The Visa Bulletin is a monthly publication issued by the US Department of State. The visa bulletin discloses the following three items of information:

  • The categories (family and employment) that are eligible to file a green card application (typically an I-485 application or an I-130 petition)
  • Which of the filed applications are ready for review?
  • The best estimate for how long it will take to get your green card (or visa) – based on the wait times listed for that month
Green Card limit application

Why the Visa Bulletin is Required Reading for Visa and Green Card Applicants?

The bulletin exists, according to Legal Pad, because the number of green cards that can be issued yearly is capped. There are also limits based on the country the immigrant lives in. As a rule, there’s always a backlog. The bulletin is essentially a way for applicants to watch their place in line. The cap number may change from year to year.

  • According to Boundless, 366,000 green cards are available annually – but that number is then broken into the following categories: The two broadest categories are:
    • Family-based green cards (226,000), which include marriage-based green cards
    • Employment-based green cards (140,000).
  • Congress also has a “country cap” which limits the green cards in any particular category, by country, to 7.1%. Many countries, such as European and African countries, don’t exceed their country’s cap. Other countries like China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines have huge backlogs.

According to Boundless,

  • If you’re an immediate relative; the spouse, parent, or unmarried child (under age 21) of a US citizen, you don’t even need to read the visa bulletin—there’s no green card backlog or wait time for you! Note. There is a cap for unmarried adult children (21 and over) of a US citizen.
  • If you’re the spouse or unmarried child (under age 21) of a U.S. green cardholder, you’ll have to wait an extra 12-18 months for your green card to become available.
  • If you’re in a different category, your green card wait time may vary — from years to decades.
United States Permanent resident green card

The Overall Caps by Family-Based Green Cards

There are four basic family classifications, according to Boundless. Each of these classifications has the following current caps:

  • F1. First preference. This includes unmarried adults (21 and over) who are children of US citizens. The cap for this preference category is 23,400 green cards each year.
  • F2. Second preference. This category is for the spouses and unmarried children of green cardholders. This overall cap for this category is 114,200, plus the number (if any) by which the worldwide family preference level exceeds 226,000, plus any unused first preference numbers. This category is split into another two subcategories:
    • F2A: This category is for the spouses and unmarried minor children (under age 21) of green cardholders. The cap number is 87, 934 (77% of available F2 green cards). “If you are a green card holder who has applied for a green card for your spouse, this is the category you’ll need to watch when you check the visa bulletin.” 75% of the F2 green card applicants are exempt from the per-country limit (according to the November Visa Bulletin).
    • F2B: This subcategory is for unmarried adult children (age 21 and over) of green cardholders. The cap number is 26,266 (23% of F2 available green cards)
  • F3. Third preference. This category is reserved for the married children of US citizens – regardless of each. The cap amount for this category is 23,400 green cards each year.
  • F4. Fourth preference. This category is for the siblings of US citizens. The cap number is 65,000 green cards each year.

The visa bulletin should make clear that the wait times for the F2A green cards are much shorter than for the other family-based categories. There are two reasons for this shorter time frame. The first reason is due to the fact that this category has the largest number of possible green cards – 87,934. The second reason is that the country of origin exemption means that there’s one less problem (the country of origin cap) for applicants to overcome.

officers for employment green card

The Overall Caps for Employment-Based Green Cards

Workers can apply for green cards based on their priority and based on the following cap levels – most of which are based on a percentage. According to the December 2020 Visa Bulletin, the employment categories are:

  • First: Priority Workers. These include – Aliens of Extraordinary Ability, International Managers/Executives, and Outstanding Professors and Researchers. “28.6% of the worldwide employment-based preference level, plus any numbers not required for fourth and fifth preferences.”
  • Second: Members of the Professions Holding Advanced Degrees or Persons of Exceptional Ability: “28.6% of the worldwide employment-based preference level, plus any numbers not required by first preference.”
  • Third: Skilled Workers, Professionals, and Other Workers: 28.6% of the worldwide level, plus any numbers not required by first and second preferences, of which not more than 10,000 may be provided to “*Other Workers”.
  • Fourth: Certain Special Immigrants: 7.1% of the worldwide level.
  • Fifth: Employment Creation: 7.1% of the worldwide level, not less than 3,000 of which are reserved for investors in a targeted rural or high-unemployment area, and 3,000 are set aside for investors in regional centers by Sec. 610 of Pub. L. 102-395.”

