The two most common paths to getting a green card are being sponsored by an immediate family member who is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident and being sponsored by a U.S. employer. Your family relationship or employment situation will determine your priority in getting a green card since the number of green cards is limited. Often, after your family member or employer submits the initial petition, you’ll be put on a waiting list, and your immigration process will be put on hold until a green card becomes available. Your place on this waiting list is determined by your priority date. You can typically find your priority date on Form I-797: Notice of Action that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) sends you after they receive a properly filed immigration petition or application.
Written by ImmigrationHelp Team.
Updated December 13, 2022
What Is a Priority Date?
Your priority date determines your spot in line as you wait to receive a visa or green card. If your priority date is “current,” you won’t have to wait for a visa or green card. Your priority date becoming “current” depends on your preference category and whether USCIS faces any backlogs.
Priority dates are important for both family-sponsored and employment-based green card applicants.
If you file a Form I-130: Petition for Alien Relative for a family green card, your priority date is the day that USCIS received your completed petition.
If you are applying for an employment-based green card, your priority date will depend on whether your employer is the petitioner or you are self-petitioning.
If your employer sends a labor certification application to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), your priority date will be the day that the DOL receives and accepts the application for processing. Many types of employment-based green cards require labor certification by an employer.
Some employment categories don’t require employer certification. If this applies to you, you can self-petition, and your priority date is the date USCIS receives your completed Form I-140 petition.
For fourth preference special immigrants, your priority date is when USCIS accepts your Form I-360 for processing. For fifth preference investors, the date is when USCIS accepts Form I-526 for processing.
Waiting times often correspond to the nature of your family connection. Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, for example, don’t need to worry about priority dates. A visa will be immediately available.
In other cases, immigrant visa availability will depend on demand for visas, per-country limits, and preference category limits. The U.S. Department of State publishes a monthly Visa Bulletin with the most current cut-off dates by category. ImmigrationHelp.org publishes a monthly article with an easy-to-understand summary of the most recent visa bulletin information.
Do All Green Card Applicants Get a Priority Date?
Not all green card applicants have priority dates. Some applicants don’t need to wait for a priority date to become current because a green card is immediately available for them. This will be true if your green card category has no annual limit. The U.S. government limits certain green card categories.
However, USCIS can issue an unlimited amount of immediate relative green cards. So, applicants in this category don’t have to wait. Note that in U.S. immigration law, “immediate relatives” are the spouse, parents, and unmarried children (under age 21) of U.S. citizens. Immediate relative applicants won’t receive a priority date from USCIS.
Note that the spouses and unmarried children (under age 21) of U.S. green card holders face more restrictions. In this category, you’ll need to wait 12–18 months for your green card to become available. Across other categories, waiting times vary substantially. The U.S. immigration system uses other caps, including the “country cap.” The government does not want any single country to account for over 7% of all green cards. So, applicants from highly populated countries may face longer wait periods.
How Do You Get a Priority Date?
You will get a priority date when you receive Form I-797: Notice of Action. USCIS usually issues Form I-797 in response to a Form I-130 petition or Form I-140 petition. USCIS sends this form out to acknowledge that it has received your petition. Once you have received Form I-797, be sure to carefully read through it and look for your priority date. Being aware of your priority date will help you later on when you check the Visa Bulletin each month.
Note that USCIS will only issue a priority date if your petition is complete. Submitting an incomplete petition will cause you to have to resubmit your information or forms. If your intended category has a waiting period, you should be especially sure that everything is complete before submitting.
What Is Form I-797?
Form I-797 is USCIS’s Notice of Action. Unlike most other forms, you won’t need to fill out any information on Form I-797. USCIS sends this document to update applicants. Typically, USCIS will send you the Notice of Action two to three weeks after you submit your immigration petition. Note that this form is not an official approval of your visa application. Form I-797 only indicates that USCIS has received your application.
The form will list your priority date and receipt number and help you understand when you can finally proceed with your application. Be sure to save your receipt number. This is a 13-digit code that you can later use to check your case status using USCIS's online tool (more on this below). While the basic Form I-797 is a receipt notice, there are six other types of Form I-797 documents.
