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A comprehensive guide to the H-4 Visa

The H-1B nonimmigrant visa allows beneficiaries to bring their immediate family members with them to the United States on an H-4 dependent visa. Read more about it here

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A comprehensive guide to the H-4 Visa

Many U.S. work visas come with a number of benefits, not just for the person receiving them, but also for his or her families. For instance, the H-1B nonimmigrant visa allows beneficiaries to bring their immediate family members with them to the United States on an H-4 dependent visa. This helps to keep families together during such a key transitional period. In this guide, we provide a comprehensive review of everything you need to know about the H-4 visa category, including how it works, how to apply for one, and what advantages it offers. Learn more about the H-1B visa here.

H-4 Visa Overview 

The H-4 visa is available to legal spouses and unmarried children under 21 years of H category (H-1A, H-1B visa, H-1B1, H-2A and H-2B) visa holders. These family members are classified as H-4 dependents. As an H-4 visa holder, there are many benefits to relocating to the U.S. albeit temporarily, but there are also certain limitations worth noting. While in the U.S. on H-4 status, you can file for a change of status and transition to an H-1B visa yourself or apply for an adjustment of status to green card holder. 

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What about extended family members? 

Parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins and even domestic partners are not eligible to enter the U.S. as dependents in H-4 visa status. There have been cases where the H-1B worker is the breadwinner for parents or extended family members, but the eligibility conditions for the H-4 visa are quite strict. If other family members want to visit the H-1B holder, then they will need to obtain a different visa category, such as the B-1/B-2 Visitor visa or the Visa Waiver Program, where applicable. 

H-4 visa validity

As a dependent visa, the H-4 is valid for as long as the primary H-1B holder’s visa is also valid. H-4 applicants will have to submit the H-1B visa holder’s I-797 form, which contains information about the date by which the H-1B visa is valid. Base on this the U.S Embassy or Consulate in the applicant’s home country will issue the H-4 visa with the same validity. 

H-1B visas generally have a maximum period of stay of six years, following which the beneficiary will have to depart the U.S., assuming they didn’t switch to a different work visa or obtain a green card before then. H-4 visa holders are subject to the same guidelines. 

Documents required to prove H-4 eligibility

H-4 visa applicants must be able to demonstrate their spousal or parent-child relationship with the primary H-1B visa holder. Hence they are required to submit the following documents when filing their applications: 

  • For spouses, the original and copies of your marriage certificate, which must be translated and duly notarized if it is originally not in English. 

  • For children, the original and copies of their birth certificates 

  • Valid passport of each applicant with at least one blank page

  • Any other supporting documents that lend credence to the H-4 spouse’s marriage to the principal H-1B holder. These include

  • Photographs and videos of your wedding day where you and your spouse are clearly seen 

  • Copy of the wedding invitations

  • Copy of the list of wedding guests

  • Receipts for payments of wedding expenses

  • Receipts for booking your honeymoon or any other post-marriage activities

If the marriage was conducted only at the wedding registrar, the H-4 spouse will also need to submit

  • Copy of the signed wedding registrar affidavit

  • Pictures of the couple signing the marriage certificate

  • Pictures of witnesses at the event and of whoever was conducting the ceremony

Other important documents to gather include: 

  • Completed DS-160 application form

  • Two U.S. visa photographs

  • Letter of confirmation for the visa interview

  • Receipts for payment of $160 fee for nonimmigrant US visa applications

  • Photocopy of the primary H visa

  • Photocopy of H-1B worker’s I-129 Form, Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker and I-797 Form, Notice of Action

  • Photocopy of the Labor Certification Application (LCA) used to support the primary H-1B visa application. 

  • Copy of the H-1B visa holder’s passport 

  • Copy of the H-1B worker’s letter of employment in the U.S.

  • Supporting letter from the H-1B worker’s previous employer

  • Recent pay stubs and tax filing information, if the H-1B visa holder is already working in the U.S.

Please note the consulate or embassy may request for additional materials, but in general, these are the basic documents required.

How can I get the H-4 visa?

There are two main ways to obtain an H-4 visa and they are based on whether the applicants are in or out of the U.S. at the time filing of the petition. 

Obtaining an H-4 visa from outside the U.S. 

Eligible dependents of H-1B holders who are outside the U.S. can file their H-4 visa applications at the U.S. consulate or embassy in their home country or current country of residence. They can only apply after the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has approved the primary H-1B petition. H-4 visa applicants can file their application at the same time as the principal H-1B visa beneficiary or after the USCIS has issued the H-1B visa—but never before. The general application process follows these steps: 

  • Online application - Fill out Form DS-160 online and print out the resulting DS-160 barcode confirmation page.  You’ll need it for the interview at the consular office. 

  • Pay the visa application fee - H-4 visa fees are no different from other H type visas, which is currently listed as $190. Pay the fee and save the receipt.

