Getting an H-1B visa is literally like winning the lottery. Each year, over 200,000 people apply for an H-1B visa for skilled workers, of whom only 85,000 are accepted through a lottery system. 20,000 of these visas are reserved for individuals who have received master’s degrees or higher from colleges or universities in the United States. 

The H1-B visa is one of the most competitive and complex American visa categories. Passing the initial lottery is only the first step in the formal H-1B review process, during which the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) may request additional materials as it makes a decision. Below, we explain more about the lottery system, how you can determine if you qualify, and other frequently answered questions.  

What is an H-1B visa status?

The H-1B visa is a nonimmigrant visa category that allows employers to petition for highly educated foreign professionals with a bachelor’s degree or higher to work in certain “specialty professions.” Each employer petitioning for an H-1B visa must file a labor condition application (LCA) with the U.S. Department of Labor before filing a full H1-B petition with the USCIS.

Petitions are accepted beginning on April 1 each year, after which a computer-generated lottery system selects the lucky applicants who will receive an H-1B visa. Within two months of the lottery selection, USCIS typically begins replies to applicants, whose approved visas will usually take effect by October 1 at the latest. 

USCIS issues H-1B visas in increments of up to three years for a maximum of six years. If you’re in the process of applying for employment-based permanent residence (a “Green Card”), you may be eligible to receive an H-1B extension beyond six years in certain circumstances. 

Advantages of the H-1B visa

The H-1B visa helps plug American skills gaps, particularly in high-demand sectors such as science, technology and engineering. If a business cannot recruit domestic workers with specialized skills, the H-1B visa allows them to tap into a foreign labor pool for qualified talent. 

Skilled noncitizens with bachelor’s or master’s degrees can apply for jobs with employers willing to petition for H1-B visas, which may offer these individuals better salaries and exciting professional opportunities that might not be available in their prior home countries. 

Upon approval of an H-1B visa petition, the applicant is granted a three-year visa and work permit which allows newcomers to:

  • Enter the U.S.
  • Travel freely within the country
  • Purchase or rent property
  • Earn an income
  • Invest that income
  • Obtain a driver’s license
  • Buy or lease a car

H-1B visa recipients can also sponsor their immediate family members, including spouses and children under the age of 18. You must fill out H-4 visa applications for your family, whose status will depend on your ongoing right to legally live and work in the U.S. The H-4 visa allows spouses to live in the U.S., obtain a driver’s license, rent property and enjoy many of the same benefits provided by an H-1B visa.

How to qualify for an H-1B visa

Overseas workers with a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree who work in certain specialty occupations may qualify for the H-1B visa. Examples of jobs typically eligible for H-1B visa petitions include, but are not limited to:

  • Architect
  • Engineer
  • Mathematician
  • Astronomer
  • Lawyer
  • IT systems analyst
  • Coder
  • Dentist
  • Doctor
  • Registered nurse
  • Therapist
  • Economist
  • Financial analyst
  • Teacher
  • Accountant

If you wish to apply for the H-1B visa, you must hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree from an American college or university or an equivalent institution abroad. You must also have a job offer with a start date from a U.S.-based company and possess the education, skills, certifications and previous work experience necessary to successfully perform your future job duties.

H-1B visa application process

USCIS is currently adjusting the H-1B application process, so follow the news for regular updates on status changes. 

In the past, every individual with a sponsoring U.S. employer had to fill out the entire application. USCIS then processed those applications and held a lottery to determine the lucky H1-B lottery winners. While the lottery is still in place, the full visa application now takes place following the receipt of preliminary approval post-lottery.

Today, your employer shares information with USCIS ahead of the annual filing deadline, including employee’s name, skills, job description, start date, and other key details. USCIS conducts the lottery and informs approved individuals that they must file a complete application.

This new process saves time for both employers and individuals as both parties only become involved in the application process after approval.

The current H-1B visa application process follows these steps: 

  • Employer files a petition to include your name in the H-1B lottery
  • Receive word from USCIS on whether you were successful in the lottery
  • File form I-129 - Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker
  • Employer pays the relevant fees
  • Schedule your interview at the relevant U.S. embassy
  • Bring filled forms and supporting documents to your interview 
  • Receive approval or denial of your application from USCIS

Change of status

If you are attending a college or university in the U.S. and graduating soon, you must file for a change of status as part of your H-1B filing process in order to transition from a student visa such as the F-1 visa. 

How to check your H-1B status

When your employer successfully files your H-1B petition, you will receive a case or receipt number from USCIS while you wait to hear whether you've won the visa lottery.

The case or receipt number allows you to visit the USCIS website for updates on your application status. The receipt number typically starts with three letters, such as EAC, VSC, WAC, NSC or others.

Those letters indicate which USCIS service center is handling the application. For example, EAC and VSC refer to the Vermont Service Center. When you have your full case number, visit the USCIS site and enter it into the form field.

Case statuses usually take one of the following five forms, which we break down below. 

  • The case was received: USCIS received your submitted forms. The agency will also mail you a receipt notice, which provides details about your application processing period. 
  • Request for additional evidence was mailed: Some applicants may receive a request for additional information, which means that USCIS may need to verify some of the details in your application before proceeding with an approval or denial. 
  • The case was approved: If you are approved, you will typically receive a formal mailed approval notice within a few weeks. 
  • The case was received and a receipt notice was emailed: This status is reserved for premium processing applicants, who pay a fee of $1,410 to be guaranteed a decision on their applications within 15 days. If USCIS delays your response, you are entitled to a refund. If you receive this form, USCIS confirms that it has received all your documents and emailed you a receipt notice with details on application processing guidelines. 
  • Decision notice mailed: If you receive a “Decision notice mailed” on the USCIS website, your visa has been denied and you will have to wait until the next cycle to re-apply. 

