The H-1B visa is one of several temporary visas that allow people from other countries to live and work in the US, with 389,323 people who received or renewed an H-1B visa in 2019. Here is an explanation of the program, the lottery selection process, and the people who hold H-1B visas.
The H-1B visa program lets employers hire foreign workers for specific needs that cannot be met by American workers. The visa is tied to the employer who sponsors it — if the visa holder quits or loses their job, they must leave the country or petition for another temporary work visa. Employers are responsible for the costs of return transportation for employees fired before the end of their authorized stay. People with an H-1B visa can reside in the US for an initial period of three years and renew their authorization for up to six years.
H-1B visas are also dual intent visas, meaning they allow the visa holder to simultaneously apply for a green card, giving them permanent resident status with the ability to eventually become a citizen.
Learn more about visas, green cards, and the path to citizenship.
H-1B visas can only go to workers who fill specialty occupations, participate in cooperative research and development project under the Department of Defense, or are prominent fashion models. Those in the first two categories must have a bachelor’s degree, its equivalent, or higher in their field — as well as any needed licensing — and the position they fill must require this level of training.
Employers petitioning for a person to receive an H-1B visa for a specialty occupation must comply with additional rules and requirements designed to ensure that H-1B visa holders do not replace or harm American workers. These include paying H-1B workers at least the prevailing wage, providing them with working conditions that will not reduce the conditions of other workers, giving advance notice of any intention to hire H-1B employees, and not hiring during a strike or lockout.
Certain H-1B-dependent employers, for whom visa holders make up 15% or more of their workforce, must also demonstrate that a new H-1B hire won’t replace an American worker already in a similar role and that they took good faith steps to recruit an American worker for the position in question.
H-1B visas are subject to annual caps set by Congress for each government fiscal year, which starts in October of the previous calendar year. To meet these caps, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asks all H-1B applicants to register for the upcoming fiscal year, then conducts a lottery to determine who can petition for a visa. Current H-1B holders wanting to extend their authorization, change employment terms, transfer between employers, or work a concurrent, second H-1B job are not subject to these caps and do not participate in the lottery. They submit their petitions directly to USCIS.
Congress capped the program at 65,000 when it began in 1991 and increased the limit to 115,000 in 1999. It peaked at 195,000 between 2001 and 2003. Congress lowered the cap back to 65,000 for regular applicants in 2004, adding 20,000 spots in 2006 for workers with a US master’s degree or higher.
Originally, the lottery drew from two pools, selecting 65,000 workers from the applicants without an advanced US degree and 20,000 from the applicants with an advanced US degree. But the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) implemented a rule in fiscal year 2020 that merges the two pools for the first 65,000 slots, allowing advanced US degree holders to be considered with the regular applicant pool, before selecting the additional 20,000 from the pool of advanced US degree holders who did not receive approval in the first round. USCIS estimated that the change would increase the number of visas given to those with advanced degrees from US universities by 5,340 workers annually.
Employers must file a petition for any applicant that passes the lottery stage. USCIS then makes a final decision on all cases.
USCIS reports that around 2.18 million petitions filed between fiscal years 2007 and 2017, or 64% of all petitions, were for Indian-born workers, the most of any country. China had the second most at 9%, followed by the Philippines at 2.5%, South Korea at 2.3%, and Canada at 1.9%. Petitions from India and China grew over the decade, while the number for the other 20 largest H-1B countries dropped.
In the 2018 fiscal year, 74% of petitions were for Indian-born workers and 11% for Chinese-born workers. Around 74% were for men.
Petitions for workers over 45 declined from 15,250 in 2007 to 8,054 in 2017. Workers under 25 also became less sought-after, down to 17,665 petitions from 25,737 in 2007. Meanwhile, petitions increased for workers aged 25 to 45.
USCIS approved 84.9% of all H-1B petitions it received in the 2019 fiscal year, according to the H-1B Employer Data Hub. This is down from a high of 95.9% in 2012 and just above a low of 84.5% in 2018.
H-1B holders applying for continued visa status are more likely to be approved than initial applicants selected in the lottery process. The 2019 approval rate was 88% for visa holders requesting continued authorization and 79% for people seeking a new H-1B visa. These numbers reflect the preliminary approval rate; employers can contest denied petitions later.
The three largest fields of employment cited in H-1B petitions between fiscal years 2007 and 2017 were custom computer programming services, computer systems design services, and higher education. Petitions received for these roles made up 45% of all those received over the decade.
Those and other professional, scientific, and technical services also made up the largest portion of H-1B visas granted in the 2019 fiscal year, accounting for 35% of all approvals — or 211,508 visas. Metal and semiconductor manufacturing received 34,376 visas, making it the second-largest industry for H-1B workers. Another 29,504 visas went to the information sector and 27,198 to finance and insurance.
Amazon was the top employer for initial H-1B approvals in 2019, with at least 3,398. Google followed at 2,678, the Indian-based information technology and consulting company TCS at 1,733, and Microsoft at 1,701. Facebook, IBM, Apple, and Intel each accounted for over 1,000 initial approvals. Amazon had at least 4,976 continuing approvals.
The destinations of H-1B visa holders have shifted over time. The relative number of H-1B visas approved for Washington, DC has dropped, while Maryland visas peaked in 2017 and have since fallen. Meanwhile, the population-adjusted numbers for California, Massachusetts, and Washington have trended upwards. The latter two increases could be attributed partly to Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle and Silicon Valley in California.
In the 2019 fiscal year, New Jersey had 467 H-1B visas granted per 100,000 residents, the most approvals relative to population. Massachusetts had 289 approvals granted per 100,000 residents and Washington state had 263. Alaska, Montana, and Wyoming had the fewest approvals per capita — fewer than 10 H-1B approvals per 100,000 people.
President Trump issued an executive order in June 2020 suspending further admission of anyone entering the US with one of several nonimmigrant work visas —including the H-1B visa — through the end of the year, citing economic stress and unemployment facing Americans during the pandemic. Anyone with an H-1B visa already living and working in the US is unaffected, but those who had yet to arrive in the country will have to wait until at least next year to start work.
Another executive order released in early August, effective immediately, states that all companies with federal government contracts will begin facing more stringent enforcement of current H-1B regulations to ensure that none are employing foreign workers at the expense of American jobs. DHS also announced a rule in October that will further restrict the definition of qualifying specialty occupations, close reported loopholes, and strengthen enforcement capacity.
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For statistics related to initial H-1B approvals by employer, the number for Amazon includes those petitions that listed Amazon.com Services Inc. or Amazon Web Services Inc. The other numbers listed are for Google LLC, Tata Consultancy SVCS LTD, Microsoft Corporation, Cognizant Tech Solutions US Corporation, Facebook Inc, IBM Corporation, Apple Inc, Intel Corporation, and Capgemini America Inc.
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