Many green card applicants will have to wait for an immigrant visa to become available before they can file their green card applications with the U.S. government. The visa bulletin is a monthly update that the U.S. government provides to keep green card applicants who have to wait for visas informed about whether the time is right to submit their green card applications. In this article, we explain in more detail what the visa bulletin is and how green card caps come to play, how to read the visa bulletin, and what visa retrogressions are.
Written by Jonathan Petts.
Updated November 22, 2022
What Is the Visa Bulletin?
The U.S. Department of State issues the Visa Bulletin each month. The Visa Bulletin shows you when you may proceed with your green card application based on when you originally filed your Form I-130: Petition for Alien Relative. Once you have submitted Form I-130, you’ll be able to check the visa bulletin to figure out the wait time for continuing your green card application.
Spouses, parents, and unmarried children (under the age of 21) of U.S. citizens who are applying for a green card do not have to wait for a visa number to become available. This means you don't need to read the Visa Bulletin if you are in these categories.
Spouses and unmarried children (under the age of 21) of U.S. green cardholders, however, will have to wait 12-18 months for their green card. Applicants from other categories will face varying green card wait times, which can range from years to even decades sometimes. Reading the Visa Bulletin is how you'll know what the current wait time is for your preference category and application type.
Green Card Caps, Backlogs, and the Visa Bulletin
The U.S. government places a limit on the number of green cards and visas issued each year. The Visa Bulletin allows the government to manage its backlog of green card and visa applications for foreign nationals. Each year, the government offers around 366,000 green cards, with quotas for specific applicant categories. Approximately 226,000 green cards go to family-based green card applicants and 140,000 go to employment-based green card applicants.
The U.S. government also limits available green cards by country of origin. No country can account for over 7% of all green cards in each category. Applicants from high-population countries such as China, El Salvador, India, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and the Philippines may face significant backlogs in the processing of their green card applications.
How To Read the Visa Bulletin
To read the visa bulletin correctly, you’ll first need to familiarize yourself with some important terms and procedures.
Understanding Important Terms
First, you need to understand what some of the most important Visa Bulletin terms mean:
Priority date: A priority date is the date that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) receives your Form I-130. This date may determine your wait time for a green card. USCIS lists your priority date on the Form I-797 they sent you notifying you of USCIS’s approval of your Form I-130 petition.
Current: Your priority date will switch to “current” status when there is no backlog and no wait time for your green card. Your priority date becomes “current” once USCIS has a green card available for you.
Chargeability area: The chargeability area is your country of birth. USCIS uses this information to count your green card toward the quota for your foreign nation.
Immediate relative: An immediate relative is a U.S. citizen’s spouse, parent, or child (under the age of 21). Family-based green card applicants will fall under this category.
Cut-off date: The cut-off date is the boundary on which priority date holders are eligible to begin applying for green cards. If the cut-off date listed is on or after your priority date, you now have eligibility to apply.
Understanding Preference Categories
Next, you’ll need to understand how U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) organizes green card applications for family-based applicants and identify which category your application falls under. You, your parent(s), or your children may be pursuing green cards based on a familial connection to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.
USCIS uses four major preference cases to divide applications:
The F1 (first preference) category: The cap for the F1 category is 23,400 green cards each year. This category applies to unmarried adults (aged 21 and over) who are the children of U.S. citizens
The F2 (second preference) category: The cap for the F2 category is 114,200 green cards each year. This category applies to spouses and unmarried children of U.S. green cardholders. The F2 category has two different subcategories.
The F2A subcategory: The cap for the F2A subcategory is 87,934 green cards each year. This subcategory applies to the spouses and unmarried minor children (under the age of 21) of U.S. green cardholders. The wait time for this category is much shorter than for other family-based preference categories. 75 percent of the green cards in the F2A subcategory are exempt from the country caps.
The F2B subcategory: The cap for the F2B subcategory is 26,266 green cards each year. This subcategory applies to unmarried adult children (aged 21 and over) of U.S. green cardholders.
The F3 (third preference) category: The cap for the F3 category is 23,400 green cards each year. This category applies to married children of U.S. citizens, regardless of their age.
The F4 (fourth preference) category: The cap for the F4 category is 65,000 green cards each year. This category applies to brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens.
Reading Date Charts
Once you have identified your priority date and preference category, you can now move on to read the “dates for filing” chart. This chart will tell you which green card applicants living outside of the United States may now submit their applications with the National Visa Center (NVC), although a green card won’t yet be ready for them. These applicants will be able to work on gathering and submitting all necessary documents for their application earlier.
Another chart, the “final action dates” chart, tells you which priority dates are current. Cut-off dates in the dates for filing chart are a bit later (between 1-10 months later) than those in the final action dates chart. The NVC does this so that, if you’re applying from outside the United States, you can focus on assembling your applications in advance. Once your priority date appears in the final action dates chart, the NVC will have all of your materials ready to consider.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) directs the dates for filing chart toward those applying for green cards from outside of the United States through a local U.S. consulate or embassy (consular processing). USCIS also maintains a page on its website for green card applicants living in the United States. This page describes whether green card applicants in the United States can submit their applications based on the dates for filing chart on the visa bulletin or whether they must follow the dates listed on their final action dates chart instead.
If you are a green card applicant living in the United States, you can start an adjustment of status application through Form I-485: Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status while simultaneously applying for a work permit (Employment Authorization) or travel permit (Advance Parole document). These benefits can allow you to work in the United States or travel abroad while waiting for your green card application decision.
A Note on Country-Specific Columns
You’ll also see that there are columns for certain countries including China, El Salvador, India, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and the Philippines. You should be aware that, for applicants from these countries, wait times for green cards can take much longer. The annual demand for green cards from these countries always exceeds the official 7% cap from each country, so there can be a lot of backlogs.
If applying from the F2A preference subcategory, however, spouses from China, El Salvador, India, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and the Philippines may only need to wait a few additional weeks to receive their green cards. Most green card applications in the F2A subcategory are exempt from the country cap. Other relatives from these countries may face wait times of years to over a decade depending on their unique circumstances.
What Is a Visa Retrogression?
Typically, cut-off dates for the visa bulletin continue to move forward. But sometimes U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the Department of State get more green card applications for certain categories in a month than they had expected. When this happens, the cut-off dates for the next month may move backward. USCIS calls this a “visa retrogression.” Visa retrogressions happen most commonly in September, which is the end of the government’s fiscal year. Visa retrogressions can come either with an advance warning or unexpectedly.
Since visa retrogressions may happen at any time, you should be prepared to file your green card application as soon as the bulletin says a green card is available for you. If you don’t file your application during a month when a green card is available for you, you may face a retrogression in the next month and have to wait even longer to complete your application.
If you have already filed your application and USCIS announces a visa retrogression, they will hold your application until they can next review it at their earliest convenience. Make sure to keep your contact information, such as your address, up to date with USCIS.
If you have not yet filed your green card application and USCIS announces a visa retrogression, you’ll need to wait until your priority date becomes current to continue filing your application.