As a Singaporean working in the US, we have the benefit of applying for a special H1B1 visa. This H1B1 visa is a subset of the more commonplace H-1B visa, but the application process is fundamentally different.
Good news: it’s wayyyy easier.
Even so, the administrative process is not always laid out clearly and there is a scarcity of information about the process online. I relied a lot on this single blog post by Guo Chen when I went through it the first time. Since I have now gone through it more than once, I have decided to document the step by step process in more detail to share with fellow Singaporeans.
What’s the H1B1 visa for Singaporeans?
The H1B1 visa is considered a temporary non-immigrant visa. It allows qualified professionals to temporarily live and work in the United States. It is important to note the non-immigrant intent of this visa type when considering which visa type to go for, and when preparing for the embassy interview.
Once you have successfully landed yourself a job in the US, you will need to begin the H1B1 visa application process. Typically the immigration lawyers of your new company will guide you through the process. However, since this is not a common visa type and only applicable for Singaporeans and Chileans, not all lawyers are familiar with the entire process.
Other visa types which Singaporeans typically use to work in the US are the L1 visa and the H1B visa, which I will not go into detail here as there are plenty of online resources on them.
Guide to H1B1 visa for Singaporeans
Step 1: Company files for LCA (7–14 days)
This first step is undertaken by the company’s lawyers. You will be required to submit the following documents for them to begin this process:
- Scanned copy of your passport
- Up-to-date resume(CV)
- Scanned copy of your degrees and transcripts*
- Current U.S.visa and all previous U.S.visas (if applicable)
- Most recent Form I-94 “Arrival/Departure” Record (if you have ever been to the US)
The LCA process takes approximately 7–10 days, and the company has to endorse the documents after it is prepared by the lawyers. Once the documents are complete, they will usually FedEx the entire set of documents to you in Singapore, or wherever you happen to be.
*it was the first time in a while I was asked for transcripts and I had to dig deep into my document archives to get it. If you can’t find it, you can request a new copy from your university. For NUS, you can purchase and download a copy online, or get it mailed to your home.
Step 2: Complete DS-160 form (1–2 hours)
The first time I went through this process, I waited till I had my LCA papers physically with me before I begun. However, I have since discovered that you can do steps 2 and 3 concurrently, even without the LCA papers with you. This allows you to book your embassy appointment earlier (step 4) as you may need to wait a couple of weeks before your appointment date.
To complete the DS-160 form, in addition to the documents in step 1, you need to have the following:
- Passport photo taken in the last 6 months — this is important as you need to submit an actual printout of it during the embassy interview, and they will reject the photo if it doesn't look like it was taken in the last 6 months. The photo needs to be square, approx 600px by 600px and a maximum of 240kb. I took it myself with my iPhone, but I made sure the lighting was good and the size of my head was more than 50% of the photo after I cropped it. The detailed list of requirements are found here — https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/visa-information-resources/photos.html
- Entry and exit dates of previous 5 trips to the US, which you can retrieve on the I-94 site
- U.S. Contact person details— this could be your friend, your US recruiter or immigration lawyer
Basically, it’s a security checklist to ascertain you and your family are not a threat to the US.
Pro tip: Save your application ID! It took me 4 or 5 tries to finish the entire application as the page times out whenever you take too long to type in the information. Whenever you get logged out, you will need your application ID to retrieve your application and continue. (If you are already frustrated with this webpage, wait till you get to the US and have to deal with the DMV ~.~)
After you have completed your DS-160, a confirmation page will show. Save this pdf document and note down your confirmation number (in red fonts). You will need this to book your embassy interview appointment and you will also need to bring this document to the interview.
Step 3: Pay for visa fee (10 minutes, 1 working day to update in system)
Step 3 can happen before or after step 2, there is no strict sequence. I like to ensure I have completed my DS-160 successfully before I make payment. To make payment to the US embassy in Singapore, you have a few options, but there is only one online payment option (as of time of writing). The other options are listed here — http://www.ustraveldocs.com/sg/sg-niv-paymentinfo.asp
To pay for your visa online, you need a few things
i) CGI reference number — to generate a CGI number, go to http://www.ustraveldocs.com/sg/sg-niv-paymentinfo.asp and scroll to this section. Click on the ‘Deposit slip — $190 MRV Fee’ link, which will open up a new tab. US$190 is the fee required for the H1B1 visa as per the official info on visa fees.
In the new browser tab showing the deposit slip, a randomly generated CGI reference number will be provided.
Save your CGI reference number. If you lose it before you complete payment, you can just generate a new one using the same link. However, after paying the fees, you better make sure you have the same exact CGI number because you will need a valid paid reference to be able to book your embassy interview.
ii) A SAM account
To pay online, you need to signup for a SAM account if you do not already have one. It’s tied to your NRIC number, so each citizen can only have one account.
