Applying for an Initial H-1B Visa and Traveling to the United States

Once an H-1B petition has been approved, there are two ways that you can obtain H-1B status:

  • Apply for an H-1B visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate abroad (individuals not currently in the United States)
  • Be granted a change of status to H-1B (individuals currently in the United States in another nonimmigrant status)

If you are outside of the United States, and your H-1B petition has been approved by USCIS, you must apply for an H-1B visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate.

H-1B Visa

A visa is a travel document that is placed into your passport and allows you to request permission from an immigration officer at a port of entry to enter the United States. Visas are only issued at U.S. embassies or consulates outside of the United States. You currently cannot obtain a passport visa from within the United States.

Please note that approval of an H-1B petition by USCIS does not guarantee the issuance of an H-1B visa. Nonimmigrant visa issuance is at the sole discretion of the U.S. Department of State.

Visit the website for the U.S. embassy or consulate where you plan to apply for more information on the visa application process and scheduling a visa interview. Visa processing times vary by consulate location, time of year, and volume of applicants. You can view an estimate of visa interview and processing wait times at the U.S. Department of State US Visas website. You should not make any definitive travel plans before receiving your visa.

It is recommended that you apply for a visa in your country of citizenship. Applying for a visa at a consulate in another country is known as a “third country” application. Visa delays or denials are more likely when applying for a visa in a third country. This is because the consular officer must take extra measures to verify your relationship to your home country. If you do choose to apply for a visa in a country other than your country of residence, you should contact the consulate where you plan to apply and ask if they will accept an application from a third country national. Some consulates may put limits on the number of third country national visa applications that they will process.

Your H-1B petition must be approved before you can apply for a visa. You must have a copy of the USCIS Form I-797 H-1B approval notice and a copy of the H-1B petition to take to your visa interview. Some U.S. embassies/consulates may require you to have the original USCIS Form I-797 H-1B approval notice in order to apply for a visa. Since embassy/consulate has its own requirements, you should check with your specific consulate to determine if the original H-1B approval notice is required for the visa application or if a copy of the approval notice is sufficient. If the original document is required, MUSC will send the original approval notice to you in your home country.

Canadian citizens do not currently need to apply for a visa in order to travel to the United States. However, Canadian citizens must have a valid I-797 H-1B approval notice when requesting to enter the U.S. in H-1B status.

If the H-1B visa in your passport expires during your time in the United States, this is okay, as long as you have a valid Form I-797 H-1B Approval Notice and valid I-94 admission record (with a valid “admit until” date). The H-1B visa in your passport is a travel document that is only required if you are outside of the United States and need to request entry into the U.S. in H-1B status. The only reason you would need to apply for a new H-1B visa in your passport is if you need to travel outside of the United States and subsequently return to the U.S. in H-1B status.

Travel to the United States

If your H-1B visa is approved, you can proceed with making travel arrangements to come to the United States. A beneficiary of an approved H-1B petition can be admitted to the United States for the validity period of the petition. There is no official grace period with H-1B status. However, you may be permitted to enter to the U.S. up to 10 days before the H-1B validity period begins.

When traveling to the United States, be sure that you have your passport, H-1B approval notice, copy of your H-1B petition, and any other documents related to your H-1B status on your person and not in your checked baggage. At the port of entry, an immigration officer will look at your documents and ask you several questions about your stay in the U.S.

Please keep in mind that the issuance of an H-1B visa does not guarantee that you will be admitted into the United States in H-1B status. Admission into the U.S. is at the sole discretion of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

I-94 Admission Record

Once your inspection at the U.S. port of entry is complete, the inspecting officer will return your documents to you. You will be issued an I-94 admission record (sometimes known as the I-94 arrival/departure record).

You must access your I-94 admission record online at U.S. Customs and Border Protection I-94 Website. It is extremely important that you access your I-94 admission record as soon as you arrive in the United States. You must print and save a copy of the I-94 admission record from this website for your own immigration records. You will receive a new I-94 admission record (and corresponding I-94 number) each time you physically enter the U.S. from traveling abroad, so it is important that you access the I-94 admission record after each entry.

The I-94 record is important because it serves as evidence of the nonimmigrant status you were granted when you last entered the United States, and how long you may legally remain in the country. Your I-94 record should list H-1B as your class of admission, and the “admit until” date should align with the validity end date on your H-1B approval notice. It is extremely important that the information in your I-94 record is correct.

If you notice an error in your I-94 admission record, please contact the Center for Global Health as soon as possible.