H-1B status allows a professional to be in the United States to work for a specific employer, at a specific location, and in a specific position. In order for this individual to travel outside of the United States and reenter (or enter the United States for the first time) in H-1B status, the individual must also have an unexpired H-1B visa stamp in one’s passport. (Canadians are exceptions).
Since 2004, individuals must apply for an H-1B visa stamp at a U.S. Consulate abroad which has also included an in-person interview. This does not matter whether it is the first stamp or the nth stamp. Recently, under certain circumstances, the in-person interview is waived. Starting January 29, 2024, that is about to change.
Given that it has been almost 20 years since the U.S. Department of State (DOS) has issued H-1B visa renewals stateside, DOS has decided to start with baby-steps to test out their technology and resources with a pilot program. What follows is a summary of the process; these are subject to change at any time by the DOS.
DOS has announced that they will be accepting online applications starting January 29, 2024; and then again on each successive week starting on February 5, 2024; February 12, 2024; February 19, 2024; and February 26, 2024. The goal is to process all such applications and issue the visas within 6 to 8 weeks so that the program would end no later than May 1, 2024.
Only applicants who meet the following criteria are eligible to participate. Even if one meets the requirements below, DOS reserves the right not to process one’s application pursuant to this pilot program if there are other visa eligibility concerns.
- Only renewal of an H-1B visa (no other visa types will be eligible; not even H-4);
- Prior H-1B visa that is being renewed was issued by Mission Canada with an issuance date from January 1, 2020 through April 1, 2023 OR by Mission India with an issuance date of February 1, 2021 through September 30, 2021;
- Is not subject to a nonimmigrant visa issuance fee (commonly referred to as “reciprocity fee”);
- Is eligible for a waiver of the in-person interview requirement;
- Has submitted ten fingerprints to the DOS in connection with a previous visa application;
- Prior visa does not include a “clearance received” annotation;
- Does not have a visa ineligibility that would require a waiver prior to visa issuance;
- Has an approved and unexpired H-1B petition;
- Was most recently admitted to the United States in H-1B status;
- Is currently maintaining H-1B status in the United States;
- Period of authorized admission in H-1B status has not expired; and
- Intends to reenter the United States in H-1B status after a temporary period abroad.
Again, DOS reserves the right not to issue the visa and to return the application, without refunding filing fees, if it deems the person must appear for an in-person interview. If that is the case, the person’s future application will not be prejudiced by this refusal.
- Application Period
Applicants are to log onto the designated website (see below) and go through a series of questions to help determine whether they are eligible to apply.
Each week, DOS will only accept 2000 applications for those with prior visa stamps issued by Mission Canada and 2000 for those with prior visa stamps issued by Mission India. Once the 4000 is reached, the website will not receive any more applications. This will go on for 5 weeks, starting with January 29, 2024. One can go onto the website on January 29, 2024 and make an application, until the quota is reached. Once the quota is reached, one will have to wait until the next time the website opens and receives applications again, i.e., February 5, 2024 (or February 12, February 19, or February 26).
- Online Application
- Assuming the individuals are deemed preliminarily qualified after completing questions on the website, they will then need to complete the online DS-160 nonimmigrant visa application and they will receive instructions on how to pay the non-refundable, non-transferable Machine-Readable Visa (MRV) fee and where to mail their passport and supporting documents.
- Application Processing
- DOS will review applications in the order they were received. Applicants can check the status of their application at https://ceac.state.gov/CEACSta....
- There is no option to expedite the process.
- If an applicant cannot wait for the results and must travel, then the applicant can withdraw the pending application and ask for the return of the applicant’s passport and supporting documents for travel purposes. The fees paid towards the pilot program are non-refundable and non-transferable. When the applicant applies for the visa at a U.S. Consulate abroad, the applicant will have to pay for fees again. (When an individual withdraws the application, DOS will deem the application technically “refused” but this will not negatively impact a future application at an actual consulate.)
- Visa and Documentation Return
- Passports with the issued visas will be returned by mail (U.S. post or private courier).
- Returns without Visa
DOS will return certain applications without adjudicating the application, but without refunding the application fee, if it turns out that the applicant did not meet all of the criteria of the pilot program. DOS will also return applications where the DOS finds that the person is not eligible for a waiver of the in-person interview and/or does not meet all the pilot program requirements.
It is our understanding that this pilot program is a harbinger of what is to come for a wider audience seeking visa renewals, if all works out.
Please note that the above information has been provided for educational purposes only. The above information can change without notice from the DOS so please make sure you check with the DOS or with your Clark Lau LLC attorney if you have any questions.