The H-1B Visa Process Explained

Updated on April 23, 2024

The H-1B visa enables U.S. employers to hire foreign workers for specialty occupations requiring specific theoretical or technical expertise. The application process begins with submitting a Labor Condition Application (LCA) to the Department of Labor to ensure the employment of a foreign worker does not negatively affect U.S. workers in similar roles. Employers must then register with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) during a specified period, paying a fee and participating in a lottery that determines who can file an H-1B visa petition. After selection, the employer files a petition, which USCIS evaluates based on the employee’s qualifications and the job’s specialized needs. If approved, the visa permits the foreign worker to begin or continue employment in their specialty area, subject to the annual H-1B cap, with exemptions for certain employers. This blog will further explore the nuances of each step in the H-1B visa process.

30 Second Recap:

Navigating the H-1B visa process involves understanding eligibility, the lottery system, and the application process. The H-1B visa allows U.S. employers to hire foreign workers for specialty occupations. With an annual cap of 85,000 visas, including 20,000 for advanced degree holders, the process begins with employer registration and potential selection through a lottery. Employers must obtain a Labor Condition Application (LCA) and file Form I-129 with USCIS. Premium processing expedites review, while consular processing follows for applicants outside the U.S. FAQs address eligibility, required documents, lottery application, processing timeline, and employer switches. Stay informed to navigate the H-1B visa journey effectively.


Understanding the H-1B Visa

Navigating the H-1B visa process is crucial for employers looking to hire foreign workers in specialty occupations as well as for the potential employees themselves. Here, you’ll find specifics on the purpose, caps, and qualifications for the H-1B visa.

Overview and Purpose of H-1B Visa

The H-1B visa is a non-immigrant visa that enables U.S. employers to hire foreign workers for specialty occupations that require theoretical or technical expertise. Specialized fields typically include IT, finance, engineering, and sciences. These visas are intended to assist employers who cannot find the skilled workers they need within the United States.

Categories and Caps on H-1B

There are numerical limits on the number of H-1B visas issued each fiscal year, known as the annual cap. Currently, the H-1B visa cap is set at 85,000 per year, with 20,000 of these reserved for applicants holding a master’s or higher degree from a U.S. institution. Should demand exceed the annual limit, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) uses a lottery system to determine who can proceed with the visa application process.

Need help with your H-1B visa?

The H-1B visa process is complex, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. If you’re struggling to understand all of the moving parts, let Stilt help. Our team of H-1B visa experts can help you make sense of all the eligibility requirements, documents, and the application process.

Eligibility and Qualifications

To qualify for an H-1B visa, you must meet specific criteria:

  • The job must qualify as a specialty occupation by having a minimum entry requirement of a bachelor’s degree or higher.
  • Your education must include a U.S. bachelor’s degree or its foreign equivalent in a related field.
  • The prospective employer must submit a Labor Condition Application to the U.S. Department of Labor.
  • USCIS must approve the H-1B petition filed by the employer on your behalf.

Meeting these conditions is essential to obtaining an H-1B visa and legally working within the United States. It is also the employer’s responsibility to initiate this process by filing the relevant documents with U.S. immigration authorities.

The Application Process

When pursuing an H-1B visa, the journey begins with an initial registration and potential selection through a lottery system, followed by a series of regulatory compliance steps and petition filings. This section outlines the crucial stages you, as an applicant sponsored by a U.S. employer, must navigate to obtain this nonimmigrant visa.

Initial Registration and Lottery

Each fiscal year, as an H-1B visa aspirant, your employer must first complete an electronic registration process for you, typically within a specified period of at least 14 calendar days. USCIS then conducts a lottery to select which registrations can move forward to the petition stage. It is crucial to set up a USCIS online account for this process. This lottery helps limit the number of petitions to the annual H-1B cap, ensuring a fair selection of potential workers.

Labor Condition Application

Before filing the primary petition, your employer is required to obtain a Labor Condition Application (LCA) from the Department of Labor (DOL). The LCA certifies that you will be paid at least the prevailing wage and maintain the standard working conditions. The aim is to protect both the U.S. and H-1B workers from fraud or violation of employment terms.

Filing Form I-129

Following LCA approval, your employer will file Form I-129, the Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker, with USCIS. This petition outlines your proposed employment and verifies the eligibility for the H-1B classification. If time is of the essence, your employer can opt for Premium Processing Service, which expedites the review of your petition.

