Over half (57%) of Silicon Valley’s tech workforce was born outside the United States. This international tech talent pool is fueled in large part by H1B, the permit that lets American companies hire highly skilled tech workers from other countries on a three-year basis.
The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approves only 85,000 new H1B work visas each year via a random lottery, with 20,000 reserved for those with advanced degrees. With over 190,000 H1B applications in 2019 alone, it’s so popular that the H1B quota is typically used up within a few days of becoming available in April each year.
So with these tight application caps (that were set in 1990 before the tech boom) and immigration reform being central to the current administration, what is the status of the H1B visa program in 2019?
We’re breaking it down, including the sponsorship process and other work authorization alternatives you might want to consider. So if you’re looking to further your career in the US, read on to find out the H1B news you need to know.
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The latest H1B news
Policies from the current administration are already reshaping the H1B work visa program. For one, H1B visa approvals are dropping. According to data from the USCIS, one-quarter of H1B visa applications were declined in the last three months of 2018.
Not only are approval rates down, but the process has become more lengthy, rigorous and expensive. From October to December 2018, for instance, 60% of H1B applications required more paperwork, which is more than double the rate it was two years ago. This more aggressive review system could potentially deter companies from hiring H1B employees—which could widen the tech skills gap in the US even further.
Changes to the H1B visa can be traced back to the “Buy American, Hire American” executive order signed by the president in April 2017, which curbs both legal and illegal immigration. The goal? Create higher wages and preserve jobs for American workers. The order calls for visa reform and asks federal agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to “ensure that H-1B visas are awarded to the most-skilled or highest-paid petition beneficiaries.”
In response, DHS has already proposed a $10 registration fee for new H1B work visas, which is expected to start in April 2020. There are also plans to scrap the H-4 program in spring 2020, which grants work permits to spouses of H1B visa holders. If H-4 is dismantled, spouses may be forced to give up their jobs. It could also make it more difficult for some tech workers to come to the country if they can’t afford to live off a single income.
With the US cracking down on immigration, Canada (with its less restrictive visa rules) is now trying to attract more H1B visa holders, as well as those who can’t get H1B visas, to grow its tech hubs. A billboard with a giant red maple leaf on the route from San Francisco to Silicon Valley reads “H-1B problems? Pivot to Canada.” And as thousands of highly skilled foreign workers come to live and work in Canada, Toronto is now the fastest-growing market for tech talent in North America, ranking third behind Silicon Valley and Seattle.
How talent finds sponsorship
The H1B process can cost companies thousands of dollars for a single applicant, which means not every company will have the resources to sponsor you. To avoid applying for companies that don’t sponsor, there are a few things you should be looking for.
First, is it discussed in the job posting? Sometimes a company will explicitly state if work visa sponsorship is available (or not).
If it’s not mentioned in the job posting, consider the company’s size. Mid- to large-sized companies usually have the resources to support sponsorship, while smaller companies and startups typically don’t.
This isn’t always foolproof, though, so consider checking the company’s sponsorship history. Have they sponsored workers before? How many? And for what job titles? To find out, check out these resources:
- VisaDoor provides how many H1B visas were submitted by specific companies and how many were certified, denied or withdrawn.
- MyVisaJobs reports which employers support visas and how many they file in a fiscal year.
- H1B Visa Salary Database 2019 provides information about positions, salaries and when certain companies filed H1B petitions.
- H-1B Employer Data Hub breaks down which companies are petitioning for H1B visas.
- Create a profile on Seen, where you can choose to be matched with employers who are willing to sponsor your work visa.
Other types of work authorizations
With recent restrictions on the H1B visa, the process has an uncertain future. And while a company may promise to follow through with visa sponsorship, they can’t guarantee government approval.
Instead of applying for the H1B visa, there are a few other work authorizations that might apply to you based on your country of origin, student status, education level and skills. These visas can be excellent alternatives to the H1B visa—and could give you a better chance at success, depending on your circumstances.
