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H1B Visa: Step by Step Guide

Prodigy Finance - February 28, 2020

Get your H-1B visa to work in the US after your international degree

Your quick guide to the H-1B visa

What: The H-1B is a non-immigrant visa with working rights in the US.

Who: Employers apply for the H-1B visa on behalf of specialised international workers they wish to hire.

How long: Initial max of 3 years, with the ability to apply for an extension for up to 6 years total.

What else should you know:

  • H-1B visas are granted on a lottery basis with a total annual quota of 85,000 issued annually (20,000 are reserved for workers who completed their master’s or doctoral degrees at American universities in the US.
  • Your spouse or dependents can join you in the US if their H4 visas are approved.
  • The H-1B visa offers dual-intent; you can apply for a Green Card while working on this visa class.
  • Developing strong credit in the US is critical during your H-1B time; as soon as you know everything about the H-1B visa, it’s time to consider your financial options. 

Just got your post-completion OPT work authorisation? Landed your first post-grad job offer? About to begin the second year of your degree in the US?

It’s never too early to begin thinking about your H-1B visa options - if you’re hoping to remain in the US for several more years of work experience - that is. 

What is the H-1B visa? What benefits does it provide?

The H-1B is the visa class that the majority of internationals will apply for when they want to gain a few years of work experience in the US.

Although it’s thought to be the step between working on the OPT extension of the F-1 visa and a Green Card, this progression isn’t mandatory. In other words, you could skip (or may not qualify for) the OPT and it is possible to obtain a Green Card without having an H-1B visa first. 

But, typically speaking, most international graduates from US universities start with the OPT extension of their F-1 visa, then apply for an H-1B visa and, if they wish to remain in the US, then work on getting their Green Card. 

How is the H-1B different from the OPT or a Green Card?

Eligibility: International graduates from American universities in the US.

Duration:  12 months, or a max of 36 months for STEM degree holders.

Application:  Students and graduates apply for themselves following a recommendation from their school.

Allows: Work within one’s field of study with the possibility of short periods of un-employment.

Number granted: Dependent on the number of international students.

H-1B visa 

Eligibility: Specialised international workers.

Duration: Up to 3 years with possible extensions up to a total of 6 years.

Application: Employers must sponsor the visa application on behalf of the international worker.

Allows: Work for the sponsoring employer. Those who wish or need to change jobs must re-apply.

Number granted: A maximum of 85,000 new visas issued annually. Applicants selected through a lottery.

Green Card

Eligibility: International workers as well as close family members of US nationals.

Duration: Permanent - provided residency and other legal requirements are met.

Application: Persons apply for themselves (and their spouse or dependents, if applicable).

Allows: Working rights within any field. This visa isn’t linked to an employer.

Number granted: There is a diversity lottery for up to 50,000 people; all others issued on a case-by-case basis.

The H-1B visa lottery system

The US government has set a limit on the number of new H-1B visas issued annually. Currently, the total number of new H-1B visas is broken up as:

  • 20,000 visas reserved for those who obtained a master’s degree (or higher) from an American university in the US.
  • 65,000 visas issued to qualifying workers, regardless of the level of their university education or where it was obtained. This is known as the “master’s cap”.

In a given year, should there be fewer H-1B applications than visas available, all applicants would move into the visa verification stage without a lottery.

However, there are often more applications than the visa quotas allow and a random lottery (through computer generation) takes place to determine which applications are successful. 

Exceptions to the H-1B visa quota

Within the general 65,000 visa lottery, there are 2 exceptions which have a guaranteed number of visas set aside for certain nationals as a result of trade agreements with these countries. These exceptions are:

  • 1400 for Chilean nationals.
  • 5400 for Singaporean nationals.

The H-1B visas issued to these groups under these exceptions are technically H-1B1 visas, but their numbers count against the general draw.

However, any leftover positions for either Chile or Singapore in one year are rolled over into the following year’s general draw (and not specifically reserved for these H-1B1 classes). In that instance, there may be more than 65,000 spots available in a given year.

There are also some exceptions to those working in higher education or advanced research; these exemptions are given to the organisations that fit very specific guidelines, not to the international visa holder. 

Order of the H-1B visa lottery

Until recently, the general draw took place prior to the lottery for the 20,000 spots available to internationals with a US graduate degree. However, in an effort to attain more highly-qualified H-1B visa holders, the draws were reversed beginning in 2019 (to begin work in 2020). 

  1. The master’s cap 20,000 applications are chosen first. Applicants in this category that aren’t selected in this round are automatically placed into the general round.
  2. The remaining 65,000 (plus or minus, based on the H-1B1 visa class exceptions) are chosen from the total remaining pool of applicants. 

H-1B visa lottery system breakdown for international graduates in the US

Is there a way to avoid the H-1B lottery?

