How to Read and Understand the U.S. Visa Bulletin

13 min. read
Published: May 3, 2024
Last Updated: May 03, 2024
  • The information provided on this blog is for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or a substitute for consultation with a licensed attorney. For personalized guidance, please consult with our attorneys.

Navigating the U.S. Visa Bulletin can be one of the most challenging steps for immigrants hoping to manage their path to residency in the United States. This detailed document, updated monthly by the Department of State, offers crucial insights into visa availability and priority dates, which are vital for determining when applicants can move forward with their visa applications. 

This guide aims to simplify the process by explaining how to read and interpret the Visa Bulletin. It provides a clear, practical approach tailored for both family-based and employment-based visa applicants. 

What is a Visa Bulletin?

The Visa Bulletin is a monthly publication by the U.S. Department of State that provides updated information on the availability of immigrant visa numbers. It’s important for people who are applying for a green card through family or employment-based categories, as it indicates when they may proceed with their visa application.

How is the Visa Bulletin Organized?

  1. Visa Quotas and Categories: The U.S. has annual limits on the number of immigrant visas available in different categories, and the Visa Bulletin shows the progress in these quotas. Each category of visa has a line number or “priority date.”
  2. Priority Dates: A priority date is the date when an applicant first filed their immigration petition. Visa availability depends on one’s priority date, the demand for visas in that category, and per-country limitations.
  3. Sections of the Bulletin: The Visa Bulletin is systematically organized into two principal sections: family-sponsored preferences and employment-based preferences, each consisting of various categories and chargeability areas (countries). Additionally, the bulletin features two key charts: the “Final Action Dates” and the “Dates for Filing.” These charts are essential for determining when applicants can proceed with their visa applications. To understand which chart applies to your situation and how to effectively use this information, refer to the detailed guide provided below.
  4. Checking the Bulletin: Applicants must compare their priority date to the dates listed in the Visa Bulletin to determine if a visa is available for them, allowing them to move forward in the application process or to prepare for when a visa becomes available.

What are the Preference Categories in the Visa Bulletin?

In the Visa Bulletin, preference categories are used to organize and prioritize the allocation of immigrant visas. These categories are divided primarily into family-sponsored and employment-based visas, each with its own set of preferences. Here’s a brief overview of each:

What are Employment-Based Preference Categories?

  • 1st Preference (EB-1): Priority Workers — This category includes individuals with extraordinary abilities in arts, sciences, education, business, or athletics, outstanding professors and researchers, and certain multinational executives and managers.
  • 2nd Preference (EB-2): Advanced Degrees or Exceptional Ability — Professionals holding advanced degrees, or individuals with exceptional ability in the arts, sciences, or business fall under this category.
  • 3rd Preference (EB-3): Skilled Workers and Professionals — This preference includes skilled workers with at least two years of job experience or training, and professionals holding at least a bachelor’s degree.
  • Other Workers (EB-3): Unskilled Workers — This sub-category encompasses aliens who have less than two years of experience or training in occupations that require less than two years of training or experience.
  • 4th Preference (EB-4): Special Immigrants — This category includes certain special immigrants like religious workers, employees of U.S. foreign service posts, retired employees of international organizations, and others eligible through specific provisions.
  • 5th Preference (EB-5): Immigrant Investors — This preference is designated for foreign investors who invest in commercial enterprises that contribute to the U.S. economy and create or preserve at least 10 full-time jobs for U.S. workers.

What are Family-Based Preference Categories?

  • 1st Preference (F1): Unmarried Adult Children of U.S. Citizens — This category is for unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, along with their minor children.
  • 2nd Preference (F2): Relatives of Permanent Residents
  • F2A: Spouses and minor children of permanent residents.
  • F2B: Unmarried sons and daughters (21 years of age and older) of permanent residents.
  • 3rd Preference (F3): Married Children of U.S. Citizens — This preference includes married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and their spouses and minor children.
  • 4th Preference (F4): Siblings of Adult U.S. Citizens — This category is for brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens, and their spouses and minor children.

How to Find Your Priority Date?