F-1 Optional Practical Training (OPT)
OPT is a benefit of the F-1 student visa. It means that if you’re an international student, you can remain in the US for one year before or after graduation to work in your field of study. If you’ve earned a degree in certain STEM fields, such as computer science, you may be eligible for an additional two years of OPT work authorization.
While OPT doesn’t require company-sponsored immigration support, those on F-1 OPT will typically require visa sponsorship to continue working in the US after their OPT expires. Learn more about F-1 OPT here.
L-1 is a temporary intra-company transfer visa, which lets companies transfer specialized employees from one of their overseas offices to a stateside office. To qualify for this visa, you must be employed with the company for at least one year and have “specialized knowledge” or be employed as an executive or manager.
Additionally, if a foreign company doesn’t yet have an American office, the L-1 allows them to send an executive or manager to the United States to establish one. Those on an L-1 visa can stay in the US for a maximum of seven years (via extension increments of two years). Learn more about the L-1 visa here.
The TN visa allows Mexican and Canadian citizens to work in the United States in certain jobs (e.g., computer systems analysts, engineers, graphic designers, scientists) as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Most roles on Seen could potentially qualify you for a TN visa.
While citizens of Mexico must apply for a TN visa, Canadian citizens typically don’t. Instead, Canadians must show the right documents to prove TN status upon entering the country. TN visas are good for three years and can be renewed in three-year increments, indefinitely. Learn more about the TN visa here.
E-3 is a variant of the H1B visa that allows Australian citizens to come to the US and work in certain “specialty occupations”—which includes nearly all tech-related jobs. You must also have a bachelor’s degree or higher, or work experience that’s equal to a bachelor’s degree. According to the USCIS, 12 years of experience in your field can generally be used as a substitute for a bachelor’s degree.
E-3 visas grant you the ability to work in the US for two years, with the possibility to be renewed in two-year increments, indefinitely. Learn more about the E-3 visa here.
The H-1B1 is only available to citizens of Chile and Singapore who work in certain “specialty occupations.” Largely identical to the H1B work visa, one of the key differences is that the H-1B1 visa generally doesn’t require you to have a bachelor’s degree.
The H-1B1 visa can be extended in one-year increments, indefinitely. However, unlike other work authorizations, it’s important to know that you typically can’t apply for a green card if you’re in the US on an H-1B1 visa. Learn more about the H-1B1 visa here.
Green card (for employment-based immigrants)
Out of 675,000 total green cards available each year, there are about 140,000 granted for people who want to live and work in the US permanently based on their job skills.
It’s possible for your employer to sponsor you for a green card if you already hold an H1B visa. However, if you have the right combination of skills, education and work experience, you may be eligible for a green card right away—instead of having to go through the H1B process.
First Preference EB-1: For tech workers, this means you’ll need “extraordinary abilities.” You can also be an “outstanding” professor or researcher, or a multinational executive or manager. Learn more about EB-1 here.
Second Preference EB-2: Reserved for workers holding advanced degrees or with “exceptional ability” in the arts, sciences or business. Learn more about EB-2 here.
Third Preference EB-3: For “skilled” workers with at least two years of job experience or “professional” workers with a bachelor’s degree. Foreign nationals must also have a full-time job offer on the table for a role with a proven shortage of qualified American workers. Learn more about EB-3 here.
But even though getting a green card may seem like the best option, that’s not always the case depending on where you’re from. Tech pros from countries where there are more applicants than permitted by law, such as China and India, might have a difficult chance due to a large backlog of green card applicants already waiting (some have been waiting for over 10 years). That’s because no more than 7% of the green cards in the employment category can come from any one country.
Local != better
Despite high-profile immigration reform consuming the headlines, H1B doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. But competition for the visa’s limited slots is stronger than ever before, and additional hurdles (e.g., rising costs, long processing times, political sentiment) may be discouraging some American companies from sponsoring overseas tech talent.
But if you want to find your next big opportunity in the United States, getting an H1B isn’t out of the question, and while it’s not a guarantee, there are a number of other options you can consider.