The rumors are true. For the first time in nearly two decades, the Department of State (DOS) will process domestic visa renewals for certain H-1B visa applicants without requiring them to leave the United States.
This is all part of a new pilot program starting January 29, 2024, through April 1, 2024, that will allow 20,000 qualified H-1B nonimmigrant workers the opportunity to renew their visas domestically.
The Department of State hopes the pilot program will reduce heavy backlogs at more than 200 consular sections worldwide by making available an increased number of interview appointments for other visa categories, especially first-time travelers applying for business and tourism visas who require in-person interviews.
At the same time, DOS seeks to alleviate the burden on U.S. companies that employ H-1B workers by streamlining the visa renewal process.
The Department will accept applications for the pilot program starting January 29, 2024 on its webpage.
After the initial application period which ends on April 1st the Department will expand the scope of the program.
What are the Requirements to Participate?
Participation in this pilot will be limited to applicants who(se):
- Are seeking to renew an H–1B visa; during the pilot phase, the Department will not process any other visa classifications;
- Prior H–1B visa that is being renewed was issued by Mission Canada with an issuance date from January 1, 2020, through April 1, 2023; or by Mission India with an issuance date of February 1, 2021, through September 30, 2021;
- Are not subject to a nonimmigrant visa issuance fee (Note: this is commonly referred to as a “reciprocity fee”);
- Are eligible for a waiver of the in-person interview requirement;
- Have submitted ten fingerprints to the Department 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;
- Have an approved and unexpired H–1B petition;
- Were most recently admitted to the United States in H–1B status;
- Are currently maintaining H–1B status in the United States;
- 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.
Applicants that fall outside of this scope are not eligible to apply for a visa domestically.
Limitations of the Program
DOS is limiting the scope of the pilot to applicants who were previously issued visas within specified dates by Missions Canada or India to properly assess the performance and capabilities of contractors who manage the majority of the Department’s worldwide visa processing.
Additionally, the scope of the pilot only includes H–1B applicants. It does not include other visa categories, such as H–4s (dependents of H–1B principal applicants).
Applicants Must be Eligible for an Interview Waiver to Participate
Because DOS does not conduct in-person nonimmigrant visa interviews or collect fingerprints domestically, a key requirement for participation in the pilot is that applicants for domestic visa renewal must qualify for a waiver of the in-person interview requirement under section 222(h) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and have fingerprints on file with DOS that may be used for biometric vetting.
Just like any individual applying for a nonimmigrant visa overseas, including those whose in-person interview is waived, all applicants for domestic visa renewal must undergo screening and vetting.
With certain exceptions, most applicants seeking to renew their H–1B visas, whether overseas or domestically, within 48 months of the expiration of their prior visa in the same classification, will be eligible for a waiver of the in-person interview requirement.
Based on statutory requirements for an interview waiver under INA section 222(h)(2), applicants for domestic visa renewal must reside in the United States. Applicants are not required to submit evidence of residence in the United States at the time they submit their application beyond the information requested in the visa application; however, additional information may be requested at any time prior to visa issuance.
The Department will begin accepting online applications on January 29, 2024 on this webpage.
In order to control the number of applications received, the Department will, each week, release approximately 2,000 application slots for applicants whose most recent H–1B visas were issued by Mission Canada, and approximately 2,000 application slots for those whose most recent H–1B visas were issued by Mission India (approximately 4,000 total each week) on the following dates:
- January 29
- February 5
- February 12
- February 19
- February 26
Every application received will be counted against an approximate 2,000 maximum weekly limit for each participating Mission. Once the limit is reached, the online portal will be locked until the next tranche of slots are released for each participating Mission group on the next application date.
Applicants who are unable to apply on one application date may attempt to apply on any of the remaining application dates during the entry period. The application period for the pilot will close when all application slots are filled or on April 1, 2024, whichever comes first.
To complete an application, applicants must navigate to the dedicated domestic visa renewal website available here. On this site, applicants will be directed to select the host-country post of their most recent H–1B visa issuance (either Canada or India). From there, applicants will be taken through a navigator tool, which will assist applicants in assessing their qualifications for participation in the pilot,
After completing the self-assessment, qualified applicants must electronically complete and submit Form DS–160. Qualified applicants will also receive instructions through the portal on how to pay the required, non-refundable, non-transferrable Machine-Readable Visa (MRV) application processing fee and where to mail their passports and other required documents for processing.