Consular Processing and Arrival

Once Form I-129 is approved, if you’re outside the United States, you’ll engage in the consular processing by completing the DS-160 form and scheduling a visa interview. Upon visa approval, your entry into the United States will be at a port of entry, where U.S. Customs and Border Protection will verify your documents and grant you admission.

Advice for Considering the H-1B Visa Route to the U.S.

For immigrants looking to work in the United States, one of the primary visa options is the H-1B for skilled workers. However, the H-1B process is notoriously difficult, expensive for employers, and filled with uncertainty. Here are some perspectives from those who have gone through it:

The Difficult Reality of Getting an H-1B

As one person described, “It takes a lot of time and effort (not to mention money) for a U.S. employer to petition for a foreign worker. And even then, there’s a huge amount of luck involved in getting picked in the lottery.”

The multiple pathways typically require being in the U.S. already as a student or worker at a company’s overseas office. As an example:

“You work for a company abroad and your company’s client is a U.S-based employer. You’ve delivered many projects for them and they’d like you to come to the U.S. to help with projects better. They apply for your H-1B as a new hire and if you get picked, you move.”

Drawbacks of H-1B Life

Many in the discussion highlighted the difficulties and stresses that come with being on an H-1B visa long-term:

  • No clear path to citizenship, even after decades of living and working in the U.S.
  • Inability to easily change jobs without starting the visa process over
  • Prohibition on earning outside income like freelancing or running a business
  • Constant fear of losing status with gaps in employment
  • Difficulties traveling internationally and reentering the U.S.

As one person summed it up: “When you are applying for OPT, OPT Extension, H-1B, you can get denied and that is over for you. You won’t be able to settle down, you won’t be able to call your place ‘home’ because at any moment they can kick you out of the country.”

Considering Alternatives

For these reasons, some felt the U.S. was not worthwhile as an immigrant destination currently. A few comments:

“My honest advice, as someone who is on an H-1B, go to Canada or move to another place in Europe. Seriously, it is way better.”

“Short answer – Try some other country you will be happier in the long run.”

“Please don’t come to the U.S. Consider other countries in Europe…It’s getting worse for immigrants. And the work visa limitations are very very bad.”

While rewarding career opportunities exist in the U.S., the overwhelming consensus was that the H-1B’s lack of permanent residency, employment mobility, and personal freedom makes it an incredibly difficult path – especially for those from more immigrant-friendly nations. Careful weighing of priorities is advised before pursuing this route.

Need help with your H-1B visa?

The H-1B visa process is complex, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. If you’re struggling to understand all of the moving parts, let Stilt help. Our team of H-1B visa experts can help you make sense of all the eligibility requirements, documents, and the application process.

Frequently Asked Questions

Navigating the H-1B visa process involves understanding the specific requirements and procedural steps. This section answers some of the most common questions to ensure clarity and preparedness in your visa application journey.

What is the eligibility criteria for applying for an H-1B visa?

To be eligible for an H-1B visa, you must have at least a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent and the job you’re applying for must typically require that degree. Your employment must also be in a specialty occupation related to your field of study.

What documents are required for the H-1B visa application?

The documents needed for your H-1B application include a valid passport, job offer from a U.S. employer, Labor Condition Application (LCA) approved by the Department of Labor, your academic and work experience documents, and the H-1B petition filed by your employer with USCIS Form I-129.

How can one apply for the H-1B visa lottery?

Your employer must first submit an H-1B registration for you during the designated registration period. This electronic process typically opens up at least 14 days before April 1st. If your registration is selected, your employer can then file an H-1B cap-subject petition on your behalf.

What are the next steps after winning the H-1B lottery?

If selected in the H-1B lottery, your employer will be eligible to file the complete H-1B visa petition with USCIS. This includes submitting all required forms, fees, and supporting documentation within the designated filing period.

What is the typical processing timeline for an H-1B visa after application submission?

The processing time for an H-1B visa can vary. If you opt for premium processing by paying an additional fee, a response from USCIS is typically received within 15 calendar days. For regular processing, it can take several months.

Can an individual switch employers while on an H-1B visa?

Yes, you can switch employers while on an H-1B visa. Your new employer must file a new I-129 petition on your behalf, and you can start working with the employer as soon as the petition is submitted to USCIS. However, you should not quit your current job until the new H-1B petition is approved.

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Frank Gogol

I’m a firm believer that information is the key to financial freedom. On the Stilt Blog, I write about the complex topics — like finance, immigration, and technology — to help immigrants make the most of their lives in the U.S. Our content and brand have been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and more.

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