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I'm studying in-person in the US and graduating this month. I have recently received an employment authorisation document (EAD) for optional practical training (OPT), valid until May 2022. Also, I have been approved ("... we approved your Form I-129, Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker ...") for the H-1B visa and I understand that I will automatically transition to H-1 status on 01 October (source) - so far, so good, and a fairly common situation to be in.

I have had a hard time, though, finding an answer to an obvious question anywhere - what happens on my first trip abroad after 01 October? I have only an F-1 visa in my passport at the moment, and instinctively I think that when I return to the US there will need to be a new visa in my passport reflecting my new H-1B status. Is my instinct incorrect, and am I able to reenter the US without a corresponding visa in my passport as a result of this change of status? Or is my instinct correct, forcing me to plan a lengthy interaction with a US Consulate on my very first trip abroad where I would have to book an appointment, hand them my passport, then wait in that country until I get the passport back with my visa?

I have used the term "visa in my passport" wherever applicable to avoid the confusing terms "stamp"/"stamping". Still, I am happy to edit my answer with additional details as required.

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and instinctively I think that when I return to the US there will need to be a new visa in my passport reflecting my new H-1B status.

That is correct. You'll need to allow for this the next time you leave the US. Many people do this in Mexico, apparently, where it seems they handle it fairly expeditiously.

You can check the appointment times online at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/visa-information-resources/wait-times.html. Consulates in Mexico near the border are showing emergency appointments only, but Mexico City is 2 days for H-1B visas. So is Curacao. I didn't see any other consulates near the US taking non-emergency appointments, but I only checked a handful. By contrast, Auckland and Tokyo show 24 calendar days.

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  • Thanks for this as well as other answers+comments around SE that I've found useful. It's a bummer to have this instinct corroborated - can you please share your source? – airbornemihir May 23 at 2:26
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    @airbornemihir it's pretty much common knowledge in the nonimmigrant community. I'll see if I can find something official. I do think you can go to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean via "automatic revalidation," even though you've changed to a different nonimmigrant class, but you can't stay longer than 30 days if you do that. – phoog May 23 at 2:36
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    @airbornemihir ok I couldn't find anything official. But the way it works, technically speaking, is that you don't have any immigration status at all when you leave the US. To apply for admission in H-1B status, you need an H-1B visa. It's basically as simple as that, though there is the automatic validation exception for short trips to Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. – phoog May 23 at 2:50
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    This was easier to understand when they had real paper I-94 forms. The I-94 documents your status while in the US. When you change status what you get is a new I-94 with your new status to replace the old one (there may still be a new paper I-94 attached to your approval notice). When you take a short duration trip to an adjacent country you can keep that I-94 and reenter with it to resume your stay. When you travel further or longer, however, you give up your I-94 and need to get a new one when you return. Getting a new one requires a visa for the admission class you want to enter in. – Dennis May 23 at 19:22
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    @Dennis that is a correct assessment of the administrative side of it, but it still depended on the statutory provision for automatic visa revalidation, which does have some exceptions. For example if you apply for a new visa in the adjacent country, you cannot use automatic revalidation. And in fact the statutory conditions for revalidation didn't include retaining the I-94. It's just that it was convenient to do so. – phoog May 23 at 20:36

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