If you are a foreign-born person being sponsored for a family- or employment- based green card, and you are in a category of applicant that faces annual numerical limits on visas, you may face a long wait. Exactly how long depends on what category you are being sponsored in and on supply and demand in that category, combined with per-country limits on visas that make the wait especially long for people from Mexico, the Philippines, China, and India.
You won’t know for sure how long you’ll have to wait until your wait is almost over, although you can track the progress of people who applied before you, month by month. This article will help you to understand the mechanics of this wait and how to deal with it.
Although we talk about the number of “visas” available, we mean the number of people who can be given permanent residency, either through an immigrant visa or a green card. (People who adjust their status to permanent resident in the United States don’t need a visa to do so, but they still need to have a green card “space” available to them.)
The Visa Preference Categories
Here is how the family- and employment-based preferences are arranged:
Family Visa Preferences
First Preference: The unmarried sons or daughters of a U.S. citizen who are over 21 and are therefore no longer considered children. (If they were still children, they could qualify as immediate relatives, who are immediately eligible for visas.)
Second Preference: The second preference category is actually made up of two subcategories, each with different waiting periods. In subcategory 2A are spouses or unmarried sons or daughters under age 21 of a permanent resident (green card holder). In subcategory 2B are the unmarried sons and daughters over age 21 of a permanent resident (they usually wait longer than 2As).
Third Preference: The married sons or daughters, any age, of a U.S. citizen.
Fourth Preference: The brothers or sisters of a U.S. citizen. The citizen must be age 21 or older.
Employment Visa Preferences
First Preference: Priority workers.
Second Preference: Members of the professions who hold advanced degrees, or persons of exceptional ability.
Third Preference: Skilled workers, professionals, and other workers.
Fourth Preference: Certain special immigrants.
Fifth Preference: Investors in job-creating U.S. enterprises.
How Visas Are Allotted Year by Year
Each year, the U.S. government allots a certain number of immigrant visas in each preference category. For purposes of visa allocation, the government follows its fiscal year, which starts and ends in October. This might affect you if the government runs out of visas for your category before October. You will know at that point that you have no chance of advancing on the waiting list until the “new year” begins October 1.
Currently, the total worldwide numbers are as follows:
Family Visa Allotments
First Preference: 23,400, plus any visas not used for fourth preference
Second Preference: 114,200, with 77% of these going to category 2A, 23% to category 2B
Third Preference: 23,400, plus any not used for first and second preference
Fourth Preference: 65,000 plus any not used for the first three preferences.
Employment Visa Allotments
First Preference: 28.6% of the worldwide employment-based preference level, plus any not required for fourth and fifth preferences.
Second Preference: 28.6% of the worldwide employment-based preference level, plus any not required by first preference.
Third Preference: 28.6% of the worldwide level, plus any not required by first and second preferences, not more than 10,000 of which go to "other workers."
Fourth Preference: 7.1% of the worldwide level.
Fifth Preference: 7.1% of the worldwide level, not less than 3,000 of which reserved for investors in a targeted rural or high-unemployment area, with 3,000 saved for investors in regional centers.
This may sound like a lot of visas, but far more people want immigrant visas than can get them every year. The government gives out visas month by month, making sure never to go over the annual limit.
There are also limits on the number of visas allowed for any one country. No more than 7% of the total visas each year can go to any one country, and often the percentage turns out to be less.
There are more complexities to the allocation and numbers of these visas, but a full understanding of these numbers will not help you speed up your waiting time. The important thing to know is how to chart your own place on the visa waiting list.
Charting Your Place on the Visa Waiting List
Each month, the State Department publishes a Visa Bulletin, the one source of information on visa waiting periods. The same information is available by phone at 202-485-7699, but you have to be quick with your pencil and paper, because they talk fast.
The Visa Bulletin comes out monthly, around the middle of the month, but not on any particular day. When you click the link above and access the latest bulletin, you will see two charts for “Family-Sponsored Preferences” and two charts for “Employment-Based Preferences.” The charts tell you when you can apply for a visa (“Dates for Filing…”) and when the visa actually can be given to you (“Application Final Action Dates…”). Although it’s confusing at first look, you will be able to make your way through these charts. Here’s how:
1. Locate your preference category in the left column.
2. Locate your country across the top. China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines often have their own columns because of the large number of applicants. As a result, people from these countries wait longer than others. All other countries are included in the second column called All Chargeability Areas Except Those Listed.
