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The H-1B Cap Lottery, Explained

Learn more about what U.S. employers and international employees should expect when it comes to the H-1B cap lottery

H-1B Visa Sample

What is the H-1B Cap Lottery?

The U.S. government has set an annual cap on the number of new H-1B work visas that can be issued each fiscal year. When the demand for H-1B visas exceeds the available slots, a lottery system is used to randomly select petitions for processing.

The H-1B cap lottery is a result of the high demand for these visas, and it can be a source of uncertainty for employers and prospective H-1B visa holders. 

In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the H-1B cap lottery, including the selection process, what to do if you or your employee isn’t selected in the lottery, and more.

Important:

FY 2025 H-1B cap petitions can now be filed as of April 1, 2024. USCIS announced that the filing period will be at least 90 days. Learn more here.


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Understanding The H-1B Visa Cap

Before international employees can enter the United States under the H-1B classification and begin work, they will likely need to register with USCIS and be selected to apply.

Because there is a lot of demand for the H-1B visa, there is a limited number of visas that can be issued each year. In 2023, the cap was set at 65,000 visas per fiscal year. However, if an applicant has a master’s degree from a U.S. institution, they’re in luck: there are an extra 20,000 visas available for those who have a master’s degree or higher.

Note

If the U.S. employer sponsoring an H-1B worker is an institution of higher education, a nonprofit organization connected to an institute of higher education, or a government research organization, then the H-1B lottery cap does not apply.


H-1B Cap Lottery At a Glance

We’ll dive deeper into each step of the process, but here’s a general overview of how the H-1B cap lottery works each year:

  • H-1B Electronic Registration: All prospective H-1B applicants whose occupation is subject to the cap must register with USCIS electronically to enter the H-1B lottery.
  • Random Selection (Lottery): If the number of H-1B registrations received exceeds the annual cap, a random lottery is conducted to select the registrants that will be allowed to apply for an H-1B visa. The 20,000 advanced degree petitions are selected first, and then any unselected advanced degree registrants are placed in the general pool for the 65,000 cap.
  • Submission of Petitions: If a registrant is selected, employers can submit H-1B petitions on behalf of their prospective employees during a designated filing period, usually beginning in the first week of April each year.
  • Processing of Selected Petitions: The selected petitions are then processed, and if approved, the foreign workers can obtain H-1B status and begin (or continue) employment in the United States.

How to Register for the H-1B Cap Lottery

For international employees hoping to file for an H-1B visa whose occupation is subject to the cap, they will need to register with USCIS electronically to enter a lottery. To do this, the prospective H-1B employee and sponsoring employer will need to create online accounts with USCIS. If a prospective employee already has a myUSCIS online account, they will still need to create a separate “registrant” account that is required for the registration process.

During the registration process, the prospective H-1B employee (or U.S. employer, representative, or attorney acting on their behalf) must pay a $10 registration fee. Registration also includes filling in basic information about the sponsoring company, as well as biographical details about the registrant. 

The registration period only runs for around 14 days each year. If an applicant doesn’t register but their occupation is not exempt from the cap, they will not be able to apply for the H-1B visa.

USCIS provides detailed instructions on how to navigate the electronic registration process, including an instructional video and frequently asked questions here.

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H-1B Lottery Selection Process

Once the registration window closes, here is a general overview of the H-1B lottery selection process: 

  • Random Selection Process (Lottery): The demand for H-1B visas often exceeds the available slots within the first few days. When the number of registrations surpasses the cap, a random lottery is conducted to select the registrants who will be able to file their Form I-129 for processing. The advanced degree cap is filled first, and any unselected registrants are then placed in the general cap pool.
  • Selection Notifications: Selected registrants will receive an H-1B registration selection notice. Registrants that are not selected will not be notified until after USCIS has determined that they have reached the H-1B cap for that fiscal year.*
  • Preparing and Submitting H-1B Petitions: If selected, employers must submit Form I-129 (Petition for Alien Worker), along with supporting documents, to USCIS during the filing period. Employers can opt for premium processing to receive an expedited adjudication of Form I-129, for an additional fee.
  • Petition Filing Timeline: The H-1B filing period typically opens on April 1st each year, and employers must file petitions within the specified filing window (typically 90 days). 

*Employers filing on behalf of an H-1B applicant will be able to see the applicant’s lottery status in their USCIS account. The account will show the lottery status as one of the following:

  • Submitted: You have submitted your registration and it is valid
  • Selected: You are able to apply for an H-1B visa
  • Not Selected: You were not selected to apply for an H-1B visa this time
  • Denied: If you register for the chance to apply for an H-1B visa with the same employer multiple times, USCIS will deem all of your registrations invalid
  • Invalidated-Failed Payment: You registered but your registration payment didn’t go through

Alternative Options if Not Selected in the H-1B Lottery

The H-1B cap lottery can be a stressful process for H-1B workers and their sponsoring employers. If you (or your employees) are not selected in the H-1B cap lottery, it’s important to understand the implications on work authorization and to explore alternative work visa options. 

Typically, if a registrant is not selected in the lottery and their current work authorization is set to expire, they will be placed in USCIS’ 60-day grace period. During this 60-day period, the individual will need to adjust status to a different visa type or prepare to depart the U.S. when their grace period is up, to avoid accruing any unlawful presence

Boundless put together a detailed guide on alternative visas to consider in the event that you or your employees are not selected in the H-1B lottery.


H-1B Cap Lottery FAQs

The dates vary each year, and the registration period typically runs for 14 days. Be sure to check USCIS’ information page for the exact dates for the upcoming fiscal year.

There is a $10 registration fee per registrant. The fee is non-refundable, even if you are not selected in the lottery.

No, if an individual is not selected during this year’s H-1B registration, it will not impact their chances of being selected next year.

A selected applicant’s Form I-129 must be filed at the location indicated on their H-1B registration selection notice, which may be different from past Form I-129 filing locations for H-1B cases. Employers should be sure to file at the exact location indicated on the selection notice. 

Employers must file Form I-129 and all of the required supporting documents at the filing location indicated on the selection notice during the filing window. The filing window typically starts on April 1 and is open for 90 days.

The government sets a cap on the number of H-1B visas it issues each year. Currently, the cap is 65,000 visas per fiscal year, with 20,000 additional visas available for those who have a master’s degree or higher.


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