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 have been known to receive approval in as few as 30 days, others wait much longer.
Employers willing to pay an additional amount (which was $1,440 until October 19, 2020, then went up to $2,500) can get “premium processing” of the I-129 petition. This guarantees a decision within 15 days of filing, or within 15 days of a response to a Request for Evidence, if USCIS issues one. It has been calculated as 15 calendar days for many years, though USCIS is attempting to change it to 15 business days (still caught up in litigation as of early 2021). (See 8 C.F.R. § 106.4.)
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 should, in theory, leave 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.
Nonetheless, USCIS sometimes takes more than six months to adjudicate H-1B petitions in the best of times (and the COVID-19 pandemic introduced further delays). This can virtually force employers to pay the extra fee for premium processing when it's available, particularly if the employee does not have any other authorization to start working on October 1.
But some H-1B petitions are not subject to the annual limit, in which case you might 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 an H-1B case without premium processing, after your employer has petitioned for your H-1B visa, USCIS will, normally after approximately one to two weeks, send 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 the address of the Service Center that has the petition.
If your employer retained an attorney, his or her 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-20-096-36548. 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.
You will need to know the USCIS office where the form is being reviewed and the date on which USCIS received the form. Find this on the receipt notice mailed to the employer after USCIS accepted your case 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 petition.
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 2020, this is either the Vermont Service Center, the California Service Center, the Nebraska Service Center, or the Texas 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, those with WAC are at the California Service Center, and those beginning with SRC are at the Texas Service Center.
The case processing website provides an “Estimated time range.” For example, it might say “4.5 to 6.5 months,” which means USCIS will review most petitions within that time. There also 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 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 July 31, 2021 and the “Receipt date for a case inquiry” is August 1, 2021, 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 60 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 might 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 might 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. After several years in the planning, USCIS began implementing a new, pre-filing registration system in 2020. To get into the lottery, employers must submit an online pre-registration during a designated period USCIS announces.
The new procedure will involve a $10 per-case filing fee for the online registration. In the 2021 pre-registration lottery for example, employers have from March 9 to 25, 2021 to submit a registration for each employee they sought to sponsor. Duplicate registrations for the same employee were prohibited.
If USCIS receives more than 85,000 registrations, it will conduct a random lottery and notify “winners” soon after the pre-registration ends.
Employers whose petitions USCIS selected then be given a filing window in which to prepare and submit their petitions to USCIS. (In 2021, starting on April 1 and lasting 90 days.)