For international students looking to continue working in the US after graduation, many choose to pursue an H-1B visa. H-1B visas are distributed by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) through an annual lottery that is capped at 85,000 visas a year.
However, there are certain employers that are exempt from the visa cap and annual lottery altogether, allowing for greater flexibility for employers and potential employees. H-1B cap-exempt jobs are important for international students to consider, as they are a way to more quickly obtain work authorization in the United States than with regular jobs.
What is the H-1B?
The H-1B visa is a nonimmigrant work visa that enables US employers to hire foreign workers, and provides a pathway for skilled international students to live and work in the US after completing their education. It is one of the most popular paths for international students. Because of this high demand, USCIS imposes an H-1B cap, which limits the number of H-1B visas that can be distributed each year through an annual lottery. This means that applicants for regular H-1B visas, or “cap-subject” visas can only apply once per year. . In 2023, the H-1B cap was set at 65,000 regular visas, and 20,000 visas for foreign workers who have achieved a master’s degree or higher.
What is an H-1B cap-exempt job?
A “cap-exempt job” is a job from an employer that is not subject to the 85,000 H-1B visa cap. Cap-exempt jobs are available at specific types of employers, including:
- Non-profit institutions of higher education. These will be accredited colleges and universities in the US.
- Non-profit entities affiliated with institutions of higher education. These might include teaching hospitals associated with higher education institutions, and sometimes primary or secondary schools.
- Non-profit or US government research organizations. These organizations will typically be engaged in research that furthers knowledge in specialty subject areas.
The US Department of Labor requires that H-1B cap-exempt jobs must meet the cap-exempt minimum wage requirement of $60,000 per calendar year. This wage cannot include benefits, and can be in the form of hourly wages or annual salary. The minimum wage can also be the same, or different from the “prevailing wage.”
Since cap-exempt visas are not subject to the visa caps, the likelihood of obtaining one can be higher, as you bypass the visa lottery altogether. However, it’s important to remember that just because an employer might be cap-exempt, that does not mean they are guaranteed to sponsor every single job.
Benefits of an H-1B cap-exempt job
H-1B cap-exempt jobs are important for international students to consider as they allow international students to access work authorization more quickly, and are a more favorable alternative to continue staying in the US after graduation They also can be applied for at any point in the year, given that H-1B cap-exempt visas are not subject to the USCIS annual cap or lottery system.Benefits of an H-1B cap-exempt job include:
- Bypassing the lottery. Regular H-1B visas are subject to the cap, and therefore the lottery that USCIS conducts to award H-1B visas from a pool of applicants. Cap-exempt visas allow you to bypass this unfavorable lottery, and largely increase your chances of obtaining work authorization.
- Quicker processing times. Applications for H-1B cap-exempt visas typically have faster processing times, and applicants can apply at any point throughout the year. This allows international students to pursue their post-graduation employment much faster than those applying for regular H-1B visas.
- Reduced uncertainty. With the ability to apply at any point in the year, and potentially be approved quicker, there is less uncertainty for international students. The uncertainty that comes with the USCIS cap and lottery system is largely reduced with cap-exempt visas.
Challenges and considerations for an H-1B cap-exempt job
There are also a handful of challenges and important considerations for international students in considering H-1B cap-exempt jobs:
- Finding an employer that sponsors. While an employer may qualify as cap-exempt, they might not always want to spend the time and resources on sponsoring. Be sure to research companies that are cap-exempt and sponsor foreign workers.
- Limited job opportunities. Cap-exempt jobs may not be as widely available as cap-subject jobs, especially given the city or industry.
- Competition. With limited job opportunities, and a larger pool of applicants, there can be a heavy competition for cap-exempt jobs.
- Salary. As cap-exempt employers are non-profit or government research institutions, salaries may potentially be lower than positions with cap-subject employers. It’s important to consider the salary and benefits offered by the cap-exempt employer to determine if they fit your needs.
- Transitioning visas. It’s important to note that if you want to transition from a cap-exempt job to a cap-subject job, you will likely need to transition your visa. This will subject you to the H-1B lottery process.
How to find and apply for an H-1B cap-exempt job
More than likely, job postings won’t include much information about the position’s cap-exempt status, so finding and applying for a cap-exempt H-1B job can be time consuming. An easy place to start is reviewing the employer, and investigating whether or not they might qualify as a cap-exempt employer.
Processing H-1B cap-exempt visas
Processing time for H-1B cap-exempt visa petitions varies depending on the number of petitions, and the applicant’s circumstances. While it can fluctuate, processing time can take on average 6 months. However, in general, visa petitions for cap-exempt jobs are often processed quicker than cap-subject petitions. USCIS provides a case status tool, where you can check the estimated processing time of your application.
It’s important to note that since your H-1B visa will be sponsored by your employer, they are responsible for paying fees associated with your H-1B petition. This includes filing fees, attorney fees, and other application expenses. Depending on the circumstances of the applicant and company, fees can generally range between $3,000-$5,000.
H-1B cap-exempt jobs offer a pathway for international students to achieve work authorization in the US quicker than regular H-1B jobs, and set a foundation to establishing long term US residency. It’s important to note that just because an employer qualifies as cap-exempt, this does not guarantee they will sponsor H-1B visas for your role. International students looking to obtain an H-1B cap-exempt visa should carefully review the requirements and guidelines established by USCIS, and use those to search and apply for H-1B cap-exempt positions.