Saturday, August 30, 2014

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H1-B Application - My Journey Through the Process

Contributions of experiences from other H1-B applicants did help me through my visa process and so after having collected my passport stamped with an H1-B, here I am adding my experience for those who are yet to go through this journey. Yeah spread over almost a year, it definitely counts as a journey in itself.



It was sometime around December of last year (2013) when our immigration team informed that my firm had decided to process H1B visa for me this year and hence I was required to perform some formalities regarding the same. Yeah you guessed it right! Reading those lines was enough for me to jump around and shout out to everyone as anyone would expect I was at limits of my happiness – after all that is aim of every offshore professional in India right? [Kidding] And since then it has been a curios, anxious, boring, exciting and uncertain time with each emotion covering different phase of the process. The process ends today, when I have collected my H1-B Visa stamped passport from the US Visa Application Center. I have tried to cover various aspects of the process as a separate phase to cover as much information as possible.

Phase 1 - Filing of Petition
Around second week of December, we received an internal communication informing that the organization was planning to process our H1-B application this year. Organization had hired services of a law firm to support us through the process and we were required to fill in a few forms and provide relevant documents related to our professional and educational background to enable the law firm to prepare our petition. An informational call was conducted to introduce us to this category of visa and guide us through the process at high level.

We were advised to submit all relevant documentation and information to the law firm by about second week of January which gives them enough time to assess them and clarify any information if required. We were advised of the necessity to file the petition on first day of the window itself to ensure avoiding the closing of window. We were given access to a questionnaire based internal tool where we could upload all the information and documents. Documents required were:
  • Copy of Passport Personal Resume
  • Previous US visits immigration documents along with all previous visa stamps
  • Transcripts and certificates from all education institutes attended
  • Letters of reference from previous employers
  • Copies of travel documents, if currently in US
  • Pay statements (recent two)

We complied as advised – who wouldn’t!!

On April 2nd, we received a confirmation mail from the law firm informing that our petition was timely filed with USCIS and advised next steps of processing involved.

We write to notify you that your H-1B cap petition was timely filed on your behalf.

Phase 2 – Random Selection or Lottery
H-1B petitions are subject to the H-1B quota of 65,000 visas (for candidates holding bachelor's degrees or degrees from universities outside the U.S.) and 20,000 visas (for candidates holding master's or higher degrees from U.S. universities). From last year, USICS has started practice of subjecting petitions through a lottery, officially termed as Random Selection by USCIS, as first stage of elimination of applications. This year too, because the demand far outweighed the supply, all cap-subject H-1B petitions received between April 1, 2014 and April 7, 2014 were placed into a computer-generated lottery system. This year USCIS received abour 172,500 H1-B petitions out of which about 50% were rejected through this random selection process.

On 18th of April, we received a communication from the law firm indicating that my H1-B petition was selected in the lottery process.

At this time, we are very pleased to inform you that your petition was selected in the lottery and that your case will be processed in the coming weeks.
This does not indicate that your H-1B petition has been approved, but merely that it has been accepted as a case eligible for processing.
With selection of application for processing, we also received the receipt number which enables candidates to track the status of their case online. It is a 13 digit number and typically starts with three alphabets like WAC or EAC based on where it was filed. It is structured as a set of coded information in following format:

[EAC/WAC based on filing center]-[YY year in which application is filed i.e 14 for us]-[XYZ computer working day of the USCIS fiscal year that starts from October 1st]-[ABCDE is actual case number]


Phase 3 – Petition Processing
Once the petition is through the lottery phase, each case is assessed at the USCIS centers for compliance with all the requirements. Basic check at this stage includes adherence to graduation requirements, credentials of the applying organization and reasons for past travels along with the basic official requirements indicated below:
  • Position requiring a professional is a Specialty Occupation (thumb rule says that position should atleast require a bachelor’s degree)
  • The professional has required qualifications for performing the specialty occupation
  • Filing of Labor Condition Application with Department of Labor to affirm the wage requirement compliance
  • Employer employee relationship between petitioner and beneficiary
  • Compliance with other immigration laws and policies
If your employer files for a premium processing (which costs an additional 1000$), which ours had, USCIS informs your law firm through an email which makes it much faster than the regular processing which is informed through regular mail. Premium processing petitions are handled at priority as there is a time restrictions for informing the results.

Finally on June 5th we received an official confirmation indicating approval of our petition.

On 06/05/2014, Your petition has been approved, and the corresponding approval notice has been sent to your employer.

Phase 4 – Visa Application and Interview Scheduling
In first week of July we finally received the petition approval notice along with the petition that was filed on our behalf. This was a hard copy version of the documents which was a set of about 20-25 pages including:
  • Petition approval notice
  • Labor Condition Application
  • Petition including educational and professional background information
The internal immigration team scheduled a session to walk us through the process ahead and requirements from us. The process basically involves –
  • DS 160 Application – The first step to applying for a visa on based of an approved H-1B petition is filing of DS 160 form on the online portal of USCIS. This is mostly a straight forward form but needed some help from immigration team to clarify certain fields including work location and other details.
  • Submission of Fees – This requires creating a second profile on another USCIS tool and submitting the relevant fees which is 190$ as of now for H1-B. This had to be paid in Indian Currency (~12000 INR) and we had three options to choose – pay at Axis/ Citi bank counters, transfer online or use vendor associated with the organization. I chose the vendor.
  • Schedule Interview – Once the fees was submitted we were required to submit the receipt to the immigration team who coordination the scheduling of interviews. Once documents were submitted and request for appointment raised, we received the appointment letter from the immigration team with two time slots – one for fingerprinting and other for actual interview.
Phase 5 – In-person Activities
Once interviews were scheduled, there was another session to guide us through the next steps and to give a flavor of what an interview is like. We were advised to be sure of all the information we had filled in DS160 and the petition and were asked to ensure that all information we provide is true to best of our knowledge. Here is how the things went on the scheduled days.

