Bloomberg reported last month that the U.S. State Department will allow H and L visa holders to renew their visas without leaving the United States under a pilot program scheduled to begin this year. The State Department has yet to issue any guidance or a timeline. If this comes to pass, it will be a welcome development for many H and L visa holders who continue to face long backlogs at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad. At some consular posts, it can take six months to get an appointment just to drop off the application materials. It then could be several weeks to get the passport back with the visa. This presents quite the challenge for the employee who wants to travel home for a week or two-week vacation and needs to get a new visa before returning to the United States.
Keep in mind that this concerns only the visa, which the U.S. consulate affixes to the passport and is presented to the Customs and Border Protection officer at the airport or border crossing. At that point, the person then has “status” to be in the United States. The status is reflected on the I-94 Departure Record, which previously was issued in paper form and now is available online. For H and L workers, they are authorized to work for their sponsoring employers and can remain only until the expiration date of their status. If they need to remain beyond that date, their employer can submit a petition to USCIS to extend the status but not the visa. This allows the employee to remain in the country and continue working, but if the visa has expired, it means a trip home in most cases to get the new visa for international travel. Keep in mind, however, that the visa is required only for international travel; if there are no international travel plans, as long as the status remains valid, it does not matter if the visa expired.
The U.S. State Department previously allowed visa renewals in the United States. It was a rather streamlined process: Prepare the visa application form and ship the passport and supporting documents to an office in Washington, D.C., and get the passport with the new visa back a few weeks later. September 11, 2001 was what eventually ended this process and since has required in-person interviews for many visa renewal applications. Some visas can be renewed by mail at the U.S. consulate abroad but only after you are physically present in the country where the consulate is located. In other words, you cannot mail your application and passport to the U.S. embassy in Madrid while you remain in New York. How does the consular officer know if you are in the United States? The CBP’s online I-94 and travel history website allows you to check arrival and departure dates and the most recent I-94 Departure Record.
Anyone needing a new visa certainly will welcome the return to stateside visa renewals. It will eliminate the need to stand in line at the U.S. consulate and wonder whether the passport will be returned in time for the return flight. Hopefully the rollout for H and L visas will go smoothly, and the State Department will restore stateside visa renewals for all visa categories.