What is an H-1B Visa?

The H-1B visa is a non-immigrant visa category in the United States, allowing U.S. employers to hire foreign workers in specialty occupations temporarily. These occupations typically require specialized knowledge and skills, often in fields such as technology, science, engineering, mathematics, and other related areas. Here, we’ll go over what is an H1B visa and all of the H-1B visa guidelines that small business owners should know before utilizing this option.

Understanding the H1B Visa

The H-1B visa is a nonimmigrant visa category established by the United States to allow U.S. employers to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations. These occupations typically require theoretical or technical expertise in specialized fields such as IT, finance, engineering, mathematics, science, medicine, and more. The primary intent behind the H-1B visa program is to help U.S. companies overcome labor shortages in certain high-skill sectors and to bring in diverse talents that can contribute to the U.S. economy.

Key aspects of the H-1B visa include:

  • Specialty Occupations: The visa is designated for jobs that necessitate a high level of specialized knowledge and at least the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in a related field.
  • Duration: Typically, an H-1B visa is granted for an initial period of three years, which can be extended to a maximum of six years; exceptions exist for certain circumstances.
  • Annual Cap: There is an annual limit on the number of H-1B visas issued (commonly 65,000 under the regular cap and an additional 20,000 for those with a U.S. master’s degree or higher).
  • Wage Requirements: Employers must pay H-1B workers at least the prevailing wage or the actual wage paid to similar positions, whichever is higher, to ensure the employment of foreign workers does not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers.
  • Dual Intent: Unlike some other nonimmigrant visa categories, the H-1B allows for the doctrine of “dual intent,” meaning that H-1B visa holders can apply for and obtain a Green Card while in the U.S. on an H-1B visa.
  • Dependents: H-1B visa holders can bring their immediate family members (spouse and children under 21) to the U.S. under the H-4 visa category. In certain cases, H-4 visa holders may obtain work authorization.

The H-1B visa serves as a bridge for foreign professionals aiming to contribute their specialized skills to the U.S. workforce, while also offering a potential path to permanent residency. This program underscores the balance between addressing the needs of U.S. employers for specialized talent and protecting the interests of U.S. workers.

what is an h1b visa

The Role of Citizenship and Immigration Services

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is the federal agency responsible for processing H-1B visa petitions and ensuring that employers and foreign workers meet the requirements for this visa category. USCIS is crucial in adjudicating H-1B visa applications and issuing approvals.

Eligibility of Foreign Workers for an H 1B Visa

To be eligible for an H-1B visa, foreign workers must meet certain criteria, including:

  • Having a job offer from a U.S. employer.
  • The job must be in a specialty occupation.
  • Possessing the required education and qualifications for the position, with supporting documents.
  • The employer must file a petition on behalf of the foreign worker.
  • There must be an available H-1B visa cap slot if it’s subject to the annual numerical cap (explained further below).

what is an h1b visa

Educational and Professional Requirements

H-1B visa applicants generally need to have at least a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent in the relevant field. Some positions may require higher degrees or specialized certifications, depending on the job requirements.

  • The applicant’s educational qualifications must be directly related to the job they are offered, in theoretical and practical application.
  • In some cases, relevant work experience and professional achievements can be considered in lieu of formal education.

what is an h1b visa

The H-1B Visa Application Process

The H-1B visa electronic registration process for application typically involves the following steps:

  1. Employer’s Labor Condition Application (LCA): The employer must file an LCA with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to attest that they will pay the H-1B worker the prevailing wage and comply with labor conditions.
  2. Employer’s Form I-129 Petition: The employer files Form I-129, Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker, with USCIS. This includes documentation about the job, the foreign worker’s qualifications for the intended employment, and other required information.
  3. USCIS Processing: USCIS reviews the petition and, if approved, issues an I-797 Notice of Action. If the H-1B visa is subject to the annual cap (explained below), it may be entered into the H-1B lottery.
  4. Consular Processing or Change of Status: If the foreign worker is outside the U.S., they must apply for an H-1B visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate. If the worker is already in the U.S., they may apply for a change of status to H-1B.
StepDescriptionResponsibilityKey Documents/Requirements
Employer's Labor Condition Application (LCA)The employer must file an LCA with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to attest that they will pay the H-1B worker the prevailing wage and comply with specific labor conditions.Employer- LCA (Form ETA-9035) filed with DOL
- Documentation to prove the prevailing wage for the occupation
- Attestation of working conditions
Employer's Form I-129 PetitionThe employer files Form I-129, Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker, with USCIS, including details about the job and the foreign worker's qualifications.Employer- Form I-129
- LCA approval from DOL
- Proof of the foreign worker's qualifications (degrees, work experience)
- Job offer and description
USCIS ProcessingUSCIS reviews the Form I-129 petition and, if approved, issues an I-797 Notice of Action. The petition may be entered into the H-1B lottery if subject to the annual cap.U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)- I-797 Notice of Action (approval notice)
- If subject to the cap, potential entry into the H-1B lottery
Consular Processing or Change of StatusDepending on the worker's location, they must either apply for an H-1B visa at a U.S. embassy/consulate or apply for a change of status to H-1B if they are already in the U.S.Foreign Worker- For consular processing: DS-160 form, passport, photo, I-797, interview at U.S. embassy/consulate
- For change of status: I-539 form (Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status), I-797
- Supporting documents (e.g., qualifications, job offer)

