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In this article, you’ll learn about steps to take in the transition from an F-1 visa to an H-1B visa as an international student.
The H-1B visa is employer-sponsored, meaning you cannot independently apply for it. A US-based employer must file a petition on your behalf.
Foreign nationals in the US have different visa options for temporary and permanent stays. And there are several reasons for international students to opt for an H-1B visa. Most people choose this visa type because:
- The H-1B visa allows you to live and work in the US for up to six years.
- It’s the most common type of work visa among non-immigrants who temporarily live and work in the US.
- It's the most accessible pathway for transitioning to a permanent residency status for international students and non-US working professionals.
How Do You Get an H-1B Visa?
The H-1B visa is commonly known as a lottery-based visa, which means you can only get it after being ‘picked’ in the lottery. But that's not the only way of getting the H-1B visa.
One way is a cap-subject H-1B visa that is limited to 85,000 recipients per year. This class of the H-1B is considered a lottery-based visa.
The other class is an H-1B cap-exempt visa typically given to nonprofit organizations such as US universities and research labs.
To get the cap-exempt H-1B visa as an F-1 visa student, the job for which your employer is sponsoring your visa needs to require at least a bachelor's degree.
This makes the H-1B visa perfect for international students who are already in the US and seeking to change their residency status without leaving the country.
Potential Hurdles in the Application Process
Some companies do not sponsor H-1B visas. Others have policies against hiring individuals who are not permanent residents or citizens of the US altogether.
These companies avoid hiring foreign nationals because they don't want to go through the cost-prohibitive nature of the H-1B visa application process. Or sometimes, it could be an employer who operates in a sector where non-US workers are restricted from working in. An example is with employers who are US Defense Contractors.
If you're serious about getting an H-1B visa to live and work in the US when your F-1 status expires, there is no point in looking for jobs with these kinds of companies.
The Cost of an H-1B visa
Filing an H-1B visa could cost your employer $4,000 to $8,000, excluding attorney fees - which in many cases could also cost the employers just as much or more than the H-1B filing fees.
Considering that US workers don't cost an employer anything during the hiring process, this initial cost of hiring a non-US worker on an H1B is one of several reasons why many US employers are reluctant to hire non-US workers on the H1B or any other type of sponsorship visas for that matter.
Also bear in mind that the laws prohibit employers from allowing the beneficiaries of the H-1B petition to cover any part of the H1B filing fees.
So, one of the keys to getting the H-1B is finding a job with an H-1B-friendly US employer, who values your contribution much more than the added cost of hiring you as a non-US worker.
Getting the Application Timeline Right
If you go with the cap-subject H-1B visa, you must be mindful of the filing timeline while still on an F-1 visa status. The company filing for your H-1B petition during your optional practical training (OPT) period has limited attempts.
This is important to remember if you're not eligible for the STEM OPT. If you're working for the employer on your OPT, you only have one chance to get the H-1B visa with that employer.
On the other hand, F-1 visa students who're eligible for STEM OPT have at least three chances to secure the H-1B visa while working on their STEM OPT.
When Should You Start Applying for Your H-1B Visa?
Your employer can only file your H-1B petition after your selection in the lottery system. So, if you only have one chance to get the H-1B visa during your OPT, your employer must file within the first few months of your post-completion OPT.
Your OPT must end within 14 months of your program end date. The lottery system happens in late March yearly, which is advantageous for fall semester graduates. If you graduate in December during the fall semester, your OPT completion must be in February, two years from the year you graduate.
If you miss the window of opportunity as a spring graduate, your next chance of filing for an H-1B visa will be in the following year, shortly before your OPT ends.
If you receive an offer months before your spring graduation, you can ask your employer to file your H-1B petition before you graduate. This gives you two chances to file an H-1B petition after graduation.
As a spring graduate, you could be eligible for the cap gap extension if you’re selected in the H-1B lottery. However, this only applies if your employer files a petition before your OPT expires.
These are some considerations when transitioning from an F-1 student visa to an H-1B visa. For many F-1 visa holders trying to transition to the H-1B visa, the 31% chance of getting into the H-1B lottery is worrisome.
A lottery-based election system is out of your control. Therefore, the best way to navigate this transition is to stay optimistic while ensuring that you have a plan B.