H-1B Cap Lottery: Selection Process for Employees

Glen D. Wasserstein, Managing Partner of ILG, specializes in immigration law, focusing on E-2 Investor Visas, L-1 visas, H-1B visas, and federal litigation. With a background in international relations, he founded ILG in 1996 and has addressed human trafficking at the United Nations Convention on Crime.

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Navigating the labyrinth of the H1B visa lottery system can be as challenging as it is crucial for U.S. companies looking to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations. Managed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), this system involves a complex array of steps including the electronic registration process, understanding the annual cap, and grasping the nuances of the random lottery.

Each fiscal year, the registration period opens with a flurry of activity as applicants submit their registrations through USCIS online accounts, hoping their entry will be one of the few selected through the random selection process. With stringent eligibility criteria and limited slots available due to the annual cap, it’s a high-stakes game of precision and timely submission.

In this blog, we’ll unravel the details of the initial registration period, the criticality of avoiding duplicate registrations, and the implications of filing fees. For both sponsoring employers and aspiring foreign workers, mastering the details of this process is not just beneficial—it’s essential for success. Let’s dive into the intricacies of the H1B visa lottery system and equip you with the knowledge to navigate it effectively.

Exploring the H1B Visa Cap: What You Need to Know

The H1B visa cap refers to the annual limit set by USCIS on the number of new H1B visas that can be granted in a fiscal year. Currently, the cap is set at 65,000 visas for foreign workers with a bachelor’s degree or equivalent, plus an additional 20,000 visas for those with a master’s degree or higher from U.S. institutions, often referred to as the “Master’s cap”.

Historical Context and Reasons for the Cap

The H1B cap was established to control the influx of foreign workers to the United States and ensure that the employment of H1B visa holders does not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers. Here’s a brief timeline and reasoning behind the cap:

  • 1990: The cap was introduced as part of the Immigration Act of 1990, setting the initial limit to balance the needs of U.S. employers and the protection of the U.S. workforce.
  • Fiscal Constraints and Market Needs: Over the years, the cap has been periodically adjusted in response to economic conditions, labor market demands, and political pressures.
  • Tech Boom and Adjustments: During the tech boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the cap was temporarily raised to allow more foreign workers in specialty occupations, reflecting the high demand for technical skills.

Key Points in the Registration and Lottery Process

  • Electronic Registration Process: Initiated to streamline the entry system, whereby prospective employers must register and pay a filing fee during a designated initial registration period. This process also aims to reduce duplicate registrations.
  • Random Lottery: If the number of registrations exceeds the annual cap, a random lottery is conducted. This lottery determines which of the registered foreign workers will proceed to the next stage of the application process.
  • Premium Processing and Filing Fees: USCIS offers a premium processing service for faster handling of applications, subject to additional fees. Standard filing fees also apply and vary depending on the type of petition.

Why It Matters

Understanding the cap and the associated registration and lottery processes is crucial for employers planning to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations. It ensures compliance with the regulations and enhances the chances of successful visa applications.

By grasping the foundational elements of the H1B cap, employers can better strategize their applications and timing, ensuring they meet the critical registration periods and adhere to all necessary legal and procedural requirements.

Snapshot of the H1B Cap Lottery

The H1B cap lottery is a random selection process orchestrated by USCIS to determine which registrants will proceed in the H1B visa application process. The lottery becomes necessary when the number of registrations submitted exceeds the annual cap of 65,000 visas under the regular cap and an additional 20,000 under the master’s degree cap. Here’s how it works:

1. Registration Period: Employers must register prospective foreign workers during the designated initial registration window using their USCIS online accounts. A registration fee is required for each potential employee.

2. Lottery Conducted: If submissions surpass the cap, USCIS conducts a random lottery. First, they select registrations towards the regular cap; subsequently, unselected master’s degree registrations compete for the master’s cap.

3. Notification: Selected registrants are notified through their USCIS online accounts, allowing sponsoring employers to proceed with filing the complete H1B visa application.

