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What is the H-1B Visa?

With conversations beginning around H-1B visa cap season, you might be wondering, what is the H-1B visa?

Though many businesses have been hiring employees on the H-1B visa for years, small businesses and growing tech companies looking to expand their talent pool could benefit from its ability to fill talent gaps.

As one of the most sought-after employment-based visas, the H-1B visa is suitable for a variety of industries and workers. Its popularity is part of what’s put it in the national spotlight, and it has come under more intense scrutiny recently.

Since the start of 2017, the visa has become the target of stricter petition screenings and increased site visits to businesses. But what is the H-1B visa, exactly, and what are the benefits for organizations?

What is the H-1B visa?

The H-1B visa is an employment-based visa that allows employers to hire workers in a “specialty occupation.” That includes individuals who possess highly specialized knowledge in a number of different fields, including accounting, biotechnology, education, healthcare and more.

The H-1B visa generally requires that an applicant hold at least bachelor’s degree. In a few cases, it may also be possible to present evidence of work experience in the field which is equivalent to a degree.


what is the H-1b visa - employer-specific

Often, discussion around switching employers on the H-1B visa implies that there’s a transfer process between employers. But, that’s not the case. The H-1B visa is employer specific, which means that an employee must apply for a new visa when switching employers within the U.S.

How long is an H-1B visa valid?

The H-1B visa can be issued with validity up to three years. There is a possibility, however, of applying for an extension, which is valid for another three years. After one extension, you may not apply for any more extensions unless you have an approved I-140, a later stage in the process of obtaining employment-based permanent resident status.

Currently, with an approved I-140 an employee can request extensions of their US stays in H-1B status beyond the normal 6-year maximum.

Dual intent visa

Unlike a number of employment-based visa program, the H-1B visa is dual intent. This designation allows employees to apply for a green card while they’re in H-1B status. That means you can help your employees petition for permanent resident status while they continue to work for your organization under their H-1B visa.

H-1B by the numbers

Last year, roughly 199,000 H-1B visa petitions were filed; however, there is an annual cap of 85,000 H-1B visas awarded. That means, in 2017, only 43 percent of H-1B cap-eligible petitions were accepted into the lottery.

Though there are plenty more numbers that help paint the picture of how popular the H-1B visa is in the U.S., the annual cap, and the number of visas that don’t see success, are telling.

Recent changes to the H-1B visa

what is the h-1b visa - recent changes

During 2017, the H-1B visa has gotten a lot of attention from the U.S. government. Some of the most significant changes included a pause in premium processing for all H-1B visas in April 2017 so USCIS could catch up with some of the backlog. USCIS resumed premium processing for all H-1B visa petitions  in October.

There’s also been a marked increase in requests for evidence (RFEs) issued by USCIS. More than 85,000 RFEs were issued in the first eight months of 2017, a 45 percent increase from the previous year.

The H-1B visa has been under fire from Congress, with legislation approved by one committee to make changes to approvals for petitions filed by H-1B visa-dependent organizations.

The American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act (ACWIA) defines an employer as H-1B-dependent if it has:

  • 25 or fewer full-time equivalent employees and at least eight H-1B nonimmigrant workers; or
  • 26 – 50 full-time equivalent employees and at least 13 H-1B nonimmigrant workers; or
  • 51 or more full-time equivalent employees of whom 15 percent or more are H-1B nonimmigrant workers.

The common practice to offer an H-1B extension beyond the standard six years for those waiting for their green card has been called into question. And work authorization for spouses of H-1B visa holders who have H-4 dependent status is also under review by the current administration.

This high level of scrutiny has made staying compliant during the H-1B process more important than ever.

Interested in learning more about the H-1B visa? Download our H-1B Visa Cap Survival Guide.