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H-1B regular cap vs master’s cap

interstride logo by Interstride
February 26, 2024

H-1B visas are highly sought after, but there is only a certain amount of these visas available each year. This limit is known as the H-1B cap. Keep reading to find out if you will be subject to the regular cap or master’s cap when applying for your H-1B visa.

What are the H-1B visa and lottery?

The H-1B visa is a non-immigrant visa that allows eligible international workers to be employed in certain specialty occupations. To qualify, the applicant must have a job offer from a sponsoring US employer. The applicant must also hold a bachelor’s degree or higher or have equivalent work experience.

The H-1B visa is desirable because it provides up to six years of work authorization and a clear path to citizenship among other benefits for the visa holder and their family members. Due to the popularity of these visas, there is a yearly cap or limit on the number that can be issued, and a lottery is used to select which applicants will receive the visa. There are 85,000 H-1B visas available through the lottery each year. In 2023, only 14% of H-1B registrations were selected in the lottery. The lottery takes place in March of each year, and applicants who receive their visa can begin working on or after October 1st.

Is everyone subject to the H-1B cap lottery?

Some employers are exempt from the lottery and therefore not impacted by the annual cap. Cap-exempt H-1B visa holders and their families enjoy the same benefits as those subject to the lottery. The only cap-exempt employers are:

  • Non-profit institutions of higher education in the US (colleges and universities)
  • Non-profit entities affiliated with institutions of higher education
  • Non-profit or US government research organizations

Interstride Tip! Cap-exempt employers do not have to follow the same timeline as cap-subject employers, and cap-exempt petitions can be filed at any time of the year. Learn more about H-1B cap-exempt jobs from Interstride’s blog.

H-1B regular cap vs. master’s cap

There are two different H-1B visa caps depending on your highest earned degree. Qualified international talent with a job offer and a bachelor’s degree in a related field are subject to the regular cap of 65,000 visas per year. 6,800 of those visas are reserved for Chilean and Singaporean citizens under the H-1B1 program. You can qualify for the regular H-1B lottery with a bachelor’s degree from the US or from another country. 

There are only 20,000 visas per year for the master’s cap. To qualify, you must have a relevant master’s degree or higher (i.e., Ph.D.) from a US institution and a job offer that requires that degree. Eligible applicants will be automatically entered into the master’s cap lottery as well as the regular cap. USCIS always conducts the regular cap lottery first, and then the master’s cap lottery. That means applicants eligible for the master’s cap lottery get two chances for selection rather than just one. Lastly, there are significantly fewer applicants for the master’s cap compared to the regular cap, so the chances of being selected to file a visa petition are much higher. 

H-1B Regular CapH-1B Master’s Cap
65,000 new visas per year20,000 new visas per year
Bachelor’s degree or higher is requiredMaster’s degree or higher from a US institution required

How to enter the H-1B cap lottery

The H-1B visa is employer-sponsored, so your employer must enter the lottery on your behalf and pay the required fees. USCIS will use the information provided by the employer to determine whether you will be subject to the H-1B cap lottery. If you are not selected in the regular cap lottery and are eligible for the master’s cap, you will be automatically entered. You and your employer do not need to select regular cap vs master’s cap. 

Keep in mind that the H-1B cap lottery is only the first step of the H-1B application process. After you are selected in the lottery, the employer will need to submit a Labor Condition Application (LCA) and H-1B petition and pay the associated fees. This process is the same whether you were selected in the regular cap or the master’s cap.

Wrap up on H-1B regular cap vs. master’s cap

A qualifying master’s degree more than doubles your chances of being accepted in the H-1B lottery. If you are going to graduate or run out of OPT work authorization soon, consider applying to a graduate school in the US to extend your time in the country while also increasing your chances in the H-1B lottery. For those who already entered the H-1B lottery and were not selected, it’s time to explore alternative immigration options from cap-exempt jobs to other visas.