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H-1B Regular Cap vs Master’s Cap


You've probably heard of the H-1B visa. But do you understand how the H-1B master's cap works compared to the regular cap? If you’re the slightest bit confused, you’re not alone. U.S. immigration is tricky. Our goal is to make U.S. immigration approachable without oversimplifying. 


Background on the H-1B Visa

The H-1B nonimmigrant visa enables American companies to hire international talent in certain specialty occupations. There are three parts to qualifying for the H-1B:

• The candidate must have a job offer for a specialty occupation role at a U.S. company

• The job must require an advanced degree (bachelor's degree, master's degree, or higher) or substantial experience related to the specialty occupation

• The candidate must possess the required advanced degree or experience


Essential H-1B Terms to Understand

H-1B cap: The annual limit set by the U.S. Congress on new H-1B visas; also refers to H-1B visas subject to the cap. 

Cap-exempt: Refers to H-1B visas that are not impacted by the cap. For example, visas filed by universities and nonprofits, H-1B extensions, and change of employer petitions. 

H-1B registration: Typically, a two-week period in April or March when candidates can register with USCIS for the H-1B cap lottery. 

H-1B lottery: USCIS randomly selects H-1B cap registrants. Those selected in the lottery can go on to file an H-1B petition. 

H-1B petition: A package of immigration forms and documents showing that a candidate qualifies for the H-1B. This package is sent to USCIS by mail and adjudicated by a USCIS officer. 

Labor Certification Application (LCA): An application that the U.S. Department of Labor must approve before an H-1B petition can be filed with USCIS. 


Understanding H-1B Cap Basics

Each year, the U.S. Congress caps the number of new H-1B visas available to foreign workers. Generally, the cap is set at 85,000 new H-1B visas, including 20,000 reserved for candidates with a U.S. master's degree. 

Registering for the cap lottery is the first step to getting an H-1B. To register, candidates must have a valid job offer from a sponsoring U.S. employer, and they must meet the H-1B criteria. Typically, USCIS opens up H-1B lottery registration for two weeks in April or March. 

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants register for the H-1B lottery each year. For example, in fiscal year 2023, USCIS reported 483,927 registrants. 

Applicants selected in the lottery can file an H-1B petition.

Cap-Exempt H-1Bs 

There are some exceptions to the H-1B cap, including:

• H-1B petitions filed by universities, nonprofits, and government research organizations. 

• H-1B extensions

• H-1B change of employer petitions 

These petitions can be filed at any point and are not subject to the annual cap. 

H-1B Regular Cap vs. Master's Cap

USCIS first selects 65,000 lottery registrants. Out of the remaining registrants with a U.S. master's degree, USCIS selects 20,000 more. 

In other words, candidates with a master's degree have the chance to be selected in both the regular and master's-only cap.

How to Qualify for the H-1B Master's Cap

In addition to meeting the basic H-1B requirements (see above), you'll need a U.S. master's degree to enter the H-1B master's cap. The degree must be from an accredited U.S nonprofit institution. Unfortunately, degrees earned outside the U.S. or from for-profit institutions do not qualify for the H-1B master's cap. 

H-1B Next Steps

Even though the H-1B is a well-known visa, it can still be challenging to navigate the H-1B process. Whether you’re a U.S. employer hiring top talent, an international founder bringing your business to the U.S., or a foreign national with a U.S. job offer, we’re here to help. Reach out to our team today to begin the H-1B process. 

About the author:

Annie Blay

Content Marketing Specialist

Before joining the marketing team, Annie helped over 60 Legalpad clients navigate U.S. immigration on the client services team.