Applications will be considered in the order received. The Department will not provide non-automated status reports on individual applications, other than the return of the application, issuance of the visa, or refusal, nor will it expedite applications. Applicants may check the status of their application here.
The application processing is as follows:
After online submission of the DS–160 and payment of the non-refundable, non-transferrable MRV fee, applicants will receive instructions through the portal to send their passports and other required documents via the U.S. Postal Service or commercial courier service to DOS. Applications will then be sorted to determine whether they fall within the scope of the pilot.
Applications and passports that do not pass this initial sorting process will be returned to applicants unadjudicated, as described below, but the fee will be retained to cover processing costs. Applications that satisfy the initial sorting requirements are forwarded to a location where authorized DOS employees will adjudicate those applications.
The average processing time for a domestic visa renewal application is expected to be six to eight weeks from the time that the passport and other required documents are received by the DOS. The Department aims to complete processing of all applications no later than May 1, 2024.
The Department will not consider requests for expedited processing. If an applicant anticipates urgent travel, the applicant may wish to apply for visa renewal overseas where they have a residence or are physically present. If an applicant applies for domestic visa renewal and learns that they must travel urgently, the applicant may withdraw their application and request through the online portal that their passport be returned to them. If the applicant withdraws their application during the adjudication process, it will be refused under INA 221(g) and the MRV fee will not be refunded. The INA 221(g) refusal will not prejudice any future application.
Domestic issuance of a visa through the pilot program is not guaranteed. If the application is adjudicated but does not satisfy the requirements for domestic visa renewal under this pilot program for any reason, including a determination that the applicant requires an interview, resulting in a refusal under INA 221(g), the applicant may reapply by filing a new visa application at a U.S. consulate or embassy abroad where they have a residence or are physically present, and pay a new MRV fee.
Each applicant for a domestic H–1B visa renewal must submit the following documentation:
- A properly completed and electronically filed DS–160, Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application.
- One photograph (taken within the last six months), which meets the specifications at: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/passports/how-apply/photos.html.
- A passport valid for travel to the United States, which is valid for at least six months beyond the visa application date, and contains a blank, unmarked page for placement of a visa foil.
- The original or a copy of the applicant’s current Form I–797, Notice of Action.
- The original or a copy of the applicant’s Form I–94, Arrival-Departure Record (available at https://i94.cbp.dhs.gov/I94/#/home or on the Form I–797).
After completing their DS–160, applicants must pay the required $205.00 non-refundable and non-transferable MRV fee via the online portal. Fee payments may only be made using a major debit or credit card. Payment confirmation will be provided at that time.
Sending Passports and Other Required Documents
After completing the DS–160 and paying the MRV fee, applicants will be provided information via the portal on where and how to send their passports and required documentation.
Visa and Documentation Return
Issued visas, passports, and other documents submitted by the applicant will be returned via U.S. Postal Service or a commercial courier. It is important to note that issuance of a visa in the United States is NOT a grant of nonimmigrant status, does not constitute an extension of current nonimmigrant status, and does not constitute an admission to the United States. The visa only permits the applicant to seek entry at a U.S. port of entry after overseas travel and is not a guarantee of admission. Any foreign nationals seeking to extend or maintain their status while in the United States should contact U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) per usual practice.
History of the Pilot Program
The pilot program was in existence until 2004, when it was discontinued because of the passage of the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 (Pub. L. 107–173), which required that U.S. visas issued after October 26, 2004, include biometric identifiers.
Unfortunately, DOS does not possess the capacity to collect fingerprints in the United States, so all non-diplomatic visa applicants are required to apply for new visas outside of the United States where fingerprints are collected at a U.S. embassy, consulate or, for certain posts, at an offsite contract facility.
The pilot program resolves these challenges by making the program available to a limited number of applicants who have previously submitted fingerprints in connection with an application for a prior visa, are eligible for a waiver of the in-person interview requirement and meet other requirements.
The stated goal of this pilot is to test the Department’s technical and operational ability to resume domestic visa renewals for specific nonimmigrant classifications and to assess the efficacy of the program in reducing worldwide visa wait times by shifting certain workloads from overseas posts to the United States.
For more information about the pilot program, please click here.
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