three different types of off-campus employment:
- Curricular Practical Training (CPT)
- Optional Practical Training (OPT) (pre- or post-completion)
- Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Optional Practical Training Extension (OPT)
Any off-campus employment after the first academic year must be related to your area of study and be authorized by the designated school official and US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) prior to starting any work.
Therefore, you will want to be very cautious about the type of business you’re starting to ensure that it complies with the conditions listed above - and that it will be authorized by USCIS and your school’s SEVIS official. So there are a lot of hoops to jump through first just to make certain your business will satisfy those requirements.
By the way, the designated school official is the individual who is authorized to manage and control the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). More detailed information about the eligibility of a student to work on a student F1 visa is available here and here.
About Starting a Business on a Student F1 Visa
In very limited circumstances, F1 students on OPT may be eligible to qualify as self-employed business owners. Of course, the business must relate directly to your studies. In addition, you must be able to obtain any required business licenses.
You can read more about current US rules and regulations relating to improving and expanding training opportunities for F1 students with STEM degrees here.
In the most general of terms, F1 students are prohibited from ‘engaging in business.’ At the same time, students on F1 visa are not expressly forbidden from ‘establishing’ their own business since they are allowed to engage in ‘preliminary business planning.’
Again, it’s impossible to overstate that there’s a sharp legal difference between ‘establishing’ a business and ‘engaging’ with or working for it. The usual rule is that an F1 student is forbidden from working for a company - even one s/he starts.
As I’ve described, 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.