HomeResourcesThe ultimate guide to the H-1B visa
September 30th 2019

The ultimate guide to the H-1B visa

American companies employ thousands of workers from abroad each year across every industry from farming to mechanical engineering; many arrive through the H-1B visa program.

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American companies employ thousands of workers from abroad each year across every industry from farming to mechanical engineering. Many of these workers come to the United States through specialized visa programs, of which the H1-B is one of the most popular.

Introduced in 1990, the H-1B visa program expands the labor pool available to U.S. companies by offering them an opportunity to hire qualified noncitizen applicants by sponsoring visas allowing talented noncitizens to live and work in the U.S.

A valid H-1B visa permits newcomers to work in the U.S. for three years, with the possibility of another three-year extension.

What is an H-1B visa?

A skilled individual who wishes to work in the U.S. must obtain legal authorization. If the worker has an offer of employment from a U.S.-based company, they are eligible to apply for the H-1B visa through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The most common applicants for H-1B visas are international students studying at American undergraduate and graduate schools who hold an offer of employment at an American company. 

H-1B visa duration

Successful H-1B visa applicants receive a three-year work permit. At the end of this period, the visa-holder is eligible to apply for a three-year extension through their existing company or another sponsoring employer. 

There are exceptions to the six-year H-1B visa limit, but these only apply to a handful of workers every year. For example, anon-citizen who works for the U.S. Department of Defense, for example, can get up to ten years on their H-1B visa.

General requirements for H-1B visa application

As the H-1B visa focuses on skilled workers who are helping to fill the talent shortage in the U.S., there are specific educational requirements for all visa applicants.

An individual who wishes to work in the U.S. on an H-1B visa must have the following qualifications:

  • A bachelor’s degree or higher from a U.S. college or university, or the equivalent from another country. A three-year bachelor’s degree from outside the U.S. requires another three years of work experience. 

  • Complete educational and technical expertise to perform the role indicated in the job offer of the H-1B application. 

  • If the position requires credentials, they must be obtained before filing.

Jobs that typically qualify for the H-1B visa include engineers, lawyers, accountants, healthcare professionals, financial analysts, sales managers, artists, technicians, among others.

Employee sponsorship

An application for the H-1B visa requires a job offer from a U.S.-based company. 

An H-1B visa holder is not permitted to switch jobs on the same visa. 

If you wish to leave your existing role, you have been let go by your employer, or you accept a job offer from another American company, you must apply for a change of status known as the H-1B visa transfer. The new employer files a petition on your behalf. 

USCIS offers H-1B workers a 60-day grace period to find another job should they choose, or be forced, to leave their current employer. 

The visa transfer process must be completed within a 60-day grace period beginning on the day you leave the original position that sponsored your H-1B visa. When 60 days pass, you must have received your new H-1B visa or you will lose legal status in the U.S.

Cost of the H-1B visa

There are several fees associated with the H-1B visa. These include:

  • H-1B Registration Fee ($10)

  • Base filing fee ($460)

  • American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act of 1998 Fee ($750-$1500)

  • Fraud prevention fee ($500

  • Public Law 114-113 fee ($4000)

  • Premium processing fee ($1410 [optional])

The employer typically pays all the fees associated with the H-1B application and submits documents to USCIS on behalf of the incoming H-1B worker including job details, salary, and other relevant information.

The only fee that an employee may opt to pay is the premium processing fee, which is optional and does not impact the approval or denial of their visa—it merely provides an accelerated decision. Applicants who cannot afford the additional fee can use normal processing without fear of negatively impacting their application  ‍

H-1B visa quota

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, handles the processing of the H-1B visa and sets an annual 85,000 quota for H-1B applications.

Within the quota, 20,000 positions are reserved for applicants holding advanced degrees from a U.S. institution (master’s degree or higher). The remaining 65,000 positions are for H-1B visa applicants who do not meet the U.S. advanced degree holder qualification.

H-1B visa holders and their family members

Thousands of people immigrate to the country on the H-1B visa with spouses and children 

The H-4 visa permits spouses and unmarried children under 21 to join H1-B visa holders while they live and work in the U.S. 

H-1B applicants must fill out and submit the relevant H-4 forms before their H-1B visa interview in the home country should they wish to sponsor their spouse and under-18 children. 

