After numerous mishaps while working with a small law firm hired by one of my previous employers two years ago, winning the notorious H-1B lottery was the biggest relief to my endless panic attacks waking up every morning thinking that I would have to pack up and leave the country for good. Since then, I have changed employers multiple times and effectively doubled my salary within a year while holding the H-1B visa.
For those less fortunate who were not selected for the meager 65,000 annual quota, there are other options like applying for the O-1 Visa for Individuals with Extraordinary Abilities or Achievements if your portfolio and industry recognition is impressive enough, among a number of other options, which would warrant a separate article. As a creative professional who has gained extensive knowledge of the H-1B petition process, I am here to share my somewhat drama-filled experience navigating an increasingly difficult job search landscape for non-U.S. citizen creatives who aspire to work in the U.S. with the H-1B Specialty Occupation Visa.
For those who are already familiar with the H-1B, please ignore this paragraph and skip right to the bolded bullet points at the end of the article. For those of you less familiar with the term, the H-1B is a non-immigrant visa for non-U.S.Citizens or non-permanent residents intending to work for American corporations on a temporary basis. To be eligible for the H-1B visa, one must be qualified to work in a “specialty occupation” that is “so complex or unique that it can be performed only by an individual with a bachelor’s degree or above” as defined by the U.S.Citizenship and Immigration Services (a.k.a. USCIS). In layman’s terms, you must convince an American company that your talent is so desirable that it is worth to spend an extra $5,000+ in legal and petition fees to hire you instead of an American citizen who requires no such expenses. If you are lucky enough to have persuaded the company with your talent and charm, you are only authorized to work for this company for the duration of your visa. Meanwhile, any contract, temp-to-hire, or freelance work is strictly prohibited, which often results in deep sighs and heartbreaks when you are approached by a recruiter with an exciting opportunity only to find out that it is not a full-time salaried position eligible for the visa. If it is your first time to have a company sponsored the H-1B visa, you will be subjected to a random lottery with only 65,000 lucky winners across the country annually among 230,000+ petitions unless your employer is a higher education institution or a non-profit organization affiliated with a higher education institution. In other words, all the hard work you and/or your company/lawyer have done preparing 100+ pages of petition materials might be futile if the mysterious lottery machine sitting inside an anonymous room in USCIS determined that you are out of luck this year. If that sounds daunting enough, let me warn you that this is just the tip of the iceberg, the rest of which I will not go into the details to avoid barraging you with boring legal terminologies.
I came to the United States from China as an international student with an F-1 visa. Receiving a four-year full scholarship to attend university in the U.S. was only the beginning of my American Dream. I studied media production in a liberal arts university in Philadelphia and moved to New York in the last semester of my senior year for a full-time internship. Determined to stay in the U.S. while working my way up in the broadcast industry as a video editor, I was dismayed by the bleak prospect of getting a full-time job in the brutal and ever-changing broadcast industry where freelance and contract jobs dominate, let alone persuading a company to sponsor an expensive visa for a fresh graduate with limited experiences. Decided to try my luck back home, I moved back to China temporarily and got a job as a broadcast producer two weeks after landing in Beijing. However, the disastrous air quality in Beijing during smog season and my realization that broadcast is not my passion after all convinced me to move back to New York for a fresh new start. This time, I enrolled in design school as I realized that my top priority is to take up a profession with abundant full-time and possibly visa-eligible opportunities. Graphic design, it turns out, does offer much more flexibilities and opportunities in different industries compared to video production, which is largely limited to the media industry. In the two years following my first H-1B, I went through some dramatic ups and downs of filing the first petition with a million mishaps, waiting for the lottery result with no Plan B, changing employers with the H-1B and successfully securing another job after getting laid off while on the H-1B and doubling my salary as a result within a year. In the process, I have conducted extensive research and here are a few take-aways that non-U.S. citizen creative professionals might find useful:
Big companies or Small companies?
While it is hard to define what makes a company big or small, the bigger a company is, the more likely it will have the budget and resources to sponsor an H-1B. However, don’t assume that because a company employs a sizable staff, it will definitely sponsor. Check websites like www.myvisajobs.com for H-1B databases to see if the company has a history of sponsorship. Even better, ask directly when you are in the interview process. Generally speaking, companies are more willing to sponsor H-1B Change of Employer as supposed to first-time H-1B petitions due to complications of the lottery. As discouraging as it may sound to new creatives eager to get a foot in the door, the good news is, there are always exceptions. My first H-1B was sponsored by a very small agency that has never done it before. If you are looking for an H-1B sponsor for the first time (while on your OPT), don’t give up on any opportunities regardless of the size of the company. You might be surprised at what you can get.
Agencies or In-house?
