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 might have a long wait ahead. Exactly how long depends partly on what category you are being sponsored in and on supply and demand in that category. It can be worsened by the per-country limits on visas, which typically make the wait extra long for people from Mexico, the Philippines, China, and India (demand is especially high from these countries).
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.
A note about legal terminology: Though we talk about the number of "visas" available, we mean the number of people who can be given U.S. permanent residency, through an immigrant visa or a green card. (People who adjust their status to permanent resident in the United States don't need an actual U.S. entry visa in their passport to do so, but they still need to have a "visa number" or a green card "space" available to them.)
For each of the below categories of potential immigrants, there's a separate limit on the number allotted. Here is how the family- and employment-based preference categories are arranged:
Each year, by law, the U.S. government allots a set number of immigrant visa numbers in each preference category. You don't really need to study the details, but might find the numbers interesting for purposes of understanding why you might face a wait.
For purposes of visa allocation, the U.S. 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:
This might sound like a lot of visa numbers, but far more people want immigrant visas than can get them every year. The government gives out visa numbers 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 visa numbers 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 your Priority Date, and how to use it to chart your own place on the visa waiting list.
All prospective immigrants in the preference categories have a Priority Date, which establishes their place in line for a U.S. immigrant visa. This date comes from either:
You will find your Priority Date on your paperwork from one of these agencies.
Each month, the State Department publishes a Visa Bulletin, its main source of information on visa waiting periods. The bulletin comes out monthly, around the middle of the month, but not on any particular day.
After clicking the link above and accessing the latest bulletin, you will see two charts for "Family-Sponsored Preferences" and two charts for "Employment-Based Preferences." These charts are full of Priority Dates, which tell people when they can apply for a visa ("Dates for Filing…") and when the visa actually can be given out ("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:
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 latest 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 following the Visa Bulletin charts month by month, you might notice that sometimes the U.S. government gets backed up with visa applications and the cutoff dates get stuck for months at a time. That basically means the government is trying to deal with the backlog. If the government hits a huge logjam, you might 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 on the Visa Bulletin 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. For example, in early 2023, visa category 2A (spouses and minor children of lawful permanent residents) listed "C" for current for many months, which meant that in this group, applicants could file for green cards as soon as their I-130 petitions were approved; or potentially even adjust status in the U.S. with a "concurrent" filing of Form I-130, Form I-485, and the rest. (See When an I-130 Can Be Filed at the Same Time as a Green Card Application.)
The letter U (for "unavailable") in the chart 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. To sign up, send an email to [email protected] and in the body of the message, type: Subscribe Visa-Bulletin.
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 its Public Inquiry Form. Be sure to provide your case number, your U.S. petitioner's name, and the name and birth date of the principal visa applicant.
Sooner or later, 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 U.S. 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 via 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 (Form I-485 and supporting forms and documents), 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 U.S. petitioner didn't already tell USCIS on the I-130 or I-140 that you would be adjusting status, you should contact the NVC and tell it you're in the U.S. now and will be adjusting status, so it can send your file to USCIS.
Once you file your application, whether it's for an immigrant visa for abroad or for adjustment in the U.S., the government can't actually give you a visa or green card until your Priority Date is current in the "Application Final Action Dates" chart.
Some would-be visa applicants forget to check the Visa Bulletin, and their Priority Date becomes current without their noticing. Sometimes, the NVC has tried to notify them, but had only an old address. Or, the NVC might 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 number to the next person in line.
You might have an argument for getting the visa number 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.
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