The relevant form for the H-4 visa is DS-160. Other information to bring to the visa interview includes:

  • Valid passport

  • Photographs of the H-1B applicant and their spouse (and children)

  • Passport-sized photo of the H-4 visa applicants

  • Print out of the online DS-160 form confirmation page

  • Marriage certificate

  • Children’s birth certificates

  • Any other documentation or photographs to prove the marriage

Successful processing of the H-4 application will allow the applicants’ spouse and children to travel to and live with them in the U.S.

Spouses of H-1B applicants will not be able to work during the initial three to six years the H-1B visa holder spends working in the U.S. Changes made by USCIS in 2015, however, mean that certain H-4 visa holders can work in the U.S., provided certain criteria are met.

The H-4 visa holder can file Form I-765 to apply for an Employment Authorization Document if:

  • The H-1B holder is the beneficiary of an approved Form I-140, or has extended their H-1B visa beyond the initial six years, due to a pending Form I-140 application. 

The latest news on the H-1B visa

Potential applicants should always stay up to date on the latest news on the H-1B visa process. Recent changes to U.S. immigration policies could pose challenges for H-1B visa holders seeking an extension after the end of their initial three-year term.

A recent policy memorandum from USCIS allows government immigration officials to issue a Notice to Appear (NTA) to any non-immigrant attempting to extend their H-1B visa. An NTA is a document that directs non-citizens to appear before an immigration judge for review of their legal status. Previously, NTAs could only be used following USCIS consultation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Now USCIS can issue these notices directly.

What does the policy mean for applicants? 

The growth of NTAs is not relevant for initial H-1B applications as it only applies to individuals seeking an extension at the end of their three-year term.

If you are planning to extend your H-1B after three years, keep in mind that an NTA could be issued by USCIS if there is any delay in approving your extension. Ignoring an NTA can lead to a five-year ban on re-entering the U.S., so take such notices seriously. Consult with an immigration attorney if you receive an NTA from USCIS.

Request for Evidence

An applicant may receive a Request for Evidence from USCIS after their initial application for the H-1B visa, which typically asks applicants to provide more information about their application such as evidence of degrees and certifications.  

If USCIS cannot obtain enough information about the employer listed on the application, they may file the request.   

If you receive a Request for Evidence, make a list of all the evidence required by USCIS, include the relevant forms and submit the request promptly. If there is any aspect of the request you do not understand, consult an experienced immigration attorney.

How to get an H-1B visa

The general process to secure an H-1B visa includes the following steps:

  • Identify an employer in the U.S. willing to sponsor foreign applicants. 

  • Ensure you qualify for the job and the H-1B visa requirements. 

  • Request that your employer files an H-1B petition with the U.S. government, and enter your petition into the visa lottery. 

  • Wait for further information from USCIS. 

If your application is approved, you are eligible to enter the U.S. to work and live for three years. Below, we’ll walk you through how to navigate each step of the process. 

Finding H-1B sponsors

If you are lucky enough to receive an offer from a U.S.-based company after graduating from an American college or university, you’ve overcome one of the first hurdles. But if you’re living abroad and would like to work and live in the U.S., there are several websites with H-1B visa sponsor information. You can visit those websites to identify companies in your industry, specialty, or desired location willing to sponsor H-1B visas. 

After you identify several companies that sponsor H-1B applicants in your area of expertise, monitor their websites for open job applications and ensure your resume and other documents are ready to submit as soon as you see an opening. 

If you are viewing open jobs from companies that sponsor non-U.S. workers, be sure to check the job listing for details on the legal status of prospective candidates. Even among companies that sponsor individuals, some jobs are limited to U.S. citizens only.

Joining a larger or smaller company - what is best?

There is no right- or wrong-sized company when applying for an H-1B visa, but larger companies often have more experience hiring workers from outside the U.S. Some large companies have in-house immigration attorneys with experience assisting workers navigating the H-1B lottery.

While there is no law against working for a startup or small business as a noncitizen, it is more challenging for these U.S. employers to apply on your behalf. These companies may be less likely to have experience hiring individuals from abroad, which means they may not be aware of the intricacies and potential of the H-1B application process.

If you do receive an offer of a job from a smaller U.S.-based company, take care to ensure every aspect of the application is completed correctly. 