  • Schedule an appointment for the visa interview - As soon as you’ve submitted the DS-160 form, schedule your visa interview appointment with the U.S consulate or embassy in your home country. The sooner you schedule the appointment, the faster the rest of the process will go. 

  • Attend the visa interview - The consular officer will adjudicate on the H-4 visa application and will try to determine the bona fides your relationship with the H type visa holder. There will also be questions regarding your intent for going to the U.S. This interview will determine whether or not you receive the H-4 visa, so it's important to properly prepare with clearly defined answers and ample evidence where required. 

  • Get your visa - You will receive a notification after the U.S. consulate or embassy processes your H-4 visa application. You can also check your visa status on the consulate’s website by filling in your application number. If approved, you’ll need to go back to the embassy for visa stamping, which is the last step to complete before booking your flight to the U.S.

Important Note - Keep in mind that having an H-4 visa does not automatically mean entry to the U.S is guaranteed. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the port of entry officers have the final say on admittance. 

Obtaining H-4 status from within the U.S.

Eligible family members of H-1B visa holders who are already in the U.S. on a different nonimmigrant visa status follow a different process for obtaining their H-4 visas. Technically speaking, they cannot apply for a "visa," since it is essentially an entry document and they’re already inside the U.S. at the time of the petition. Instead, H-4 applicants must file a Form I-539, Application To Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status with the USCIS. There is a $370 filing fee as well as an $85 fee for biometric services. All the applicants can be included in one I-539 form and it’s a matter of filing the form with the required documents listed above, and then waiting for the USCIS to process the change of status. 

For instance, let’s say your spouse or parent is in the U.S. with an L-1 nonimmigrant work visa and you are on an L-2 visa, but their L-1 visa is about to expire so they find a new employer who sponsors their H-1B petition. You can either file your I-539 application with the USCIS at the same time as the L-1 holder’s I-129 petition or at any time after the H-1B petition has been approved. If everything is in order with the I-539 petition, the USCIS will change your status to H-4 and update their records accordingly. 

Keep in mind that change of status only applies to family members who are living in the U.S. legally and have continued to maintain lawful conduct —out of status persons, such as those who have overstayed their current visas are ineligible to file for a change of status. In the example above, the L-2 visa is also a dependent visa, so the moment your L-1 status ends, your family’s L-2 status terminates as well. 

Therefore, if you do not file an I-539 for a change of status from L-2 to H-4, your family could be living in the U.S. without lawful status. This can lead to very grave consequences, including jeopardizing their chances of living in the U.S. in the future. 

Important Note -  If your family travels out of the U.S. after a change of status to H-4 visa status, they will first need to visit the U.S. consulate to get their passports stamped before they can reenter the U.S. This is because a change of status to H-4 does not provide an actual visa so they’ll need to go through the visa stamping process before returning, else they won’t be granted entry. This isn't much of a hurdle provided the USCIS has already approved the change of status—but it is important to keep in mind, nonetheless.

 H-4 visa processing time

At the moment there’s no standard processing time for H-4 visa applications as actual times tend to vary from country to country. Since it is a dependent visa, the processing time will typically depend on the status of the primary H-type visa. For example, if you’re applying for your H-4 visa at the same time as the primary H-1B visa applicant, then your visa will take the same time to process as the primary visa.

However, if you are applying separately the time it takes to process the H-4 visa will depend on the U.S consulate or embassy handling the application. If they have a high workload at the time, then the processing time would be longer. 

If you’re applying for a change of status, the processing time will depend on the USCIS service center where you submitted the I-539 petition. This can range from a couple of weeks to a few months. The important thing is to file the petition way before your current status expires so even a lengthy process doesn’t affect your lawful status. 

H-4 visa extensions

Extending your H-4 status also means filing Form I-539 and paying all the applicable fees. You can file the extension petition at the same time as the principal H-1B visa holder. Generally, the H-1B visa is only eligible for one extension after the initial three year period expires, though there are special cases where further extensions may be granted. You will have to also submit the following supporting documents:

  • Copy of your most recent I-94 form

  • Copy of the H-1B worker’s most recent I-94 form

  • Copies of the H-1B worker’s I-129 form and I-797 form, notice of approval

  • Proof of spousal or parent-child relationship with the principal H-1B visa holder 

Privileges of being H-4 visa status

The H-4 visa comes with a number of benefits, some of which are not even available to other dependent visas. While on H-4 status, you can: 

Apply for a change of status

H-4 visa holders may opt to change their immigration status to a work visa while in the U.S. This is hugely beneficial in cases where the H-4 dependent finds an employer who is willing to sponsor their visa and they can simply file the I-129 petition and ask the USCIS for a change of status. More importantly, the time spent in H-4 visa status does not count towards the six-year maximum period of time that the beneficiary will be allowed to spend in the new status. For instance, let’s say an H-4 spouse has already been in the U.S. for three years and then transitions to H-1B status. He or she may remain in H-1B status for the full six-year period since the initial three years spent in H-4 status did not count towards the maximum.

