How the H-1B visa works, in 5 charts

Calling for changes.
Calling for changes.
Image: Reuters/Stephen Lam
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The Trump administration has been extremely hard on the H-1B visa, which allows highly skilled professionals to live and work in the US for up to six years.

But data show that despite the clampdown, the H-1B’s charm holds steadfast.

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H-1B volumes

After Trump took office in January 2017, there was a blip in the number of approvals for H-1B petitions. However, by fiscal year 2019 (October 2018 to September 2019) things started looking up again.

There is an annual cap of 85,000 H-1B visas allotted each year, of which 20,000 are reserved for those with master’s degrees or higher qualifications. Every year, far higher numbers apply than the number of visas available, resulting in the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) running a lottery. The number of applications has exceeded the ceiling every year since 2014.

On fiscal year 2021, more than 275,000 H-1B applications were filed—the highest number in 15 years.

The high volumes in the latest fiscal year were despite the fact that a system glitch may have wrongfully denied hundreds of authentic petitioners, labelling them as duplicates, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).

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Who gets an H-1B?

The odds of getting picked in the H-1B lottery are under 40% for most applicants. However, master’s degree holders have a slightly better chance since they are included in both the general and master’s-and-up pools.

Over half of the H-1B visa recipients in fiscal 2019 had a master’s degree.

Country-wise, Indians receive the highest number of H-1B visas each year. Of course, a lot of it has to do with the large number of Indians applying in the first place. For instance, two-thirds of the applications in fiscal 2020 were from Indians.

Indians account for 74% of all the H-1B holders in the US.

There is a huge gender disparity in the group. Only two in 10 Indian H-1B workers are female. By comparison, 45% of the Chinese H-1B visa-holders are female.

Who employs H-1B visa holders?

Around the turn of the millennium, Indian companies had a reputation for deploying cheaper labor from back home to work in the US. However, over the last decade or so, most of the country’s IT behemoths have reeled in their H-1B visa dependency. Government data show Tata Consultancy Services (TCS)—among the biggest job creators in the US—was the only Indian company among the top five H-1B employers for new hires in fiscal 2019.

Now, Silicon Valley bigwigs dominate the list. Search giant Google had the highest number of new H-1B hires in 2019. The world’s largest online retailer, Amazon, was second. Facebook and Apple received a large share of the visas, too.

Meanwhile, American semiconductor company Qualcomm sought the highest number of H-1B visas for new and continuing employment between October 2019 and June 2020.

The Bay Area’s thirst for H-1B workers stems from the massive tech talent deficit locally. That’s why contrary to Trump’s claims, experts say reducing the H-1B workforce won’t bring US jobs back. “It’s treated as a zero-sum game, but if these companies don’t get someone with an H-1B, it’s not likely the job will be filled with an American,” said Jeremy Robbins, executive director of New American Economy, a bipartisan business coalition launched by Michael Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch.

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Where do most H-1B holders live?

Silicon Valley can trace a large part of its success to America opening its doors to tech workers from around the world starting in the 1970s, some say. Even today, the West Coast is the epicenter of H-1B talent.

An outsize proportion of H-1B petitions certified by the Department of Labor (DoL) went to companies in California in the three quarters ending June 30, 2020.

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What are the most popular H-1B occupations?

Given the demand in tech, the most sought-after professionals also belong to that industry. Software developers of different kinds feature heavily in the ranking.