OFC Appointment
This was the first of the two slots scheduled (20th August 2014 for me) when were to report at the Visa Application Center (VAC) at Nehru Place. This is located in International Trade Tower within Hotel Eros and is called American Plaza. It is located just besides the Nehru Place Metro Station and opposite Satyam multiplex and the location is well known by cab drivers in general. I had taken a cab and only thing that I needed to tell the driver as location was Visa offices in Nehru Place. If you come by Metro exit through gate number 2 and then walk right from there. It is a huge red colored building. The Trade Tower complex houses such centers for almost more than a dozen of countries and all are lined one after the other. The staff there is happy to guide you to your center though you would see groups already moving in the direction with the same petition as yours in their hands – following them works too!

I was scheduled for 9:30 AM but I was pretty early and reached the center by about 9 as I was advised that they allow you inside earlier than scheduled. Since all previous slot candidates had been covered by 9:05, we were allowed inside. Remember you are not allowed to carry in any bags, mobiles or laptops inside the center. For mundane stuff, there are baskets kept outside where things could be left. These are technically unguarded but the place feels okay for general stuff like water bottles of bags with nothing too valuable. I saw people leaving their mobiles with others who were scheduled for following slots. Once the executives outside reviewed the appointment confirmation letter and stamped it, I was allowed in after basic frisking. Inside there is a reception like counter towards right where a bar code was affixed to the passport which would help in tracking and then a token number (paper slip) was provided. It was pretty empty as there are enough number of counters available and I did not have to wait for my turn. There was an executive coordinating the process and guided me to a window. At the window the officer confirmed my name and date of birth and took my photograph. Then he asked me to put in both hands fingers on the scanner one by one followed by both thumbs together. This was pretty much it and I was let out with an advice to carry a passport photograph to the embassy for interview. They never took it at interview but I still got it clicked. I was in my return cab by 9:25 AM. The documents required at VAC are basically:
  • Appointment Confirmation Letter
  • Passport original and a copy
Interview at Embassy
I was scheduled for the actual interview on next day – 21st August 2014 at 9:30 AM. I reached again by about 9:05 and the line was already starting by the time I reached. They begin the line based on the time slots though I saw that people who were late from their slots were allowed to enter in without any questioning. This line took about 15-20 minutes and ended with a basic confirmation of passport and deposit of mobile phones. They have well managed locker system for mobiles and car keys (remote controlling ones) but they do not keep bags or other items. So plan your stuff accordingly. They allowed me to carry in my documents in a plastic bag. After this line we were passed through the screening center where we were frisked and documents passed through x-rays. Those who were carrying water bottles were being asked to drink some water to prove it was not a hazardous substance. With this we entered the consular area and there was an executive who was guiding us to different seating rows based on category of our visa application. The executive asked for petition approval notice and I asked if a photocopy was fine though I still had the original with me. He was okay with a copy and stapled it to my passport (it does not matter which one you give as you get it back stapled with the passport as it is). We had to wait around 15-20 minutes in that seating area after which we were taken into the embassy building where we were first finger printed again. Here randomly the officer was asking either left hand or right hand fingers. Post this we again got into a line waiting for our turn with the interview. This is where I found myself at my best alert position trying to hear in each interview going on. After about half an hour I was standing infront of the consular officer for my interview. Here is how the conversation went –
Officer – Next person may step in please
Me – Good Morning officer
Officer – Good Morning. How are you doing today?
Me – I am doing good sir, thank you
Officer – What do you do for [employer name]?
Me – I speak about my position and high level function which I belong to
Officer – What are you job duties at that position?
Me – I talk about details of broad activities I work on for various clients and other firm activities
Officer – Where in US would you travel to?
Me – Talk about the client location and home office location along with specifying that I would still work for my current employer
Officer – How much would you be paid?
Me – Give in the information as in the petition
Then the officer checked the passport and the stapled petition approval notice. Simultaneously commented,
Officer – You have been to the US earlier.
Me – Yes sir (I had been to the same city and other nearby cities for my student exchange)
Officer (smiling and more of small talkish) – So you are familiar with the city?
Me – Yes Sir.
Officer – Your Visa is approved and you would get a message in a few days.
Me – Thank you sir

This was it and I moved out by about 10:45 AM.

Passport Receipt at the Visa Application Center
Once I was back from interview the first thing I did was log into the embassy website to check my status. Ofcourse if could not have much information for me but still, now all I wanted was the stamped passport back to put an end to the process. All it said was – “ Your passport is with the consulate/ embassy” and the status remained same for almost about a week. This got me anxious as one of my colleague got his passport collection message the next day of his interview. But then I did not need my passport urgently and so waited patiently. Just kept checking the status every morning when I reached office. On 28th morning, the status showed that my passport has returned from consular area and is being prepared for delivery. Within next few hours the status changed to - “Your passport has been picked from embassy for delivery to your chosen pick-up location”. By next morning, August 29th it said – “Your passport is ready to be picked.” I never received any message but went into the Visa Application Center (Nehru Place) based on online status and they gave me my passport. The process was similar to the earlier one when I went in for fingerprinting.

With this ended the journey of getting an H1-B Non-Immigrant Visa for six years (though initial stamp is for three years). Hope this post helps provide some context and help to all those who are yet to apply and go through the process. If you have any points of discussion, do pour them in the comments section. If you would like to discuss personally shoot a mail at kt@expressions-kt.in. If you have been through an interview – do post your experience in the comments section or send them to me and I would append with the post.

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