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H-1B Domestic Visa Renewal Pilot Program Begins as Demand Soars

Option available to renew visas in US for first time in 20 years
Immigrants eager to see expansion of eligible visa categories
A limited number of H-1B workers now can begin applying to renew their visas without leaving the US, the first time in two decades the option has been available.

The State Department on Monday will release the first 4,000 application slots for its long-anticipated domestic visa renewal pilot program. A total of 20,000 participants will be accepted for the pilot over the next five weeks, split equally between workers who recently received their H-1B specialty occupation visas at consulates in India and Canada.

State expects the initiative to reduce workloads at its consular offices abroad—one of a number of measures the agency has highlighted to improve overall efficiency of visa operations.

Immigration attorneys also say the pilot will offer more certainty to many H-1B workers, many of whom work in the tech industry, who have been deterred from international travel in recent years because of backlogs for appointments to renew expired visas abroad.

“This is a game changer for a lot of companies and visa applicants who are stressed out about the need to get a visa renewed during a potentially short trip back to their home countries,” said Carl Risch, a partner at Mayer Brown LLP and

former assistant secretary of state for consular affairs.

Wait times for appointments can disrupt the lives of workers and leave companies without access to critical personnel for extended periods, attorneys say.

Limited Scope
Temporary foreign workers like those on H-1B visas, which have a three-year duration, can continue renewing their status in the US with an approved employer petition. But they must make an appointment at a consular office to renew an expired visa if they travel outside the country. The option to renew the visas within the US was discontinued in 2004 when new post-9/11 security measures required the collection of fingerprints for all visa applicants.

Unlike initial visa applicants, the workers eligible for the pilot have already submitted fingerprints when they initially applied for the H-1B category. That means they’re also familiar with navigating the visa application process, with the added wrinkle of renewal in the US.

A website released by the State Department ahead of the pilot’s launch allowed visa holders to confirm their eligibility. Applicants could fill out a visa application form on the agency’s website last week, although they couldn’t be submitted until Monday.

A State Department spokesperson said they were unable to quantify demand so far.

Applications will be considered based on the order they are received until the maximum number of slots is reached. The agency projects that processing times for domestic visa renewals will take six to eight weeks after the State Department receives passports and other required documents from applicants, compared to potential months-long waiting times at some consular offices.

The initiative for now is limited to only H-1B workers who meet criteria outlined in December and excludes dependent visa holders like spouses and children on H-4 visas—a source of frustration that many workers expressed when eligibility details emerged.

Potential Expansion
After the pilot program concludes, the State Department will analyze the viability of expanding domestic renewal further, the agency spokesperson said.

“The purpose of this limited pilot is to test internal US-based processes and procedures as many have changed since the last time we offered similar domestic visa renewal service in 2004,” the spokesperson said.

How soon the option will be expanded to family members and other workers like O-1 and L-1 visa holders is the among most common questions immigration attorneys are getting right now, said Tahmina Watson, founder of Watson Immigration Law. Those visas are granted to individuals with extraordinary ability and intracompany transferees, respectively.

“People have not been able to go home, wherever that home is, not only because of the pandemic but the aftereffects, mainly the consulates being backlogged so terribly,” she said.

But visa holders should give the initiative time to get off the ground and for the agency to make sure processing is effective before it hopefully announces further expansions, she said.

The pilot is unlikely to have a sudden impact on visa wait times in India—the biggest source of H-1B workers, where applicants face some of the worst wait times at consulates—said Fuji Whittenburg, managing partner at Whittenburg Immigration Law.

“Part of the argument for it was the uncertainty for companies when employees have to travel abroad,” she said. “Everyone is excited about the possibility of a more widespread implementation.”



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