The priority date for an immigrant visa is a crucial element in the U.S. immigration process, serving as a placeholder in the queue for obtaining a visa. It varies by the category of visa and the specifics of the application process. Here’s how the priority date is determined for different immigrant visa categories:

  • Family-Based Visa Categories
  • Employment-Based Visa Categories
  • Diversity Visa Lottery

Family-Based Visa Categories:

  • F1, F2A, F2B, F3, F4 Categories: The priority date is the date when the U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident sponsor files the immigrant visa petition (Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative) with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Employment-Based Visa Categories:

  • EB-1 (First Preference): For most applicants, the priority date is the date when the immigrant petition (Form I-140, Petition for Alien Worker) is properly filed with USCIS.
  • EB-2 and EB-3 (Second and Third Preferences): If a PERM Labor Certification is required, the priority date is the date on which the labor certification application is filed with the Department of Labor. If no labor certification is required (e.g., for National Interest Waivers), the priority date is the date the I-140 is filed.
  • EB-4 (Fourth Preference) and EB-5 (Fifth Preference): The priority date is the date the petition (either I-360 or I-526, respectively) is filed with USCIS.

Diversity Visa Lottery:

  • The priority date does not apply to Diversity Visa Lottery winners. Instead, eligibility to apply for a visa comes from being selected in the lottery for that specific fiscal year.

Which Chart to Check: “Dates for Filing” or “Final Action Dates”?

If you are currently in the U.S. and planning to apply for an immigrant visa through the adjustment of status process, it’s crucial to know which chart to consult. 

Adjustment of status is a procedure that enables individuals already present in the United States to apply for lawful permanent resident status or a green card, without the need to return to their home country for visa processing. 

When applying for an immigrant visa by adjustment of status, it’s crucial to monitor the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website monthly. This page will guide you on which of the two charts from the Visa Bulletin you should use to determine when to file your adjustment of status application. Generally, if there are more immigrant visas available than applicants, USCIS will instruct applicants to use the “Dates for Filing” chart. Otherwise, the “Final Action Dates” chart will be recommended. 

How Should You Read the Visa Bulletin?

To effectively read the Visa Bulletin, you must have three essential pieces of information. 

  1. Firstly, you should know which visa category you belong to. 
  2. Secondly, you should be aware of your priority date. 
  3. Lastly, if you are applying from within the U.S., you must determine whether to consult the “Dates for Filing” or “Final Action Dates” charts.

Once you have gathered all this information, you must check whether your visa category indicates “C” (current) or the date listed is later than your priority date. If this is the case, you can proceed with submitting your immigration application to USCIS. However, if your category is not current or the date listed is earlier than your priority date, you must wait for your category to become current before submitting your application.

Why is It Important to Read the Visa Bulletin Correctly?

Reading the Visa Bulletin correctly is crucial for several reasons, especially for individuals navigating the U.S. immigration process:

  • Timely Application Processing: The Visa Bulletin informs applicants about when they can apply for an immigrant visa or adjust their status to permanent resident. By understanding which chart to refer to—either the “Dates for Filing” or “Final Action Dates”—applicants can accurately determine the optimal time to submit their applications.
  • Avoiding Delays: Misinterpreting the Visa Bulletin can lead to premature or late applications, resulting in delays or rejections. Correct interpretation ensures that applicants only move forward when visas are actually available, avoiding unnecessary complications.
  • Planning and Preparation: For individuals and families planning their futures, knowing when they are likely to receive a visa can impact decisions about employment, education, and residency. The Visa Bulletin provides a forecast that can help in making informed decisions about these significant life events.
  • Legal Compliance: Staying compliant with immigration laws is vital. The Visa Bulletin helps ensure that applicants adhere to the legal framework by applying within the appropriate windows, thus maintaining their eligibility for visa approval.
  • Managing Expectations: The Visa Bulletin helps set realistic expectations about the immigration timeline. Understanding how long it might take to obtain a visa based on priority dates and visa availability can help manage personal and financial planning more effectively.

