skip to Main Content

The State Department’s Domestic Visa Renewal Pilot – What Employers and Foreign Nationals Need to Know Ahead of the January 29 Launch

Under a highly anticipated State Department pilot program, up to 20,000 eligible applicants will be permitted to renew their H-1B visas from within the United States. Prospective applicants can begin drafting and pre-loading their online DS-160 visa application in advance of the pilot launch. Applicants must meet the State Department’s strict eligibility and application requirements in order to take part in the pilot.

The issue

The State Department’s domestic visa renewal pilot program opens at noon ET on January 29, 2024. The program will allow certain H-1B visa holders to renew their visa stamps from within the United States instead of traveling abroad to renew at a U.S. consulate. Applications under the pilot can be submitted from January 29 to April 1, 2024 (or when all application slots are filled, whichever comes first), and a maximum of 20,000 H-1B visas will be issued to eligible applicants who received their prior H-1B visa from U.S. Missions in India or Canada. In anticipation of the January 29 start of the pilot, eligible applicants are now permitted to pre-load their domestic renewal visa applications to the State Department system. Though the initial pilot program will be limited in scope and duration, the State Department intends to expand the program in the future.

Frequently asked questions

The following are answers to frequently asked questions (FAQ) about the new domestic visa renewal pilot program. The FAQ will be updated as more information becomes available.

1. Who is eligible to use the domestic renewal program?

The domestic visa renewal pilot program is limited to a specific class of H-1B visa applicants. The program will be open to those who meet all of the following criteria:

  • Have a prior H-1B visa that was issued by either:
    • Mission Canada (any U.S. embassy or consulate in Canada) with an issuance date from January 1, 2020, through April 1, 2023; or
    • Mission India (any U.S. embassy or consulate in India) with an issuance date from February 1, 2021, through September 30, 2021.
  • Are the beneficiary of an approved and unexpired H-1B petition
  • Their most recent admission to the United States was in H-1B status
  • Have a valid, unexpired H-1B I-94 record
  • Are currently maintaining H-1B status in the United States
  • Are not subject to a nonimmigrant visa issuance fee, commonly called a “reciprocity fee,” based on their country of citizenship. Information on reciprocity fees for specific visa types and countries of citizenship are available on the State Department website here.
  • Are eligible for a waiver of the in-person visa interview requirement, commonly called the State Department “interview waiver program”. Please see question 4 for the parameters of this screening factor.
  • Submitted ten fingerprints to the State Department during a previous visa application.
  • Prior visa does not include a “clearance received” annotation
  • Do not require a waiver of visa ineligibility
  • Currently reside in the United States. Please see question 6 for further detail on this requirement.
  • Intend to reenter the United States in H-1B status after a temporary period abroad. Please see question 7 for further detail.

2. How many visas will be issued under the pilot program?

The State Department will issue a maximum of 20,000 H-1B visas under the pilot program.

The agency says that the limited initial phase of the pilot will allow the Department to test its technical and operational ability to implement stateside visa processing.

While the pilot is underway, however, the agency notes it will continue to develop procedures and train staff in preparation for a potential expansion of the program to other nonimmigrant categories. The agency has repeatedly cited this expansion as a goal for 2024.

3. When can applicants begin applying to renew H-1B visas under the pilot?

Applications will be accepted under the pilot from January 29 to April 1, 2024 (or when all application slots are filled, whichever comes first). However, at this time, the pilot pre-assessment eligibility tool and DS-160 application form are also live for applications to be pre-loaded into the system. When selecting the location of DS-160 submission, applicants will choose “U.S.-DOMESTIC” in the location dropdown menu.

The State Department will distribute application slots for the limited 20,000 applications in phases. Starting January 29, there will be a limit of approximately 4,000 application slots released by the State Department per week – 2,000 from applicants with visas issued by a U.S. consulate in India and 2,000 from applicants with visas issued by a U.S. consulate in Canada, consistent with the visa issuance timeframe parameters listed in question 1. When the application limit is reached each week, the State Department will close the application website until the next application slot release date.

