How to Transition From an L-1 Visa to an H-1B Visa
Foreign employees working in the United States must ensure that they have the proper visas in order to legally remain in the country during their employment. While there are several visa options, two of the most popular ones in the nonimmigrant work visa category are the L-1 intracompany transferee visa and the H-1B visa. Although the L-1 visa is deemed ultimately more advantageous to have compared to the H-1B visa, there are a number of circumstances that may require a change of status from an L-1 to an H-1B visa.
If you or your spouse are already working in the U.S. on L-1 status and are looking to make the switch, this guide outlines everything you need to know for a smooth transition process.
L-1 Visa Background
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issues the L-1 visa to qualified foreign employees of multinational organizations looking to transfer to the U.S. on a temporary basis. Among the many eligibility requirements for this visa classification is the fact that the multinational company must have a qualifying relationship with its U.S. office, whether as a parent, subsidiary, branch or affiliate.
There are two types of L-1 visas -- the L-1A visa for employees serving in an executive or managerial capacity in the company and the L-1B visa for employees with specialized knowledge. The definition of these roles for the purpose of the L-1 visa is quite strict.
In particular, the L-1A manager or executive must have supervisory responsibility for a key component of the company and discretionary decision-making authority over the operations of the company. For the L-1B specialized knowledge employee, the individual must possess unique and practical knowledge of the company's products/services, research, systems, proprietary techniques, management, or procedures, as well as how they would be useful in the international market. L-1 visas may also be awarded in the case of a multinational company looking to open a new office in the United States.
L-1 Duration of Stay
In terms of duration of stay, L-1A visa holders are allowed a maximum of seven years, while specialized knowledge professionals on L-1B status are allowed a max of five years. The USCIS grants these visas for an initial three years which can then be extended in two-year terms until the maximum allowed stay period.
It is important to keep these allotted times in mind since they’re often one of the reasons why L-1 visa holders may opt to switch to the H-1B status. However, it is also important to remember that the time spent while on L-1 status is taken into account. As such, an individual cannot stay in the United States for five years under the L-1B visa and continue to stay for six more years after switching to the H-1B visa.
What is the H-1B Visa?
The H-1B visa is also issued by the USCIS and is available to U.S. employers looking to hire and transfer foreign workers to the States. Unlike the L-1 visa, the H-1B is not restricted to multinational companies, though it tends to have stricter eligibility requirements. Under the H-1B visa, only candidates with at least a bachelor’s degree and a job offer from a registered U.S. company for a specialty position may apply.
You should note that the terms “specialty position” for the H-1B and “specialized knowledge” for the L-1B are in no way synonymous. For the purpose of the H-1B, a specialty position (also referred to as specialized occupation) is one that requires a bachelor’s degree to perform, usually one in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) categories. Specialized knowledge, on the other hand, refers to having knowledge that is specific to that multinational company’s interests.
There is a general quota of 65,000 H-1B visas issued within a fiscal year and an additional quota of 20,000 for master’s degree holders. For this reason, eventual recipients for the H-1B visa are chosen through a lottery system. which makes getting this type of visa largely up to chance.
H-1B Duration of Stay
H1B visa holders are allowed to live and work in the United States for a maximum period of six years. The USCIS also awards the H-1B for an initial three years, but unlike the L-1, extensions are awarded in a single three-year term, with a provision to extend it further in certain limited circumstances.
Key Similarities and Differences Between L-1 and H-1B Visas
There are various similarities between the L-1 and H-1B visas which is why it should come as no surprise that switching from one to the other remains a popular topic. These similarities include:
Dual Intent -- Both L-1 and H-1B are nonimmigrant work visas that exempt the holder from having to demonstrate ties to their home country, while also allowing them to apply for a green card without putting their visa status on the line. Essentially, if you are in the U.S. on a visa that is not considered dual intent and you apply for permanent residency through the green card program, you will be in violation of your visa status with the USCIS.
