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Domestic Visa Renewal Pilot Program Opens January 29 to Limited Group of H-1B Visa Applicants

The pilot program will be limited to eligible foreign nationals who received an H-1B visa from (1) a U.S. consulate in India between February 1, 2021 and September 30, 2021, or (2) a U.S. consulate in Canada between January 1, 2020 and April 1, 2023. The pilot will be limited to 20,000 H-1B visa applications total. The State Department will release approximately 4,000 application slots weekly between January 29 and February 26, 2024. Applicants must file the Form DS-160 visa application online and will begin the process at a dedicated State Department domestic renewal website. The pilot program will close on April 1, 2024 or when all application slots are filled, whichever comes earlier.

The issue

The State Department will open its highly anticipated domestic visa renewal pilot program on January 29, 2024, according to a notice that will be published in the Federal Register tomorrow. The program will allow eligible applicants to renew an H-1B visa in the United States, without the need to travel to a U.S. consulate abroad.

The pilot will accept applications until April 1, 2024 (or when all application slots are filled, whichever comes earlier) and will be limited to 20,000 applications. Eligibility for the pilot is limited to a narrow group of individuals who received an H-1B visa from a U.S. embassy or consulate in Canada or India during a specific timeframe.

Who is eligible to participate in the domestic visa renewal program?

To be eligible for domestic visa renewal, applicants must meet the following criteria:

  • Their 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.
  • They are not subject to a nonimmigrant visa issuance fee, commonly called a “reciprocity fee,” based on their country of citizenship.
  • They are eligible for a waiver of the in-person visa interview requirement.
  • During a previous visa application, they submitted ten fingerprints to the State Department.
  • Their prior visa does not include a “clearance received” annotation.
  • They do not require a waiver of visa ineligibility.
  • They are the beneficiary of an approved and unexpired H-1B petition.
  • Their most recent admission to the United States was in H-1B status.
  • They are currently maintaining H-1B status in the United States and have a valid, unexpired H-1B I-94 form.
  • They intend to reenter the United States in H-1B status after a temporary period abroad.

How will applications be submitted?

Applicants will be required to apply for the pilot program on a dedicated State Department webpage that will become operational closer to the opening date. The webpage will first require a self-guided assessment for pilot eligibility before the applicant moves on to complete the standard Form DS-160 nonimmigrant visa application.

Application filing slots will be made available weekly on the following dates:

  • January 29, 2024;
  • February 5, 2024;
  • February 12, 2024;
  • February 19, 2024; and
  • February 26, 2024.

There will be a limit of approximately 4,000 applications per week – 2,000 from applicants with visas issued by a U.S. consulate in India and 2,000 from applicants with a visa issued by a U.S. consulate in Canada. When the application limit is reached each week, the State Department will close the application website until the next application slot release date.

During the first step of the application process, each applicant will be taken through a self-guided questionnaire to help determine that they are eligible for the pilot. If the applicant passes this initial eligibility assessment, they will be directed to complete and submit Form DS-160, the electronic nonimmigrant visa application, and pay the required $205 nonrefundable application fee. All fees must be paid online by debit or credit card. 

Once the required fee is paid, applicants will receive instructions on submitting their passport and required application documents to the State Department. The following documents must be submitted, via U.S. mail or commercial courier service:  

  • A completed and electronically filed Form DS-160;
  • One passport-size photograph that meets State Department specifications;
  • A passport valid for at least six months beyond the visa application date and containing a blank, unmarked page;
  • A copy of the applicant’s valid, unexpired USCIS H-1B petition approval on Form I-797; and
  • A copy of the applicant’s valid, unexpired Form I-94 arrival record.

After the State Department receives the DS-160, application fee, passport, and required documents, the application package will be screened again to assess whether the applicant is eligible for the pilot program. If the application does not pass this screening, it will be returned but the application fee will not be refunded.

The State Department anticipates that applications will take 6-8 weeks to adjudicate from the time the passport and supporting documents are received by the agency, though applications could take more time. The State Department will not expedite any applications. The agency expects that all applications accepted in the pilot will be adjudicated by May 1, 2024.

What happens if an applicant needs to travel urgently?

As noted above, the State Department will not expedite applications for the domestic visa renewal pilot.  If an applicant has a sudden need to travel, they can withdraw their application and request the return of their passport. If the application is withdrawn, it will be considered a visa refusal but, according to the State Department, this type of refusal should not prejudice any future application. On the applicant’s next visa application, they will be required to complete a new Form DS-160 and pay a new application fee.

What happens if a domestic visa renewal application is denied?

Domestic visa renewal applications may be denied if the applicant turns out not to be eligible for the pilot or if additional security screening is required.

If the application is denied, the foreign national will need to apply for visa renewal at a U.S. consulate abroad by filing a new Form DS-160 application and another application fee.

If a domestic renewal application is incomplete, it will be refused but the State Department may allow the applicant to cure minor defects such as missing documents, minor errors, or missing information. The Department would require the applicant to provide the requested information by April 15, 2024 in order to overcome the defect before the close of the pilot.

What this means for foreign nationals and employers

The newly announced pilot presents an opportunity for eligible foreign nationals to renew an H-1B visa within the United States and avoid the potential uncertainties and delays of traveling abroad to renew at a consulate. 

Though the initial pilot is limited in scope and duration, the State Department has said it expects to expand the pilot to new visa categories and countries of visa issuance in the future.

If your organization is interested in participating in the pilot program, contact your immigration counsel as soon as possible to identify potentially eligible employees. Demand for the pilot program is expected to be very high and application slots are limited. Preparing early can help maximize the benefits of the program to your organization.

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