Understanding the Important Terms in the Visa Bulletin

Here’s an explanation of the key terms found in the Visa Bulletin:

  • Current (C): This designation means that visa numbers are available for all qualified applicants in that category, regardless of their priority date.
  • Unauthorized (U): Indicates that visa numbers are not authorized for issuance because the category is oversubscribed.
  • Immediate Relative: These are categories of family-based visas that do not have yearly numerical limits. They include spouses, minor children, and parents of U.S. citizens.
  • Cut-Off Date: This term is often used interchangeably with Final Action Date and indicates the same process—the last priority date that will be processed for a visa in a given month.
  • Chargeability Area: This refers to the country against which an immigrant visa application is counted. Usually, it’s the applicant’s country of birth, and it affects their place in line due to per-country visa limitations.

What Is a Visa Retrogression?

The Visa Bulletin’s cut-off dates usually progress forward over time, but there can be instances where this is not the case. Fluctuations in demand for visa numbers from applicants with varying priority dates can cause the cut-off dates to move at different speeds, or even retrogress. When visa retrogression occurs, it means that there are more applicants seeking a visa in a specific category or country than there are visas available for that month. This typically happens towards the end of the fiscal year as visa issuance approaches the annual category or per-country limitations. Keep in mind that the cut-off dates can change from one month to the next, even if your priority date met the previous month’s cut-off date. However, when the new fiscal year begins on October 1, a new supply of visas is usually made available, which may return the dates to where they were before retrogression.

Why is the Visa Bulletin Not Moving?

The Visa Bulletin might not move, or priority dates might not advance for several reasons, which generally relate to the dynamics of supply and demand for visas:

  • Annual Visa Limits: Each visa category has annual numerical limits set by U.S. law, and there are also per-country caps. Once these limits are reached, no further visas can be issued until the next fiscal year, causing the dates to stall.
  • High Demand: If there is a high demand for visas from applicants in specific categories or countries, the available visas might be quickly utilized, causing the priority dates to stop advancing and potentially even retrogress.
  • Processing Delays: Administrative or processing issues within U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) or the Department of State can slow down the movement of priority dates. This could be due to technical issues, staffing shortages, or policy changes affecting processing times.
  • Fluctuations in Demand: Changes in the application rates, such as an unexpected number of applications or the use of visas from other categories, can affect the movement of priority dates. For example, if fewer people than expected decline to proceed with their application after their priority date becomes current, this can slow down the movement for others.
  • Legal or Policy Changes: Occasionally, changes in immigration law or policy can impact how visas are allocated and processed, potentially freezing or slowing the progression of priority dates in the Visa Bulletin.

Get Personalized Assistance From Oguz Law’s Immigration Attorneys

Navigating the complexities of the U.S. immigration system can be daunting, but you don’t have to face it alone. Get personalized assistance from the experienced immigration attorneys at Oguz Law. Our dedicated team is equipped to guide you through every step of your immigration journey, ensuring that you understand your options and are prepared for the visa application process. 

Frequently Asked Questions About the U.S. Visa Bulletin

How Often is the Visa Bulletin Updated?

The Visa Bulletin is updated monthly by the United States Department of State. It typically gets published around the middle of each month and provides information for the upcoming month. 

How Often Does Priority Dates Change?

Priority dates in the Visa Bulletin can change monthly, depending on several factors such as the number of visa applications received, the number of visas issued, and the per-country visa limits. These dates can advance, remain the same, or sometimes retrogress (move backward), based on the demand for visas in specific categories and countries. 

What Does Visa Backlog Mean?

A “visa backlog” occurs when there are more visa applications than there are available spots, as determined by the annual numerical limits set by U.S. immigration laws. This backlog is common in visa categories where the demand exceeds the yearly allocated quotas, leading to a pile-up of unprocessed or pending applications.

What Should I Do if My Category in the Visa Bulletin is Oversubscribed?

If your category in the Visa Bulletin is oversubscribed, the primary action you can take is to regularly monitor the Visa Bulletin. Staying informed about any changes in your priority date is essential, as this will help you prepare for when your application can move forward. While this won’t expedite the process, it ensures that you are ready to act promptly when your category does open up.

Can I Switch From the Family-Based to an Employment-Based Category If It Has a Short Wait Time?

Yes, you can switch from a family-based to an employment-based visa category if it has a shorter wait time, but only if you meet the necessary eligibility requirements for the category. This switch would require initiating a new application process. 


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