Electronic I-9: What’s the Difference and What’s It Worth?

Estimated Read Time: 4 Minutes

Difference in Electronic I-9

At some point in every HR professional and administrator’s mind who manages Forms I-9, there comes the question – Is there an easier way to do this? Electronic I-9 processes have been around for quite some time but they have been slow to take flight. Why? Comfort with standard operating practices, lack of motivation or funding to convert, misconceptions about their efficacy, and lack of electronic options are common deterrents.

In this post, I’m going to discuss the electronic I-9 process, how it differs from the traditional paper process, and factors to consider when thinking about making the transition.

The paper I-9 process

Most of you are familiar with the paper Form I-9 – the two-page form that somehow can cause so much stress and confusion. For paper I-9s, employers need to grab the current version of the form from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website. After downloading and printing the current version of the document, you must then pass it along to your new hire for them to complete. Once they’ve completed Section 1, you move on to requesting documents to complete Section 2 of the form.

Since this entire process is manual, employers are required to be very scrutinous with the forms as they are completed – ensuring that there are no errors before they are stored. Once the documents are stored, the next challenge is keeping track of them through a filing system that allows for tracking reverification requirements and removal based on I-9 retention requirements. Since the forms are paper, storage processes can be challenging and expensive for larger organizations.

Electronic I-9s

The biggest question for electronic I-9s is whether they can solve the problems that are caused by a paper process (e.g. storage, accuracy, efficiency)? To answer that question, we will have to understand how electronic I-9 processes work. The first step is to dispel a few of the more common misconceptions I’ve heard about them from employers that I’ve spoken with.

A few common misconceptions about electronic I-9s

“They are all the same”

As I’ll detail shortly, there are multiple ways to create a digital I-9 process. I’ll discuss the two most common methods.

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“Electronic I-9s are non-compliant”

That is going to be completely dependent on how your electronic I-9 process works. Any method has the potential to be non-compliant, but there are certainly ways to have a digital process that is compliant in the eyes of the USCIS and ICE.

“You are still required to keep a paper copy”

The USCIS states that employers can store forms electronically, provided that they follow guidelines to “ensure the integrity, accuracy, and reliability of the … storage system” along with other requirements similar to paper storage.

The different types of electronic I-9s

As previously stated, there are two basic forms of electronic I-9 processes available to employers – Using the electronic “smart form” provided by the USCIS or a third party electronic I-9 management platform. Both options have some pros and cons – the thing to keep in mind as you read through their attributes is that big picture question – do they solve the paper problems of storage, accuracy, and efficiency?

The Smart Form

In late Fall of 2016, the USCIS launched a new revision of the Form I-9 with updates to the form contents and the addition of new guiding features to help employees fill out the digital form. These form updates have made some significant improvements to the process, but still have a major downside that kills its efficiency as an electronic process.

I’m speaking of the fact that the electronic form still requires hand written signatures. This means that a completed form needs to be printed and signed by the employee and employer. The employer may then decide to scan the document and store it digitally or retain the printed version. Either way, it doesn’t really avoid the paper part of the process.

Electronic I-9 management platforms

These third-party platforms offer many bells and whistles not available through the standard “smart form.” Of course, these features come at the cost of form fees, monthly rates, or subscriptions to other third-party services.

Common features:

  • Section 1 sent and completed remotely
  • Automatic error checking
  • End-to-end electronic process
  • Simplified record storage and tracking
  • Integrated E-Verify submission


Is the switch worth it?

The main benefit to using I-9 management platforms over other options is that they solve those big picture issues of storage, accuracy, and efficiency. While there is a cost associated with them, most organizations find that there is a huge return on investment from the saved time and storage space. Having automated error checking, re-verification and deletion tracking helps avoid unwanted fines as well.

Of course, at the end of the day it will come down to preference. For some, paper will always be preferred for its innate simplicity and familiarity.  For smaller organizations that don’t handle many I-9s, it may not be worth the switch. However, for larger organizations the switch may become a necessity for the return on investment and peace of mind for audits.