On December 21, 2023, the State Department announced a much-anticipated pilot program to resume domestic visa renewal for certain international professionals holding H-1B visas. The stateside visa renewal pilot program is set to run from January 29, 2024, to April 1, 2024, and will be limited to H-1B visa holders whose visas were issued by the US State Department offices in India and Canada. Currently, if an individual needs to renew their visa, they must travel outside of the United States and schedule a visa appointment at a US embassy or consulate abroad.
The State Department previously had a state-side visa renewal program in place; however, this program was discontinued in 2004 after the 9/11 attacks when the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 was published. The Act required that visas issued after October 26, 2004, include certain biometric identifiers, and at that time, the State Department did not possess the capabilities to collect fingerprints within the United States. After that Act, all applicants who were applying for non-diplomatic visas were required to apply for new visas outside the United States where their fingerprints could be taken at a US embassy or consulate.
The goal of the pilot program is to test the State Department’s technical and operational abilities to resume state-side visa renewals) and to assess the effectiveness of the program in reducing worldwide wait times, as it would reduce work for embassies and consulates. It is particularly worth noting that with the COVID-19 pandemic, visa wait times drastically increased and consular posts abroad have had to prioritize visa issuance for certain categories, such as international students and workers. Domestic visa renewal could have significant impacts worldwide to reduce wait times. Moreover, a stateside visa renewal program could ease the burden on nonimmigrants who often face lengthy wait times for visa appointments and ease the burden of international travel.
Currently, an H-1B visa holder would likely need to travel to their home country to renew their H-1B visa stamp for international travel, which can be a very time-consuming and expensive trip. Sometimes their visa appointment can be coordinated with a personal trip home to visit family, but that is not always possible depending on work commitments or other personal considerations. Sometimes, a third country’s embassy or consulate could be a closer trip than their home country but may not be a viable option based on their country of origin and their current visa status. Not only is the potential of stateside renewal a benefit for the workloads of embassies and consulates abroad, but it is also a very exciting potential option for many nonimmigrant workers in the U.S.
Participation in the pilot program is limited to those individuals who are renewing an already issued visa from Canada or India and have no security risk or other risk of denial.
The State Department is intentionally limiting the scope to those individuals to properly assess the capabilities of worldwide visa processing since this population and timeframe are sufficiently representative of the global population and visa issuances to make the pilot results meaningful. The State Department explained that including other visa categories (including the spouses and children of H-1B holders on H-4 visas) would create additional problems that they would be unable to resolve before the rollout.
As noted, the State Department will begin accepting online applications beginning January 29, 2024. Each week, the State Department will release approximately 2,000 slots for applicants with visas issued in Canada and 2,000 slots for India. The slots will open on January 29, February 5, February 12, February 19, and February 26; once the number of slots has been reached, the portal will locked and will only reopen when the next wave of slots is released. The application period will close on April 1, 2024, or whenever all slots are filled, whichever occurs first.
Applicants should be prepared to submit a properly completed and electronically filed DS-160; one photograph taken within the last 6 months that meets the State Department’s requirements; a valid passport that has at least one blank page and which is valid for at least 6 months beyond the visa application date; a current Form I-797 approval notice; the applicant’s Form I-94, arrival-departure record; and (nonrefundable) fee payment.
The State Department will adjudicate applications in the order in which they are received, though the average processing time is expected to take six to eight weeks from the time the passport and other documents are received. The State Department aims to adjudicate all applications by May 1, 2024, and will not consider any requests for expedited processing. If an applicant needs to travel urgently, they may withdraw their application and request through the online portal that their passport be returned to them, however, the application fees will not be refunded. This stateside visa renewal program has been a heavily anticipated program for foreign nationals working on H-1B visas in the U.S. who are facing lengthy travel and personal time away from their employers to renew their visas abroad. These trips are often very carefully coordinated with employers and immigration counsel and are often afflicted with complications. It also presents a real opportunity to reduce the workload of consulates abroad, which have been increasingly overloaded with significant wait times since even before the pandemic.
The material contained in this article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only. An attorney-client relationship is not presumed or intended by receipt or review of this presentation. The information provided should never replace informed counsel when specific immigration-related guidance is needed.
Reprinted with permission from the January 10, 2024 edition of The Legal Intelligencer© 2024 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. ALMReprints.com – 877-257-3382 – email@example.com.