Dependents Visa -- L-1 visa holders are allowed to bring their legal spouse and unmarried children under 21 years old into the U.S. with them. These dependents will arrive on an L-2 visa. This also applies to H-1B visa holders, except their dependents arrive on an H-4 visa.
Work permit for spouses -- Spouses on L-2 or H-4 visa are allowed to obtain an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) from the USCIS, authorizing them to find work with a U.S. employer. The best part about having an EAD is that there are no restrictions as to where you can work, plus you get to enroll in social security services.
Premium processing -- Both the L-1 and H-1B visas are available for premium processing. This simply means that the USCIS will expedite processing your application within 15 calendar days upon receipt. The fee for premium processing is currently $1,440 and if the USCIS doesn't process your application within 15 calendar days, the fee will be refunded. Keep in mind that if the USCIS issues a request for evidence (RFE) or any other required supporting documentation, an additional 15 day period will come into effect for processing once the USCIS receives the requested documents.
While there are some interesting similarities between these two nonimmigrant work visas, there are also some significant differences between them that may ultimately make one better than the other depending on your situation:
Educational requirements -- L-1 candidates are not required to have a formal degree in order to obtain the visa. H-1B candidates, on the other hand, must have at least a bachelor’s degree in their specialty occupation fields before they can apply.
Annual cap -- There is no set limit to the number of L-1 visas issued within a year, whereas the H-1B visa is capped at 65000 and recipients are chosen via lottery.
Sponsoring employer eligibility -- Only multinational companies may apply for the L-1 visa on behalf of their foreign employees. On the flip side, the H-1B visa is available to all U.S. companies looking to hire and bring in a foreign worker.
Labor certification -- Employers looking to transfer certain employees into the United States must first obtain a certification from the U.S. Department of Labor demonstrating the visa beneficiary’s role and how there are no qualified U.S. workers available to fill that role. This requirement applies to H-1B sponsoring employers, but not to L-1 sponsoring companies.
Employment transfers -- Foreign workers on L-1 status are not allowed to change employers for the duration of their L-1 visa. H-1B workers, on the other hand, may transfer to a different employer while maintaining their H-1B status.
Blanket petition -- It is possible to file L-1 visa petitions en masse so that multiple L-1 beneficiaries can enter the U.S. with a single application, whereas there is no such provision for H-1B employers.
L-1 to H-1B Change of Status Process
The first thing to note is there is no conversion process, meaning if you want to transition from L-1 to H-1B, you’re basically applying from scratch. The only difference here is that since you’re already in the U.S., you may not need to go through consular processing if your petition is approved, and can go ahead and file for your change your status.
If your current L-1 employer is also able to petition for H-1B visa, then it’s a matter of them filing the H-1B petition on your behalf with the USCIS. If not, then you’ll need to find an employer who will sponsor you and submit all the necessary supporting documentation. This will include a detailed employment letter with specific information on your duties and responsibilities, labor condition application, date of employment and remuneration, among other key information.
Your H-1B sponsor will also need to pay the necessary fees
The I-129 standard filing fee
Fraud prevention and detection fee
ACWIA (training) fee - The American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act stipulates that employers with 25 or fewer employees pay a fee of $750 and $1,500 if they have more than 26 employees.
Public Law 114-113 Fee -This is applicable to companies that have more than 50 employees with over half of them being on L-1 or H-1B status.
Optional fee - premium processing. You can choose to pay for this one and simply indicate that you’re doing so for your personal gain and not to benefit your potential H-1B employer.
Most of these fees are non-refundable so make sure to double-check the amounts before you or your sponsoring employer makes the payments. From there, the rest of the visa application process is relatively straightforward.
H-1B Application Process
The H-1B lottery season typically begins on the first business day in April every year. However, you need to start your preparations long before that. The USCIS will begin accepting H-1B applications and close it once they have received the cap limit of 65000 and an additional 20,000 for applicants with a master’s degree. In many cases, it takes the USCIS just four to seven days to reach this H-1B cap limit, so there’s no room for error. Make sure all your required documents are in order and maybe have an immigration lawyer check them out just in case.
