Dear Sophie: What do I need to know about recent changes to the H-1B lottery?

Sophie Alcorn
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Dear Sophie: I lead People Ops for an early-stage enterprise SaaS startup. My company is giving me the green light to hire internationally, but I’ve never gone through this process. I’ve heard there have been some changes to the H-1B lottery. What do I need to know to get started?

— Curious in California

Dear Curious:

Congrats! Glad to hear your company is taking this step — it’s great for the success of your company, and it’s awesome that you’re helping them take on this important challenge. I'm super excited about the changes to the H-1B lottery this year because they are going to benefit early-stage startups quite a bit.

In the past, it was cost-prohibitive for small companies to invest in preparing an H-1B petition package for a potential hire. There was no way of knowing in advance if a candidate would beat the lottery’s odds and be the one person chosen out of every three applicants. Starting in 2019, candidates with advanced degrees from American universities received an extra bite at the apple, but that still didn’t mean it was a sure thing.

For the upcoming round, the government is adopting an electronic registration system. This change is great for small businesses because you don't have to invest in legal fees to prepare H-1B petitions until you know that your candidate was already selected and has the opportunity to apply.

As you probably already know, an H-1B is a nonimmigrant visa that lets professionals with bachelor's degrees or equivalent work experience in specialized fields (such as science, IT, medicine, accounting, law, engineering, mathematics, etc.) gain employment with an American company. This employment needs to be for positions that require their level of expertise at companies that have the budget for their resources.

Most of the requirements for the H-1B visa are set by law, but the details do change once in a while. The government hosts an annual lottery because there is a statutory cap on the total number of new H-1B visas allowed every year, and recent demand outweighs supply.

The government just announced that the lottery format is changing. Here’s what you need to know about the upcoming changes to the lottery, most of which will take effect in Q1 and Q2 of 2020 for jobs starting as early as October 1st, 2020:

  • There will be a new electronic registration system with a $10 non-refundable fee:
    • register online between March 1 and March 20, 2020 to participate; don't miss this window!
    • fees will be $10 per candidate;
    • the government will select candidates after the initial registration period ends and no later than March 31, 2020.
  • Companies can then file H-1B petitions for anybody who was selected.
  • There will be a 90-day window to submit completed petitions.
  • Upon filing, your company will be required to pay the standard applicable government filing fees (usually roughly $1,500-3,000 for small companies).
  • Premium processing is currently available for an optional $1440 extra. The government will take action within 15 calendar days if you use this option. We’ll see if this option remains available.

There’s a lot of great information out there on the H-1B visa and status, but it's been under strict scrutiny lately — especially in tech lately. I recommend contacting an immigration attorney for guidance early before the registration window opens.

When People Ops folks like you reach out to me, they want to know how to start preparing now. Here are my most common tips for early-stage startups:

Ask employees and candidates seeking H-1B to gather their documents (such as transcripts, diplomas, resumes, past immigration documents, etc.) as early as possible. I also recommend talking to an attorney to determine if they’ll need education or experience evaluations and if so, getting them done early.

I also recommend they do the following to prepare their early-stage startup for success:

  • ensure that the company’s FEIN Number has been validated with DOL (ask an attorney for help)
  • choose the proper job title with the guidance of your immigration attorney
  • brainstorm the corresponding job duties/description
  • gather the necessary documents from your company
  • take screenshots of your company’s website
  • put together a portfolio of your company’s marketing materials
  • have the company’s latest pitch deck ready to share
  • make sure the company’s taxes are current and you have the returns

As you can see, there’s a good amount of attention to detail required from you, but with some time and a legal team to support you, you’ll do great.

Bringing the best talent to your company benefits everyone involved and is important work. I wish you the best as you begin this process and encourage you to reach out if you need a little help!

Have a question? Ask it here; we reserve the right to edit your submission for clarity and or space. The information provided in "Dear Sophie" is general information and not legal advice. For more information on the limitations of "Dear Sophie," please view our full disclaimer here.

Have a story to share about overcoming immigration to build technology? Apply to guest on Sophie's upcoming podcast highlighting the connections between U.S. immigration policy and startups.