The Department of State (DOS) publishes permanent residence card (green card) or immigrant visa availability in a monthly publication entitled the Visa Bulletin. The Visa Bulletin outlines the availability of immigrant numbers, indicating when immigrant visa and green card applicants are eligible to proceed to the final step of the green card process.
Although in some cases an immigrant visa is required to obtain a green card, the two are not synonymous. It is important to understand this concept and that the final step of the green card process is pursued either by obtaining an immigrant visa at a United States Consulate abroad or by applying for an adjustment of status application through U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) from within the United States.
Immigrant Visa Processing versus Adjustment of Status
Immigrant visa and adjustment of status (AOS) applications, although both ultimately result in green cards, vary in multiple aspects — the most distinctive of which is that they differ in procedure.
Immigrant visas are issued by a U.S. Consulate abroad inside an applicant’s passport. It grants the holder the ability to travel to the U.S. to then be issued a green card and live in the country permanently. As such, immigrant visas alone do not provide permanent residency status as they require the holder to travel to the U.S. within six months of issuance to establish that permanent residency. After arrival to the U.S. with the immigrant visa, the applicant receives their green card. Whereas an AOS applicant is physically present in the U.S. and, when eligible, files the last step of the green card process from within the U.S. through USCIS.
The Visa Bulletin specifies when immigrant visas are available to potential immigrants based on factors which include individual priority dates, preference categories, as well as countries of chargeability. While applicants within the U.S. adjusting their status to permanent residence do not need an immigrant visa to do so, they still need to have an immigrant visa “space” available to them on the Visa Bulletin.
Specifically, the Visa Bulletin determines when applicants are eligible to file their required documentation to the National Visa Center (if applying for an immigrant visa) or USCIS (if filing to adjust status from within the U.S.) and then appear for an in-person interview, if applicable.
Below is a detailed description, instructions on reading, emerging trends, tips, and other information regarding the Visa Bulletin.
Sections and key terms
The Visa Bulletin is broken down into two distinct sections, which are:
Family-based immigration: These preference categories apply to green card applicants sponsored by a family member. There are only certain familial relationships through which someone may qualify to apply for and receive permanent residency. To further specify, family-based immigration is essentially divided into the two categories of limited and unlimited. There are an unlimited number of immigrant visas for immediate relatives, defined as spouses and unmarried children under 21 years of age of a U.S. citizen and the parent of a U.S. citizen that is at least 21 years of age. Given this unrestricted availability, immediate relatives need not be included in the Visa Bulletin. Other familial relationships have limited immigrant visa availability, as discussed below.
Employment-based immigration: These preference categories apply to foreign nationals who are applying for a green card based on an offer of permanent employment from a U.S. company.
These sections are further broken down into “Preference Categories” as described below.
The Visa Bulletin includes separate preference categories for both family-based and employment-immigration. The specific preference categories follow below:
Family-based preference categories
- F1: Unmarried sons and daughters (21 years of age and older) of U.S. citizens
- F2: This section is divided into two categories.
- F2A: Spouses and children (unmarried and under 21 years of age) of lawful permanent residents
- F2B: Unmarried sons and daughters (21 years of age and older) of lawful permanent residents
- F3: Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens
- F4: Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens (if the U.S. citizen is 21 years of age and older)
Employment-based preference categories
- EB1: Priority workers, a group that includes foreign nationals with “extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics;” professors and/or researchers; and some managers and executives, amongst others.
- EB2: Advanced degree holders, and/or “persons of exceptional ability”
- EB3: This group includes “skilled workers,” those whose jobs are not seasonal and require at least two years of training; “professionals,” whose employment requires at least a bachelor’s degree or a foreign equivalent; and/or “other workers” defined by USCIS as “persons performing unskilled labor requiring less than 2 years training, education, or experience, not of a temporary or seasonal nature.”
- EB4: “Special immigrants,” which include religious workers, U.S. military members, some physicians and more.
- EB5: Category for individuals who invest at least $1 million (or $500,000 if in a high unemployment or rural area) in a new commercial U.S. enterprise and create at least ten full-time jobs for U.S. workers.
Other key terms associated with the Visa bulletin include:
Country of chargeability: The country of chargeability is a foreign national’s nation of origin, which is typically their country of birth. The country of chargeability is one factor the Department of State uses while determining the allocation of green cards. In certain cases, applicants may “charge” their country of birth to a derivative family member, such as from a spouse to spouse or parent to child. This concept is known as “cross-chargeability” and is often an advantageous strategy if the principal’s country of birth, but not the derivative’s, is subject to a long wait based on the Visa Bulletin.
Priority Date: A priority date dictates a prospective immigrant’s place in the green card or immigrant visa line. The priority date is usually the day a petition is filed with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and/or, for some employment-based categories, the day in which a permanent labor certification application is submitted and accepted by the Department of Labor (DOL).
