How to Read the State Department Visa Bulletin

What Is the Visa Bulletin?

Under U.S. immigration law, there is an annual quota on the number of persons who may be granted lawful permanent resident (LPR) status in any category. Generally speaking, the annual quotas allow for admission of 226,000 family based LPRs and 140,000 employment-based LPRs. The quotas do not apply to the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, meaning their spouses, parents, and unmarried children under age 21.

Once the annual quota has been filled, the category is called “oversubscribed” and applicants must wait. They may be granted LPR status in the order of their “priority date.”

To be more precise, an applicant’s “priority date” is locked when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approves a Form I-130 (Petition for Alien Relative), Form I-140 (Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker), or Form I-526 (Immigrant Petition for Alien Entrepreneur). Then, the applicant must wait until an “immigrant visa number” is immediately available for his or her priority date. Only if an immigrant visa number is immediately available can a person complete the LPR application process by filing with a Form I-485, Application for Adjustment of Status, with USCIS or filing an immigrant visa application with a U.S. Embassy or Consulate abroad.

The Visa Bulletin is a monthly publication of the U.S. State Department showing the availability of immigrant visa numbers for each category.

The Basics

The Form I-797 approval notice issued by USCIS for your I-130, I-140, or I-526 should list your preference category and the corresponding section of law:

Sample USCIS I-526 approval notice

What Is My Preference Category?

For employment-based immigrants, the preference categories include:

  • 1st: Aliens with extraordinary ability, outstanding professors and researchers, and multinational executives and managers. Section 203(b)(1).
  • 2nd: Aliens who are members of the professions holding advanced degrees and aliens of exceptional ability in the sciences, arts, or business. Section 203(b)(2).
  • 3rd: Professionals with bachelor’s degrees and skilled workers (with two or more years of work experience). Section 203(b)(3)(A)(i) or (ii).
    • Other workers. Section 203(b)(3)(A)(iii)
  • 4th: Special immigrants. Section 203(b)(4).
    • Certain religious workers
  • 5th: Employment creation. Section 203(b)(5):
    • Targeted employment areas / regional centers / and pilot programs. Section 203(b)(5)(C)(iii).

For family-sponsored immigrants, the preference categories include:

  • F1: Unmarried adult sons and daughters of U.S. citizens. Section 203(a)(1).
  • F2A: Spouses and unmarried children under 21 years old of lawful permanent residents. Section 203(a)(2)(A).
  • F2B: Unmarried sons and daughters over 21 years old of lawful permanent residents. Section 203(a)(2)(B).
  • F3: Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens. Section 203(a)(3).
  • F4: Brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens. Section 203(a)(4).

What Is My Priority Date?

Your priority date should also be shown on the Form I-797 approval notice for your immigrant petition issued by USCIS. It is the date that your immigrant petition was received by USCIS, or the date your labor certification application was received by the U.S. Department of Labor.

What Is My Chargeability Area?

Your chargeability area is generally your country of birth. However, there are four exceptions to this rule:

  • If you are accompanying or following to join your spouse, you may be charged to your spouse’s country.
  • A child may be charged to the country of either parent whom they are accompanying or following to join.
  • If you were born in a country where neither parent was born or resided, you may be charged to the country of either parent.
  • If you were previously a U.S. citizen but lost your citizenship, you are charged to the country of your current citizenship or, if you have no citizenship, to your country of last residence.

Your chargeability area is important because there is a per-country limit. Generally speaking, no more than 7% of the total number of family-sponsored and employment-based visas may be issued to nationals of any chargeability area.

How to Read the Visa Bulletin

Sample Excerpt from the Visa Bulletin

Step 1: Decide whether to use the “Dates for Filing” chart or the Final Action Dates” chart.

  • “Dates for Filing” chart:
    • If your Priority Date is earlier than the Cutoff Date in this chart, you can gather and submit required documents to Department of State’s National Visa Center. NVC will tell you when you can begin submissions.
    • You may be able to file a Form I-485 with USCIS, if USCIS specifically authorizes this in Adjustment of Status Filing Charts from the Visa Bulletin.
  • “Final Actions Dates” chart: If your Priority Dates is earlier than the Cutoff Date in this chart:
    • You can file an I-485 application with USCIS,
    • USCIS can approve your pending Form I-485, or
    • a Consulate can issue you immigrant visa.

Step 2: Locate the current month’s Visa Bulletin.

Step 3: On the family-sponsored or employment-based table, find the row for your preference category.

Step 4: Find the column for your chargeability area.

Step 5: Compare your priority date to the cut-off date shown. If your priority date is earlier than the cut-off date, then an immigrant visa is immediately available. The following entries may appear instead of a cut-off date:

  • “U” (Unavailable): This means that no visas are available for this preference category and chargeability area this month.
  • “C” (Current): This means immigrant visas immediately available for all priority dates.

How Can I Predict When an Immigrant Visa Number Will Be Available to Me?

It is difficult to predict when an immigrant visa number will become available. Advancement of cut-off dates is sometimes erratic, and the cut-off dates sometimes even retrogress. How the cut-off dates move depends on several factors, including how many people have approved immigrant petitions; how many of those apply for and are granted adjustment of status or an immigrant visa; and how fast the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of Labor, and USCIS adjudicate immigration cases, using up the quota.

Sometimes it is helpful to look at historical trends of how priority dates have advanced for each preference category and chargeability area. See the State Department’s “Comprehensive Lists of Final Action Dates.” Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future trends.

What Is Special about Each October Visa Bulletin?

The October Visa Bulletin marks the start of the new Fiscal Year (FY) for the U.S. Government – it runs from October 1 to the following September 30. For example, the FY2021 runs from October 1, 2020, through September 30, 2021. The October Visa Bulletin shows forward movement of visa numbers for a couple reasons:

  1. Each new FY starts with the full amount of visa numbers under the law; and
  2. Unused visa numbers from Family-Based immigration are added to the total Employment-Based numbers.

Other Issues to Discuss with Your Attorney

  • If you multiple approved petitions, can the priority date from any earlier petition be assigned to a later petition? These rules can be complex.
  • What is the impact on your application if you have a pending I-485 or immigrant visa application and there has been a “retrogression” in the cut-off dates, meaning that the an immigrant visa number is no longer immediately available?

Our law firm closely monitors the monthly Visa Bulletin. We encourage you to contact us with any question.

3 responses to “How to Read the State Department Visa Bulletin”

  1. arishel Avatar

    I wish to know more on filing form i-824 on following to join for my husband.I got married to he after having my immigrant visa and i am permanent resident now.Do i qualify to file it.Since i read on the immigration website that the marriage was to be before you became a lawful US permanent resident.So when is a person considered to be a lawful permanent resident?

  2. […] Family-sponsored preference category: This refers to the immigrant visa category for the relatives of both U.S. citizens and LPRs who are subject to numerical limitations placed upon immigrant visas by immigration law. To learn more about the waiting lists for the various preference categories, see our firm’s article on How to Read the State Department Visa Bulletin – Chodorow Law Offices. […]

  3. […] For more, see How to Read the State Department Visa Bulletin. […]

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