Domestic pilot program for H-1B and L visa stamping?
I’m in the U.S. on an H-1B, which my employer recently extended. However, I don’t have an H-1B visa stamp in my passport because I originally did a change of status from F-1 STEM OPT. It’s been more than three years since I visited my family in India, and I would love to go for a visit, but I worry about how long it will take to get my H-1B visa to return to the U.S.
How long will it take to get an interview for an H-1B visa stamp? Am I eligible for a visa interview waiver? How do I get one? Can I do it from the U.S. this year?
— Hungry for Home
I’m so sorry to hear you’ve been separated from your loved ones for so long. I truly admire your strength and resilience! We’re excited to share some long-awaited news that may help you and others in the future and provide some context about obtaining a visa stamp or visa stamp renewal.
So many people like you who have renewed their visa or changed to another visa category have put off traveling abroad for fear of being unable to promptly return to the U.S. We still advise our clients who need visas to avoid international travel if possible because obtaining a visa can be so risky. The situation is slow to change, and the current status quo might even remain in effect after March’s upcoming H-1B visa lottery. For more H-1B help, listen to my recent podcast on navigating the H-1B lottery with my colleague and expert attorney Lynda Hagerty.
Even though the U.S. Department of State has implemented policies to reduce the delay individuals face when trying to obtain a visa stamp in their passport at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad, delays continue. There is, however, a new chance upcoming to obtain a visa without international travel, hopefully later this year.
Pilot program for visa stamp renewals in the U.S.
The U.S. Department of State (DOS) plans to implement a pilot program later this year that will allow H and L visa holders to renew the visa stamps in their passports while physically inside the United States. Currently, visa holders must travel abroad to obtain a visa foil in their passports (often nicknamed a “visa stamp”) from a U.S. embassy or consulate. A visa stamp provides an individual the authorization to enter—or reenter—the U.S. Without a valid visa, visa holders traveling abroad are unable to return to the U.S. DOS plans to set up a new consular division in Washington, D.C., to begin processing renewals for H and L visas later this year, according to Bloomberg Law. Many people have been advocating for this for years. DOS used to process visa renewals in many categories including E, H, L, and O visas domestically until 2004 when national security laws began requiring biometric data collection from visa applicants. Since then, DOS has required all visa applicants who go through the change of status process in the U.S. (except for certain diplomatic and other visa applicants) to get a visa stamp—also called a visa foil—at a U.S. embassy or consulate abroad.
Now, let me dive into your questions.
Wait time for H-1B visa interview
DOS has a visa appointment wait times page that allows you to check wait times at individual U.S. embassies and consulates. Depending on where you go in India, the wait time can extend up to 219 calendar days at the U.S. Consulate in Chennai, but the waits change all the time.
It sounds like you were in the United States when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) adjudicated the initial H-1B application your employer submitted through a change of status from F-1 to H-1B.
DOS instituted the visa interview waiver program for certain visa applicants in 2021 due to the extensive delays in processing visas at U.S. embassies and consulates due to the pandemic and staff shortages. Before that program began, individuals who had renewed their visa or changed to another visa while in the U.S. and subsequently traveled abroad were required to schedule a visa interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate to get a new visa stamp in their passport.
Nearly half of the almost seven million nonimmigrant visas were processed at U.S. embassies and consulates in the fiscal year 2022 without an in-person interview, according to DOS. While the program has helped reduce interview wait times, DOS recently extended the program to reduce wait times further.
Eligible for a visa interview waiver?
Under the visa interview waiver program, which has been extended until the end of 2023, consular officers have the discretion to waive the visa interview requirement for certain nonimmigrant (temporary) visa applicants who were previously issued any type of visa and have never been refused a visa (unless it was overturned).
Visas eligible for an interview waiver include new or renewed:
- F-1 student visas
- J-1 exchange visitor student visas
- H-1B or H-1B1 visas
- H-2 visas for temporary workers
- H-3 trainee visas
- H-4 dependent visas
- M-1 student visas
- O-1 visas
You are likely eligible for the visa interview waiver program. But remember, consular officers have the discretion to waive the interview. Even if you qualify for an interview waiver, there’s no guarantee that you will be granted one. You may still be required to go to an in-person interview. In person interviews can take weeks or months to be scheduled. Sometimes, they get canceled and postponed at the last minute, causing travelers to be delayed for additional weeks or months before returning to the United States.
How do I get an interview waiver?
I recommend you work with an immigration attorney to help you navigate this process and make sure you have all the documents you will need to submit.
Each consulate offers unique procedures for determining whether there can be H-1B visa interview waiver and in many cases is at the discretion of the consular officer and with no formal application process. If you qualify to have your interview waived, you will be notified. You must still complete and submit DS-160, the online nonimmigrant visa application. Make sure you print out your confirmation page after applying and remember your application ID.
Once you have submitted DS-160, you need to contact the embassy or consulate where you want to apply to find out whether you need to be interviewed by a consular officer.
If you are granted an interview waiver, you may need to submit documents such as:
- Your passport, which is valid for at least another six months. If your passport is set to expire within six months, you must renew it before submitting it.
- Your H-1B approval notice (Form I-797).
- The H-1B petition (Form I-129).
- The Labor Condition Application from the U.S. Department of Labor.
- Passport photographs.
How long will it take?
According to the U.S. Embassy & Consulates in India website, individuals applying through the interview waiver process for a visa stamp should allow up to three weeks from the time a passport has been accepted until the passport is delivered or they are notified that their passport is ready for pickup. The website notes that once submitted, a passport cannot be withdrawn and the process cannot be expedited.
Hoping you’ll be reunited with your loved ones soon!
All my best,
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