Nonimmigrant work visas -- such as the H-1B, O-1, L-1, and so on -- are valid for a specific period of time. At the end of the validity period, the foreign worker’s lawful status in the U.S. expires, and the worker is expected to depart the United States. However, foreign workers whose employers wish them to stay on may have the option to renew (or extend) their nonimmigrant work status. This will allow them to remain in the U.S., often for a similar amount of time to their initial entry.
(Note, however, that if you extend your status and leave the U.S., you will nonetheless likely have to visit a U.S. consulate in order to obtain a visa for U.S. reentry -- an extended work status gives you no automatic reentry rights, as government agencies within the U.S. cannot grant U.S. entry documents.)
When Do I Need to Extend My Nonimmigrant Work Status?
Don't put off dealing with this! You must apply to extend your work status (or, in most cases, to switch to another status) before your current status expires. Your I-94 tells you when your status expires.
If you applied for your work visa while you were outside of the U.S., then a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer may have given you Form I-94 at the border or other arrival point. As of April 2013, this form has been automated for many foreign nonimmigrants and is accessible online. The I-94 will state your name, your status (H-1B, O-1, or whichever), and the date on which your status expires.
Or, you may have applied for your work status while you were already in the U.S. with a different visa. If so, your I-94 was provided on the bottom of the I-797 Approval Notice that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued to you. This I-94 will also state your name, your status, and the date on which your status expires.
You must file your applications to extend a nonimmigrant work status with USCIS, by mail. The agency must receive the extension application before the expiration of your authorized stay in the United States. It is not sufficient to merely postmark the application before your permitted stay expires -- USCIS must actually receive it in order for the application to be considered timely filed.
For example, let’s say your H-1B status expires on June 1, 2013. You mail your extension application to USCIS on May 28, 2013, and it reaches USCIS on June 3, 2013. USCIS will not consider your application timely filed, since USCIS did not receive it until after your status expired.
What to Include in the Extension Application
All work visa extension applications are completed on USCIS Form I-129. The following documents are typically included as well (your own application may require different documents, however, and we recommend that you consult an immigration attorney to help prepare your request):
- USCIS filing fee. The I-129 filing fee in early 2013 is $325, but be sure to check the USCIS website to confirm the fee (USCIS raises its fees frequently).
- Completed and signed Form I-129 and specific work visa supplement (there are separate supplements for each work visa, such as the H-1B, O-1, E-1, and so forth, so you'll need to include the appropriate supplement with your application).
- Signed letter from your employer confirming your continued offer of employment.
- Proof that you continue to qualify for your visa. (This evidence is different for each type of visa. For example, if you are seeking to extend an H-1B , you must prove that you have a U.S. bachelor’s degree or foreign equivalent. If you are extending an O-1, you must prove your extraordinary ability in your field of endeavor.)
- Proof that you are currently working for the employer. This evidence shows that you have been maintaining lawful status in the United States. It usually consists of timesheets, W-2 forms, and recent paystubs.
- Copies of your previous USCIS approval notices, visas, and current I-94.
How Many Times Can I Extend a Nonimmigrant Work Visa?
There is no limit on how long a foreign worker can extend an O visa or an E visa. As long as you continue to meet the requirements for either O or E status, you could potentially extend your visa for ten, twenty, or fifty years.
However, there are limits on how long a foreign worker can extend an H-1B or L visa. Foreign workers can remain in H-1B status for a maximum of only six years at a time. Foreign workers can remain in the U.S. in L-1A status for seven years, or in L-1B status for five years.
Once these maximum time frames expire, the worker must leave the U.S. for one year before reentering in H-1B or L status. (Note that time spent in either status counts towards the six-year H-1B maximum. So if you spent two years in L-1A status, and then change to H-1B status, you have only four years of H-1B status left).
There are important exceptions to the six-year maximum rule that allow H-1B workers to extend their status past the six years. To learn more about these exceptions, read "When H-1B Visa Holders Can Extend Stay Beyond Six Years."
Family Members May Also Extend Their Stay in the U.S.
Any qualifying family member (spouse or child under the age of 21) can extend their dependent status along with the primary visa holder.
To do so, the family must file USCIS Form I-539 Application to Extend Nonimmigrant Status. All family members can be included on one application. This application must also be filed with USCIS, be accompanied by the correct filing fee, and include proof that the family members are related to the principal foreign worker (such as marriage certificates or birth certificates). For more information on the I-539 see "Applying for an Extension or Change of Status on Form I-539."