For international students who are hoping to continue working in the US after your OPT or STEM OPT expires, the H-1B visa is a critical piece of your journey. The H-1B visa is a non-immigrant visa that permits international workers to be employed by US employers. Due to the popularity of these visas, there is a yearly cap or limit on the number that can be issued.
If you have applied for an H-1B visa and you are wondering what happens next, or if you have already won the lottery and filed your petition, keep reading to learn more about the H-1B cap-gap extension.
What is the H-1B and how does the lottery process work?
In 2023, the cap on visas was set at 65,000 for candidates who have completed undergraduate degrees in the US, with an additional 20,000 for candidates who have completed graduate degrees in the US. H-1B visas are distributed by USCIS through an annual lottery each year.
Each year, employers can begin registering their H-1B applicants in the first two weeks of March. On April 1, USCIS holds a lottery to randomly select the 85,000 total H-1Bs. Registrations that are selected then have 90 days (from April to June) to file their H-1B petition with USCIS. If the application is approved, the H-1B visa takes effect on October 1.
What is the H-1B cap-gap extension?
For many international students, their F-1 status or OPT will expire before their H-1B status becomes active on October 1. If you graduated in May, your OPT or STEM OPT Extension typically expires in the summer months (check your EAD card for the exact expiration date). The H-1B cap-gap extension allows eligible international students to maintain their status and work authorization while their H-1B visa petition is pending. The “cap” refers to the annual limit on the number of H-1B visas that can be issued each year, and the “gap” refers to the period between the end of the student’s F-1 status and the start of their H-1B status.
The H-1B cap-gap extension automatically extends an eligible student’s work authorization to October 1. Without it, when a student’s OPT expires, they would have to leave the US while they wait for their H-1B visa to be processed.
Who qualifies for the H-1B cap-gap?
International students are eligible for the H-1B cap-gap extension only if they meet all of the following qualifications:
- They are currently employed through OPT or STEM OPT.
- They work for a US employer that is eligible for the H-1B lottery.
- They win the H-1B lottery.
- They are still in F-1 status on the date the employer files the H-1B petition.
- Their employer files the H-1B petition with a start date of October 1.
- USCIS receives the H-1B petition on time and issues a receipt.
How do I apply for the cap-gap extension?
International students do not need to apply for the cap-gap extension specifically. For eligible F-1 students, the cap-gap extension is automatic when your employer submits an H-1B petition to USCIS. Because it’s automatically applied, an updated form I-20 is not required to start or continue working. If you qualify for an H-1B and your current status expires between April and October 1 of that year, then the extension will be accepted. The only cases in which the extension would not be approved or would be terminated are if the H-1B petition itself is denied, rejected, revoked, or withdrawn.
Traveling during an H-1B cap-gap
With the cap-gap extension, you are allowed to continue working and living in the US. However, your change of status from F-1 student to H-1B worker has not been finalized yet. If you leave the US during this time, USCIS will assume you have abandoned your visa petition. You may not be able to reenter the US with your F-1 visa stamp. Confer with an immigration law expert for guidance on traveling out of the US during the cap-gap extension. You may need to get prior approval and go to a US consulate nearest your destination to get a new H-1B visa stamp before re-entering the US.
The H-1B cap-gap extension allows certain F-1 students to continue their work authorization in the US beyond the end of their OPT. The extension also allows for a smoother transition from student status to H-1B employment. For eligible international students, the H-1B cap-gap extension is a helpful stepping stone in entering the US workforce and continuing their career in the US.