The Visa Bulletin has a few more employment categories:

  • Under the Employment Third Preference, there’s a separate category called “Other workers.”
  • Under the Employment Fourth Preference, there’s a separate category for “Certain religious workers.”
  • The Fifth Category is divided into two subcategories:
    • 5th Non-Regional Center. (C5 and T5)
    • 5th Regional Center (I5 and R5)
I-130 Petition for alien relative blank form lies on United States flag with blue pen

Is there a Cap on the Number of Green Cards for the Spouses of US Citizens?

The good answer is no. The spousal cap only applies to spouses of US green card holders, not to spouses of US citizens. Since there isn’t a limit on spousal green cards – there’s no backlog and thus no need to review the visa bulletin. A spouse of a US citizen can apply for a green card as soon as their I-30 petition I-130, Petition for Alien Relative is approved.

keyboard key success

A Few Key Visa Bulletin Definitions

There are a few precise terms that are used in the Visa Bulletin that it helps to understand (or to have an experienced immigration lawyer explain to you). These terms are:

  • Priority date. The priority dates vary depending on whether you’re applying for a family green card or an employment-based green card.
    • For a family green card, this date is when the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) receives an I-130 petition. It is the date that starts your place in line. The priority date should be on the I-799 form the USCIS mails when they approved the I-130 petition.
    • For an employment green card, the priority dates are as follows:
      • Your preference category requires a labor certification from the Department of Labor (DOL).
        • DOL accepts the labor certification application for processing.
        • To preserve the priority date, the petitioner must file Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker, with USCIS within 180 days of the DOL approval date on the labor certification, or else the labor certification is no longer valid
      • Your preference category does not require a DOL labor certification
        • USCIS accepts Form I-140 for processing to classify the sponsored worker under the requested preference category.
      • You are a fourth preference special immigrant, including religious workers
        • USCIS accepts Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant, for processing.
      • You are a fifth preference investor
        • USCIS accepts Form I-526, Immigrant Petition by Alien Entrepreneur, for processing.
  • Current. The Visa Bulletin uses “Current (C)” to indicate that there’s no backlog/no wait time for a green card. A priority date becomes current when it reaches the front of the line which indicates a green card is available. An entire preference category can also be current – if that category has no backlog/wait time. For example, in the December 2020 Visa Bulletin, the F2A category is current.
  • Chargeability area. The Visa Bulletin uses this term for the country of origin of the green card applicant. You need to understand this because, in addition to category caps, there are country caps. Your own green card will be “charged” toward the annual quota of green cards available to citizens of your country of birth. Generally, the changeability areas are either specific countries (such as China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines) – or a catch-all for all the other countries.
  • Immediate relative. This is a spouse, a parent, or a child (if they’re under 21) of a US citizen.
  • Cut-off date. The dates on the Visa Bulletin tables are called “cut-off dates.” This date is essentially the front of the green card line. If your priority date is before/earlier than the cut-off date – then you can apply for a green card. If your priority date is after/later than the cut-off date, you need to keep waiting in line.

The priority date can change based on visa retrogression – shifts in priority dates due to overdemand in some family-based or employment-based categories.

China Map hand touch

Country-Specific Columns

The Visa Bulletin has separate columns for the following countries:

  • China
  • India
  • Mexico
  • Philippines

For these countries, the backlog is great and weight time can be very long. This means applicants from these countries have to overcome two caps burdens:3

  • The country of origin cap burden
  • The family or employment law cap burden – with the exception of the F2A category where 75% of green card holders (and their family members) are exempt from this cap burden. Spouses [and unmarried minor children?] from the four listed countries generally only have to wait a few extra weeks for their green cards. Other relatives from these listed countries may have to wait more than a decade.

In some cases, a “derivative” parent or child can shift their country of origin to take advantage of better country caps – by charging their priority date to another relative.

filing cabinet

What are the Visa Bulletin Charts?

The Visa Bulletin uses four charts to determine your place in line. How to use and read these charts are discussed in a separate article.

The visa bulletin has four charts that explain where you are in line for a green card.

  1. Family. Final action dates for family-sponsored preference cases
  2. Family. Dates for filing family-sponsored visa applications
  3. Employment. Final action dates for employment-based preference cases
  4. Employment. Dates For Filing Of Employment-Based Visa Applications

For help understanding when you can apply for a family-based or employment-based visa or green card, call Herman Legal Group at +1-216-696-6170 or complete our contact form to speak with us.

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