An H-1B visa is an employer-sponsored, temporary work visa of three to six years for foreign nationals with specialized knowledge and a bachelor’s degree or their country’s equivalent. Generally speaking, the employer must be able to show that a foreign worker is necessary and that no available or qualified local citizen can perform the required task. There is an annual cap of 65,000 visas per year, with an additional 20,000 for individuals who received a master’s degree from a university in the United States. An H-1B visa initially grants the recipient a stay of three years, but can be extended an additional three years, not to exceed a total of six years.

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If you plan to come to the United States for high-level employment, seek the advice of an experienced immigration attorney. Rules and regulations around immigration are changing, making the advice of an attorney with the latest specialized knowledge all the more important. According to Amy Myers of Tedrow & Myers Immigration Law Group in Birmingham, Alabama, if you seek counsel from a general lawyer, you run the risk of your lawyer not knowing the constantly evolving rules and procedures.

“There are all kinds of traps for the unwary,” Myers says. “For example, it is often difficult to prove that certain occupations are specialty occupations. This is particularly true of computer software jobs. Also, forms are frequently changing; the labor condition application which underlies the H-1B application is now a new form. In general, this is no timing to be ‘winging it’ in immigration filings, because of the harsh environment we are facing at United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.”

Basic Requirements

Education within the specialized field an applicant has been hired into is one of the primary requirements for an H-1B application. An applicant must hold a bachelor’s degree or higher within their field for the best chance at their acceptance. Equivalent degree categorizations from the applicant’s country will also be considered, provided that degree came from an accredited institution. For example, if a foreign degree only requires three years (instead of the standard four years for a U.S. bachelor’s degree), the applicant will need to have work experience in addition to the three-year degree. In most cases, three years of work experience is the equivalent to one year of education.

To satisfy education requirements, work experience must meet certain standards. For starters, it should be in the specialty occupation for which the applicant is applying to work. Qualifying work experience can be proven in three ways—by taking a college-level equivalency exam in that particular specialty, by showing membership in a nationally recognized professional association with rigorous standards, or by the totality of your combined education and experience in your specialty occupation. Although three years of experience in a specialized field generally equals one year of education, it is not enough to show only that you were working in the field but that you were working at an H1-B level. Working at an entry level will not qualify, even if it was in the desired field of specialty.

12-Point System

The point system below provides a detailed illustration of education and work experience requirements to obtain an H-1B visa. You must meet at least one of the following criteria:

  • a bachelor’s or master’s degree or the foreign equivalent within the specialty field from an accredited university
  • at least 12 years of work experience in their field
  • a license to practice their occupation, in the case of a medical professional
  • a combination of education and work experience to reach the 12 year total

Relative to the H-1B visa application, each year of university study is equal to three points and each year of work experience is equal to one point. You must have 12 points to qualify.

The applicant must also be able to come to the U.S. legally, with no felonies or previous removals, and must be fully qualified to perform his or her required job duties. For example, to be a CPA or an attorney in the U.S., the applicant will need the same licensure and credentials as would an American. These qualifications are necessary before the petition for an H-1B visa can be filed.

Common Specialty Occupations

There are many different categories of specialty occupation for which a foreign worker can obtain an H-1B visa, and preference is currently given to individuals who work in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Among the most common occupations are:

  • doctors and other health care professionals
  • financial professionals
  • analysts
  • managers
  • engineers
  • sales managers
  • artists
  • entertainers
  • CPAs
  • lawyers
  • technicians

According to Pew Research Center, approximately 64 percent of all H-1B visa requests in 2011 were for jobs in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and math. In 2015, the top 10 occupations for which H-1B visas were issued were as follows (from most requested to least requested): computers, architecture, administration, education, health, mathematics, management, life sciences, social sciences, and technical. Although a degree is not required, like in the categories of art and entertainment, adequate work experience or a combination of the two is essential.

Seek Legal Counsel

Legal counsel is essential if you wish to obtain an H-1B visa or sponsor a foreign worker’s H-1B visa. Once certified to apply, the employer will need to file a petition with UCSIS, submit supporting documentation, and pay the filing fee, which can cost anywhere between $150 and $4,000. The process can be highly complex, and even minor errors can result in delays. H-1B processing times can take up to six or seven months, and even longer in some cases. It is essential to work with an experienced immigration attorney to eliminate unnecessary delays and ensure that you obtain your H-1B status in the shortest time possible.