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Department of State Formally Announces the Stateside Visa Renewal Program

Today, Department of State (“DOS”) has posted the formal notice of the “Pilot Program to Resume Renewal of H-1B Nonimmigrant Visas in the United States for Certain Qualified Noncitizens. This notice can be found here. This notice provides details of the long awaited return of the stateside visa processing, and DOS notes “the goal of this pilot [program] 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.”

History of Stateside Visa Processing

As a quick history lesson, DOS notes that the program was previously discontinued in 2004 following the passage of the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002, which required US visas issued after October 2004 to include biometrics. At that time DOS did not have applicable technology or capacity to collect fingerprints, so non-diplomatic visa applicants were required to apply outside the US. DOS, however, notes that those concerns have been overcome, and they are ready to roll out the test program.

Eligibility for Stateside Visa Renewal Pilot Program

The notice notes that the test program will be very limited so that DOS can test its capacity and the program. To this end, the eligibility of those that can participate is extremely limited. Participation in this pilot will be limited to applicants who(se):

  • Are seeking to renew an H-1B visa no other visa classifications, including H-4s, will be included.
  • Prior H-1B visa that is being renewed was issued by Mission Canada with an issuance date from January 1, 2020, through April 1, 2023; or by Mission India with an issuance date of February 1, 2021 through September 30, 2021.
  • Are not subject to a nonimmigrant visa issuance fee. This is commonly referred to as a reciprocity fee. Note, for Indian nationals on H-1B, they are not required to pay a reciprocity fee.
  • Are eligible for a waiver of the in-person interview requirement, also known as dropbox.
  • Have submitted ten fingerprints to the Department of State in connection with a previous visa application.
  • Prior visa does not include a “clearance received” annotation.
  • Do not have a visa ineligibility that would require a waiver prior to visa issuance.
  • Have an approved an unexpired H-1B petition.
  • Were most recently admitted to the United States in H-1B status.
  • Are currently maintaining H-1B status in the United States.
  • Period of authorized admission in H-1B status has not expired.
  • Intend to reenter the United States in H-1B status after a temporary period abroad.

DOS notes that the limitations include some that are both statutorily or regulatory required and some that are discretionary so they can test the pilot program. Additionally, DOS notes that applicants must reside in the US.

 Are H-4 Spouse’s Eligible For the Pilot Program?

                DOS specifically notes that “after careful consideration, the Visa Office determined that including other categories, including H-4s…created additional technical and operational challenges that cannot be resolved before the pilot launch date.” Because of this, H-4s and other visa classifications are not eligible for the pilot program, but may be included in the future. Further, DOS notes that limiting it to only H-1B principals will maximize DOS’ impact on US industry partners who have employees that may need to travel abroad for work purposes.

How Does Dropbox Eligibility Impact the Pilot Program?

                During the COVID-19 pandemic, DOS vastly expanded the dropbox (interview waiver) program to allow more efficient processing. As of December 20, 2023, that expansion is seemingly expiring at the end of the year. However, it appears that the pilot program will reauthorize the expansion. DOS notes that “with certain exceptions set out in the law, most applicants seeking to renew their H-1B visas, whether overseas or domestically, within 48 months of the expiration of their prior visa in the same classification, will be eligible for a waiver of the in-person interview requirement.”

                What this means is that if your H-1B visa expired within the last 4 years, and meets all the other requirements addressed above, you will likely qualify for the stateside renewal pilot program.

Stateside Visa Renewal Procedures and Timing

                Department of State will be accepting online applications starting on January 29, 2024 at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/employment/domestic-renewal.html. Each week, DOS will release 2,000 application slots for applicants whose visas were issued by Mission Canada and an additional 2,000 for those whose visas were issued by Mission India. The following dates will be the release dates:

  • January 29
  • February 5
  • February 12
  • February 19
  • February 26

Every application will be counted against the weekly limit, and once the limit is reached the portal will be locked until the next slots are released. If you are unable to apply on one application date, you can continue to try on the other dates listed above. The pilot program will close when all slots are filled or on April 1, 2024, whichever comes first.

        Once individuals access the website, they will select whether their visa was issued through Canada or India. From there, they will be taken to a navigator tool which will assess their qualifications for the program. DOS notes that the responses to the navigator tool will not be retained. Once they complete the self-assessment, applicants must electronically submit the DS-160 and will receive instructions on how to pay the visa processing fee and where to mail their passports and other documents. Note, if your visa is denied, the fee is not refunded.

        Once documentation is mailed in, DOS will do a cursory review to determine whether they application falls in the scope of the program or not. If the individual’s application does not fall within the scope, the case will be returned by the fee will be NOT be returned.

        DOS expects that the average processing time from the time the passport and other documents are received until adjudication will be six to eight weeks. However, they aim to complete processing no later than May 1, 2024. DOS will not consider any expedite requests, so if you have urgent travel overseas you may have to consider applying abroad. If you have to withdraw your application for travel, you can do so, but the fee will not be returned.

Required Documentation

                The following is the list of documentation required for the domestic renewal program:

  • A completed DS-160
  • One passport sized photograph taken within the last six months
  • A passport valid for travel to the United States, which is valid for at least six months beyond the visa application date, and contains a blank, unmarked page for placement of a visa foil
  • The original or a copy of the current H-1B I-797
  • Original or copy of the applicant’s I-94

Conclusion

The Department of State’s announcement of the Stateside Visa Renewal Program marks a significant step toward addressing the challenges faced by certain qualified noncitizens in renewing their H-1B nonimmigrant visas. While the program is currently in its pilot phase, and eligibility is limited, it represents a positive development in streamlining visa processing and reducing wait times. The eligibility criteria, though stringent, are designed to test the Department’s technical and operational capabilities thoroughly. It is important to note that this pilot program focuses exclusively on H-1B principals, with hope that H-4s and other visa classifications potentially being included in the future.

Reddy & Neumann, P.C., located in Houston, Texas, has been serving the business community for over 25 years and is Houston’s largest immigration law firm focused solely on U.S. Employment-based immigration. We work with both employers and their employees, helping them navigate the immigration process quickly and cost-effectively.

By: Steven Brown

Steven Brown is a Partner at Reddy & Neumann, P.C. where he works in the Non-immigrant visa department and leads the Litigation Team. His practice covers all phases of the non-immigration visa process including filing H-1B, L-1, E-3, H-4, and H-4 EAD petitions. In the last two years, Steven has successfully handled over 1,000 non-immigrant visa petitions including filing petitions, responding to any necessary Requests for Evidence, and drafting motions and appeals. He has also become a key resource for F-1 students that seek guidance on properly complying with the F-1 visa regulations and any OPT or CPT issues they may have. Additionally, Steven holds a weekly conference call for companies that are part of one of the largest organizations for IT Services companies in America.