U.S. immigration regulations and procedures can be complex and rules change frequently. As a real estate practitioner, even if you focus on global real estate, you are not expected to, nor should you attempt, to play the role of an immigration attorney. However, foreign real estate investors want (and need) to know how U.S. visa regulations may impact access to their properties. The U.S. government places few restrictions on ownership of real estate by foreign individuals and companies, making it fairly easy for international investors to purchase U.S. properties. But before a foreign buyer makes a purchase, they need to understand that their access to the property may be limited in terms of permissible entry and length of stay. The type of visa a foreigner has been issued can make an enormous difference.
Real Estate professionals should not offer advice about immigration and visa matters; however, they should be aware of visa regulations. General knowledge of visa matters can help the real estate professional alert foreign buyers and sellers so that they can seek expert advice and make informed decisions. Below is information regarding different visa types. If you are working with global clients, this information should be on your radar.
Visa Waiver Program
The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows citizens of participating countries to travel to the United States without obtaining a visa, for stays of 90 days or less for tourism or business. Those who wish to stay longer need to apply for a visa. It is important to note that Canadian citizens do not fall under VWP. They may stay in the U.S. for up to six months.
The following are examples of activities permitted while in the United States on the VWP.
- consult with business associate
- attend a scientific, educational, professional, or business convention or conference
- attend short-term training (you may not be paid by any source in the United States with the exception of expenses incidental to your stay)
- negotiate a contract
- visit with friends or relatives
- medical treatment
- participation in social events hosted by fraternal, social, or service organizations
- participation by amateurs in musical, sports, or similar events or contests, if not being paid for participating
- enrollment in a short recreational course of study, not for credit toward a degree (for example, a two-day cooking class while on vacation)
The following are some examples of activities not permitted on the VWP and require visas for travel to the United States:
- study, for credit
- work as foreign press, radio, film, journalists, or other information media
- permanent residence in the United States
As real estate professionals, it’s important to know that VWP visitors may view and purchase residential or business property, survey sites for an investment or business venture, and sign contracts. However, they may not remain in the country to manage a business or seek employment.
Visas for Personal and Business Travel
B-1 Business Visa
The B-1 Business Visa permits the following: consulting with business associates; traveling for a scientific, educational, professional or business convention, or a conference on specific dates; settling an estate; negotiating a contract; and participating in short-term training.
The B-1 Visa holder may receive reimbursement of expenses, but not U.S.-sourced salary, wages, or consulting fees. Direct management of a business is not allowed. Permitted stay is the length of time deemed fair and reasonable in which to accomplish the intended activity, up to a maximum of 6 months; a B-1 Visa holder may obtain one extension, up to a maximum stay of one year. Spouses and dependents traveling with the B-1 Visa holder must apply separately for a B-2 visa.
B-2 Pleasure/Tourism Visa
A B-2 Pleasure/Tourism Visa permits: touring and sightseeing; visiting relatives and friends; undergoing medical treatment; attendance at a conference or convention of a social or fraternal organization. A B-2 Visa holder may not engage in any business activity or receive any salary, wages, consulting fees, or expense reimbursement.
L-1 Intracompany Transferee
An L-1 Intracompany Transferee Visa applies to individuals who own or work for foreign corporations directly related to U.S. corporations. Executive, managerial, or special-knowledge employment is required. Maximum stay, with an initial stay of three years and two-year extensions, is seven years. Visa holders may be accompanied by a spouse and unmarried children under 21 years of age. This visa also enables a foreign company that does not yet have an affiliated U.S. office to send an executive, manager, or employee with specialized knowledge to the U.S. to establish or help establish such an office.
E-1 Treaty Trader
E-1 Treaty Trader Visas are granted to individuals from countries that have a treaty of trade and commerce with the USA. The visa is initially granted for a two-year stay; extensions may be granted in two-year increments, with no maximum number of extensions. Visa holders may be accompanied by a spouse and unmarried children under 21 years of age.
E-2 Treaty Investor
Permits a foreign individual to reside in the USA while actively investing in, operating, and managing a U.S. business.
EB-5 Immigrant Investor
The EB-5 Immigrant Investor visa is available to immigrants seeking to enter the U.S. to invest in a business in a Regional Center, an economic unit, public or private, that promotes economic growth in a defined geographical area. Visa holders may be accompanied by a spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21. The following stipulations apply:
- The investment must be at least US $1 million. However, if the business is in a designated target employment area—by law, a rural area or an area that has experienced high unemployment of at least 150 percent of the national average—the minimum initial investment is US $500,000.
- The commercial enterprise, which can be either a new business or an investment in a troubled business, must benefit the U.S. economy by providing goods and services to U.S. markets
- The business must create full-time employment for at least 10 U.S. workers.
- If the investment is to benefit a troubled business, pre-investment employment levels must be maintained for at least two years.
- The investor/visa holder must be involved in the day-to-day management of the business or be involved in managing business policy (e.g., as a corporate officer or board member.
The H-1B Specialized Visa enables an individual with a bachelor’s degree, from the USA or abroad, to remain in the country for 6 years while employed in a professional position with a U.S. employer.
H-2B Temporary Non-Agricultural Workers
This visa allows U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the U.S. to fill temporary non-agricultural jobs. This visa is particularly relevant to resort areas, for employers filling seasonal employment needs.
To qualify for an O1 visa, the applicant must demonstrate that they possess an extraordinary ability in one of the following fields: athletics; arts, motion picture or television industry; business; education; or science. The applicant must have a temporary offer of employment from a U.S. employer or agent to work in their field of expertise. An O1 visa is usually granted for an initial period of up to 3 years and extensions may be granted.
This brief overview provides only basic information, and it is important to remember that regulations are consistently changing. For example, the recent terrorist attacks in Paris have left some members of Congress questioning the security of the Visa Waiver Program. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told the Washington Post “the Visa Waiver Program is a weak link in our efforts to keep violent extremists out of our country and needs to be tightened up.” Feinstein said she plans to introduce legislation in this Congress to tighten up the program’s security.
Again, you are not expected to have the same insight as immigration specialists, and you should always refer your clients to an expert, but as a real estate professional who works with international clients it is important to have general knowledge of the issue so you are ready and able to point your clients in the right direction.
To learn more about U.S. visa regulations and how to best serve international clients, sign up for the Certified International Property Specialist (CIPS) Course: Transaction Tools. This course provides you with the tools needed to present investment information to international clients. You will learn how to measure investment performance, prepare financial projections, and understand the effects of U.S. visa regulations, taxes and exchange rates on investment.
 US Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, http://travel.state.gov