When news broke earlier this year that the U.S. State Department was planning a pilot program to bring back domestic visa renewals, employers were understandably enthusiastic. After all, companies and immigration groups have advocated for this change for years—and the benefits would be significant.

A domestic visa renewal program would mean that, for the first time in nearly two decades, eligible nonimmigrant visa holders would be able to renew their visas in the United States without having to travel abroad to an embassy or consulate. This would give foreign workers greater certainty in work and travel. They would no longer have to worry about being stranded abroad for weeks or months at a time waiting for a visa renewal, and companies would have more confidence that key personnel would be able to continue working on projects in the United States. Hasty arrangements for employee transfers to international offices or remote work could finally be in the past.

Domestic visa renewal would also relieve some of the visa processing demands on embassies and consulates, potentially reducing backlogs and wait times across all visa categories, including B-1/B-2 business and tourist visas.

But while the pilot holds promise, there are reasons to temper expectations—at least for now.

The pilot would be just that—a pilot. It would likely apply to a limited number of H-1B renewal applicants and would run for a set period. The State Department would then assess the pilot and decide if and how to expand it into a permanent program. Scaling up domestic processing to cover more nonimmigrant visa categories and nationalities would be an immense challenge.

After all, it’s been two decades since domestic visa renewal was broadly available in the United States. Regulations dating back to 1987, when the State Department’s Visa Office reorganized its visa rules, allowed for domestic visa renewal for E, H, I and L visa holders. O and P visa classes were added later.

A set of post-9/11 reforms proved challenging for the State Department to comply with, however. Specifically, statutorily imposed in-person interview and fingerprint requirements made it impossible for the State Department to renew most visas in the United States because it did not have adequate facilities for these mandates. Currently, the only visas issued in the United States are for foreign government officials, staff of designated international organizations and North Atlantic Treaty Organization personnel (i.e., certain A, G and NATO visas). These visa classes are distinct from other visa categories and do not require interviews or fingerprints.

Even as domestic visa renewal ceased, the regulations that allowed for it were never taken off the books, which means the State Department has the green light to explore domestic visa renewal as an option. The State Department’s Visa Office has been preparing for the launch of the domestic renewal pilot by working through an array of logistical, operational and legal challenges.

The good news is in-person interview and fingerprint requirements won’t be deal-breakers like they were in 2004. The State Department has the authority under existing law to waive interviews for certain applicants renewing the same visa classification. And while the Department does not have fingerprints on file for all applicants (in particular, those who applied for a visa when they were under 14 or those who were issued a COVID-19-related interview waiver for an H-1, H-3, H-4, L, O or P visa and had not previously provided fingerprints), most renewal applicants already had their fingerprints taken at the time of their initial application.

Other hurdles may be more difficult to overcome. Because the Visa Office has not permitted domestic visa renewals in nearly 20 years, no office or team is in place to take on the work. Early indications are that domestic visa renewals under the pilot may be handled by existing remote processing teams, but the Visa Office would need to staff up in the long run.

Not only would the Department have to hire and train personnel to adjudicate renewals, but it would also have to find and set up office space to house new teams. The space would have to meet strict security protocols, and access would be limited to those who have the proper clearance. Payment and document delivery would also need to be established—something the Visa Office is certainly looking into in advance of the pilot launch.

Despite these challenges, the pilot is a step in the right direction. The COVID-19 pandemic foregrounded the problems with requiring visa holders to apply for renewals abroad. The State Department deserves some credit for finding creative solutions during these unprecedented times, including its use of broader interview waiver authorities, expansive use of remote processing capabilities and favorable policy changes relating to third-country nationals to handle the visa backlog. Domestic visa renewal would be a more fundamental and longer-term fix to ongoing workload and logistical challenges, but employers will have to be patient as the effort gets off the ground.

Tiffany Derentz is a Senior Counsel with BAL and a member of the firm’s Government Strategies team. Tiffany served in the U.S. State Department for nine years and has been a key advisor to senior leadership within the Visa Office, the Bureau of Consular Affairs, the White House and other federal agencies on all aspects of immigration law. This article was first published on Oct. 9, 2023, in the Best Lawyers Immigration Law Legal Guide.