Final Action Date: A section within the Visa Bulletin which indicates the specific priority dates that are ready and available for green card or immigrant visa approval. The “Final Action Date” segment appears as “Section A” in both the family and employment-based immigration portions of the Visa Bulletin.
“Current:” Refers to when a priority date becomes available in the Visa Bulletin. Foreign Nationals can file an application for Adjustment of Status (AOS) through United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), or an immigrant visa application at a U.S. Consulate, when their priority date is current. This is reflected as “C” on the Visa Bulletin.
Visa Bulletin: Details and information
The Visa Bulletin is published monthly on the DOS website and allows foreign nationals to check their place in the green card line. The bulletin establishes priority dates eligible for adjudication.
The demand for green cards is almost universally much greater than the number of cards available by established legislative limits. This results in delays based on priority dates, preference categories and the countries of chargeability.
A green card or immigrant visa is available to an individual when their priority date is earlier than the cut-off date shown for their preference category and country of chargeability in the “Final Action Dates” Chart in the Visa Bulletin.
When the demand for green cards exceeds the supply for a particular preference category and country of chargeability, DOS considers the category and country “oversubscribed” and applies the cut-off date to keep the allocation within the statutory limits.
In addition to the “Final Action Dates” Chart, the DOS publishes a “Dates for Filing” Chart when there are more immigrant visas available for a fiscal year than there are known applicants for such visas.
The “Dates for Filing” Chart represents the earliest dates that green card applicants may apply for a green card, based on the dates that the NVC uses to notify immigrant visa petitioners to begin getting documentarily qualified (submitting documents for approval before an interview can be scheduled). On average, these dates are six to eight months earlier than those in the “Final Action Dates” Chart.
Allowing individuals to submit their applications before their “Date for Filing” results in faster and earlier issuance of EADs and travel permissions, as those benefits start to be given even if an application is pending for longer. Further, in employment-based AOS applications, this earlier filing results in quicker eligibility for American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act (AC21) portability (meaning they may be eligible to change employers without having to re-start their permanent residence application).
How to read the Visa Bulletin
To read the Visa Bulletin, individuals should:
- Consult with experienced immigration counsel to determine whether they are immigrating via family or employment; their country of chargeability; their priority date; their preference category; and any other relevant information including whether to apply for an Immigrant Visa abroad or adjust status from within the U.S.
- Open the latest version of the publication, which can be found on the State Department website.
- Find the applicable chart on the Visa Bulletin. Family-based categories typically start on page two while employment-based categories begin on page four.
- In the top row, locate the relevant country of chargeability.
- In the left-hand column, locate the applicable preference category (i.e., F1-F4 for family-based immigration or EB1-EB5 for employment-based).
- Scroll across from the applicable preference category until it intersects with the applicable country of chargeability to find the Final Action Date for that month. For instance, in the February 2022 Visa Bulletin, F2B family members from China held a Final Action Date of “22SEP15” while the day for EB2 workers from India was listed as “01JAN13.”
Visa Bulletin: Tips and trends
— The pandemic, coupled with former President Donald Trump’s ban on immigrant visa issuance in April 22, 2020 (revoked by current President Joe Biden on February 24, 2021) caused U.S. Consulates and Embassies to cease normal operations, “dramatically affect(ing) the Department of State’s ability to process immigrant visa applications,” thus causing long delays and increased backlogs. The backlog was more than 2.6 million cases as of July 2021, according to Bloomberg News. While most U.S. Consulates and Embassies have since resumed operations to an extent, these circumstances caused a significant backlog of applications. Practically speaking, this means that the wait time for adjudication through immigrant visa processing and an interview at the U.S. Consulate have become much longer and that even if an immigrant visa applicant’s number is available per the Visa Bulletin, it will be a while before the applicant is scheduled for their interview at the U.S. Consulate and the immigrant visa is issued (at least until the DOS takes additional measures to reduce the backlogs). In fact, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) recently reported that there are nearly 450,000 applicants waiting for an immigrant visa appointment with only 26,000 applicants scheduled for January 2022.
— The Visa Bulletin is typically published around the 17th of the month prior to the document becoming effective. For example, the February 2022 Visa Bulletin was published on January 13, 2022 and eligible applicants are permitted to file the last steps of the process in February.
— The amount of movement in each Visa Bulletin varies based on a number of factors. There are occasionally big jumps in time when some priority dates become current — this happened in October 2020 — while oftentimes there is very little movement. Foreign Nationals, as well as their experienced immigration counsel, should pay close attention to the Final Action Dates listed in every edition of the Visa Bulletin.
— Foreign Nationals should file their Adjustment of Status and/or immigrant visa applications as soon as their priority dates become “current” in the latest Visa Bulletin. There may be retrogression in later months, which could cause those priority dates to no longer be “current.”