Ask Sophie: Do I qualify for the stateside visa stamping program?

Sophie Alcorn, attorney, author and founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley, California, is an award-winning Certified Specialist Attorney in Immigration and Nationality Law by the State Bar Board of Legal Specialization. Sophie is passionate about transcending borders, expanding opportunity, and connecting the world by practicing compassionate, visionary, and expert immigration law. Connect with Sophie on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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Dear Sophie,

I’m working in the U.S. on an H-1B visa, which I received in 2022. However, I don’t have an H-1B visa stamp in my passport because I changed my status from an F-1 student to H-1B professional while in the U.S. Although I think I qualify for an interview waiver at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, I haven’t left the U.S. because of the uncertainty of whether I would be granted an interview waiver and the potential delay in returning to my job in the U.S. I heard a new visa stamping program will start in the U.S. soon. Do I qualify?

— Seeking Stamp

Dear Seeking,

Remaining in the U.S. after getting approval for your H-1B specialty occupation visa was the prudent thing to do! We have many clients who, like you, changed their status while in the U.S. and don’t have a visa foil — often called a visa stamp — in their passport. Since COVID, we have often advised individuals to avoid international travel unless absolutely necessary. This has been due to a combination of changing factors such as unpredictable visa appointment wait times and the discretionary waiver process for in-person interviews, which has been extended at least to the end of this year.

So, thanks for your question about the domestic visa stamping pilot program that the U.S. Department of State (DoS), which oversees consular processing for visas and green cards, announced last month in a notice published in the Federal Register.

The pilot program has been substantially scaled back from last year’s initial reports to limit the required resources. At the time, reports indicated that the pilot program would enable both H-1B and L-1 visa holders to renew the visa stamp in their passport while remaining in the U.S. In other words, they could get a visa stamp without having to travel back to their home country and wait for an appointment at a U.S. embassy or consulate.

The pilot program’s goal

The State Department previously offered stateside visa stamping for many nonimmigrant visa renewals, including E, H, L, and O visas, until October 26, 2004, when the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002, which was passed in the wake of the September 11 attacks, required the collection of biometric data from visa applicants. Since then, the DoS has required all visa applicants, except for certain diplomatic and other applicants, to get a visa stamp in their passport at a U.S. embassy or consulate abroad.

“The goal of this pilot,” according to the DoS notice, “is to test the Department’s technical and operational ability to resume domestic visa renewals for specific nonimmigrant classifications and to assess the efficacy of this program in reducing worldwide visa wait times by shifting certain workloads from overseas posts to the United States.”

Do you qualify?

Only those individuals who were issued their H-1Bs within specific dates at a U.S. embassy or consulate in either Canada or India are eligible. Individuals like you who went through the change of status process while in the U.S. are ineligible to participate in this program.

I urge you and other readers to comment on the DoS notice. The DoS is accepting comments from the public through April 15, 2024. All comments will be published publicly for anyone to view, but you can also submit a comment anonymously.  Most of the three dozen or so comments that have been submitted so far express dismay that the pilot program is so limited in scope.

Eligibility details

The DoS will begin accepting online applications for the domestic nonimmigrant visa stamping pilot program starting on January 29, 2024. On January 29, February 5, February 12, February 19, and February 26, the DOS will make 2,000 application slots available to individuals whose most recent H-1B visa was issued by a U.S. embassy or consulate in Canada and 2,000 slots for individuals whose most recent H-1B was issued by a U.S. embassy or consulate in India.

Once all the weekly slots are taken, the online portal will close until the following week’s application slots are released. The pilot program will close when either all 20,000 application slots are filled or on April 1, 2024, whichever comes first.

Individuals are eligible to participate in the pilot program if they:

  • Are renewing an H-1B visa issued between January 1, 2020, and April 1, 2023, in Canada or between February 1, 2021, and September 30, 2021, in India.
  • Are not subject to a nonimmigrant visa issuance fee, which is also known as a reciprocity fee.
  • Are eligible for an in-person interview waiver, which means they were previously issued any type of nonimmigrant visa except for a B visitor visa; are applying within 48 months of their most recent visa expiration date; and have never been refused a visa — unless that refusal was overturned. Incidentally, the DoS extended the ability of U.S. embassies and consulates to waive the in-person interview for some visas.
  • Already submitted fingerprints to the DoS for a previous visa application.
  • Do not have a “clearance received” annotation for a prior visa. A “clearance received” note means the adjudicating consular officer found an issue that may impact the ability to issue a U.S. visa.
  • Do not have a visa ineligibility that requires a waiver, such as drug or criminal activity or overstaying a visa.
  • Have an approved and valid H-1B petition.
  • Were most recently admitted to the U.S. in H-1B status.
  • Have maintained their H-1B status and it has not expired.
  • Intend to reenter the U.S. in H-1B status after a temporary period abroad.

Only principal H-1B visa holders are eligible for the pilot program. Dependents holding H-4 visas are not.

How to apply

I recommend you work with an immigration attorney who can assess whether you qualify to participate in the pilot program and help you apply.

On the DoS domestic renewal of H-1B online portal, applicants must select either Canada or India, where their most recent H-1B visa was issued, and answer the self-assessment questions. Qualified applicants must submit online Form DS-160 (Nonimmigrant Visa Application); pay the $205 nonrefundable, nontransferrable application processing fee; and mail their passports, photos, and other required documents for processing.

According to the DoS notice, the online portal cannot determine whether an individual is eligible to apply for the pilot program. If the DoS determines an applicant does not qualify, the application will be returned or rejected. The processing time is expected to be six to eight weeks from the time an individual’s passport and required documents are received by the DoS. All applications will be processed no later than May 1, 2024.

Don’t forget to submit your comments to the DoS by April 15. After going through the public comments, I’m hopeful that the DoS will soon relaunch an expanded domestic visa stamping program that will be available for all types of work visas, and you’ll be able to travel abroad knowing you can promptly and predictably return to the U.S.!

All my best,

— Sophie

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