Waiting to hear if you have been selected in the H-1B lottery is one of the most nerve-wracking aspects of the H-1B visa application process.

The lottery is a random, computer-generated process that can decide the future of many noncitizens who wish to work and live in the United States.

Understanding the H-1B lottery process and how to check your status may not help reduce the stress of waiting, but will help explain why it takes so long.

H-1B visa: The basics

The H-1B is a nonimmigrant visa issued to skilled noncitizen workers who hold a bachelor's or master's degree. This limited-term visa that allows individuals to live and work in the U.S. for an initial three-year period. Employers must agree to sponsor you in order to apply for this particular visa. 

H-1B applicants are typically asked to provide proof of their educational credentials to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). They may also have to prove that they have the necessary knowledge to do the job they are being offered in the U.S. 

The H-1B visa is extendable by up to three years after the applicant is approved for the initial three-year time period. After six years have passed, an H-1B visa holder can either return to their home country or attempt to change their status through a Green Card application.

The H-1B visa lottery

The U.S. government limits the number of noncitizens eligible to obtain the H-1B visa in a given year. The quota, or “cap,” for a given fiscal year is determined by the U.S. Congress.

In most cases, there are more applications than the quota. As a result, USCIS uses a random lottery to determine who may be eligible to apply for the H-1B visa. 

For the 2019-2020 fiscal year, the cap for the H-1B lottery was set to a total of 85,000 petitions with 20,000 spots reserved for petitioners holding an advanced degree (the U.S. advanced degree exemption, or the “master’s cap”), and 65,000 designated for other H-1B lottery petitioners (the “regular cap”). 

How the H-1B lottery works

By law, USCIS must accept H-1B petitions for at least the first five days of the fiscal year, which begins on April 1 or the following business day if the first day of the month happens to be on a weekend. USCIS therefore accepts H-1B petitions from April 1 until the cap is reached or April 5th—whichever comes first.

Applicants whose employers do not submit an H-1B petition within the first five days of the fiscal year may not gain a place in the lottery because the number of petitions exceeds the cap in most years. These applicants may have to wait until the next fiscal year.

The USCIS uses a two-step process for the lottery:

1. A computer program selects 65,000 people randomly from the entire pool of petitions, including petitioners that qualify for the master’s cap.

2. The names of the petitioners who are not selected in the first lottery that qualify for the master’s cap are put through the same computer program to randomly select 20,000 additional petitions. When the master's cap is met, the lottery is complete.

The above procedure is new for the 2020 H-1B cycle. In previous years, USCIS selected the 20,000 master’s cap category of petitions first before selecting the 65,000 H1-B petitioners who qualify for the regular cap.

Applying for the H-1B lottery

The USCIS made significant changes to the H-1B visa application process for the 2020 cycle in addition to the new two-step lottery process. 

Previously, every H-1B applicant had to fill out all the relevant application forms and submit them to the USCIS prior to the lottery deadline. 

The process is now simpler as completing all the application forms is no longer necessary. Noncitizens who wish to obtain the H-1B visa must ask potential employers to file petitions to enter their names into the H-1B lottery. The sponsoring employer is then responsible for filing the H-1B worker’s petition with USCIS before the lottery deadline.

If you wish to obtain an H-1B visa, inform your sponsoring employer in the U.S. about the relevant deadlines for the lottery. A late filing may cause you to miss out on the chance to have your name in the lottery.

Odds of selection

USCIS released information suggesting 201,011 people were part of the most recent H-1B lottery. There are, however, only 85,000 total spots.

According to Quartz, the odds of a qualified master’s cap petitioner being successful in the H1-B lottery are 55 percent, while the odds for regular cap petitioners being selected are 34 percent.

In other words, recent changes to the lottery system have increased the odds for master's degree holders by four percent and reduced the odds for regular petitioners by four percent.

Overall, however, U.S. government policies in recent years have reduced the chances of applicants successfully navigating the lottery. Odds for master's degree holders were 74 percent in 2014, and 63 percent for bachelor's degree holders.

How to find out if were you selected in the H-1B lottery

When your employer files the relevant petition with USCIS to have your name in the H-1B lottery, they receive additional information from the agency. Those documents include details on how to check the application status, including whether you were successful or unsuccessful in the lottery.

