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How to read the Visa Bulletin

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The Visa Bulletin shows which Green Card applications are eligible to move forward, based on the I-130 or I-140 petition that starts the Green Card process was originally filed. Learn more about how to interpret this important document

How to read the Visa Bulletin

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If you're applying for to be a permanent resident, you've probably heard about the Visa Bulletin, which is released every month by the U.S. Department of State. The Visa Bulletin shows which Green Card applications are eligible to move forward, based on the I-130 or I-140 petition that starts the Green Card process was originally filed.

What is the Visa Bulletin?

The U.S. Congress sets annual limit to the amount of green cards that can be issued. Today, there are 366,000 available annually, with a specific quota for each category. The are two main types of Green Cards: family-based green cards (226,000 available annually) and employment-based green cards (140,000 available annually. Congress also limits the number of available green cards based on country of origin. Under this annual “country cap,” no single country of origin can account for more than 7% of the green cards in either category, which means that applicants from countries with high numbers of applications such as China, India, Mexico or The Philippines may face a substantial wait. Every year the number of total applications for U.S. immigration exceeds the limits as a total and by category, which creates a large backlog of applications. This backlog leads to wait times for new applicants, which are 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 to see your place in line and help 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.

You can subscribe to the State Department’s email to receive the visa bulletin automatically each month.

Types of visas included in the Visa Bulletin

Family-based Green Card (F): Capped at 226,000 visas per year and contingent on Form I-130

Preference categories:

Employment-based (EB): Capped at 140,000 visas per year and contingent on Form I-140

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

  • Priority date: This represents your spot in the green card waiting line and corresponds to the day on which USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) received your I-130 or I-140 petition. It will be included 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”, which correspond to the beginning of the wait line. You should always check 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.

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What influences your visa wait time

Filing an I-130 or I-140 form 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. 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 that visa category. 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, so there is typically no additional wait for spouses from China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines.

Examples of 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: E-B3

If your chargeability is the Phillipines and you are eligible for an E-B3 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 E-B2 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 managed their own application process can be found here. If you have questions, consider contacting an immigration lawyer.

The takeaway

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

For more resources on how to navigate your new life in the U.S., visit Nova Credit’s resource library where you can learn about everything from renting an apartment to finding the best credit cards for noncitizens.

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