When considering an H-1B visa application, USCIS will verify not only that the job itself is a “specialty occupation,” but also that the H-1B applicant is actually qualified. An applicant can prove she qualifies with a US degree in the relevant field (or foreign degree determined to be equivalent), or a license to practice in the state where she has a job offer.
While a degree or licence is certainly the easiest way to show qualification, every year applicants without either are granted H-1B visas because they have been able to document that their knowledge of the speciality occupation is equivalent to that normally obtained in a degree program. There are several ways to do this:
College-Level Equivalency Exam. If there is an equivalency exam for your specialty from a recognized testing service like CLEP, USCIS will accept passing results on the exam in lieu of a degree. Unfortunately, due to the specialized nature of many H-1B occupations, sufficiently specialized exams are not available in the majority of cases.
Membership in a professional association. USCIS will accept membership in a nationally-recognized US or foreign professional association in lieu of a degree if the association has rigorous admissions standards ensuring that it accepts only practitioners competent in the specialized field.
Equivalent training/experience/education plus professional standing. Under this standard, USCIS will consider the totality of your experience, education, and practical training in your specialized field, along with evidence that you are recognized by experts as a competent professional. The most common way to show degree equivalency, I’ll discuss the details of this method below.
When considering the totality of an H-1B applicant’s experience in her field, USCIS uses the rough rule of thumb that three years of specialized work experience or training equals one year of college-level study. When a four-year degree would normally be required, for instance, an applicant with two years of college-level academic credit towards the relevant degree would need to show at least six years of specialized work experience to qualify for an H-1B visa.
When using experience to substitute for education, it is not enough to simply show that you worked in the general field for a certain amount of time. You will also have to prove that you were working at an H-1B level during that time. Take the example of an applicant seeking an H-1B visa to work as a systems analyst . If she has ten years of experience in her general field and two years of relevant college-level education, she needs to show at least six years of specialty work experience to make up for the missing two years of education. She was working in the general field for 10 years, so she should be set, right? Not necessarily. If, for instance, she spent the first five years of her career working as a programmer before becoming a systems analyst, USCIS will not count the first five years of her experience towards the six years she needs for H-1B eligibility. Even though her experience as a programmer undoubtedly provided valuable skills that she still uses as a systems analyst, USCIS considers the occupation of “programmer” to be below the H-1B level, and therefore will not count it as relevant experience on an H-1B visa application. Only the final five years she spent as a systems analyst will be counted, leaving her one year short of the experience needed.
Nor is it enough simply to provide USCIS with an H-1B level job title and proof that you worked for a certain amount of time. You will need to provide evidence showing that your work actually was at an H-1B level. This evidence frequently takes the form of an evaluation from an expert who, after interviewing you and your past and current supervisors, has determined that you have worked at an H-1B level for a certain number of years. Documentation that other people filing the same or similar positions have H-1B qualifications is also helpful.
Once you have shown that you have a combination of training, education, and experience equivalent to the relevant degree, you must then document that you have achieved “professional standing” in your field. This can be done in one of five ways:
1. Detailed evaluations from two recognized experts in your field concluding that you are competent to practice at an H-1B level. These evaluations must be thorough, and as a result are often time-consuming and expensive. A successful evaluation would usually includes personal interviews with you and your past and current supervisors, a review of your work portfolio, review of syllabi from any course work, and even a tour of the your work site to document the types of projects you and similar employees are engaged in.
2. Detailed evaluation from one recognized expert concluding that you have made a “significant contribution” to your field.
3. Membership in a recognized US or foreign association in your field that requires more than payment of dues for admission.
4. Published material by or about you in respected books, prestigious newspapers, or professional journals.
5. Licensure to practice in a foreign country.
To summarize, in order to show degree equivalency through work experience, add up the amount of education and work experience you have using the three years experience = one year of college rule of thumb, and gather evidence that your work experience was at an H-1B level. Then document your professional standing through expert evaluations, publications, foreign licensure, or membership in a professional organization.
It’s important to note that this is a rough rule of thumb to arrive at the minimum amount of documentation that you need to include in your application. Meeting the minimum is no guarantee that USCIS will find you qualified. A person with 12 years of H-1B level experience but no college-level education, for instance, would technically qualify under the rule of thumb, but such petitions are rarely accepted without an exceptionally strong showing of professional standing.
If you are a professional with years of experience but without a college degree and are interested in applying for an H-1B visa, we would be happy to evaluate your case. Just schedule a consultation and we’ll get started!