How an engineer got a green card in 6mo


I'm a Canadian who now lives permanently in the United States.

Divulging how I got my green card is the most requested topic for this blog. But, for three years, I have refused to write it.

Because I was petrified the government would take it away. (I managed to get my green card in 7 days, which is kind of crazy.) I was able to bypass hundreds of thousands of other people waiting for a green card.

Only recently did I realize that the tricks I used to get my green card weren't subversive. I have nothing to hide. They're just non-obvious shortcuts.

And so I present to all you foreign entrepreneurs: the formula that I hope will let you permanently settle in the U.S. with a few months' worth of work on the weekends.

What are the pathways to permanent residency?

Growing up in Canada, I ranted about wanting to move to San Francisco constantly. There was nothing I wanted more for 7 years: to be part of the tech scene.

It's hard to articulate to Americans how elusive tech entrepreneurship can feel when you're living in another country with no tech scene. Especially 10 years ago.

I probably spent a hundred hours researching U.S. visas. I exchanged dozens of emails with immigration attorneys. 

I kept bumping up against the same conclusion that unless I had a million to invest into a business, or was a celebrity, I only had two pathways to get a green card:

  • Work for an American business for 3-4 years while staying on an H1-B visa in the hope I get it upgraded to a green card afterward. (The Trump administration has made this path much harder now.)
  • Stay in the U.S. on a temporary O-1 visa that I renew every two years until I get married to an American.

Neither sat well with me. 

For one, I'm not comfortable building a new life — meeting new friends, buying a home, orienting myself in a new city — with the looming risk of my visa failing renewal then being sent back to Canada with 30 days' notice.

(I'm risk tolerant when it comes to business — because I can always start something new and I enjoy doing so — but I am incredibly risk averse when it comes to being jerked around over living in the city I've always wanted to live in.)

And even if I was comfortable taking that risk, I'm not willing to work for someone else. (Other than my stint at Webflow, a wonderful company.) I've been self-employed for years and wasn't going to change my career direction for 4 years so that I could possibly get a green card. 

Plus, if I hated the job, leaving or being fired would put the green card in jeopardy.

So, for years, I just stayed in Canada. Longing for the U.S... Wanting to be around successful entrepreneurs. Wanting to grab dinner with the people whose work I admired. Wanting access to capital. Wanting access to the American catalogues on Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Hulu. Wanting better weather. Wanting better food.

(No offense, Canada. To each their own.)

The turning point

A friend I've known since I was 3 got a green card. 

Seemingly overnight.

What the hell, Greg? I was just talking to you in a café in Montreal. You aren't a celebrity, you didn't invest millions, and you don't work for an American company.

You weren't even living in the U.S. when you got your approval. You were next to me in Montreal. And, so I asked:

Greg, explain.

He responded in his typically cool way:

Oh, it's an EB-1 visa. StumbleUpon's lawyers figured out how to get it for me when they acquired my startup.
Oh, so you got it because you're now a StumbleUpon employee?
No, it's independent of that. I could have gotten the EB-1 green card without StumbleUpon's acquisition. It was just their lawyers who figured it out for me.

My face: 🤨

Why did the immigration attorneys I spoke to never tell me about this "EB-1?"

And thus began my journey to reverse engineer the EB-1. It worked.

In the process, I learned that the government is composed of people no different than you and I. That was surprisingly crucial to appreciate.

And, I learned how immigration attorneys often work in their best interest — not their clients'. (I later learned the same thing is true about many doctors, but that's a story for an upcoming blog post.)

Be skeptical of cagey immigration attorneys

Apparently, immigration attorneys know full well about the EB-1. 

They simply don't bother telling clients about it.

Because they don't want to give you a high ideal to strive for. Because in the likely chance you fail to qualify for it with minimal work, you'll blame them and ask for your money back. They'd rather push you toward an easier, temporary visa that they can get you approved on quickly and make the back half of their fees on.

That's pathetic on two counts: One, they're leaving critical options off the table for your livelihood. Two, they're ignorant of how easy it can be to get an EB-1. I got mine quickly. And everything I did is replicable by millions of other software engineers.

In fact, that's one of only two caveats to getting an EB-1 through my approach:

  1. It's easier to pull off if you're a programmer.
  2. You'll need to spend 6 months' worth of weekends to prepare for it.

Then, once you're ready to apply, you get a decision in under 14 days if you opt for rush processing. It's one of a few visas that supports rush processing. It's how I was able to get approval in just 7 days.