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.

Each application received by the State Department will count against the 20,000 limit, regardless of the ultimate outcome of the application. The application period will close when all application slots are filled or on April 1, 2024, whichever is earlier.

4. What does it mean to be eligible for the State Department’s “interview waiver program,” since this is a requirement for the H-1B visa renewal pilot?

To qualify for the domestic visa renewal program, the applicant must be eligible for the State Department’s general interview waiver program. Under the State Department’s recently extended and revised program, an applicant who has been previously issued a visa in any classification other than a B visa may be eligible for a waiver of the in-person interview requirement, if they are applying within 48 months of the expiration of their most recent visa. As applicants in the stateside visa renewal program must necessarily have been previously issued an H-1B visa, such applicants may be eligible for the interview waiver program, provided their previous visa did not expire more than 4 years ago, and they do not have any disqualifying factors.

Factors that would disqualify an individual for the interview waiver program, and would thereby render the individual ineligible for stateside visa renewal, include the following:

  • A previous visa refusal, unless the refusal was subsequently overcome and a visa issued 
  • An apparent visa ineligibility or potential visa ineligibility
  • Being a national (including a dual national) of certain countries, including those designated by the Secretary of State as a state sponsor of terrorism (currently, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria)
  • Being subject to a case-by-case discretionary determination by the adjudicating consular officer that an in-person interview is needed to assess the applicant’s visa eligibility

While a prior ESTA denial is not listed as an automatic disqualifying factor under either the State Department nonimmigrant interview waiver program or in the State Department’s domestic H-1B visa renewal pilot program policy documents, the State Department’s online pilot prescreening assessment tool treats a prior ESTA denial as an automatic disqualifying factor.

By contrast, case-by-case discretionary determinations as to whether an applicant should appear for an in-person interview often look to a person’s immigration and travel history and whether they have traveled to countries that are considered of concern, even if the countries are not designated as state sponsors of terrorism. The agency will also take note of foreign nationals born in certain countries of concern, despite the applicant no longer being a citizen of that country.

Further, the State Department cautions that the pilot program’s online prescreening tool is not capable of screening out all unqualified applicants, so it is not possible for an applicant to know with certainty whether they qualify for an interview waiver, and for the domestic visa renewal program, until their application has been submitted and reviewed by the State Department.

5. Will a prior ESTA denial prevent my participation in the pilot program?

Although neither the State Department H-1B domestic renewal pilot Federal Register notice nor the State Department’s current interview waiver policy list an ESTA denial as an automatic ineligibility, the State Department’s official domestic visa renewal online pre-assessment tool treats an ESTA denial as an automatic disqualification from the domestic visa renewal pilot. Unless the State Department revises its online tool, a prior ESTA denial will automatically disqualify a potential applicant. In any event, the State Department has the discretion to disqualify potential applicants for any number of reasons on a case-by-case basis, including based on factors and evidence that are not known to the applicant.

6. How will the State Department determine if an applicant meets the pilot program requirement of “residing” in the United States?

To determine whether a person is residing in the United States, the State Department will review available information, including the applicant’s home address specified on the DS-160 visa application form and Form I-129 H-1B petition, the duration of employment, and the applicant’s arrival and departure records. Applicants will not be required to submit evidence of their U.S. residence with their visa application, though the State Department may request evidence after reviewing the application.

7. How will the State Department assess an applicant’s intention to reenter the United States in H-1B status after a temporary period abroad?

 It is not known how the State Department will assess this pilot program requirement. The State Department’s online FAQs say that applicants are not required to submit evidence of intent to reenter the United States after a temporary period abroad with their visa renewal application, but that the agency may request such evidence in individual cases. It is not yet clear what documentation would be requested as evidence for this requirement.