Not really; H-1B visas are awarded based on quotas via this lottery system. But there are a few scenarios which appear to sidestep the lottery:

  • If you’re a national of Chile or Singapore, you have very strong odds - and there are several years where your application automatically moves to the verification step.
  • If there are fewer applications than the set quotas; each application is selected and moves to the next step.

In 2019, US Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) received 201,011 applications for the available H-1B visas between the window of 1 and 5 April 2019, officially triggering the lottery which began on 11 April 2019.

It’s important to remember that applications for the year close when the lottery begins.

H-1B visa eligibility and application

The H-1B visa category is reserved for specialised workers. This can be in just about any field, from religious work to technical engineering. However, it must be shown that:

  • The employer has been unable to fill this position within the existing US labour pool, and
  • The candidate possesses deep knowledge of the position and field of work.

Depending on the field, a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, its equivalent, or 12 years of specialised work experience is necessary for an applicant to qualify. 

Your employer submits your H-1B petition on your behalf

Your H-1B application, or petition (as it’s often called), and the related fees are submitted on your behalf by a sponsoring employer. This ensures that there is a company willing to stand by you during your time in the US. However, you’ll need to work closely with your sponsor’s HR and legal departments to ensure they have everything needed for the application.

Looking for an employer to sponsor your H-1B visa? These are the top 10 companies sponsoring international workers on H-1B visas

When to submit an H-1B application

USCIS has very specific timing requirements for H-1B applications and the commencement of work.

Applications open on 1 April. If a petition is successful, the H-1B visa holder may begin work on their H-1B visa on 1 October. As the petition may not be submitted more than 6 months prior to the start of work. It’s possible to specify an earlier start date, but it’s not possible to apply earlier.

A lottery is triggered as soon as there are more petitions than the caps allow - and this happens rapidly, so it’s advised to submit applications as soon as possible after 1 April. 

TIP: If you’re currently pursuing your master’s degree in the US, you’ll want to make recruitment a priority in the autumn of your second year if you’re looking for an employer to sponsor an H-1B visa on your behalf. 

H-1B steps, forms and fees

As long as you meet the minimum requirements for the H-1B visa and once you have accepted a position with a company willing to sponsor your visa, you can begin the petition process.

Keep in mind that it will take some time to complete an application, so you and your employer should get started long before April to make sure you’ve got everything in order.

Here’s how it works: 

1. Your sponsor applies for Labor Conditions Approval (LCA) from the Department of Labor (DoL). This outlines the job, working conditions (including location), salary and benefits of the position. It’s best to ensure this is done before the beginning of March to get approval before 1 April. 

2. Upon approval of the LCA and as soon as 1 April, your employer will submit Form I-129 and the supporting documentation.

3. Should your petition be selected in the H-1B visa lottery, you’ll complete the application with visa processing and interview. Premium processing is available for a fee (which you or your employer can pay), but it may not be necessary. 

Documents you’ll need to supply:

  • Your diplomas (with English translation, if necessary).
  • Your CV or resume.
  • Any licenses needed to perform your job legally in the US.
  • Copies of passport pages with your biographical information.
  • Copies of all current and previous US immigration documents (including your F-1 student visa information).

As long as everything is in order, you’ll be able to begin work from 1 October, with entry into the US 10 days prior to your start date - or without leaving the US if you’re moving from another visa class in the US. 

What happens if you lose your job? 

You have some time to find a new employer and submit a new H-1B visa if you lose your job. While your new application doesn’t fall under the H-1B quotas, you’ll need to act as quickly as possible so you don’t lose status and need to leave the US in a hurry. 

Building credit in the US while working on an H-1B visa

Whether you plan to remain in the US for the maximum 6 years granted by the H-1B visa or you’re hoping to apply for a Green Card in the future, your credit score and history in the country is critical.

From getting a credit card to getting a car loan; credit is central to life in the US - and there are several ways to get a great score - and this guide will take you through all your options, step-by-step

Is an international master's degree the first step towards your H-1B?

That's something we'd love to help you with. Once you've found your dream school in the US, we're ready to help with the financing. 

The purpose of this guide is to provide prospective students with an overview of the application process for a US student visa and should not be regarded as legal or immigration advice or as a substitute for the official information published by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) from time to time or any instructions and/or advice provided by US embassies and consuls. Whilst we have carefully compiled the guide in accordance with the information published by USCIS, Prodigy Finance Limited does not accept liability for any inaccuracies, mistakes, omissions or outdated information in the guide and we encourage prospective students and other readers to consult the USCIS’s website at https://www.uscis.gov. Prodigy Finance Limited is not authorized by the Department of Justice (DOJ)'s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) to provide immigration services and will not provide any additional information or assistance to any person to apply for a US student or other category visa.

Post updated for accuracy and freshness on February 28, 2020. Originally published on July 31, 2019.

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