Two birds with one stone

If you're anything like me, those 6 months were not only easily justifiable, but you'll also be grateful for the work you accomplish in the process.

In fact, my work output ultimately had a bigger impact on my career than my ability to newly live in San Francisco. 

So, I implore you to also look at this opportunity as dual-purposed. Because, even if you fail — which I think is unlikely if you put the time in and are honest with yourself — you will produce something meaningful that will better you.

Specifically, my 6 months' of work produced a web animation engine: Velocity.js.

But, before I get into that, let's get to the part you've been waiting for.

How do you get an EB-1?

An EB-1 green card is one of several paths to permanent residency in the United States. It's attainable for those who aren't wealthy, aren't famous, and don't have one of a tightly restricted set of scientific degrees.

Meaning, anyone can get the EB-1. And, when you get it, you can instantly live in the U.S. forever.

The EB-1 is the permanent version of the temporary O-1 visa. Both require you to demonstrate to the U.S. government that you're a notable figure in your narrowly-defined field — by satisfying at least three of ten possible "worthiness" criteria.

The two visas share the same criteria, but the EB-1 requires a higher degree of noteworthiness to satisfy each.

Here they are:

  • Evidence of receipt of lesser nationally or internationally recognized prizes or awards for excellence.
  • Evidence of membership in associations in the field, which demand outstanding achievement of their members.
  • Evidence of published material about you in professional or major trade publications or other major media.
  • Evidence of judging the work of others, either individually or on a panel.
  • Evidence of original scientific, scholarly, artistic, athletic, or business-related contributions of major significance to the field.
  • Evidence of authorship of scholarly articles in professional or major trade publications or other major media.
  • Evidence that work has been displayed at artistic exhibitions or showcases.
  • Evidence of performance of a leading or critical role in distinguished organizations.
  • Evidence of high salary or other significantly high remuneration in relation to others in the field.
  • Evidence of commercial successes in the performing arts.

Apparently, many immigration attorneys think this is prohibitively difficult for you to attain. Untrue.

I'm no celebrity. Neither is Greg.

It simply requires some perseverance, resourcefulness, and an appreciation of how the government is composed of people just like you and I.

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. If you want to live in the U.S. as badly as I do, and don't want to work for someone else or jump into marriage, let's do this.

How to efficiently get an EB-1

When Greg told me about the EB-1, it immediately occurred to me how to get it. 

I knew the government was no better than I at assessing the criteria listed above. 

Meaning, to do the research necessary to assess my qualifications, they have to use Google just like I do.

They don't have a secret database of everything Julian Shapiro has ever achieved. XKeyscore isn't tuned into what I'm up to daily. Nor does the government call everyone I've ever known to get to the bottom of who I am.

No, they simply do what I do when I'm feeling vain: They fire open a tab and Google my name plus everything I'm involved in.

This realization led me to the objective I knew I must work backward from: How do I look like a baller on Google? 

That's how it starts. 

The fever. 

The rage. 

The feeling of powerlessness that turns good men... cruel.

That's a quote from the crappy Batman V Superman film.

Anyway, to recap, my journey started by answering this question:

How do you establish credibility for everything you're claiming as a resume item in your EB-1 application?

The answer is simple: get blogs to write about it. Those links will show on the first page of Google for the corresponding search about you.

Quick note

I'm going to start using checkmarks to signify what to take away from this post:

✅Pursue criteria-satisfying achievements that are easiest to get blog coverage for.

And so the game begins

You might be thinking, but how am I going to get on TechCrunch or Buzzfeed?

You don't have to. That's the great part! 

(If you could pull that off, you'd perhaps be a "celebrity." And I promised you didn't have to be one to get an EB-1.)

Instead, you can just get coverage on your niche's insider blogs. 

For example, if the industry you're claiming notability in is web software engineering (what I went for), then getting coverage on Smashing Magazine, Creative Bloq, CSS-Tricks, DavidWalsh.name, SitePoint, and others is not hard to do.

I didn't know anyone there. I just cold emailed them and asked to write a guest post. It was achievable because they aren't big sites flooded with guest post submissions. 

I also had something interesting to write about, which I'll address shortly.

And, yes, it's okay that non-coders have never heard of those sites. Yes, it's okay that the people reviewing your application at the government haven't either.

I am proof they were good enough for the purpose of the EB-1. 

And not only do they establish credibility because they're professionally designed sites with original content and community engagement, they also help us check off two EB-1 criteria:

  • Evidence of published material about you in professional or major trade publications or other major media.
  • Evidence of authorship of scholarly articles in professional or major trade publications or other major media.