Statistics and Probabilities

The probability of being selected in the H1B lottery varies each year based on the total number of registrations received and the available slots under both the regular and master’s caps. For instance:

  • In recent years, the selection rate has hovered around 30% to 45% for the regular cap, influenced by the total number of registrations which often reaches into the hundreds of thousands.
  • For those with a master’s degree from U.S. institutions, the probability can be slightly higher due to the additional 20,000 visas set aside.

Key Considerations

  • Multiple Registrations: USCIS rules prohibit attempting to submit multiple registrations for the same beneficiary by the same employer in the same fiscal year. However, different employers can submit registrations for the same beneficiary.
  • Premium Processing: While not affecting the lottery odds, premium processing service is available for a fee, accelerating the review of applications that are selected in the lottery.
  • Eligibility Criteria: It’s essential for all applications to meet the eligibility criteria, including educational qualifications (bachelor’s or master’s degree relevant to the specialty occupation), prevailing wage considerations, and proper supporting documentation.

Understanding the dynamics of the H1B lottery system is crucial for both foreign workers seeking employment in specialty occupations and for U.S. employers aiming to sponsor such talent. The lottery’s random nature makes it imperative for all prospective petitioners to meticulously prepare and submit their registrations within the exact dates of the registration window, ensuring all details are accurately represented.

Step-by-Step Guide to Registering for the H1B Lottery

To participate in the H1B lottery, both the employer and the foreign workers they wish to sponsor must meet specific eligibility criteria set by the USCIS. Key criteria include:

  • For Employers: Must offer a job in a specialty occupation, demonstrate the need for a worker with a bachelor’s degree or higher, and comply with the prevailing wage for the occupation.
  • For Foreign Workers: Must hold at least a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent in a field related to the job offer. Degrees from higher education institutions, especially those with a master’s degree from U.S. universities, receive preference under the advanced degree exemption.

Required Documents and Deadlines

The registration for the H1B lottery requires several critical documents and adherence to strict deadlines:

Documents Needed

  • Job offer details including job description, salary (which must meet or exceed the prevailing wage for the role and region), and minimum qualifications.
  • Educational credentials of the prospective employee, with evaluation for foreign degrees.
  • Legal documents proving the company’s legitimacy and the ability to pay the promised wage.


Registration Window: Typically opens early March each fiscal year.

Registrations must be submitted before the registration period closes, usually at the end of March.

Registration Process Details

Follow these detailed instructions to navigate the registration process effectively:

1. Create a USCIS Online Account: Employers or their legal representatives need to create an online account with USCIS, which will be used to submit H1B registrations.

2. Submit the Registration

During the initial registration period, submit details of each candidate, including basic information about the employer and the foreign worker.

Pay the registration fee for each submission. This fee is crucial and non-refundable, even if the registration is not selected in the lottery.

3. Lottery and Results

If the number of registrations exceeds the annual cap, USCIS will conduct a random lottery.

Selected registrants will be notified through their USCIS online accounts and can then proceed to file the full H1B visa application.

4. Next Steps After Selection

For those selected in the lottery, the complete visa application process involves further documentation and additional fees, and may utilize premium processing to expedite review.

5. Filing the Visa Application:

Once selected in the lottery, the employer has a 90-day period starting from April 1st to submit the H1B petition.

By following these steps and ensuring all registrations are properly submitted, employers can enhance their chances of success in the H1B lottery system. Each step must be handled with care to ensure compliance with USCIS regulations and to secure a potential visa for foreign workers seeking to begin work in specialty occupations in the U.S.

Inside the H1B Lottery Selection Process

The H1B lottery is a critical mechanism used by USCIS to determine which registrants will proceed in the visa application process when the number of registrations exceeds the annual cap. This random selection process is conducted electronically to ensure fairness and transparency. Here’s how the process unfolds:

1. Random Lottery Execution: After the registration window closes, USCIS uses a computer-generated process to randomly select registrations. This is done to maintain neutrality, ensuring that all applicants have an equal chance of selection, regardless of the exact dates they submitted their registrations.

2. Order of Selection:

Regular Cap First: Initially, all submissions are considered for the regular cap of 65,000 visas.

