Once an employer has gone through the various preliminary steps and then filed 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 amount (which went from $1,225 to $1,410 in October, 2018) 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 some H-1B petitions are not subject to the annual limit, in which case 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's being processed by USCIS. Here's how to do that.
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 allowing you to track the case through 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.
Once you have checked your current case status, you can get a sense of how it will progress by using the USCIS Processing Times Information website. (There is a link to this 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, first select “I-129,” which is the form the employer submits for H-1B petitions. Then, from the Field Office or Service Center dropdown menu, 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 2018, this is the Vermont Service Center, the California Service Center, or the Nebraska Service Center, depending on where your employer’s office is located, which center serves that geographic region, and which type of H-1B petition the employer is submitting, for instance change of employer, extension of status with no changes, or cap-exempt employer. Receipt numbers beginning with EAC are at the Vermont Service Center, those with LIN are at the Nebraska Service Center, and those beginning with WAC are at the California Service Center.
In March 2018, USCIS rolled out a new way to provide processing times. Previously, the posted processing times typically provided a specific period, such as three months, or a certain date. If there was a date, it meant that USCIS was working on petitions received up to that date.
The website now provides an “Estimated time range” for various petition types. For H-1B petitions, for example, it may say “4.5 to 6.5 months,” which means USCIS will review most petitions within that time. There also now is a “Receipt date for a case inquiry,” which is explained below, for when your petition is beyond the processing time range.
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 or use the link on the processing times page to place a service request.
For instance, if the case was receipted August 1, 2018 and the “Receipt date for a case inquiry” is July 30, 2018, this would indicate that USCIS already should have reviewed your petition or reached a final decision, approval, or denial.
If this date has passed, and USCIS has made no decision on your case, it is appropriate to call USCIS or submit an online inquiry. 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.
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 into 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 July, at the latest. If your petition is accepted for further processing, USCIS usually makes a decision on the petition well before October 1, but some petitions do remain pending into October or later.