Your quick guide to the H-1B visa
What is the H-1B visa: The H-1B is a non-immigrant visa with working rights in the US.
Who applies for the H-1B visa: Employers apply for the H-1B visa on behalf of specialised international workers they wish to hire.
How long is an H-1B visa valid: Initial max of 3 years, with the ability to apply for an extension for up to 6 years total.
What else should you know:
How many H-1B visas are granted each year? There is 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).
How are H-1B visas granted? H-1B visas are granted on a random lottery basis if the number of applicants is more than the number of visas available.
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?
F-1 OPT Extension
F-1 OPT Extension
International graduates from American universities in the US
Specialised international workers
International workers as well as close family members of US nationals
F-1 OPT Extension
12 months, or a max of 36 months for STEM degree holders
Up to 3 years with possible extensions up to a total of 6 years
Permanent - provided residency and other legal requirements are met
F-1 OPT Extension
Students and graduates apply for themselves following a recommendation from their school
Employers must sponsor the visa application on behalf of the international worker
Persons apply for themselves (and their spouse or dependents, if applicable)
F-1 OPT Extension
Work within one’s field of study with the possibility of short periods of un-employment
Work for the sponsoring employer. Those who wish or need to change jobs must re-apply
Working rights within any field. This visa isn’t linked to an employer
F-1 OPT Extension
Dependent on the number of international students
A maximum of 85,000 new visas issued annually. Applicants selected through a lottery
There is a diversity lottery for up to 50,000 people; all others issued on a case-by-case basis
What can you do with an H-1B visa?
You’ll have the right to work in the US on a non-immigrant visa. If you become unemployed (for any reason), you only have a limited time to secure a new position or visa before you need to leave the country.
How long is an H-1B visa valid?
The initial period lasts for 3 years, though this can be extended for a maximum of 6 years. However, the USCIS has recently issued permits allowing for less time, a policy which companies are fighting.
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 H-1B visas per year 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”.
Both sets operate on a random lottery system, beginning with the visas reserved for those holding US master’s degrees. Anyone from this group who isn’t awarded an H-1B visa during this round of selection automatically flows into the second round.
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 H-1B 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).
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.
The remaining 65,000 (plus or minus, based on the H-1B1 visa class exceptions) are chosen from the total remaining pool of applicants.
Is there a way to avoid the H-1B visa 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.
What are your chances of getting an H-1B visa?
The odds of your application getting selected are dependent upon the number of applications received. The total H-1B visas per year remain unchanged while the amount of applications varies. In years when the number of applicants is less, the odds increase dramatically, and vice versa.
H-1B visa eligibility and application
Who is eligible for an H-1B visa?
The H-1B visa category is reserved for specialised workers. This can be in just about any field, from religious work to technical engineering. The candidate must fulfil the following eligibility criteria:
- Depending on the field, the candidate must possess a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, its equivalent, or 12 years of specialized work experience
- It must be shown that the employer has been unable to fill this position within the existing US labour pool, and
- It must be shown that the candidate possesses deep knowledge of the position and field of work.
Submitting an application: When can you apply for your H-1B visa?
Your H-1B visa 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 can 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. Take a look at the important dates here.
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 visa steps, forms and fees: How to apply for the H-1B visa
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 H-1B visa 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 the H-1B process works:
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.
Upon approval of the LCA and as soon as 1 April, your employer will submit Form I-129 and the supporting documentation.
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.
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.
An H-1B visa can cost anywhere from $1,720 to $6,470 depending on various criteria such as attorney fees, optional fees, etc.
Premium Processing Fee (optional)
Public Law 114-113 Fee*
Basic Filing Fee
USCIS Anti-fraud Fee
ACWIA Education and Training Fee
$750 if the company has less than 25 employees; $1,500 if the company has more than 25 employees
*Applicable to companies with more than 50 employees with over half on H-1B or L1 status
H-1B visa requirements
The documents you’ll need to apply for your H-1B visa are:
- 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).
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.