Fees and costs associated with an H-1B visa

Applying for the H-1B visa carries significant fees, which are typically borne by employers sponsoring workers from overseas. Fees and costs of the H-1B visa petition include:

  • $320 base fee
  • $750 American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act of 1998 (ACWIA) fee
  • $500 fraud fee
  • $1,000 premium processing fee (optional)
  • Additional costs that range from $1,570 to $3,320 - dependent on the size of the company and other factors.

Given the complexity of navigating the process, many applicants may incur additional expenses by seeking legal advice. In some instances, your company may be willing to cover these expenses. 

Processing timelines — what should you expect? 

There are two H-1B visa processing options. If you choose regular processing, you may wait between six weeks to three months before receiving official confirmation of approval. Premium processing takes 15 calendar days. While the processing time is much longer, it does not impact your chances of approval; it merely accelerates the time frame for an official USCIS response. 

H-1B status: Frequently asked questions

Does my H-1B status impact the H-4 status of my family members?

Your family members gain entry to live and work in the U.S. based on your successful H-1B application. If you lose your job or right to legally remain in the U.S., your spouse and children will lose their H-4 status as well.

What does a request for additional evidence entail?

When you see “Request for additional evidence” as your application status, it means that USCIS requires one or more documents before approving or denying your visa. Common issues that might prompt this change in status include a request for degree certifications or verification of your previous work experience. If you have any questions or concerns about the requests included in your USCIS letter, consider speaking with a qualified immigration attorney.

Does regular or premium processing impact my chances of approval?

No. Given that the H-1B lottery now happens before you apply due to recent policy changes, processing time does not impact your chances of success. The ultimate approval or denial depends on the validity of your job offer, education, work experience, and personal history.

Can a previous visitor visa rejection impact my H-1B chances?

No. The H-1B approval or denial is based on the information you provide on your application, not the circumstances of your previous denial.

When can I enter the U.S. on my H-1B visa?

Individuals coming to the U.S. on an H-1B visa can enter the country ten days before the start date on their form. This time frame is intended to provide you with sufficient time to enter the country, make living arrangements, and settle down before you start working full-time.

Can I travel to and from the U.S. while on the H-1B visa?

Yes. Provided you hold legal status and carry relevant travel documents, you can enter and leave the country regularly. To prevent any delays, consider carrying your H-1B approval letter, Employment Authorization Document, I-94, passport, and U.S. driver’s license or state ID with you when you re-enter the U.S.

H-1B extensions: How it works

If your H-1B application was successful and you have spent the past two years working and living in the U.S., you might want to start thinking about filing an H-1B extension as your enter your third year in the country.

An extension is necessary for all H-1B visa holders who wish to stay in the U.S. If you are filing through the same employer, it is a simple process that rarely involves any complications.

People switching jobs may still apply for an H-1B extension, but they will need to fill out additional forms.

When to apply for an extension?

H-1B workers can apply for a visa extension six months before the expiration of their existing visas. USCIS takes anywhere between one to three months to process applicants, so it may be to your benefit to apply early. The first step in the extension process is to discuss your circumstances with your employer.

Is your employer willing to continue to sponsor you for another three years? Ask your employer at least six months or more before your visa is due to expire. This time frame should give you enough time to apply for another job willing to sponsor H-1B visa holders in the U.S. if your current employer does not wish to re-sponsor you. 

Can I work if my H-1B expired and I have a pending extension application?

Yes, USCIS allows you to live and work legally in the U.S. If you filed your extension application on time.There is a 240-day rule that applies to H-1B workers with a pending application. USCIS allows individuals to an individual to continue to work in the U.S. for up to 240 days if they have a pending H-1B extension application.

Filing an extension with a new employer

If you plan to change jobs around the time that your H-1B is up for extension, your new employer must file the extension petition on your behalf.

USCIS does allow H-1B employees to start working for another employer before receiving extension approval, which means you do not have to spend weeks waiting around for an approval notice before you can start a new job.

Transitioning from an H-1B visa to a Green Card

The H-1B visa is an opportunity for skilled workers outside the U.S. to live and work in the country for three to six years. Some visa holders will stay for six years before moving back to their country of origin. Others may make the transition from H-1B status to a Green Card and eventually obtain citizenship in the U.S.

You are eligible to apply for an employment-based Green Card if you spend three to six years working in the U.S. on the H-1B visa. Given the waiting times and fiscal year quotas for Green Cards, it can take years before an application is processed.

Luckily, USCIS allows you to continue to work in the U.S. on a pending application, provided you file an I-140 form. The I-140 is an Immigration Petition for Alien Worker form that allows you to maintain legal status in the U.S. while your Green Card application goes through processing.

Those who eventually receive approval and get a Green Card must wait five years before applying for U.S. citizenship. The naturalization process has eligibility requirements that include maintaining a continuous presence in the country, having good moral character, avoiding legal issues, and more.

More from Nova Credit:
The ultimate guide to the H-1B visa 

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

All about H-1B Labor Condition Applications

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