The Visa Bulletin: An Essential Tool for Green Card Applicants


If you or a relative are pursuing a green card, it's important to understand the Visa Bulletin. Issued monthly by the Department of State, this bulletin is a key resource for tracking the progress of green card applications. It reflects the current status of applications by showing how far along the processing queue is, based on the filing date of the initial I-130 petition, which begins the green card procedure.

The Visa Bulletin enables you to track the advancement of your application in the queue and helps estimate the potential wait time for receiving your green card. Once your I-130 petition has been submitted, you can use the bulletin to monitor where you stand in the line and get an idea of when your application is likely to move forward.

Understanding the Visa Bulletin and Green Card Allocation Limits

The Visa Bulletin is a critical tool used to manage the allocation of green cards in the face of annual limits set by Congress. These limits are in place because the demand for green cards consistently surpasses the number allowed each year, resulting in multiple backlogs. Currently, the U.S. government makes 366,000 green cards available each year, distributed across various categories with specific quotas. The largest categories are family-based green cards, which account for 226,000 of the total, and employment-based green cards, which make up another 140,000.

Congress also imposes restrictions on the number of green cards that can be issued to applicants from any single country in a given year, capping it at 7% per country for each category. This "country cap" typically affects countries with large populations and high numbers of green card applicants, such as China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines, leading to significant delays and backlogs for applicants from these nations. In contrast, countries with smaller populations, like Belgium, rarely if ever, reach these limits.

Deciphering the Visa Bulletin: Understanding Family-Based Green Card Categories

The Visa Bulletin categorizes family-based green card caps into four main "preference categories," each tailored to specific family relationships with U.S. citizens or green card holders.

  1. F1 (First Preference): This category is reserved for unmarried adult children (21 years and older) of U.S. citizens, with an annual cap of 23,400 green cards.
  2. F2 (Second Preference): Designed for spouses and unmarried children of green card holders, this preference is divided into two subcategories:
  • F2A: Specifically for spouses and unmarried minor children (under 21) of green card holders. This sub-category receives 77% of the overall second preference quota, equating to 87,934 green cards annually.
  • F2B: For unmarried adult children (21 and over) of green card holders, which is allotted 23% of the second preference quota, or 26,266 green cards each year.
  1. F3 (Third Preference): For married children of U.S. citizens, regardless of age, with an annual limit of 23,400 green cards.
  2. F4 (Fourth Preference): Allocated to siblings of U.S. citizens, with a cap of 65,000 green cards per year.

Each category addresses different familial connections to facilitate the legal migration process for relatives of U.S. residents and citizens. Understanding these categories helps applicants determine their position and anticipate movement within the Visa Bulletin.

Exploring the Unique Aspects of the F2A Visa Category

The April 2023 Visa Bulletin introduced a noteworthy adjustment in the F2A category, which pertains to spouses and unmarried children under 21 of U.S. green card holders. For the first time in several years, the "Final Action Dates" for F2A applications are no longer "current," indicating a mounting backlog. Nonetheless, the "Dates for Filing" remain current, allowing these family members to continue submitting their green card applications. This change suggests a potential increase in waiting periods for green cards in this category.

Despite these adjustments, the F2A category typically experiences shorter wait times compared to other family-based preference categories, which is particularly beneficial for the spouses of U.S. green card holders.

This efficiency is largely due to two factors: Firstly, the F2A category boasts the largest quota among family-based preferences, with 87,934 green cards allocated annually. Secondly, 75% of green cards in this category are not subject to the country cap, making the applicant's country of origin less significant in affecting their application process compared to other categories. This combination of factors makes F2A a notably advantageous category for those eligible.

Green Card Eligibility for Spouses of U.S. Citizens

For spouses of U.S. citizens, the process of obtaining a green card is streamlined since there is no annual cap on green cards for immediate relatives, which includes spouses, parents, and unmarried minor children (under 21). This exemption from caps means there are no backlogs or queues, making the visa bulletin irrelevant for these applicants. As soon as the I-130 petition filed on their behalf is approved, spouses can proceed with their green card application.

Key Terms to Know in the Visa Bulletin Context

Priority Date: This is the date on which the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) receives your I-130 petition, essentially marking your spot in the queue for a green card. This date can be found on the I-797 form from USCIS, which confirms the approval of your petition.

