How to Read the Visa Bulletin (Step-by-Step)

How to Read the Visa Bulletin (Step-by-Step)

How to Read the Visa Bulletin (Step-by-Step) 2560 1707 Tess Douglas

Complete Guide to the Visa Bulletin

Let’s say you know you are eligible for a green card.  Maybe your sister is a U.S. citizen, or your employer sponsored you and you already have a certified PERM in hand.  Fantastic, you should have your green card in no time, right? Unfortunately, no, not right.  You might have to wait in a line—that could be up to 20 years—until you get your green card.

But wait, if you are eligible for a green card and you have an approved petition right now, why can’t you get your green card today?

The answer: the visa bulletin.

The visa bulletin is the waitlist for green card applications.  It tells you whether you can apply for your green card now or if you have to wait in line.  It exists because the U.S. government limits the number of green cards given out each year—meaning only a certain number of green cards are available for each type of application and each country.  So, if you are from a country with a lot of people filing for the same kind of green card application, like siblings of U.S. citizens from Mexico, then you will need to wait in a long line.

The visa bulletin is updated and issued every month by the Department of State.  If you take a look at the Department of State’s visa bulletin page, it is incredibly confusing and overwhelming. There are several charts, many different headings, and you have to scroll down at least 10 times to get to the bottom of the page.  Don’t feel bad if all you want to do is close the page the moment you look at it.  Honestly, even lawyers struggle to understand it.

Sadly, closing down the window won’t help you determine when you can file your green card application, so you will have to push ahead and figure out how to read the chart. Here are the steps to take to read it:

Identify your green card category

The first step to reading the visa bulletin is identifying your “preference category.”  This just means the type of green card application that you would file.  There are 3 overarching options:

  1. Family-based, if you are applying for a green card based on your family relationship with a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident;
  2. Employment-based, if you are applying for a green card based on your employment in the United States;
  3. Diversity visa, if you are applying for a green card because you won the diversity visa lottery.

If you will be filing a family-based green card application, the categories are separated out based on the type of family relationship you have with your family member who is sponsoring you:

F1 (first preference) Unmarried adults (age 21 and over) who are children of U.S. citizens
F2A (second preference A) Spouses and unmarried minor children (under age 21) of green card holders
F2B (second preference B) Unmarried adult children (age 21 and over) of green card holders
F3 (third preference) Married children of U.S. citizens, regardless of age
F4 (fourth preference) Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens

If you are an immediate relative of a U.S. citizen–—which includes spouses (a.k.a. marriage-based green card), parents, and unmarried children under who are under 21—then you do not have to use the visa bulletin at all! You never have to wait in line to apply for your green card.

Once you identify your family preference category based on this chart, you are ready to move on to the next step in determining how to read the visa bulletin.

If you will be filing an employment-based green card application, the categories are separated out based on the type of employment green card you are seeking.  If you are not sure, you should check the petition filed in your case (such as the I-140 petition or the I-360 petition), or you can reference this summary of the categories:

1st
  • EB1A (first preference A) – Extraordinary Ability
  • EB1B (first preference B) – Outstanding professor or researcher
  • EB1C (first preference C) – Multinational executive or manager
2nd
  • EB2 Professions with an advanced degree (PhD or MS degree)
  • Workers with Exceptional ability
    • *This category includes National Interest Waivers (NIW)
3rd
  • Skilled workers (BS degree)
Other Workers
  • Unskilled workers (less than two years training or experience required for the position)
4th
  • Broadcasters
  • Ministers of Religion
  • Employees of the U.S. Government Abroad
  • Employees of the Panama Canal Company or Canal Zone Government; Employees of the U.S. Government in the Panama Canal Zone; Employees of the Panama Canal Company or Canal Zone Government on April 1st, 1979
  • Iraqi and Afghan interpreters/translators
  • Iraqi and Afghan nationals who were employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government
  • Foreign Medical Graduates
  • Retired International Organization Employees; Unmarried Sons and Daughters of International Organization Employees; Surviving Spouses of deceased International Organization Employees
  • Special Immigrant Juveniles
  • Persons Recruited Outside of the United States Who Have Served or are Enlisted to Serve in the U.S. Armed Forces
  • Retired NATO-6 civilians; Unmarried Sons and Daughters of NATO-6 civilians; Surviving Spouses of deceased NATO-6 civilian employees
  • Beneficiaries of petitions or labor certification applications rendered void due to a terrorist act on September 11th, 2001
Certain Religious Workers
  • Workers in religious vocations or occupations
5th Non-Regional Center
(C5 and T5)
  • Investors (not invested in regional centers)
5th Regional Center
(I5 and R5)
  • Investors (invested in regional centers)

If you will be filing your green card application because you won the diversity visa lottery, then you have your own special visa bulletin chart.  There are no “preference categories” for the diversity visa lottery, so you can skip this step.