Even though the application is filled out and submitted by your employer, they are free to share the details they receive from USCIS with the worker they are sponsoring. H-1B applicants can use those details to check whether they are selected in the lottery or not.

If you are picked in the lottery, USCIS informs your employer that your name was selected. They then provide instructions on how to apply for the H-1B visa, including filing a Labor Condition Application (LCA) and Form I-129.

H-1B application forms

The two significant forms within the H-1B application process are the LCA and the Form I-129.

Labor Condition Application (LCA)

The LCA is a mandatory document in H-1B filing process. It is a document the sponsoring company should file with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) before the H-1B application goes to USCIS.

The LCA includes information such as:

  • Job title 
  • Job duration
  • Pay rate or salary
  • Job location
  • Typical wage of that position in the U.S.
  • Information about the employer

The goal of the LCA is to ensure the company attempting to sponsor a noncitizen worker is not harming American workers in the process. The DOL will review wages as part of their process to ensure the H-1B applicant is paid the same as other employees doing that job in a given location.

Form I-129

Form I-129 is a Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker. It is filed by the sponsoring employer of the H-1B applicant, much like the LCA.

The form includes information about the noncitizen, employer, and the proposed job in the U.S.

There are two processing options for the H-1B visa application. Noncitizens can choose between regular or premium processing, depending on how quickly they wish to receive confirmation of their H-1B status.

Premium processing typically results in USCIS verifying the H-1B application within 15 calendar days. Regular processing may take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. 

Choosing regular or premium processing has no bearing on whether an application is successful or not as it only impacts the processing time.

H-1B approval, denial or Request for Evidence

After filing the necessary forms, H-1B applicants may receive one of three messages from USCIS. The agency may approve or deny the petition, or they may send a Request for Evidence (RFE) requesting supplemental documents to prove the H-1B petition is valid. 

An RFE could be the result of mismatched information, problems with the occupation and wage data, or a question about the applicant's qualifications or submitted documents.

If you receive an RFE, work with your sponsor to fully understand what the USCIS is requesting. Then prepare all the relevant documents and submit them as soon as possible.

When an RFE contains requests that are confusing, it is advisable to discuss the matter with an immigration attorney. A lawyer may help to explain the letter and exactly what information the USCIS requires. 

H-1B application fees

Most fees associated with H-1B filings are the responsibility of the sponsoring employer with the exception of premium processing.

There is an initial $10 filing fee to enter the H-1B visa lottery. Successful lottery petitioners incur further fees for the complete H-1B application, including:

  • Base filing fee of $460
  • American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act of 1998 (AICWA) fee of $750 or $1,500. The AICWA fee depends on the size of the sponsoring company. If the company employs one to 25 full-time workers, it is $750. If the company has 26 or more workers, it is $1,500
  • Fraud prevention & detection fee of $500
  • Public Law 114-113 fee of $4,000
  • Optional premium processing fee of $1,410. The applicant’s sponsor is not required to pay this fee, however the applicant may make a separate arrangement with their sponsor to cover all or part of the cost

H-1B lottery denial: What to do?

The only course of action for denied H-1B lottery petitioners is to try again in the following year. Some candidates continue to study or work in their home countries. Others may attempt to find a job in another country.

There is always a certain amount of luck involved with the H-1B lottery. Limited H-1B lottery quotas and an increase in petitions may result in rejection for more than half of submissions.

Some noncitizens are lucky enough to "win" the H-1B lottery. They are only a successful application away from obtaining the visa.

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. You can find more information about this particular visa in our ultimate guide to the H-1B visa.

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. 

How Nova Credit can help you establish credit in the U.S.

Nova Credit creates a global Credit Passport that helps people bring their credit history with them when they move to the U.S. While your credit history won’t be transferred to national bureau databases, creditors and lenders can use your Credit Passport to evaluate your application for a loan, apartment, and other services. 

Nova Credit currently connects to international credit bureaus in Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Mexico, Nigeria, South Korea and the UK.

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

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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 H-1B Sponsors in 2020

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

The ultimate guide to the H-1B visa 

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