Once logged in, go to ‘Payments’ and scroll down to ‘Others’ and click on the CGI image
iii) Internet banking access to a Singapore bank account
To make payment online, you will need internet banking access to one of the 5 major banks — Citibank, DBS/POSB, OCBC, UOB, Standard Chartered.
Once you have completed payment, a receipt will display. Download the pdf file as you will need to print and bring a copy of this to the embassy interview.
Note: payments made on SAM (Mon to Fri) will only be updated to the embassy website the next working day after 10am. Therefore you will only be able to schedule your interview after payments have been updated to CGI. I suspect someone has to manually check and send the file to the US embassy during weekdays, hence the waiting time.
Step 4: Book embassy appointment
Once you have finished steps 1 to 3, congrats, you are halfway through! Now you just have to book an appointment and show up at the embassy to get the visa.
From experience, it seems that the US embassy in Singapore only processes H1B1 visa applications twice a week, so even though the waiting time on the US embassy website shows as 1 working day, that might not be true for H1B1 visa applications. This is why proceeding with steps 2 and 3 concurrently while waiting for your LCA papers can be beneficial to speeding up the timeline. This is especially important if you need to arrive in the US earlier to look for housing before your first day at your new job.
As you will need to have your physical LCA documents with you, make sure you book an appointment date with certainty that you will receive your documents from the immigration lawyers in time. If not, you will need to reschedule your appointment.
To book your embassy appointment, head over to https://cgifederal.secure.force.com/ and register for a new account.
You will need your DS-160 confirmation number and your visa fee payment receipt number (aka the CGI reference number) to complete this step.
During the 5th step under ‘Personal Data’, you will come across this ‘Petitioner’ section which might cause some frustration.
For the receipt number, this is NOT your visa fee receipt, LCA number or your DS-160 number. This is simply an outdated yet required field. I waited till a weekday and called the embassy up and was told to put a dummy number in (it’s true!). As of date of writing, the dummy number ABC1234567890 works. Any other entries will just throw up an error message. It took me a while to get over this hump as no one seemed to know — lawyers who are not experienced with the H1B1 process will not know this.
The start and expiration dates should be provided by your lawyer.
On the very last ‘Payment’ step, you are asked for a receipt number again. This time, the receipt number field refers to your CGI reference number.
Finally, if you have entered a valid receipt number, you will see the calendar of available appointments. As of time of writing, there are only 2 days available per week for the next 3 months, usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There are only 3 timings a day at 915am, 945am and 1015am. Each timing has around 4–8 appointment slots.
Select your desired timing and confirm the appointment! You will receive a confirmation email.
Step 5: Prep all documents for Embassy Interview
The embassy interview is a little scary just because there is such high security around getting in and out of the US embassy and everyone is usually dressed up for the interview (yes even the tech workers).
You should plan to arrive 15mins ahead of your appointment, no more and no less. If you are too early, they may turn you away, according to the instructions provided after you have booked an appointment online. My previous appointment was at 945am and I arrived at 930am and there was a short line outside of the embassy of people waiting to get in.
Things to bring:
- physical copy of your recent photo taken — I usually use the same one I uploaded for my DS-160. If for some reason your photo is rejected, they have an old school photobooth on site, so bring some cash to use it.
- all the documents your lawyer provided you — the LCA, job description, education cert copies etc
- Interview Appointment Letter
- DS-160 confirmation page
- Your passport
- Singpost receipt to prove the MRV fee has been paid
- any other docs you think you might need e.g. spouse certs, proof of property ownership in Singapore
Once you arrive, you have to get through security and you will be asked to leave your mobile phone and any electronic devices in their lockers. Do not bring any large items e.g. laptops as they do not have large lockers.
After you pass security, you will be guided to a room for the interview. When I first went there, I imagined a formal room with interview booths much like what we have in ICA. But to my surprise, this room was more like a bank teller room, with a snaking line in front of 6–7 counters.
You hand over your documents to be pre-checked and get a queue number to go from counter to counter. While in the queue, I could clearly hear the questions being asked by the immigration officers and even some of the answers. To avoid getting into any trouble, I shall not share the specific questions asked, but they are typically quite simple and related to why you are going to the US.
The H1B1 questions tend to be simpler than the questions posed to folks applying for the L1 visa, but I think it varies from officer to officer.
Once it's your turn, hand over your docs, answer the questions and you will know the results right away. If you are approved (I have not heard of anyone not being approved for H1B1), they will take your passport for affixing the visa sticker and return it to you after 3 working days.
Congrats! You are now ready to fly to the US!
I hope this step by step guide has been helpful! Please leave comments if you have questions and I will try to address them if I know the answers. Good luck!