The L-1 and the H-ฺ1B are two of the most popular employment-based US visas. Some people could potentially qualify for either one, and for those with the luxury of making a choice, it is important to understand the difference between these two immigration statuses. While the L-1 Intracompany Transferee Visa is preferable for most people, for some people the H-1B Visa is the best choice.
Summary of the L-1 and the H-1B
The L-1 visa is designed to allow an employee of a multinational company to transfer to the US office of the same or a related company. The employee must be a manager, an executive, or an employee possessing “specialized knowledge.”
The H-1B visa is designed to allow employees with a college degree or its equivalent to come to the United States in response to a firm job offer to work in a “specialty occupation” such as:
- STEM fields;
- Architecture; or
- Other fields that demand similar levels of expertise.
Typically, the position must require knowledge of the type that the H-1B holder gained while studying in college.
Both the L-1 and the H-1B categories are considered “dual intent”, which means that it is OK to apply for permanent residence (a “green card”) while living in the US under one of these statuses.
Despite their similarity, important differences exist between L-1 and H-1B status, as outlined below.
There are no formal educational requirements to obtain an L-1 visa. Of course, an employer is likely to require some sort of higher education from, say, an executive, and the USCIS might doubt the authenticity of an application filed on behalf of an executive with no formal education. It’s just that the USCIS doesn’t absolutely require a degree to issue an L1 visa.
On the other hand, an H-1B applicant must possess at least a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent. An H-1B applicant is also expected to possess expertise in a “specialty occupation.” In some cases, the USCIS will allow hands-on work experience to substitute for formal education, meaning that the applicant must establish the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree through a combination of education and work experience.
To qualify to sponsor an employee for an L-1 visa, your company must qualify as “multinational” as defined by US immigration law. It must be doing business in the US and at least one other country, and it must have a qualifying relationship with a company located abroad (a subsidiary, for example).
The sponsored employee must have worked for the same company overseas, or have worked for an overseas company with a qualifying affiliation with the sponsoring company, for at least one out of the past three years.
By contrast, a US-based company (and only a US-based company) can sponsor an employee under the H-1B category.
Period of Stay
L-1 visa holders are normally granted a two-year period of stay when they first enter the US. If they are coming to establish a new office, however, only a one-year period of stay is granted. The L-1 holder can extend his period of stay in two-year increments until the maximum time limit is reached. For an L-1A holder, this limit is seven years, while for an L-1B holder, it is only five years.
After the L1 limit is reached, no extensions will be allowed — the employee must either return home permanently, qualify under another visa status, or return home to re-qualify for another L-1 visa (this will take at least a year of additional work experience abroad).
An H-1B visa holder, by contrast, is typically granted an initial three-year period of stay, which can be extended one for another three years, or extended in smaller increments until the six-year limit is reached. In certain limited instances, an H-1B holder is eligible to extend beyond this six-year limit.
Keep in mind also that time spent in the US in H-1B status will count against the L-1 deadline, and vice versa.
Limitations on the Total Number of Visas Issued (Quotas)
There is no quota limitation for the L-1 visa. It’s a different story for the H-1B visa, however — there is an annual cap of 65,000 visas, plus another 20,000 visas allowed for applicants who hold advanced degrees (beyond a bachelor’s degree). In many years the H-1B quota represents far less than half the total number of applications received by the USCIS. Neither of these caps apply to universities or non-profit organizations.