Now that you have identified the type of green card application, the next step is to determine the “country of chargeability.”

Determine your country of chargeability

Remember, the green card waitlists are based on country.  So, we need to determine what country line applies to your application. This is called the “country of chargeability.”  Most of the time this is a simple step based on where you were born.  For example, if you were born in Argentina, then your “country of chargeability” is typically Argentina.  However, if you are applying for your green card with your spouse or parent, then you may be able to use their country of birth instead (for example, if you were born in China but your spouse who is applying with you was born in France, you could use France as the country of chargeability, which could mean a shorter wait time for your green card).

If you are a diversity visa applicant, then the applicable country is the one reflected on you document that indicates that you were selected for the diversity visa lottery.  On the visa bulletin, you will look for the region where this country is located (for example, if your selection country is Australia, then your region is Oceania on the visa bulletin).

Find your priority date

The next step to reading the visa bulletin is identifying your priority date.

For family-based cases, the priority date will typically be the date that USCIS received your I‑130 petition. You can find this on your I‑130 receipt or approval notice (I‑797 notice).  If there was a divorce, marriage, death, or naturalization that occurred after the I‑130 was filed, then the priority date may be converted to a different date.  This is an issue where it may be useful to have an attorney assess the impact of one of these events on your case.

For employment-based cases, your priority date depends on your preference category (e.g., EB1, EB2, EB3, EB4, EB5).  The priority date will be:

  • EB1: The date that USCIS receives the I-140 petition
  • EB2 & EB3: The date the labor certification is properly filed with the Department of Labor (DOL)
  • EB4: The date that USCIS receives the I-360 petition
  • EB5: The date that USCIS receives the I-526 petition
Attorney Tip

For EB1, EB2, and EB3 cases, you can use the priority date from a previous petition (unless there was fraud or revocation of that petition).  So, if your employer filed an EB3 I-140 for you 10 years ago, but you recently filed and received an approved EB1 I-140 petition, you get to use the priority date from the EB3 I-140 within your EB1 preference category.

For the diversity visa chart, you will not have a priority date, but rather a “cut-off number.”  You can find this on the document for the Department of State that indicates that you were selected for the diversity visa lottery. There will be a case number that looks something like this: 2021AF00012121.  Your “cut-off” number is the last 8 digits are your case number.

Figure out what chart to use:

Final Action Dates vs. Dates for Filing

We are almost to the end, can you believe it? But, this is one of the most perplexing parts of the visa bulletin.  Even as immigration attorneys, we often have to re-read the instructions for this step to ensure we are reading the visa bulletin correctly.

There are two charts that look nearly identical within the visa bulletin: the “Final Action Dates” and the “Dates for Filing” charts.  How do you know which one to use?

The chart that applies to you depends on whether you are applying for your green card within the United States (through adjustment of status with USCIS) or outside of the United States (through a consulate abroad).

If you are applying for your green card from outside the United States (at a U.S. consulate/embassy), then you can use the “Dates for Filing” chart, which will tell you whether you can go ahead and file your application through the National Visa Center (NVC).

If you are applying for your green card from within the United States, then you might think, okay, the other chart must be for me. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.  Sometimes you might use the “Final Action Dates” chart and other times you might use the “Dates for Filing Charts.”  It varies each month.  After the Department of State releases the visa bulletin for the month, USCIS will release a statement identifying what chart adjustment of status applicants must use.  USCIS publishes this visa bulletin chart announcement here.

Read the visa bulletin

We made it.  Your last step is to use all the information you have gathered about your case through these steps to actually read the visa bulletin.  You will find the appropriate chart, look at the country of chargeability column, and find the date that applies to your preference category.

Here is a sample chart and what you are looking for:

If the column shows a “C” then your priority date is “current” and you can file your green card application now.  If your priority date is earlier or equal to the date listed on the chart then you can also can file now.

You must look at the current month’s visa bulletin to determine what priority dates are current.  Priority dates can “retrogress,” meaning that even if your priority date is current this month, next month it may no longer be current and you may no longer be able to file your green card application.

You’ve read the visa bulletin, now what?

It is possible to understand the visa bulletin without the help of an immigration attorney.  However, if you are unfamiliar with the U.S. immigration system, it can be quite daunting to figure out on your own.  Perhaps you would like some assistance confirming that you have read the visa bulletin correctly, or you’ve managed to read the visa bulletin successfully to discover that it’s time to file your green card application and you want to learn more about how an immigration attorney can help you file your case.  In either scenario, our attorneys at DGO Legal would be happy to discuss your case with you. You can learn more about or services here or schedule a strategy session with one of our attorneys here.

Tess Douglas

I provide representation for a diverse range of immigration matters, including nonimmigrant visas, immigrant visas, criminal immigration issues, appeals, and federal litigation.

All stories by:Tess Douglas

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