The H-1B visa is a nonimmigrant visa. That means it does not allow its holder to remain in the U.S. permanently, as an immigrant, but instead expires after a specified period of time. When one's H-1B status expires, the H-1B worker must either leave the United States, obtain an extension, or apply for a different status. If the worker simply stays in the U.S. past the expiration of the H-1B status, the worker loses legal status in the U.S. and can be removed (deported).
Under U.S. law, a foreign worker with an H-1B visa can stay in the U.S. for a maximum of six years (plus extensions in certain circumstances, discussed below). The H-1B visa and status is initially valid for three years and can then be extended for another three years. At the expiration of the maximum period of stay, the foreign worker must either leave the U.S. or obtain a different status (such as an F-1 student or O-1 "extraordinary ability" worker). After spending a full year abroad, a new six-year clock begins.
WARNING: The coronavirus pandemic is creating a situation where many H-1B workers will lose jobs and potentially have to leave the U.S. even before their status was scheduled to expire. See How H-1B Workers Can Maintain Legal Status During Coronavirus Pandemic.
When calculating how much time an H-1B worker has remaining, it is important to understand exactly what time periods count toward the six-year maximum.
First, only the time the worker spends in the U.S. in H-1B status counts toward the six years. Any time spent outside of the country does not count, even if the person leaves and reenters the U.S. with an H-1B visa.
For example, let's say a Russian citizen has an H-1B visa that is valid from October 1, 2018, through September 30, 2021. From January 1, 2019, through April 1, 2019, the worker goes to Russia to visit family. Those three months away from the U.S. do not count towards the six-year maximum.
This concept is critically important because immigration law allows H-1B workers to "recapture" any lost time so as to take advantage of the full six-year maximum.
Let's say that the Russian H-1B worker extended the H-1B status from October 1, 2021 through September 30, 2024. Because the worker in the above example can "recapture" the lost three months of H-1B time from 2016, he or she will be able to extend the H-1B visa a third time—from September 29, 2024 through December 29, 2024. This third extension ensures that the worker uses up the full six years of H-1B status.
In addition to the time spent in H-1B status, however, any time a worker spends in the U.S. in L-1 status also counts toward the six-year maximum. Many workers go back and forth between L-1 status and H-1B status, so it is important to calculate how long the worker was in the U.S. in each status, since all time spent in L-1 status is applied to the H-1B six-year maximum.
(The same recapturing provisions apply to L-1 visa holders, too. If you have an L-1 visa and leave the country, you can recapture that time you spent outside of the U.S. and apply it to your remaining H-1B time).
Another important point is that any time you spend in the U.S.as a "dependent" spouse or child of a person in H or L status does NOT count toward the six-year maximum if you get your own H-1B status.
For example, let's say a worker is in the U.S. with an H-1B visa and his wife is in the U.S. with an H-4 visa (available to spouses of H-1B workers). The couple lives in the U.S. for four years. If, after four years, the wife decides to change status to H-1B, she is entitled to the full six years of H-1B status. Her time in H-4 status does not impact her H-1B maximum.
Two groups of H-1B visa holders qualify to extend their visa past the normal six-year maximum. These are outlined in a law called the American Competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century Act, commonly referred to as AC21.
First, an H-1B worker can extend H-1B status if the worker is the beneficiary of an approved immigrant worker petition (I-140) and cannot yet file a green card application because the worker's "priority date" is not current.
For example, let's say your six years of H-1B status will end on March 31, 2021, and you are a Chinese national with an approved I-140 in the EB-3 category. Your priority date is March 15, 2021. Per the March 2021 Department of State Visa Bulletin, the cutoff date for your category is February 8, 2018 (meaning only persons with priority dates before that date can apply for green cards at that time). Therefore, your priority date is NOT current, and you cannot yet file your green card application. In this situation, you are eligible to extend your H-1B status until your priority date becomes current.
Second, an H-1B worker can extend H-1B status if a U.S. employer filed a Labor Certification application (a PERM or ETA 9089) or an I-140 petition on the worker's behalf prior to the beginning of the sixth year in H-1B status, as long as that application/petition has not been denied (it may have been approved or still be pending).
For example, let's say your sixth year of H-1B status will end on September 1, 2021. As long as a U.S. employer filed a PERM or I-140 on your behalf before September 1, 2020, and the application is still pending on September 1, 2021, you are eligible to extend your H-1B status for one year.
Importantly, there is no limit to how many times an H-1B worker can use these AC21 provisions to extend a visa. Due to the major backlog in priority dates for some categories, you could potentially be in H-1B status for ten, 15, or 20 years while waiting for your priority date to become current.
However, please note that AC21 does not allow a worker to extend an H-1B if the worker is a beneficiary of a family-based immigrant petition. AC21 allows H-1B workers to extend their visas only if they are the beneficiaries of employment-based petitions.