The Role of Employers in the H1 B Visa Process

Employers are responsible for:

  • Paying the H-1B worker the prevailing wage for the occupation and location.
  • Complying with the terms and conditions of the approved LCA.
  • Providing a safe and conducive working environment.
  • Obtaining labor certifcation by filing the necessary forms and fees with USCIS.
  • Maintaining proper records and documentation.

what is an h1b visa

Prevailing Wage and the H-1B Visa

Wages for H-1B workers are typically determined based on the prevailing wage for the occupation in the geographic location where the work will be performed. The DOL provides wage data to establish the minimum salary requirement for the foreign employee.

H1B Visa Caps and Limitations

There are two main types of H-1B visa caps:

  • Regular Cap: This is the annual limit on the number of new H-1B visas available, set at 65,000.
  • Master’s Cap: An additional 20,000 visas are available for foreign workers with a master’s degree or higher from a U.S. institution.
  • Certain organizations, such as universities and nonprofit research institutions, are exempt from these caps.
  • H-1B workers performing labor or services in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) and Guam may also be exempt from the H-1B cap, according to the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008. H-1B workers in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands are exempt from the H-1B cap if their employers file the petition before Dec. 31, 2029.

what is an h1b visa

Specialty Occupations and H-1B Visa Allocations

H-1B visas are typically granted for jobs in specialty occupations, which often include fields like technology, engineering, science, mathematics, medicine, and business. These occupations require specialized knowledge and skills.

Renewal and Extension of an H-1B Visa

H-1B visas are initially granted for up to three years and can be extended for another three years, for a maximum of six years. Extensions are typically based on continued employment with the same employer.

Transition from H-1B Visa to Permanent Residency

H-1B visa holders can transition to permanent residency (green card) if their employer sponsors them for an employment-based green card. This process can take several years and involves multiple stages, including labor certification and a petition to USCIS.Resources Act.

FAQs: What is an H-1B Visa

What is the duration of an H-1B visa?

A typical H-1B visa is initially granted for up to three years. It can be extended for another three years, for a maximum total stay of six years. In some cases, H-1B visa holders may be eligible for extensions beyond the six-year limit if they are in the process of obtaining permanent residency (green card).

Can H-1B visa holders bring dependents to the U.S.?

H-1B visa holders can bring their immediate family members (spouse and unmarried children under 21) to the U.S. under H-4 dependent visas. H-4 visa holders can live in the U.S. but are not authorized to work, with limited exceptions.

What happens if an H-1B visa holder loses their job?

If an H-1B visa holder loses their job, they are typically required to leave the U.S. unless they find another employer willing to sponsor them for a new H-1B visa or a change of status to a different visa category. Some H-1B workers may have a grace period of up to 60 days to find new employment or depart the country, depending on their specific circumstances.

Are there any other ways to temporarily employ foreign workers in the US?

Apart from the H-1B visa, there are several other visa categories that allow U.S. employers to hire temporary foreign workers. These include:

  • H-2A and H-2B visas for seasonal agricultural and non-agricultural workers, respectively.
  • L-1 visas for intracompany transferees.
  • O visas for individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement.
  • TN visas for Canadian and Mexican professionals under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

How does the H-1B visa differ from other work visa categories?

The H-1B visa is specifically designed for foreign workers in specialty occupations, typically requiring a bachelor’s degree or higher. It is employer-sponsored and is often used in industries such as technology, engineering, and healthcare.

Other visa categories have different eligibility criteria and purposes. For example, H-2A and H-2B visas are for temporary, non-professional workers. Read more about what is an h2b visa here. L-1 visas are for intracompany transfers, and O visas are for individuals with extraordinary skills or achievements.

Each visa category has its own set of requirements, limitations, and application processes.

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Lisa Price Lisa Price is a staff writer for Small Business Trends and has been a member of the team for 4 years. She has a B.A. in English with a minor in journalism from Shippensburg State College (Pennsylvania). She is also a freelance writer and previously worked as a newspaper circulation district manager and radio station commercial writer. In 2019, Lisa received the (Pennsylvania) Keystone Award.