Stateside H-1B Visa Pilot Program Launch
Beginning January 29, 2024, under a pilot program, the U.S. Department of State will allow certain H-1B visa holders to renew their expired or expiring H-1B visas from within the United States, rather than needing to travel abroad to a U.S. consulate or embassy.
The pilot program is limited to 20,000 total H-1B visa renewal applications and applies only to principal H-1B visa applicants whose H-1B visa was previously issued by U.S. Consulates in Canada or India, among other requirements as outlined below. The pilot program will not extend to H-4 dependent family members, who must still travel abroad to renew their H-4 visas. Participation in the pilot program is voluntary, and applicants should review the requirements and processing times carefully before participating.
PILOT PROGRAM REQUIREMENTS
Participation in the pilot program will be limited to applicants who:
- Are renewing an H-1B visa during the pilot phase; no other visa classifications are eligible for the pilot program.
- Have an H-1B visa issued by a U.S. Consulate in Canada with an issuance date of January 1, 2020, through April 1, 2023, or by a U.S. Consulate in India with an issuance date of February 1, 2021, through September 30, 2021.
- Are not subject to a non-immigrant visa issuance fee, also known as a reciprocity fee.
- Are eligible for a waiver of the in-person interview.
- Have previously submitted 10 fingerprints to the State Department in connection with a previous visa application.
- Have a prior visa that does not include a “clearance received” annotation.
- Are not subject to a visa ineligibility that would require a waiver prior to visa issuance.
- Have an approved and unexpired H-1B petition (I-797).
- Were most recently admitted to the U.S. in H-1B status.
- Are currently maintaining H-1B status in the U.S.
- Have a period of authorized admission in H-1B status that has not expired.
- Are intending to reenter the U.S. in H-1B status after temporary travel abroad.
TIMING AND NUMERICAL LIMITS OF THE PILOT PROGRAM
The application window will commence on January 29th, 2024, and close when all application slots are filled, or by April 1, 2024, whichever is sooner. Distribution of the 20,000 total application slots will occur piecemeal, allocated per country and per week. In order to control the number of applications received, each week, the State Department will release approximately 2,000 application slots for eligible applicants whose most recent H-1B was issued in Canada and approximately 2,000 for applicants whose most recent H-1B visa was issued in India. The State Department will begin accepting online applications on January 29, 2024, with additional application slots being released in each of the four following weeks. In other words, the State Department will release approximately 4,000 application slots each week on January 29, February 5, February 12, February 19 and February 26, 2024.
Once the weekly limit is reached, the online portal will lock. Applicants who were unable to apply may attempt to apply again on one of the remaining application dates. The application period for the pilot program will close when all application slots are filled or on April 1, 2024, whichever comes first.
PILOT PROGRAM APPLICATION PROCESS
The pilot program application process requires the following:
- Completion of a self-assessment of eligibility for the pilot program (importantly, the self-assessment is not capable of screening out all unqualified applicants).
- Completion of the Form DS-160.
- Completion of the $205 non-refundable machine-readable visa (MRV) payment fee.
After submission of the DS-160 and the MRV fee, applicants will receive instructions for sending required documents, including a passport, original or a copy of the applicant’s H-1B approval notice (I-797), and an original or copy of the applicant’s Form I-94.
The State Department expects an average processing time of six to eight weeks from the time the passport and other required documents are received and will not accept requests to expedite processing. The issued visa, passport, and other documents submitted by the applicant will be returned via either the U.S. Postal Service or a commercial courier.
If an applicant submits an application and subsequently needs their passport returned prior to adjudication, for example, due to urgent travel needs, the applicant may withdraw their application and request the return of their passport; however, withdrawal of an application will be considered a visa refusal under section 221(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), and the MRV fee will not be refunded.
Importantly, the issuance of a visa under the pilot program is not a grant of non-immigrant status or an extension of current non-immigrant status, which can only be granted by filing the necessary petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
POTENTIAL FOR PILOT PROGRAM APPLICATION BEING REFUSED
The pilot program self-assessment does not screen out all unqualified applicants, meaning some unqualified applicants may ultimately submit an application that will be refused.
An applicant may subsequently be found ineligible for a waiver of the in-person interview requirement, and some applicants may not be fully aware of the facts that caused them to be ineligible for the in-person interview waiver or otherwise fail to meet the requirements for the pilot program. In other cases, the State Department may refuse an application but provide instructions for submitting additional documents or information to correct minor errors (for example, where a photo does not meet the State Department's standards, there is missing information on DS-160, or additional evidence of U.S. residence is needed, etc.). Additional documents or information must be submitted prior to April 15, 2024, to permit adjudication of the application. A new MRV will not be required to correct minor errors. Cases pending after May 1, 2024, will be refused.
Refusal of a pilot program application will be considered a visa refusal under INA 221(g), and the MRV fee will not be refunded. If an applicant is refused stateside renewal of a visa under INA 221(g), the applicant must pursue a visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate instead.
For more information on the H-1B visa pilot program, please contact Volha (Olga) Andreyeva, Elizabeth Chatham, Brad Sandler, Renee Mueller Steinle, Jonathan Sturtz or the Stinson LLP contact with whom you regularly work.