8. How will the domestic visa renewal process work?

This is what we know about the process:

  • Step 1 – State Department domestic visa renewal pre-screening tool and electronic submission of Form DS-160:
    • Applicants will access a new State Department domestic visa renewal webpage.
    • On this page, applicants will find a self-guided assessment tool that will help determine whether the applicant is eligible to apply for their H-1B visa renewal under the domestic pilot program under the parameters listed above. In its FAQ guidance, the State Department warns that the online tool is not capable of screening out all unqualified applicants. Completion of the assessment does not guarantee that the applicant qualifies for participation in the pilot. As discussed below, the State Department could deny the application if, during adjudication, it determines that the applicant is ineligible.
  • The applicant will complete and submit the online Form DS-160, selecting “U.S.-DOMESTIC” as the location for the application. The DS-160 is the standard nonimmigrant visa application that has long been submitted electronically. The Form DS-160 is available for drafting at this time; however, it cannot be submitted for domestic renewal until the system becomes live at noon ET on January 29.
  • Step 2 – Online payment of machine-readable visa (MRV) fee:
    • After submission of the online DS-160, the applicant will receive instructions on how to pay the $205 MRV fee via online portal, using a major debit or credit card only.
    • The MRV fee is non-refundable and non-transferable, regardless of the outcome of the corresponding DS-160 application.
  • Step 3 – Submission of passport and supporting documents to State Department via mail or courier:
    • After payment of the MRV fee, the applicant will receive instructions on where to mail their passport and other required documents for visa renewal processing.
    • The following documents must be submitted to the State Department 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.
  • Step 4 – State Department screening of physical documents for pilot eligibility:
    • Upon receipt of the applicant’s physical documents, the State Department will screen for eligibility under the pilot renewal program.
    • If the application fails this screening, it will be returned to the applicant unadjudicated and the MRV fee will not be refunded. The applicant will be required to re-start the visa application process for submission to a U.S. consulate, including completion of a new DS-160 and payment of new visa fees.
    • If the application passes the screening, the application is moved on for domestic adjudication.
  • Step 5 – Domestic adjudication of visa application:
    • If the State Department approves the domestic visa renewal application, it will place the new H-1B visa in the applicant’s passport and mail the passport back to the applicant.
    • If the application is denied under the pilot and the denial is due to ineligibilities that could be remedied by applying at a U.S. consulate abroad, the applicant will be required to re-start the visa application under the standard consular process. They will be required to complete a new DS-160, schedule a visa appointment abroad and pay a new visa application fee.

9. What is the expected processing time for domestic visa renewal applications under the pilot program?

The State Department anticipates that domestic applications will be processed 6 to 8 weeks after the agency receives an applicant’s passports and supporting documents. There will be no expedite option under the pilot, so applicants should be prepared to remain in the United States without their passports while their applications are pending. The agency aims to adjudicate all applications submitted under the pilot by May 1, 2024. Keep in mind that there could be technical difficulties and glitches in the pilot program rollout that may delay a visa adjudication beyond expected processing times.

10. What if an applicant submits a domestic visa renewal application and then needs to urgently travel?

If an applicant submits their passport and supporting documents to the State Department and then urgently needs to travel, the applicant may withdraw their pending application and request the return of their passport. However, the timeframe for return of an applicant’s passport by the State Department in this circumstance is not known.

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 visa 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.

As noted above, the State Department will not expedite domestic renewal visa applications, so a foreign national should carefully consider whether they may need to travel imminently or at short notice before proceeding with a domestic application.

11. Will domestic visa renewal applicants need to appear for an interview or appear to have fingerprints taken?

No, the domestic process is intended to remove the need for in-person appearances. As detailed in the pilot program eligibility requirements, only applicants that will not require an in-person interview or the collection of ten fingerprints will meet eligibility requirements for the program.

If at any time during the screening or adjudication process it is determined that the applicant will require an in-person appearance – either for an interview or to re-take ten fingerprints – the applicant will be re-directed to the standard visa application process at a consulate abroad. Any completed Form DS-160 and paid fees in connection with a domestic renewal application will not transfer to a subsequent application; the process will begin anew.