Bingo. 

This brings us to an action item:

✅Email niche, medium-sized blogs asking to write guest posts.

How to guest post

I simply pre-wrote quality posts and emailed them to the blogs' editors.

By presenting them with a post upfront — not a pitch — I accomplished two things:

  • I de-risked their "yes" — because they already saw the post was good. In contrast, if I showed them just a pitch and they said "sure, we'll publish when you're done," it's possible my resulting article would have been poor. Then they'd have to spend time fixing my writing, and perhaps doing most of the work. Not fun.
  • I proved I wasn't going to over-promote. I minimized the pitching of Velocity.js. Instead, I educated readers about the Velocity.js-related topic (e.g. fast web animations). Editors don’t want to publish an ad on your behalf; they want content their readers will thank them for.

That's how you get editors to consider your post.

Of course, the post has to be good too: it should be informative, concise, and interesting. If you can't write well, pay someone on Upwork to write it for you.

Not too hard. And now we've made significant progress toward our EB-1 application.

Getting blogs to post about you

A quick note before moving on: you're also going to want others to write about you.

This helps you qualify for another criterion, and it lends impartiality to your coverage.

To get blogs to write about you or your project, use a similar methodology as the one discussed above: Tweet or cold email the editor a detailed post outline. Tell them you don't want to finish writing the post, but have done the heavy lifting for them.

Even if only 1 out of 10 say yes, that's fine! One piece of coverage is enough to then reach out to a slightly bigger blog and use that first piece as credibility. Rinse and repeat until you have 4 blogs who've covered you.

At this point, you'll look like you're at least trending — if not outright notable.

Let's back up

But, what if you don't have a Velocity.js of your own to guest post about? 

You're right — I jumped a few steps ahead. That was on purpose to demonstrate how you must think about which overarching EB-1 project to pursue from the perspective of what is easiest to get blog coverage for.

(Web programming blogs don't have much news to keep their editors busy with.)

I'll now dive into the specifics of how exactly I qualified for my EB-1. Then I'll address how to choose your overarching project.

My EB-1 qualifications

You only need to qualify for three EB-1 criteria, but I strove for a fourth for safety — in case the government decided I underqualified on one:

  • Original scientific, scholarly, artistic, athletic, or business-related contributions of major significance to the field — This is simply Velocity.js itself. It is the contribution I made to my niche of web software engineering. When someone Googles Velocity.js, it looks credible: I guest posted on well-trafficked development blogs and quoted those sites' Alexa.com traffic figures in my EB-1 application.
  • Judging the work of others, either individually or on a panel — Leveraging my blog coverage, I reached out to Awwwards.com and asked if they'd like to have "an expert like me" judge their web design competitions. They said, "Sure!" Boom. This only took me a few minutes of emailing. I didn't ask for any compensation.
  • Published material about you in professional or major trade publications or other major media — I saved up a bunch of favors and exchanged them for one ask: that my friend convince his friend to cover me in Forbes. Boom. This worked because I already had many smaller articles about me, including this one from Mozilla — a widely recognized name. Plus, I was a judge now to boot! Within a day, that Forbes article became one of the top links in my Google search results.
  • Authorship of scholarly articles in professional or major trade publications or other major media — I wanted to make sure I was a slam dunk on this criterion because it was so easy to increment on. It was totally in my hands, and it was just a matter of putting in the time. So not only did I write blog posts, but I leveraged those posts plus the stats on how much traffic VelocityJS.org received from those posts into a cheap, online-only book deal: I cold emailed Pearson Publishing and told them they should let me write a short pocket book (I didn't want to spend much time writing it) that I would then ensure sold by publicizing it on Velocity's site and in future guest posts. That's a more compelling pitch than they normally get from unknown developers who don't understand that publishers just want some modest amount of certainty that people will buy your book. Pearson instantly said yes. Boom. That only took me 10 hours each weekend for 5 months. It was my most significant time expenditure on the path toward the EB-1, and it was worth it for establishing my credibility as an "author", which the government values highly as a sign of your noteworthiness in your field.

That's it. One thing beget the next. None of it was luck — just resourcefulness.

Notice the piggybacking off of Velocity.js. And notice the theme of building some credibility, asking for more, then iterating on it. 

In other words, focus on one project that you can recycle for various publicity purposes. That's the key to my 6-month approach: efficiency through focus.

