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Understanding the H1B Visa Process

Strict quotas are imposed on the number of H1B visas issued each year, therefore competition is high. Although there is no guarantee an application will be approved, it is important to begin the H1B visa process early.

What is an H1B visa?

An H1B visa is a specialized work visa. It enables US companies to hire non-immigrant workers with a graduate level education or higher degree. The worker must be employed in a specialty occupation related to their field of expertise. Some examples of these occupations include

  • Mathematics
  • Finance
  • Medicine
  • Accounting
  • Science
  • Architecture
  • Engineering
  • Information Technology (IT)

Although an H1B visa essentially functions as a specialized work permit, it is not transferrable. The worker is only authorized to work for the company that requested the visa for them. If their employment is terminated or they must change location, the visa expires.

Benefits of an H1B visa

Most non-immigrant visas require beneficiaries to keep two homes: one in the US and one in a foreign country. This demonstrates that the visa holder is in the US temporarily. An H1B visa holder allows the beneficiary to have dual intent. They may apply for permanent residence while visiting the US without negating their H1B visa status. The green card application may include themselves and immediate family members.

H1B visa cap

Only 65,000 bachelor-level and 20,000 H1B work visas are issued each year. Of the 65,000 lower-level visas, 6,800 are reserved for workers from Singapore or Chile. This leaves 58,200 lower-level visas open for other applicants.

In recent years, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has received over 230,000 H1B visa applications per year. The annual filing season opens on April 1 and closes when all positions have been filled. For several years, all positions have been filled within five days. Because of the overwhelming number of applicants, USCIS uses a computerized lottery system to determine who receives a work visa.

Applying for an H1B visa

The first step in the application process is to find an employer who is willing to sponsor you. The sponsor files an H1B petition on your behalf. USCIS also requires employment letters from the employer. In them, the employer details the foreign worker’s position and exact duties, dates of employment, and gives information about the beneficiary’s co-workers and supervisors.

Guaranteed wages

The company must also provide a wage guarantee. According to law, the employer must pay the higher of prevailing wage or actual wage. The State Employment Security Agency determines prevailing wage based on an employer-provided list of skills, experience, and responsibilities the job requires. Actual wage is based on a comparison with other workers who have the same type of job and experience.

Filing a Labor Certification Application

To prove they will pay the higher wage, the company must file a Labor Certification Application (LCA) with the Department of Labor (DOL). The LCA also affirms that employing the non-immigrant worker will not have a negative effect on co-workers and the employer is not replacing workers on strike. Companies must also promise to provide equal benefits to the foreign-born worker. These may include health, life or medical insurance, retirement plans, stock options or bonuses.

Upon approval, the DOL sends a certified copy of the LCA back to the employer. The employer must openly post it in at least two places for 10 days before filing the H1B visa. Alternatively, employers may provide notice to their employees’ collective bargaining representative 10 days before filing the work visa application.

Preparing an H1B visa application

Meanwhile, the beneficiary of the H1B work visa must prepare certain documents as well. He or she must provide proof of their degree or its equivalent. This includes training certificates, a resume, any professional memberships, the employment agreement, proof of a degree, an education and experience evaluation, and a letter of support. Form I-129 must also be included, along with any relevant fees. All of this information must be included with the H1B visa application.

Family members

You do not have to leave your family behind to accept a job in the United States. Although family members are not automatically included with your H1B application, you can apply for H4 visas for your spouse and any children under age 21. If your child reaches age 21, he or she must return to their country of origin or apply for another visa to stay in the US.

Processing and application fees

The employer typically pays all associated fees for filing an H1B visa. These fees break down to the following costs. These numbers are provided for reference only. Always check with USCIS for the current fee schedule before filing.

  • Filing fee: $325
  • American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act fee: based on business size; 1 - 25 full-time employees: $750; 26 or more full-time employees: $1,500
  • Fraud prevention and detection: $500
  • Optional Premium Processing fee: $1,225

Waiting for approval

It may take several months to receive word from immigration officials. Applicants can opt for premium processing if they wish. Premium processing does not guarantee or improve the chances of receiving H1B visa approval. However, it does reduce wait time for status notification. Premium processed applicants receive notice of their H1B visa status within 30 days. Regularly processed applications can take several months to process.