While top creative agencies are always the dream destination for talented designers/creatives, they may not be as receptive to hiring someone with the requirement of sponsoring an H-1B. However, I would recommend a new creative to start working for an agency if he or she can persuade the company in sponsoring for the visa because the kind of exposure to big clients and the amount of training by senior designers and art directors is paramount to establishing a solid foundation for his or her artistic career. When you have a few years of experience working at agencies, it would be a good time to start branching out to in-house positions for a higher paycheck, stability and better work-life balance. In-house positions are often more open to visa sponsorship because you will be the only or one of very few people doing creative work, which makes your position important to the company.
O-1 or H-1B?
It may seem like there is an obvious answer to this question, but I was not aware of the fact that the O-1 visa is not as intimidating as it is widely believed to be. Compared to the highly restrictive nature of the H-1B, the O-1 visa for those exceptionally gifted creatives offers much desirable freedom in taking job opportunities. With the O-1, creatives can freelance for more than one employer and are not as dependent on traditional employer-employee relationships as it can be sponsored by either an individual/agent or a company. For detailed information, please consult an immigration lawyer specialized in O-1. However, if you have a few regional/national/international awards/publications or many years of experience under your belt, explore the option of filing for an O-1 as supposed to the H-1B.
Recruiters or Direct Application?
Recruiters from staffing firms always have plenty of job openings they are trying to fill. However, they are usually tasked to hire talents for temporary, contract or freelance jobs, which are not eligible for H-1B sponsorship. For a more effective job search, apply to openings directly posted by companies instead of going through a recruiting firm. However, as some staffing firms do specialize in full-time jobs, keep an open mind to recruiters who reach out and always ask for H-1B eligibility before scheduling interviews to save valuable time.
H-1B Cost and Salary Negotiation
Let’s face it. The H-1B is a significant investment companies make in you and they are likely to take that into account when making you an offer. It takes an incredible amount of finesse and techniques to negotiate a salary package while acknowledging the fact that the company is already “doing you a favor” by sponsoring your visa. If a company emphasizes that the visa fee is the main obstacle to matching your salary expectation, it is understandable that you would feel defeated because there is nothing you can say to counter the argument. However, I have found through experience that companies are more willing to concede and raise the offer if you have at least one other competing offer from another company. Don’t give up on negotiating salary just because you carry an extra baggage with you. If you are good enough, companies will compete for you.
At what stage of interviews should I bring up the H-1B?
Out of fear of losing great opportunities, many creatives tend to hold back on mentioning that they need an H-1B sponsorship in the interview process. As a result, most companies ask for sponsorship requirements on initial application forms, which could potentially be used as a filter to disqualify otherwise perfectly qualified applicants because the company does not intend to sponsor for financial reasons. If you are already interviewing with companies that do not consider the H-1B requirement a make-or-break deal, you should be prepared to bring up your visa at a strategic time. While some might argue that applicants should be upfront about their visa from the very beginning, I have found it more effective to skip the question (if it is not asked) on the initial round, which is usually a phone screen conducted by recruiters. At this point, the company is not even considering logistical details like the H-1B but focusing on narrowing down the applicant pool. Impress them with your talent first and then mention your visa as you get into the second round. Holding off until the last round to mention it is not the best practice as you may find yourself wasting a good few weeks of time with a company that ultimately does not want to sponsor.
Change of employers and lay-offs
Getting your first H-1B visa is hard enough. Changing jobs or getting laid off while on the H-1B can be harder because it comes with a great amount of risks to your immigration status. During the past year, I have experienced both thanks to the unpredictable nature of fate. I was fortunate enough to have survived these emotionally taxing events and come out stronger. If you are currently on H-1B status thinking of changing your employer, be extra cautious on keeping the job search private as your employer has the ability to revoke your H-1B at any time. Disclose your intention to leave your current company only after your new employer filed an H-1B Change of Employer petition, which is commonly referred to as a “transfer”, and provided you with proof that it has been received by USCIS. In the event of a lay-off, shake off the inevitable panic and negotiate with your current company for options to keep you on payroll for a few months to allow you enough time to look for another job. Unlike U.S. citizens, individuals on H-1B status are not allowed to have any gaps in between employments. Make sure to find another company willing to file a transfer before the last day you are on payroll.
As they say, opportunity comes to those who are prepared. While honing your professional skills and improving your portfolio should always be at the center of your job search, becoming more informed about the intricacies of job search with the H-1B can help you land the next dream gig. Until the next round of much-needed immigration reform takes place, non-U.S. citizen professionals aspiring to contribute to this country’s economy will have to hold tight, stay strong and fight for their dreams under less-than-ideal circumstances.
*Disclaimer: Information provided in this article does not serve as legal advice of any kind. If you have a particular question regarding the H-1B, please consult an immigration attorney. For the most up-to-date information regarding H-1B petitions, please refer to USCIS’s website at www.uscis.gov