Open a Bank account 

You can open an account with any banking institution in the U.S. like any other immigrant or U.S. citizen. You will need to provide your passport, local ID card and any other documents required by the bank, but the process is relatively straightforward. You can also get a debit card from the bank and in some cases, a credit card as well, although certain restrictions may apply and they might only issue an add-on card only at the time.

Obtain a driver’s license

You can get a U.S. driver’s license while on H-4 status, provided you pass the necessary driver’s tests as required by the U.S. state where you currently reside. 

Have access to healthcare insurance

Getting health insurance helps in managing the costs of health care in the U.S. and is practiced by most U.S. residents. 

Get a Social Security Number (SSN) 

H-4 visa holders who qualify for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) may apply for their SSN  directly using their EAD application or apply for it separately at the SSN office. 

Get an ITIN number

H-4 visa holders are required to file taxes and therefore need to obtain an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) from the IRS. Your ITIN is used for federal tax purposes and cannot be applied beforehand. You’ll need to prepare the actual tax return before claiming H-4 dependent benefits. 

Enroll in any U.S. educational institution 

Your H-4 status allows you to enroll in academic courses (B.Sc, MS, MBA, Online Courses) or even short term programs. You basically have the same opportunities as a student on an  F-1 visa, including being eligible for certain benefits such as in-state tuition fees. However, if you can get the F-1 visa for the duration of your studies, it might make more sense to do so since it offers a number of benefits, such as the ability to work while you study under the Curricular Practical Training (CPT) or Optional Practical Training (OPT) programs. 

Of course, if you had an H-4 EAD then you can also work, but seeing as work authorization is only available to H-4 dependent spouses, the F-1 visa may be more appealing to H-4 children who are looking to work on campus during their studies.

Working in the U.S. on H-4 Status 

Only H-4 visa holders who satisfy certain requirements may obtain work permits. The DHS issues EADs to dependent spouses who satisfy one of the following conditions: 

  • Must have an approved I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Workers, which is the petition to become a U.S. permanent resident, or at least be in the process of getting the form approved.

  • The principal H-1B visa holder’s status should have been extended beyond the original six years limit under the AC21 Act. This Act allows H-1B holders seeking U.S. permanent residence to continue working in the U.S. beyond six years if their Green Card application is still pending.

One of the best things about an EAD is that you do not need to file a Labor Condition Application (LCA), petition, which is a key requirement for the H-1B visa. It also allows you to take up any form of legal employment anywhere in the U.S. unlike the H-1B visa which is only available to specialty occupation workers. 

How to apply for H-4 EAD

The H-4 EAD application process involves filing Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization and paying the necessary $410 filing fees. You’ll also need to provide the following documents: 

  • Form I-797 and most recent Form I-94 proving your valid H-4 status

  • A government-issued ID with photo

  • Copy of the biometric page of your passport

  • Proof of relationship to the primary H-1B nonimmigrant

H-4 EAD applicants must send their completed Form I-765 along with the required documents via postal mail. 

Paying the H-4 EAD application fees

You can pay the Form I-765 filing fee by sending a check or money order payable in U.S. dollars to the DHS. Make sure the payment is the correct amount to avoid the USCIS tagging the submitted Form I-765 as deficient.

H-4 EAD Processing Time

If there are no issued Requests for Evidence (RFE), the USCIS will usually take about 30–90 days from the date of receipt to process an EAD application. If approved, it will take about ten days to receive the approval notice by mail and then approximately two weeks to get the EAD card. If there is no update from the USCIS after 75 days of sending the original application, you can raise a request to get the latest update.

H-4 Visa to Green Card

Another major benefit of the H-4 is that it has dual intent, which means you can apply for lawful permanent resident status without violating the terms of your nonimmigrant visa. The process involves filing for an adjustment of status to a Green Card backed immigrant visa along with the appropriate fees. If the petition is approved, your status will be adjusted from H-4 to green card. 

Final Thoughts

Living and working in the U.S. on an H-4 visa isn’t necessarily easy, especially with the future of the H-4 EAD program being unclear at this time. However, it’s not impossible and for the time being, the H-4 visa presents a great opportunity for the children and spouses of H1B visa holders to study, gain experience and even earn income while in the U.S.

With that in mind, it’s also important to consider how your living situation will be in the U.S. once you make the transfer. Access to essential credit products like credit cards, apartment rentals, car leases and even student loans often depends on having a U.S. credit score. The Credit Passport® by Nova Credit will be of great help in translating your international credit history into a U.S.-equivalent score which you can then use to support your application for these credit products. 

Nova Credit partners with credit reporting agencies across several countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Nigeria, India, South Korea, Mexico and the UK. Get in touch with us today to learn more about how we can help you arrive and thrive in the U.S.

Moved to the U.S. from Australia or India?

Start your U.S. credit building journey on the right foot

A strong credit score helps you access a lot in the U.S., and a credit card is an easy way to start building your U.S. credit score. Access your free international credit score, and see which U.S. credit cards could be right for you. No SSN required

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