Master’s Cap: Registrations not selected in the regular cap and that qualify (applicants with a U.S. master’s degree or higher) are then entered into a second lottery for the additional 20,000 spots available under the master’s degree exemption.

Timeline of the Selection Process

The selection timeline is tightly bound to the fiscal year calendar, with specific actions required at predetermined intervals:

1. Registration Period: Typically opens in early March and lasts for about three weeks. During this time, prospective employers or their legal representatives must submit their registrations and pay the registration fee through their USCIS online accounts.

2. Lottery Conducted: The lottery is usually conducted in late March or early April, shortly after the registration window closes.

3. Notification of Selection: By the end of March or early April, USCIS informs the selected registrants through their USCIS online accounts. This notification allows employers to begin preparing the full H1B visa application.

4. Application Submission: Employers of selected registrants have from April 1 to June 30, marking the start date of the fiscal year on October 1, to file their complete H1B visa applications. This includes all necessary supporting documentation to substantiate eligibility criteria, such as educational qualifications, job offer details confirming the actual wage meets or exceeds the prevailing wage, and proof of specialty occupations relevance.

Key Considerations

Duplicate Registrations: USCIS strictly prohibits duplicate registrations for the same beneficiary by the same employer in a given fiscal year to prevent gaming of the system.

Accuracy of Information: It is crucial that all information provided during the registration process is accurate and properly submitted. Errors or omissions can lead to disqualification.

Understanding the selection process and its timeline helps employers and foreign workers to plan and prepare adequately, ensuring all registrations and subsequent applications are aligned with USCIS requirements for a successful H1B visa petition.

Exploring Alternatives: Options Beyond the H1B Lottery

Here are some viable alternatives and strategies that may improve your chances in future applications.

Other Visa Categories

1. L-1 Visas: Ideal for employees within multinational companies needing to transfer to a U.S. branch for managerial or specialized knowledge roles. Unlike the H1B, the L-1 visa does not have an annual cap.

2. O-1 Visas: Targeted at individuals who demonstrate extraordinary ability in their field, including sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics, and are recognized nationally or internationally.

3. TN Visas: Available under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), allowing Canadian and Mexican citizens to engage in professional business activities in the U.S.

4. E-3 Visas: Exclusively for Australian citizens, this visa is similar to the H1B but specifically caters to nationals from Australia, involving a separate application process and quota.

5. H1B1 Visa: A variant of the H1B, designed for professionals from Chile and Singapore, featuring a less competitive application due to separate caps.

Strategies for Improving Future Chances

1. Pursue Higher Education: Attaining a master’s degree or higher, particularly from a U.S. institution, can significantly boost your profile under the advanced degree exemption of the H1B visa.

2. Robust Application Filing: Ensure that every application for registration is meticulously prepared, meeting all eligibility criteria. Submitting during the initial registration period without errors increases your chances of selection in the random lottery.

3. Consider Cap-Exempt Employers: Universities, nonprofit research organizations, and government research organizations are cap-exempt, potentially offering more opportunities without being bound by the H1B cap.

4. Premium Processing: While it does not increase the chances of selection in the lottery, opting for premium processing can expedite the review of your application once selected, making it advantageous for time-sensitive situations.

5. Legal Consultation: Engaging with legal representatives who specialize in U.S. immigration can provide personalized advice and help navigate the complex landscape of visas and immigration policies.

By exploring these alternative visas and adopting strategic approaches, applicants can enhance their prospects of securing employment in the U.S., despite the highly competitive nature of the H1B lottery system.


Navigating the H1B visa lottery and exploring alternative pathways requires careful preparation and a thorough understanding of U.S. immigration policies. Whether considering other visa categories or enhancing your application strategies, it’s important to stay informed and proactive. For personalized guidance and expert advice, consulting with immigration attorneys in DC or an H1B visa attorney can significantly increase your chances of success and help streamline the complex immigration process.

Don’t forget, our immigration lawyers in New Orleans are available to provide you with personalized and professional legal assistance.