An in-person interview could be deemed necessary by a State Department adjudicator for several reasons, including questions about the applicant’s eligibility for the visa classification, questions about the foreign national’s immigration or travel history, or to explore any other factor that might be deemed to trigger closer scrutiny at an in-person interview.

12. I am an H-1B nonimmigrant who required a waiver of inadmissibility when I last applied for my visa. Can I submit my visa renewal application under the pilot?

No. If an applicant requires a waiver of a ground of inadmissibility for H-1B visa issuance, the applicant is ineligible to submit their application under the domestic pilot program. These applicants should use the standard process for applying for a visa stamp abroad.

13. Our organization employs an H-1B who works in a sensitive technology field. Their last H-1B visa was approved after a security clearance and bears a clearance annotation. Can this applicant submit their visa renewal application under the pilot program?

No. If an applicant requires a security clearance for H-1B visa issuance, the applicant is ineligible to submit their application under the domestic pilot program. By the terms of the pilot, foreign nationals with a clearance annotation on their prior visa are ineligible for domestic visa renewal. These applicants should continue to use the standard process for applying for a visa stamp abroad.

14. I meet the eligibility requirements for the pilot program, but I have work or personal circumstances that require me to travel internationally with little notice. Am I a good candidate for the program?

You are likely not a good candidate for the pilot program. The domestic visa renewal process requires an applicant to remain in the United States for the duration of their visa application process; there is no expedite option. Further, there could be technical difficulties and glitches in the pilot program rollout that may delay a visa adjudication beyond expected processing times. Foreign nationals whose work or personal circumstances prevent them from remaining in the United States until their visa process has concluded will not be the best candidates for the new process. These individuals can apply for new visas at a U.S. consulate abroad.

15. After I entered the United States on an H-1B visa, I switched employers and received an H-1B change of employer Form I-797 approval notice from USCIS. If I meet other eligibility requirements, can I qualify for the pilot program?

Yes, the State Department’s FAQs confirm that an applicant who entered the United States in H-1B status and changed H-1B employers after entry may qualify for the pilot program if they are currently maintaining H-1B status and meet all other requirements for program eligibility.

16. Does the domestic visa renewal process extend a person’s H-1B status or extend their I-94 period of authorized stay?

No, it does neither of these things. The DS-160 visa application is an application for a visa stamp. Regardless of whether a DS-160 is submitted in connection with a domestic visa renewal application or a visa application abroad, the sole benefit received is a visa stamp in the applicant’s passport that can be used for future entries into the United States. Domestic visa renewal has no effect on a foreign national’s status or authorized stay in the United States.

17. What happens if I submit my application under the domestic pilot program and it 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 your application is denied, your visa application fee will not be returned, but you may apply for a visa through the standard process at a U.S. consulate abroad with a new application and fee. Depending on the basis of the denial, and particularly if the basis of the denial is unclear, it may be wise to consult your immigration counsel before submitting an application abroad.

If your domestic visa renewal application is incomplete, it will be refused but the State Department may allow you to cure minor defects such as missing documents, minor errors, or missing information. The Department would require you to provide the requested information by April 15, 2024 in order to overcome the defect before the close of the pilot. The agency aims to adjudicate all applications submitted under the pilot by May 1, 2024.

18. What is the impact of a denial on a foreign national’s application to use the Visa Waiver Program?

The State Department takes the position that a refusal of a domestic visa renewal application constitutes a denial of a visa for purposes of future visa applications as well as ESTA applications for travel under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). For this reason, the State Department has indicated that VWP travelers with prior visa denials, including those denied a visa under the domestic renewal program, should answer “yes” to the question on the ESTA application form that asks whether the individual has ever been denied a U.S. visa or entry into the United States.

19. When will the domestic visa renewal pilot program be expanded to H-4 dependents and other nonimmigrant visa categories?

The State Department has repeatedly stated that it intends to expand the domestic visa renewal program to H-4 and other nonimmigrant visa categories in 2024. No precise timeframe has been provided, but the agency says that it will continue preparing for an expansion while the H-1B visa renewal pilot is ongoing.  

Back To Top