Moving across borders can be incredibly challenging. Not only will you have to find a new job, home, and community, but you also first have to obtain a non-immigrant visa or green card in the United States. Not an easy feat!

While non-immigrant visas have their own process (separate blog post to follow), becoming a permanent resident (green card holder) can be an attractive path, particularly for those who have family members in the U.S. or who plan to stay longterm. For this path, the U.S. Department of State issues a monthly update which releases important information for green card applicants, also known as the Visa Bulletin.

What is the Visa Bulletin?

The U.S. Congress has set an annual limit to the amount of green cards that can be issued: currently at 366,000 per year. Congress also sets limits for each of the types of green card (e.g. family-based vs. employment-based) as well as for each country. No foreign country can account for more than 7% of any category, which can lead to substantially longer wait times for countries with many applications such as China, India, Mexico or The Philippines. Every year the number of total applications for U.S. immigration has exceeded the limits (as a total or by category and category), thus creating a large backlog of applications. This backlog leads to wait times for new applicants, and is published in the monthly visa bulletin.

Once either your I-130 petition for Alien Relative or your I-140 petition for Alien Worker has been filed, you’ll be able to check the visa bulletin and see your place in line move forward. The update allows you to check visa availability and wait times and also lets you estimate how much time it will take before your green card will be issued, which is based on how quickly the “line” is currently moving.

With the information from the Visa Bulletin you will be able to plan your move to the U.S. better. You can also subscribe to the State Department’s email to receive the visa bulletin automatically.

Types of Visas Mentioned in the Visa Bulletin

Family-based (F): Capped at 226,000 visas per year, I-130 form contingent.

Preference Categories:

  • F1: Unmarried adults (age 21 and over) who are children of U.S. citizens.
  • F2a: Spouses and unmarried children of green card holders.
  • F2b: Unmarried adult children (age 21 and over) of green card holders.
  • F3: Married children of U.S. citizens, regardless of age.
  • F4: Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens.

Employment-based (EB): Capped at 140,000 visas per year, I-140 form contingent.

Preference Categories:

  • EB-1: Extraordinary People, Outstanding Researchers and Professors, and Multinational Executives and Managers
  • EB-2: Exceptional People and Advanced Degree Holders
  • EB-3: Bachelor’s Degree Holders, Skilled Workers, and Unskilled Workers
  • EB-4: Special Immigrants
  • EB-5: Investors

Most important Items to note when reading the Visa Bulletin

What follows are a list of the most important terms you need to understand to read the Visa Bulletin correctly:

  • Priority date: Essentially, this is your spot in the green card waiting line. The priority date corresponds to the day on which USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) received your I-130 or I-140 petition, and is then mentioned on the I-797 form mailed by USCIS approving your petition.
  • Cut-off date: All of the dates you see on the visa bulletin tables are called “cut-off dates”, effectively corresponding to the beginning of the wait line. You should always be checking if your priority date is before the cut-off date (and if it isn’t, you should wait)
  • Chargeability area: Indicates your country of citizenship.
  • Final Action Dates (in Section A): Specifies which of the priority dates are now at the front of the line for approval.
  • Dates For Filing (in Section B): This chart shows which applicants should now submit their application with the National Visa Center (NVC), primarily directed at people who are doing visa applications from outside of the United States.

What Influences Your Visa Wait Time

Filing an I-130 or I-140 form effectively establishes your place in line. Once you have a place in line, the time you wait will depend on a number of sub-categories:

  • Chargeabilty, or what country you are from. This is the main factor. As mentioned, no single country can support more than 7% of green cards in any given category. This has little implication for countries in Europe or Africa (which aren’t typically oversubscribed), but weighs heavily on populous countries like China and India.
  • The number of applicants from other countries. Overfill from other countries that don’t use their quotas can offset longer lines, or wait times, from countries like China and India.
  • The specific visa category to which you apply. The number of EB-2 visas, for example, if you are applying for an EB-3. If there are less in a different category it could change the timing.

Traveling and Working While Waiting for your Green Card

This only applies to applicants currently residing in the United States. Usually, you are filing for an "adjustment of status" (through the I-485 form) and so the “dates for filing” chart in Section B indicates when you can apply for both a travel permit (advance parole document) and a work permit (employment authorization document). Of course, both of these permits are valuable for green card applicants aiming to work and travel while waiting for their adjustment of status.

Special U.S. Visa Rules For China, India, Mexico and the Philippines

Each visa bulletin has dedicated charts for China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines, for which the wait times are often much higher than for other countries as the annual demand for green cards vastly exceeds the 7% limit described above.

Within the F2A visa category (the green card for spouses of existing green card holders) specifically, the wait time is mostly the same for everyone. This is because the F2A category does not count towards the cap, and so there is typically no additional wait for spouses from China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines.

Example U.S. Visa Cases

This process is a little complicated, so we’ve given a few examples to see how it would play out.

Country of Origin: Mainland China; Visa Category: F1

Say you are from Mainland China. As the unmarried adult of a U.S. citizen, your preference category is F1. As of March 2019, The Visa Bulletin shows a cut-off date of 22APR12 for China F1 visas. This means visas are currently available for immigrants who have a priority date earlier than April 22, 2012. So, if you filed your I-130 April 4, 2012 you are now, eight years later, eligible to apply for your green card!

The yearly cap on the F1 subsection is 23,400. So within that category, approximately 7%, or 1,610, would be dedicated to Chinese immigrants. Coming from such a populous country, this generates a backlog where the visa process can take 8 years.

Country of Origin: Philippines; Visa Category: EB3

If your chargeability is the Phillipines and you are eligible for an EB3 visa, your cut-off date is 01DEC17. So, if you filed your I-140 by November 15, 2017 you are now eligilble to apply.  In a twist with the many various channels, an EB2 visa currently has no wait, so if you filed your I-140 last week you would be eligible.

A good anecdote of the lengthy and complicated green card process from someone that DIYed their application can be found here. That being said, it is probably advisable to consult an immigration lawyer.

Additional Resources

To receive the Department of State’s monthly email for the visa bulletin, send an email to the following email address: listserv@calist.state.gov