Options for existing students

Individuals enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities often find H-1B sponsor through internships. The best time to find such opportunities is during your second and third years of university before beginning your job search in your final year of school. 

F-1 student visa holders can seek paid and unpaid internships if they meet the criteria set out by USCIS for student employment.

Even if a potential employer is not willing to file a petition for an H-1B visa on your behalf, students can use their Optional Practical Training (OPT) after graduation to work for up to a year. OPT allows students to work during and after completion of their degree. 

As part of OPT, you will receive an Employment Authorization Document (EAD), which allows you to work in the U.S. for up to 12 months during and post-degree. There are 24-month extensions available for science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) students.

Students who pursue an internship during their undergraduate or graduate years and work for a full-time position through OPT may have a better chance of being sponsored by that company for the H-1B visa. 

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H-1B visa processing times

Choosing standard or premium processing has no impact on whether your visa is approved or denied, but does affect how long it takes to receive a decision on your application. 

It can take between three months to a year to receive approval or denial with normal processing. Premium processing is faster as applicants typically receive within fifteen days of filing. 

To understand the current processing times for forms handled by different field offices and service centers, visit the USCIS website for up-to-date information. Choosing a center is not always up to the applicant as it varies based on your existing location or where you intend to work.

H-1B application deadline and lottery

Individuals with an offer from a new employer can submit their application by April 1 for the next fiscal year’s quota.  Applications are accepted until the USCIS H-1B 85,000 cap for the fiscal year is reached. According to regulations, USCIS must accept applications for at least five business days or until they receive more applications than their quota.

The visa application must tie with the start date within your offer of employment. The filing should not be more than six months before you are due to start working in the U.S. The USCIS fiscal year begins on October 1st and ends on September 30th of the following year. If you wish to start working between those dates, you can apply in April at the earliest.

H1-B lottery

USCIS received 201,011 petitions for the visa during the 2019-2020 fiscal year. Less than half of those applicants received approval. 

The process for conducting the lottery is slightly adjusted for the April 2020 filing deadline. Individuals applying for the visa now do not need to submit a fully completed application to enter the lottery. Applicants, with help from their employers, will register with USCIS electronically to indicate their participation. USCIS will then process the lottery and informs individuals if they are selected or not. 

Those selected in the lottery will file a complete application. In the past, all applicants were required to complete relevant paperwork before entering the lottery. 

Another significant change is the inversion of the regular pool and advanced degree pool within the lottery. In the old system, applicants with advanced degrees were submitted to the computer-generated system first. Those who were unsuccessful were then added to the regular quota lottery. 

The most recent H-1B cap stood at 85,000, with 65,000 spots reserved for regular applicants and a further 20,000 spots for advanced degree holders.

Inverting the system means everyone now participates in the initial lottery. Applicants with advanced degrees get a second chance if they are not successful in the first round. 

The new system puts regular degree applicants at a disadvantage as they must compete with all advanced applicants. Based on probability analysis from media outlet TechCrunch, the chances for H-1B candidates with advanced degrees are slightly better; a 55% chance with the new system versus a 51% chance with the previous one.

On the other hand, the odds for applicants who only hold a bachelor’s degree have declined from 38% under the previous system to 32% under the new rules. 

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How to check the status of the H-1B visa lottery

USCIS provides employers with information about the registration period for the 2020-2021 H-1B visa lottery. Employers have fourteen days to add relevant information about the applicant, their prospective role, and the company.

Each employer must file a Labor Condition Application (LCA) for the worker whom they wish to sponsor. The LCA includes information such as the job title, position duration, salary, location, and a few other details.

The employer will then receive relevant information from USCIS about the application, including a receipt number that enables them to check the case status and make changes to the candidate details within the 14-day registration period.

At this stage, USCIS will then conduct a computer-generated selection to determine who is accepted within the regular and advanced degree quotas. Employers receive electronic notification of a status update and check whether or not the prospective employee successfully secured the visa by checking the USCIS website. 

Filing an H-1B visa application

Candidates whose visas are approved through the lottery have 90 days to file to complete their H-1B petition. 

