Buying Their Way In

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 10, 2006

Although many foreigners wait years for permission to live in this country legally, a small but growing number have found a legal path that is relatively simple and fast: come with deep pockets to buy businesses here.

Foreigners who promise to purchase businesses that could create U.S. jobs and pump money into the economy can get non-immigrant investor visas, known as E2. The number of E2 visas approved has steadily grown, with 28,290 issued in 2005, up 40 percent from the number issued in 1997, according to the State Department.

The businesses are typically clustered in metropolitan areas in states such as Florida, which has attracted a number of British nationals with E2 visas. British residents can turn to Web sites such as , and to learn how to get an E2 visa.

The State Department does not require any specific size investment. Rather it says the business owner must invest a "substantial amount of capital" that generates "more than enough income to provide a minimal living for the treaty investor and his or her family."

Immigration attorneys say most businesses are purchased for more than $100,000. As such, the investor visa has become particularly popular among citizens of countries with robust economies.

Japanese nationals were granted 12,010 E2 visas in 2005, up 16 percent from 1997. British citizens were issued 3,170 E2 visas, up 47 percent from 1997. Germans were issued 3,066 visas in 2005, up 85 percent from 1997. The number of visas issued to South Koreans in 2005 more than doubled to 2,169 from 1997. E2 visas were initiated in 1952 in the Immigration and Nationality Act.

There are no quotas for the number of E2 visas issued. But investors must be citizens of the dozens of countries that have signed special commerce treaties with the United States. Although E2 visa holders make up a small portion of all immigrant and non-immigrant visas, the investor visa is for many -- with enough money -- an attractive alternative to more complex and lengthy ways of entry.

"There are two types of E2 investors. There are those who are here purely for business interests and those who use the visa as an immigration vehicle," said Glen D. Wasserstein, a partner at Immigration Law Group in the District.

E2 visa applicants apply directly to the U.S. embassy in their home country, skipping approval from the Department of Labor and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, where applications for temporary skilled-worker and other business visas can take years to be processed.

In London, the wait for approval is typically 16 to 20 weeks, according to immigration lawyers and British holders of E2 visas. In contrast, the H1B visas for temporary skilled workers have years-long waiting lists for countries like India.

The E2 visa is typically issued for two years. It can be renewed indefinitely as long as the investor is running the business and it generates more than enough revenue to support the investor's family. The E2 visa also covers the investor's spouse and children under age 21.

Investors can eventually apply for green cards and then citizenship.

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