Current: When the visa bulletin refers to a date or category as "current," it indicates that there is no backlog and, thus, no waiting period for a green card for those priority dates or categories.

Chargeability Area: Refers to the applicant’s country of birth, which affects the quota of green cards available under the country cap system.

Immediate Relative: For immigration purposes, this term refers to the spouse, parent, or underage child (younger than 21) of a U.S. citizen.

Cut-off Date: Shown in the visa bulletin, this date marks the "front of the line" in the green card application process. Applicants with priority dates before the cut-off date are eligible to apply for their green card, while those with later dates must wait.

Understanding these terms and processes can greatly clarify the path to obtaining a green card, especially for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, who benefit from a more direct application process.

Visa Bulletin: Final Action Dates vs. Dates For Filing

Section A: Final Action Dates

The "final action dates" chart in the Visa Bulletin indicates which priority dates are currently at the front of the line and whose green card applications are now eligible for approval.

Section B: Dates For Filing

Conversely, the "dates for filing" chart is designed to inform green card applicants residing outside the United States when they should submit their applications to the National Visa Center (NVC), even though a green card may not yet be available. These cut-off dates are generally set one to ten months later than those in the "final action dates" chart, allowing applicants to initiate their applications sooner.

For green card applicants within the United States, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) provides monthly updates through a page titled "when to file your adjustment of status application." This resource guides applicants on whether they can proceed with filing their applications based on the "dates for filing" chart or if they must wait for their priority dates to align with those in the "final action dates" chart.

The Importance of Understanding Visa Bulletin Dates

For green card applicants residing outside the United States, the “dates for filing” chart provides an opportunity to initiate the document submission process to the National Visa Center (NVC) ahead of time. By doing so, you can ensure that all necessary paperwork is prepared and ready by the time your priority date is listed in the "final action dates" chart, indicating that a green card has become available.

For those living within the United States, the "dates for filing" chart is especially significant. It allows applicants to file for an adjustment of status using the I-485 form with USCIS, and at the same time, apply for a work permit (employment authorization document) and a travel permit (advance parole document). This is particularly beneficial for individuals who wish to work or travel internationally while their green card application is being processed, offering critical flexibility during this waiting period.

Country-Specific Green Card Wait Times in the Visa Bulletin

The Visa Bulletin includes specific columns for China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines, reflecting the unique backlogs experienced by citizens of these countries. These nations frequently exceed the 7% "country cap" limit on green cards, leading to longer wait times for their citizens. As a result, there are distinct queues for green card applicants from each of these countries, with the duration of waiting periods varying by green card category.

However, it's important to recall the unique status of the F2A category. For spouses of U.S. green card holders, the waiting time for a green card is relatively uniform across all countries of origin. This is because the majority of applications in the F2A category are not subject to the country cap. In contrast to other relatives from these nations who may have to wait years or even more than a decade for their green cards, spouses from China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines may just have to endure a few more weeks of waiting.

How Visa Retrogression Affects Your Green Card Timeline

Visa retrogression occurs when the cut-off dates in the visa bulletin unexpectedly move backward instead of forward, a phenomenon that can happen if the number of green card applications in a given month exceeds what USCIS or the State Department anticipated. This backtracking of dates is most commonly seen around September, which marks the end of the government’s fiscal year.

The visa bulletin may sometimes provide early indications of potential retrogression, allowing applicants to prepare in advance. However, there are occasions when retrogression occurs without warning, catching green card applicants off guard and reversing their progress in the application queue. This underscores the importance of having all necessary documentation prepared and ready to submit as soon as eligibility is confirmed through the visa bulletin. Delaying the filing of your green card application when dates are current might expose you to unexpected retrogressions, effectively shutting the window to apply until the dates become favorable again.

For those who have already submitted their applications, a visa retrogression means that USCIS or the State Department will pause the processing of your application until your priority date is current once more. It’s essential during this time to keep your contact details updated with USCIS. On the other hand, if you have not yet filed and a retrogression occurs, you will need to wait until your priority date becomes current again before you can proceed with your application.

Last Updated 07/10/24 09:06:24AM

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