Form I-797A is the Notice of Action for Replacement of I-94. You will receive this form if you file for an I-94 extension, request to adjust your status, or change your address. Typically, receiving this form indicates that USCIS is approving your extension or status adjustment request.
Form I-797B is the Approval of the Alien Worker Petition. You should receive this form if you filed a Form I-140 petition. This form will grant you approval to work in the United States. If you also receive a new I-94 with your I-797B form, USCIS has approved your extension of stay. If you don’t get a new I-94, you may need to return to your home country first. You’ll have to go to your local U.S. embassy or consulate and have your visa stamped.
Form I-797C contains important follow-up information. In addition to indicating that USCIS has received your application, it also informs you about any appointments, rejections, transfers, or a reopening of your case.
For example, this form may ask you to attend an interview with an immigration officer. It may also remind you to attend a biometrics appointment. If you receive this form, be sure to act quickly. The sooner you comply with USCIS, the sooner you can proceed.
Form I-797D contains a benefit card. For example, you might receive your green card or an employment authorization document (EAD).
Form I-797E is a request for evidence form. You are likely missing the right documents in your application. USCIS will give you a deadline to respond with the missing documents or information. Be sure to respond to any requests for evidence in a timely manner. If you don’t, USCIS may reject your application.
Form I-797F is the Transportation Letter. If you are an overseas applicant, you may receive this form. USCIS uses this form to permit you to travel. The form will contain further information more specific to your circumstances.
What Do I Do With My Priority Date?
Once you have your priority date, you’ll likely need to wait a while. You should proceed with your application as soon as your priority date becomes current. Be sure to review the State Department’s Visa Bulletin. The State Department updates this bulletin monthly. By reading the visa bulletin, you can anticipate your dates for filing. As you wait, you should prepare your application materials and gather any supporting documents you need.
To read the visa bulletin, you’ll need to keep in mind your priority date, home country, and visa category. Several factors can cause some applicants to wait several years, or even longer, for a visa. You should anticipate a longer waiting period if you come from India, China, Mexico, the Philippines, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. These countries currently have the highest rates of immigrants applying for green cards. Spouses and unmarried children of U.S. lawful permanent residents from these countries, however, don’t face significantly longer waiting periods.
Once your priority date becomes current, you can proceed with your application. You can adjust your status with Form I-485 and apply for an EAD or travel permit. You’ll then have to wait for USCIS to process and approve your green card application.
What Is Visa Retrogression?
As time goes on, dates listed on the Visa Bulletin typically move forward. However, sometimes these cut-off dates remain the same or even retrogress. Visa demand changes over time and can affect USCIS’s cut-off dates. When priority dates retrogress, there are more applicants for a specific visa category or country than there are available that month. Even if you met the cut-off date one month, you may no longer meet the cut-off date another month.
You should especially watch out for visa retrogression near the end of the fiscal year, starting in September. At that time, visa issuance may begin to reach annual and per-country limits. Once the new fiscal year begins, the U.S. government will have new visas available. Priority dates will likely return to where they were before. USCIS will place your application on hold until they have worked through their backlogs.
Suppose your application goes on hold during retrogression. In this case, you should be sure to keep USCIS updated if you have any change in contact information like your mailing address. This will ensure that they can still reach you once they begin processing your application.
How Long Does It Take for Your Priority Date To Become Current?
Waiting times for your priority date to become current can vary. If applying for a lower-demand visa category from a less populated country, you’ll probably have a shorter wait time. But if you’re applying for a limited visa category with high demand from your home country, you may face a long wait. USCIS may also be facing backlogs at the time you apply. If so, this may delay their overall processing times even further. Some cases take a very long time, even up to several years.
Remember that immediate relatives of U.S. citizens don’t need to wait for a “current” priority date. As an immediate relative, you have the right to a visa under U.S. immigration law. USCIS does not need to regulate immediate relative applications because they may grant an unlimited number of these visas.