Once an employer files an H-1B case petition (on Form I-129), the processing is in the hands of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Some applicants receive approval in as few as 30 days, others may wait much longer. Employers willing to pay an additional $1,225 can get “premium processing” of the I-129 petition, which guarantees a decision within 15 days of filing, or within 15 days of a response to a Request for Evidence, should one be issued.
Because of the annual limit on the number of H-1B petitions that can be approved, an employer often must petition six months in advance of the date the employee starts the job. That leaves plenty of time for USCIS to approve or reject the petition so that the employee knows whether he or she can get an H-1B visa or get into H-1B status in the U.S. before the job starts. Premium processing would not be necessary in that usual case.
But there are H-1B petitions that are not subject to the annual limit and for which you may need premium processing or be concerned about when USCIS will approve the petition. For planning purposes, the key will be to learn to monitor your application while it is being processed by USCIS. Here is how to do that.
Getting Your Application Receipt Number
in a case without premium processing, after your employer has petitioned for your H-1B visa, USCIS will, after approximately one to two weeks, send you a receipt notice on Form I-797. The receipt notice will contain your name (listed as the beneficiary), your employer’s name (listed as the petitioner), and an address.
If your employer retained an attorney, the attorney’s name and address will be listed on the receipt notice as well. If your employer filed without an attorney, the receipt notice will list the employer’s address. (Be sure to review these details for correct information as well as spelling.)
In the top left-hand corner of the receipt notice is the case receipt number, which confirms the processing of your case as well as allows you to track the case through your USCIS Case Status Online. For example, your receipt number might read something like this: EAC-12-096-36548. We will explain how to read the number below.
Checking the Average Processing Time of Cases in Your Category
Once you have checked your current case status, you can also review the current processing times through theUSCIS Processing Times Information website. (There is a link to this site from the Case Status Online results page.)
To check processing times for your petition, you will need to know the USCIS office where the form is being reviewed and the date on which USCIS received the form. You can find this information on the receipt notice that USCIS mailed to the employer when your case was accepted for processing.
On the processing times web page, from the Service Center drop box, select the Service Center handling your application. How will you know which service center to select? The first three letters of the receipt number indicate the service center where your application was filed. As of early 2016, this is either the Vermont Service Center or the California Service Center, depending on where your employer’s office is located and which center serves that geographic region. Receipt numbers beginning with EAC are at the Vermont Service Center and those beginning with WAC are at the California Service Center.
The two numbers after the first three letters indicate the year the case was filed. The remainder of the numbers shows receipt of your specific case.
Once you have chosen a Service Center and clicked the Service Center Processing dates button, you will see the current processing times for a list of petition types, as of the date that appears at the top of the list. (It’s usually a month or two old—USCIS doesn’t keep this list up-to-the-minute.) Information is presented in four columns: form number, title of the form, classification or basis for filing the form, and the processing timeframe. For H-1B petitions, look for I-129 in the form column (far left). In the classification or basis column, you’ll see three different types of H-1B filings: visa to be issued abroad (usually for workers not in the U.S. yet), change of status in the U.S. (for workers already in the U.S. with a different type of status), and extension of status in the U.S. (for workers who need their H-1B status extended).
Look at the column on the far right to see the processing time for your type of petition. You’ll see either a time period (like “2 months”) or a fixed date (like “September 1, 2015”). If you see a time period, that means it should take USCIS that amount of time (after it received your petition) to give you a decision. If you see a date, it means USCIS is making decisions only on petitions that were filed on or before that date. So if your receipt date is after that, don’t expect an answer yet. But again, keep in mind the date on the top of the list—the list is usually a month or two old, so you might expect a decision a little bit quicker than the processing time you’re seeing.
What If My Case Is Taking Longer Than USCIS's Estimated Processing Time?
The information you get from the USCIS processing times website is USCIS’s best guess based on its most recent data. It’s not exact, and you can’t rely on it to be 100% accurate. But if your case is outside of the estimated processing time, the employer can call USCIS at 800-375-5283 and place a service request.
For instance, if the case was receipted May 1, 2013 and the estimated processing time of your type of case is two months, this would indicate that USCIS should reach a final decision, approval or denial, on the case on or before July 1, 2013.
If it is after this date, and USCIS has made no decision on your case, it is appropriate to call USCIS. Once the agent places the service request on the case, USCIS will provide a confirmation number as well as a new estimated time of processing, typically 30 to 45 more days.
Of course, if your employer paid for premium processing, there is a guarantee of a decision within 15 days, so you should be able to rely on that. If it is taking longer, your employer may have received a Request for Evidence that needs to be responded to before USCIS can make a decision. But even so, USCIS should make a decision within 15 days after receiving your employer’s response to the request.
Will I Be Affected by Annual Limits on First-Time H-1B Visas?
As mentioned above, you may be applying under the H-1B cap—that is, an annual limit of 65,000 on the number of H-1B petitions approved. USCIS allows "cap" petitions to be filed six months before the start of the "fiscal year," which begins on October 1. H-1B "cap" workers can't get their H-1B status, and start their job, until October 1 at the soonest.
So many people want H-1B status in most years that there’s a lottery just to be selected to apply. To get in the lottery, employers must file their "cap" petitions in the first week of April. If your petition is not chosen in the lottery, USCIS will return it to the employer. USCIS usually tells the employer whether the petition has been chosen or not by the end of May, at the latest. If your petition is accepted for further processing, USCIS will usually make a decision on the petition well before October 1.