Sponsors and applicants must work together to file an H-1B petition. Completing the H-1B visa petition involves the following steps:

  • Take a digital photograph that meets certain

  • Fill out and submit the DS160 H-1B form

  • Pay the relevant application fees

  • Make appointments for biometrics and an in-person visa interview

DS-160 form

Applicants must file the DS-160 form online on the USCIS website. The form requires submission of a digital photograph as well as other key applicant details

Double-check all information that you input on the form as any mistakes may result in visa delays, even for applicants who were successful in the visa lottery. 

Documents necessary for H-1B application and interview

You will need to provide several documents at different stages of the H1-B application process and interview, including the following: 

  • Original passport with a validity of at least six months after the interview date.

  • All old passports.

  • Visa interview appointment letter

  • Original Notice of Action I-797 Form

Form I-767 Notice of Action

USCIS issues Form I-767 to all H-1B applicants. This form includes information about your case type, receipt date, priority date, the notice date, notice type and explains whether your petition was approved or denied.

If you are attending a visa interview, do not forget the original I-767 document. 

There are other supplementary documents that may be helpful as you respond to a Notice of Action case, but may not be relevant to each individual applicant. These supplemental documents might include:

  • Letters that verify your employment history and work skills.

  • Original diplomas showing bachelor and/or advanced degrees.

  • Original certificates for any courses or certifications that pertaining to your job.

  • Offer letter from the employer that is sponsoring you for the H-1B visa.

H-1B extension checklist: what you should bring for H-1B renewals

After three years, your H1-B status may be reaching its end, which means that it may be time to consider the renewal process if you would like to remain in the U.S. You can apply for an extension to continue your H-1B status and renew your EAC, or Employment Authorization Card, for up to three additional years.

USCIS allows H-1B holders to apply for an extension starting at six months before their visas expire. Because it can take a few months for USCIS to process applications, especially without premium processing, apply as soon as you fall within six months of your expiration date. 

Talk with your employer to confirm sponsorship extension

Discuss sponsoring your visa extension with your employer to determine if they can file the extension or if you will have to look elsewhere.

Can I keep working if my application is processing?

Yes, visa-holders can continue to work during the extension application process. As long as your application is submitted before your visa and I-94 expire, you will continue to have legal status to work in the country. 

The I-94 is an arrival and departure document issued by Customs and Border Patrol. If there is an exit date present on your I-94 form, you must ensure you submit your renewal application before that date.

USCIS allows H1-B visa holders who file for an extension to work in the U.S. for up to 240 days as there are often application processing delays

Transitioning from an H-1B visa to Green Card

Time flies when you are having fun - or working hard! Six years may feel like a lifetime, but fly by quickly. 

You can only file for one H1-B visa extension, which means that after six years one of the most common ways to extend your time in the U.S. is to apply for a Green Card. 

If you are seeking a Green Card after your six years under the H-1B visa, you can apply through the employment-based category. Note, however, that there are very strict quotas for Green Cards every year. 

The government allocates 140,000 employment-based Green Cards every fiscal year. There is also a limit to how many successful applications are allowed from each country.

Current law states green cards issued to any country must not exceed 7% of the total quota. If the total amount of visas issued is 140,000, the maximum number of successful applications from any single country, therefore, cannot exceed 9,800.

These criteria can pose a challenge for people from densely populated countries such as India and China.

The takeaway

The H-1B visa offers skilled workers from around the world the chance to work and live in the U.S. It also benefits American companies that can hire talented individuals with skills that are scarce among the domestic workforce.

While the process of applying and obtaining the visa may appear daunting, this guide is intended to help simplify the process of starting your new life in the U.S. After you have been approved for your H1-B visa and are preparing to travel to the U.S., consider how you will live during your stay — especially how you manage your finances from setting up a bank account to managing your credit. In the U.S., credit history is important in securing things necessary for everyday life from credit cards to utilities and even your apartment

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More from Nova Credit:

H-1B visa holders in the United States: An overview

H-1B visa stamping: H-1B visa interview documents and more

How does the “Buy American and Hire American” Executive Order affect the H-1B visa?

How to check H-1B visa processing times

The H-1B extension checklist: What you should bring for H-1B renewals 

How to find out if you've been selected in the 2020 H-1B lottery

How to Find H-1B Sponsors in 2020

H-1B to Green Card process: Everything you need to know about changing your status

H-4 EAD: How to obtain work authorization when your spouse has an H-1B Visa

How to check the status of your H-1B visa application

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