The U.S. Department of State (DOS) is launching a stateside visa renewal pilot program that will allow certain eligible H-1B visa holders to apply to renew their visa stamp from within the United States during a defined time period. The H-1B visa is for foreign nationals who are working in the United States in professional positions; H-1B status is the most common work-authorized visa status for professional foreign national workers in the U.S.
Background on U.S. Visas
For a citizen of a foreign country (who is not a U.S. legal permanent resident) to travel to the U.S. from abroad, in most cases such individual must first obtain a U.S. visa in the appropriate classification. A visa is a travel document placed in a foreign national’s passport that must be presented to U.S. immigration officials to be eligible for admission into the country (having a valid visa does not guarantee admission into the U.S.; all other admissibility requirements must still be met).
At this time, U.S. visas can only be issued by and obtained from a U.S. consulate or embassy abroad, including renewals of existing visas. Domestic renewal of certain visas had been available in the past, but such practice was discontinued in 2004. For the visa application processes currently in place, an individual seeking a new U.S. visa or renewal of an existing visa must be physically present in the foreign country where the consulate/embassy is located in order to procure the visa.
Unfortunately, wait times to obtain a visa—even after attending a visa appointment or otherwise submitting application materials—can be unpredictable, with the potential to be significant. For those already living and working in the United States seeking to renew an existing visa, having to travel abroad to obtain the visa and face uncertain wait times is inconvenient and expensive at best, and can be very problematic for foreign nationals who have logistical constraints such as an inability to work from overseas. Moreover, requiring all visa applications to go through consular posts abroad can result in long appointment wait times at high-traffic locations, like those located in India and Canada. Delays in visa issuance can, in turn, lead to instability for U.S. employers with foreign national employees traveling outside of the country; for example, the employee may have to cancel/postpone critical international business trips or may face unexpected delays in returning to the U.S. workplace.
H-1B Visa Renewal Pilot Program
To address some of these concerns and to generally improve visa processing, the DOS recently announced a pilot program to resume domestic visa renewals for H-1B visa applicants who meet certain restricted eligibility requirements. The pilot program is capped at 20,000 applications and applies only to those renewing a prior H-1B visa issued in either (1) India with an issuance date of February 1, 2021 through September 30, 2021 or (2) Canada with an issuance date of January 1, 2020 through April 1, 2023. Participation is also limited to H-1B visa holders who(se):
- Are not subject to a nonimmigrant visa issuance fee (commonly referred to as a “reciprocity fee”);
- Are eligible for a waiver of the in-person interview requirement;
- Have submitted ten fingerprints to the DOS in connection with a previous visa application;
- Prior visa does not include a “clearance received” annotation;
- Do not have a visa ineligibility that would require a waiver prior to visa issuance;
- Were most recently admitted to the United States in H-1B status;
- Are currently maintaining H-1B status in the United States;
- Have an approved and unexpired H-1B petition;
- Period of authorized admission in H-1B status has not expired; and
- Intend to reenter the United States in H-1B status after a temporary period abroad.
The pilot program will accept H-1B visa renewal applications from January 29, 2024 through April 1, 2024, or until all application slots are filled, whichever comes first. Note that application availability will be staggered; DOS is releasing approximately 2,000 slots each week for the first five weeks of the program (applicants who are unable to apply on one application date may reattempt application on any of the remaining application dates). Participation in the pilot program is entirely voluntary, and those who are not eligible for the program (or who choose not to participate or are otherwise unable to apply) can apply for a visa at a U.S. consulate or embassy overseas in the normal course.
Please note that stateside visa renewal is not available at this time for any other visa classification—including H-4 visas for family members of H-1B visa holders—or for those with H-1B visas issued outside of the time period described above.
The DOS has confirmed that applications will be processed on a first-come, first-served basis, and estimates that it will take six to eight weeks to receive a renewed H-1B visa under the program (assuming the renewal application is approved). However, such timeline is not guaranteed, and there will be no option to expedite the processing. Eligible H-1B visa holders who have international travel plans or who may otherwise need their passport in the weeks or months following the date of application will want to carefully consider whether to utilize this program. There will be an option to withdraw the application and request return of the passport, but the timeline for receiving the passport back is unknown. The visa application fee will not be refunded in the event of withdrawal (or refusal) of the visa application.
Although this pilot program may not benefit a large number of H-1B visa holders given the restricted eligibility requirements, it is nevertheless an important step toward efficiency and modernization of the H-1B visa renewal process. Stateside visa renewal will not only provide greater convenience, less cost, and more certainty for eligible H-1B visa holders, but it will also provide more stability for U.S. employers by affording eligible H-1B workers the opportunity to have valid visa in hand before traveling overseas and avoid visa-related delays in returning to the U.S. workplace.
Please refer to the U.S. Department of State’s webpage on the pilot program for more information regarding the application process, including answers to some frequently asked questions.