3. Draw a line across from your preference category and down from your country of origin. Where the two lines cross is what we call the cutoff date—the key date that you will compare with your own priority date (see below) to chart your progress.
Every prospective immigrant has his or her own priority date—the date that either USCIS first received the I-130 filed by your family petitioner, or that the Department of Labor first received the labor certification request filed by your employer petitioner. You will find your priority date on your paperwork from one of these agencies. Prospective immigrants whose priority dates are earlier than the cutoff date listed in that month’s chart will become eligible to apply for a visa (“Dates for Filing” chart) or receive a visa or green card (“Application Final Action Dates” chart).
The earlier your priority date, the better off you are, because it means you are in line ahead of other applicants. But the current cutoff date doesn’t actually tell you how long it will be before your own visa or green card is available. It merely gives you a rough idea. If you subtract the cutoff date on the current month’s Visa Bulletin chart from today’s date, you will see how long previous applicants waited. You might figure you will face a similar wait, but things can change.
If you follow the Visa Bulletin charts month by month, you might notice a couple of odd things. Sometimes the government gets backed up with visa applications and the cutoff dates just don’t change. Sometimes the cutoff dates get stuck for months at a time, while the government deals with a backlog of visa applications. If the government hits a huge logjam, you may even see the cutoff dates go backwards.
If you’re lucky, the cutoff dates will advance several months from one month’s bulletin to the next. This is an indication that the State Department overestimated how many visa applications it had to process, or was able to work faster than anticipated.
Another odd thing you might see is a box that contains the letter C or U, instead of a date. The letter C (for “current”) means there are plenty of visas in that category and no one has to wait. It’s as if everyone’s priority date suddenly were current. The letter U (for “unavailable”) is the opposite; it means that all the visas have been used up for that year. If, for example, this were February, and you saw a U in your category box, you would know you could forget about getting closer to a visa until October (when the new year starts in the visa allocation process).
You can ask to have the Visa Bulletin sent to you monthly, by email. This is a great way to make sure you don’t forget to check how your priority date is advancing. Complete instructions for how to subscribe to this service can be found toward the bottom of any Visa Bulletin.
If You Change Addresses
If either you or your petitioning family member or employer change addresses, the place to contact is the National Visa Center (NVC), which keeps your case file until your priority date is close to being current. You can advise the NVC of your new address online with their Public Inquiry Form, or by writing to The National Visa Center, Attn: WC, 31 Rochester Avenue, Suite 200, Portsmouth, NH 03801-2915. Be sure to include your case number from the USCIS approval notice.
What to Do When Your Priority Date Has Become Current
One day, your priority date will become current—in other words, you will finally see a later date, or the letter “C” on the “Dates for Filing” Visa Bulletin chart. Then it’s time to move forward with the process of getting your immigrant visa or green card.
When you see that your priority date is current on the “Dates for Filing” chart, don’t wait for the government to call you. If you don’t hear from it within a few weeks, contact the NVC and ask for the appropriate instructions (if you're currently overseas).
If you are already in the U.S. and eligible to adjust status (apply for your green card visa USCIS) — which usually requires that you are either in lawful immigration status or are the immediate relative of a U.S. citizen — you don't have to wait for an invitation, you can submit your adjustment of status application to USCIS, but only if USCIS has said that you can use the Visa Bulletin filing date. (The Visa Bulletin will tell you whether USCIS has allowed you to use the filing date that month, and this information also can be found at http://www.uscis.gov/visabulletininfo.)
If your petitioner didn’t tell USCIS on the I-130 that you would be adjusting status, you should contact the NVC and tell them you’re in the U.S. now and will be adjusting status, so they can send your file to USCIS.
Once you file your application, the State Department can’t actually give you an immigrant visa (or USCIS can’t actually give you a green card) until your priority date is current in the “Application Final Action Dates” chart.
What If No One Noticed Your Current Priority Date
Some people forget to check the Visa Bulletin, and their priority date becomes current without their noticing. Sometimes, the NVC has tried to notify them, but has only an old address. Or, the NVC may have failed to keep track of the person’s file. These problems can delay or destroy a person’s hopes of immigrating.
You have one year after your priority date becomes current in the “Application Final Action Dates” chart to pursue your visa or green card. If you do not, the government assumes you have abandoned it; and will give your visa to the next person in line. You may have an argument for getting the visa back if the government completely failed to contact you, but it’s better to avoid such situations altogether. Keep track of your own priority date and take steps to pursue your application once it becomes current.