I am proof that you don't need to be known for many things in your field. Just one.

✅Aim to qualify for at least 4 of the EB-1 criteria.

✅Focus on a single project you can use to recycle for multiple criteria.

✅Aim for press early on. You'll want it for securing secondary opportunities that assess your worthiness based on pre-existing press coverage.

Putting it all together

  1. Identify a project you can develop in your free time — Pursue something unique that others will want to talk about because it didn't exist before. It should be in a space that has a few medium-sized blogs. The tech space is particularly accommodating because you can then segue into an online book deal if you get even a bit of traction with your project. Tech book publishers don't discriminate much when choosing which topics to publish on. They copyedit and print for cheap. Exploit that.
  2. Build the project — Ensure you're the dominant figure in the project's creation. It should be about you. With the EB-1, being selfish is good for publicity.
  3. Get coverage on small blogs and pursue other low-hanging PR fruit —  Here was my approach to marketing Velocity.js in the first place — so that blogs would accept guest post about it.
  4. Parlay coverage into interview, judging, awards, or bigger blog opportunities.
  5. Write Wikipedia articles — If any of the credible outlets you get covered in don't have Wikipedia articles already, and could justify having one, write it for them. This will show up in its Google results and amplify its credibility, and yours by extension. It always come back to Google. Everything you list in your application is searched.
  6. Optional: Package all that credibility into a cheap, online-only book deal.

Have a project in mind? Then talk with an immigration attorney. 

Find one who's successfully filed numerous EB-1's. Tell them you know about the EB-1, are committed to qualifying for it, and want their advice on whether the field you're choosing to demonstrate your notability in is sufficiently narrow to make it as easy as possible on yourself to rise to the top.

For example, it's easier to be a top web software engineer than a top programmer.

✅Consult an EB-1-focused attorney early on to shape your project's direction. Don't ask them if you should pursue the EB-1 (they'll usually say no). Say you already are.

What if I'm not an engineer?

If you're not a programmer, you have another low-friction option:

  • Work on a non-profit, social, or community project. These have the benefit of not requiring you to build a functioning, sustainable business. (It's hard.)
  • Fortunately, blogs, podcasts, and communities are happy to promote social good projects. It makes them feel like they're doing good. Your marketing will be particularly easy because of this.

Byproducts of preparing for the EB-1

The essence of all that work was doing marketing.

I got so addicted to the process that it became my career. While preparing for the EB-1, I ran marketing at Webflow. And today I run a growth marketing agency for the biggest tech and ecommerce startups: BellCurve.com. And I spent 1,000 hours consolidating much of my learnings into this handbook.

Funny, right?

The process of building Velocity also resulted in delivering something actually useful to the world. Thousands of sites now use Velocity: from Microsoft, to Uber, to Samsung. And many (most?) web developers know about it, which built me a Twitter following, got me invited to podcasts, and introduced me to countless fascinating people in tech. Including the technically-inclined VC's I had always wanted to meet.

In other words, I got everything I wanted from being in San Francisco without yet being in San Francisco. I was still in Canada while building Velocity, and everyone was coming to me on account of having produced something valuable for them.

Ironic, right?

✅Dual-purpose your EB-1's project to be something you'd be happy to have worked on — even if you don't get your green card. Or, at least make it something that'll teach you something valuable, such as marketing skills.

The celebration

I remember that fateful afternoon vividly. I was in Webflow's office.

A week had passed since submitting my EB-1 application. Every day since, I would incessantly refresh the government application page while working.

It finally came: "You've been approved."

I shot out of my chair, threw my hands in the air, and shouted, "F*** yes!"

Everyone in the office knew what happened. I would regularly talk about wanting my visa. One of them uttered, "We're so never going to see Julian again."

Lol. He was right. I quit and began my life anew. (I would do it all over again, for the record. Working at Webflow was fantastic.)

That weekend, I celebrated with an All-American San Francisco boat ride:

My important realization

I am convinced any career goal is achievable when you follow three principles:

  • Reverse engineer the intermediate steps.
  • 80/20 every step.
  • Be resourceful.

Why does this work today? Because everything we do happens through the lens of Google. It is the world's proxy for assessing credibility. And it's gameable.

Google is the world's proxy for assessing credibility. And it's gameable.

I can and have used this process to accomplish much greater things since.

If you're like me and want to work for yourself, or can't qualify for the H1-B visa, now you have a roadmap to getting your green card.

I'll be tweeting more about the EB-1 here: @Julian. Feel free to stay in touch below.