Once the USCIS receives your application from your H-1B sponsoring employer, they will issue an identifier number based on whether it falls under the Regular Quota or the Masters Quota. After that, it’s really a waiting game with your fingers crossed as you wait for the lottery to play out. If your petition is selected in the lottery, then congratulations; the USCIS will notify you and let you know the next steps. If everything is in order, you can start working as an H-1B employee on October 1st of that same year. That’s the day your status will officially change to H-1B. You must cease all forms of work with your L-1 employer to avoid being considered out of status and at risk of penalty from the USCIS.
Do I have to leave the U.S. while my H-1B petition is pending?
Not at all. You can remain in the U.S. and continue working with your L-1 employer until your change of status becomes effective on October 1st. That being said, you should remain fully compliant with the conditions of your L-1 visa and remain on the company’s payroll up to September 30. Switching employers for the purpose of transitioning from an L-1 to an H-1B visa can be tricky and if the applicant is terminated by the L-1 employer before September 30, they will immediately be considered out of status. There is no “grace period” in case of an early termination and the USCIS can use it as a basis for denying the Change of Status application.
What happens if my H-1B application is unsuccessful?
Unfortunately, the decision of the USCIS is final. The good news is that you’re already in the U.S. so you can continue working with your L-1 employer and apply again at the next H-1B season. If not, you can always consider alternative visa options or go all out for permanent residency.
H-1B Processing Time
The timing of the H-1B application process is fixed with no room for flexibility. You’ll have to align your application and any subsequent successful change of status with these timeframes.
Advantages of Changing from L-1 to H-1B
Transitioning from an L-1 visa to the H-1B visa is not the easiest process, but if you are successful, you will be able to enjoy the following benefits:
You are already set up in the U.S. -- Unlike someone who’s just coming in for the first time, you’ve already been in the U.S. for a couple of years so you probably already have some basic necessities like housing, bank accounts, transportation, etc all sorted out. Plus you’re familiar with how the U.S. job market operates so it might be easier to find a U.S. employer willing to sponsor your H-1B visa application.
You can transfer to a different company -- Unlike the L-1 visa that restricted you to working only with the petitioning company, you can now switch between employers. Your opportunities are now much broader.
Your immediate family can switch too -- Your dependents can remain in the U.S. with you on an H-4 visa and still enjoy some of the benefits they did while on L-2 status.
The change of status is relatively simple -- Assuming you’re able to scale through the H-1B lottery, the rest of the process is pretty straightforward and you do not need to go for visa stamping unless you plan to depart the country for some reason and re-enter the U.S. at a later time.
U.S. employers can benefit too -- With the H-1B, U.S. employers can combat labor shortages especially if they are located in a region without access to qualified U.S. workers. It’s also a good way for them to build and maintain global competitiveness in their respective industries.
If you are among the successful H-1B visa recipients, then you’re probably looking forward to a whole new lease on life in the U.S. Perhaps your new employer is located in a different part of town or even a different state and you basically need to get started on the relocation process. Perhaps you’ve been slowly building your finances and you’re now ready to get a credit card or apply for a student loan for your kids … All these scenarios require a solid U.S. credit history, which as you may have known by now, can be difficult to build.
Nova Credit can help. From helping you transfer your foreign credit history for evaluation in the U.S. to providing a suite of services that help with apartment guarantors, credit card applications, house rentals, loan applications, phone plans, and money transfers. Nova Credit helps you thrive before and after obtaining your change of status from L-1 to H-1B.
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More from Nova Credit:
The ultimate guide to the L-1 visa
An overview of the L-1A visa for non-immigrant workers in the United States
A guide to the L-1B Visa for non-immigrant work in the United States
How to get an L-1 Visa extension
Everything you need to know about the L-2 Visa for L-1 dependents
L-1 vs. H-1B: Which work visa is right for you?
Everything You Need to Know About the Blanket Visa Petition for L-1 Visas
How to transition from an L-1 Visa to a Green Card
L-2 EAD: How to obtain work authorization for L-1 Visa Dependents