On Dec. 21, 2023, the US Department of State (DOS) published a proposed rule, “Pilot Program To Resume Renewal of H-1B Nonimmigrant Visas in the United States for Certain Qualified Noncitizens.” It announced what has been long anticipated: a program to allow certain H-1B visa holders to renew their visas while they reside in the United States.
Until 2004, the DOS had permitted nonimmigrant visa holders to renew their expired or expiring visas in the US. This thereby avoids the time, costs and uncertainty of renewing visas while abroad in order to return to the US. Following countless nightmare tales of visa processing delays at US consulates, and cancelled return flights to the US, some H-1B temporary workers will again be able to renew their H-1B visas prior to travel outside the US. This new program gives them confidence that no unexpected visa issuance delays, or even denials, will hinder their travel plans and leave them stranded abroad.
Visa renewal program details
The visa renewal program will initially be a short-term pilot project. DOS will only accept visa renewal applications from Jan. 29 to April 1, 2024. No other visa categories, including H-4 visas for dependents of H-1B nonimmigrant workers, are eligible to apply. The program is limited to those H-1B visa holders who previously obtained their visas at US consulates in either Canada or India. There is a limit of 2,000 application slots per week each for those who received their prior visas in Canada or India, totaling a maximum of 4,000 applications per week.
Effective Jan. 29, applicants meeting eligibility requirements may apply online to renew their H-1B visas through the DOS website. However, eligibility criteria are strict and to qualify applicants must meet the following specific requirements:
- Applicants must seek to renew an H-1B visa. During the pilot phase, DOS will not process and issue renewals for any other visa classification (sorry, H-4, L, E, F, O, P, or TN visa holders).
- The prior H-1B visa must have been issued by Mission Canada with an issuance date from Jan. 1, 2020 through April 1, 2023. Those issued by Mission India must have an issuance date from Feb. 1, 2021 through Sept. 30, 2021. Applicants issued visas before or after these dates cannot apply.
- Applicants must not be subject to a nonimmigrant visa issuance or “reciprocity” fee. A visa reciprocity fee, separate from a visa application fee, is paid when the US charges a fee to issue a visa to a citizen of a country which also charges US citizens a fee for a similar visa. Neither Canada nor India have reciprocity fees, while, for example, Mexico does. So, if a Mexican national applies for or has obtained an H-1B visa in Canada, they are subject to this fee.
- Applicants must be eligible for a waiver of the in-person interview requirement. That is, they must seek to renew their visas within 48 months of the expiration of their prior H-1B visa.
- They must have submitted fingerprints to the DOS in connection with a previous visa application.
- An applicant’s prior visa cannot include a “clearance received” annotation.
- They cannot be subject to a visa ineligibility that would require a waiver prior to visa issuance (i.e. fulfilling a J visa home-residency requirement or being subject to a basis of inadmissibility requiring a nonimmigrant visa waiver).
- Applicants must currently have an approved and unexpired H-1B petition and were most recently admitted to the US in H-1B status.
- They also must currently be maintaining their H-1B status. Their period of authorized admission in H-1B status (per Form I-94 or I-797 Approval Notice) cannot be expired.
- Applicants must intend to reenter the US in H-1B status after a temporary period abroad.
Application process for H-1B visa renewals
The DOS has indicated it will release approximately 4,000 application slots weekly on Jan. 29, Feb. 5, Feb. 12, Feb. 19 and Feb. 26, 2024. Once application limits are reached, the DOL portal will be locked until the next application date. Applicants unable to apply on a specific date may do so on a subsequent application date. The application period will end when all application slots are filled or on April 1, whichever comes first.
Procedurally, applicants should navigate to the DOS visa renewal website to provide information (self-assessment) verifying their eligibility for the program. After completing this step, applicants must electronically complete and submit the Form DS-160, Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application, and pay the required $205 machine readable visa processing fee. Instructions are then sent on where to submit passports and other documents for processing, including a passport photo and originals or copies of their Form I-797 Approval Notice or Form I-94 demonstrating H-1B status. Applications are processed on a “first in, first out” basis and cannot be expedited. Those applications not meeting pilot program requirements will be returned but the fee will not be refunded.
The DOS anticipates that the visa renewal application process will take six to eight weeks to complete after an applicant’s passport and supporting documents are received. It plans to complete all applications by May 1, 2024. Applicants whose H-1B visas are revalidated will have their passports and visa returned to them via the US Postal Service or a commercial courier.