USCIS receipt issued

If the lottery chooses an application, the H1B employer will receive a USCIS receipt with a nine-digit case number. The employer then notifies the beneficiary that their application is under review. Responsible employers should include information regarding processing times and warn the employee against making major life changes before the H1B visa petition is approved.

Finalizing your H1B visa

Once you receive verification that your H1B visa has been approved, there is still work to do. There are five steps to finalizing your visa.

  1. Provide a digital, passport-style photo for each applicant. It must be square, with a minimum of 600 x 600 pixels and a maximum of 1200 by 1200 pixels. It must also be in color, with a resolution of 24 bits per pixel. The file size must be at or under 240 kilobytes, and in JPEG format. Embassies in some countries may opt to use a photo taken during biometric processing instead. Check with the US embassy in your country for exact requirements.
  2. Visit the State Department website and complete Form DS 160. This is an online version of the H1B visa application form. You will receive a confirmation number with a 10-digit barcode upon completion. Print this form out; you will need it to set up your visa interview appointment.
  3. Pay the application fee. You may need to create a profile at the US Visa Service website first and choose the Schedule Appointment option. The payment confirmation screen will provide payment options and information. The fee covers one year from the date of payment; make your appointment within this time frame. The fee may vary by country.
  4. Schedule your biometrics and visa interview appointments. You must schedule two appointments: one at a Visa Application Center (VAC) and one at the consulate. Bring your DS 160 confirmation page and have it stamped. Biometrics information gathered at the VAC may include height, weight, fingerprints, and a photograph. Schedule your biometrics appointment at least a day or two in advance of your visa interview at the consulate.
  5. Attend your visa interview. After providing biometrics information, go to your visa interview. Make sure you have the correct date and arrive a few minutes early. You will need originals of the following documents
    • Current and any previous passport(s)
    • Your photograph
    • The DS 160 confirmation page, stamped at the VAC
    • The receipt for your application fee
    • Your visa appointment letter
    • Any petition-related documents
    • Any documents that support your education level or other eligibility requirements for the H1B visa

It may take a few days to receive your H1B visa stamp. Once your passport has this stamp, you can travel to the United States.

Work start date

Although your approved visa gives you the legal right to enter or live in the US, it does not mean you can begin work right away. You may apply for an H1B visa no sooner than six months before your work start date. This means that if your application is received on April 1, you cannot begin work until October 1 of that year.

Renewing your H1B visa

Your H1B work visa is good for three years after the date of issuance. At that point, it must be renewed. For most foreign-born workers, there is a six-year cap on H1B visas. The worker must spend a full year outside the US to reset this time limit.

However, if the worker is applying for permanent residency, they may have their visa extended another 240 days. If permanent residency is denied, the extension is automatically revoked. One-year or three-year extensions are available under specific circumstances. You can ask an Expert for more information about this type of extension.

Tips for getting your H1B visa approved

Although there is no 100 percent guarantee for H1B visa approval, there are things you can do to increase your odds of selection. Use these tips below to make sure you have the best chance for approval.

Filing your application early

It is up to the employer to handle this part, but the earlier your application is in, the better. The past several years have only offered a five-day window for application acceptance. The application window opens April 1 of each year.

Know whether you are exempt from the H1B visa cap

If you are applying for work with a non-profit, college or university, you may be exempt from the H1B visa cap. Only accredited or licensed organizations count, so talk to your employer to see whether you qualify for an exemption.

Make sure you have the right address

All mailing addresses should be correct, including return addresses. A misprint could result in a consequential delay.

Double check supporting documents

Make sure all your supporting documents are properly signed and dated. Both you and your employer should provide supporting material for all relevant information. For employers, this means proving you can afford to pay your employees. For workers, this means providing documentation of your degree or its equivalent.

If you need help reviewing your documents or understanding the H1B visa process, talk to an Expert. They can provide employees or employers with information based on their years of experience. 

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