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Understanding the U.S. Visa Bulletin

Navigating the intricate details of the U.S. visa bulletin can be daunting, especially with various terms, numbers, and dates critical to your visa application. But understanding these intricacies is crucial as they directly affect your visa application.

This article talks about the complex rules of the U.S. visa bulletin. It also offers insights into how visa applicants can interpret the bulletin as they navigate through their immigration journey.

What Is a 'Visa Bulletin'?

The U.S. Visa Bulletin contains an updated waiting list of immigrants applying for a U.S. visa. The U.S. Department of State (DOS) publishes the monthly bulletin, declaring the estimated wait times for consular processing. This allows visa applicants to understand their place in the visa queue. It also gives the recent date when a visa number is available for a specific visa category. The visa bulletin also reveals the cut-off dates for filing visa applications.

What Is a 'Priority Date'?

A priority date is an important detail in the immigration process. As a visa applicant, this indicates your spot in the visa queue. Filing the immigrant visa application with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) often marks this moment. For employment-based visas, the priority date is when the Department of Labor accepts the application for labor certification for processing.

You can see the priority date on the petition filed on your behalf. For instance, for prospective immigrants, you can see your priority date on your Notice of Action Form I-797. For family-sponsored immigrants, you can see it on the Petition for Alien Relative Form I-130.

Note that the waiting time before you can get your immigrant visa or adjustment of status depends on the following factors:

  • Per country visa limitations
  • Demand and supply of immigrant visas
  • Number of visas allocated on your preference category

What Is 'Retrogression'?

The cut-off dates reflected on the visa bulletin often change. In some cases, it moves forward, meaning the visa applicant does not have to wait as long before they can get their U.S. visa. But sometimes, it moves backward, meaning they must wait longer than announced in the visa bulletin. This backward movement is "visa retrogression."

For example, a visa applicant checked the U.S. visa bulletin and saw that his wait time was nine months. But, the next month's visa bulletin pushed his wait time to 12 months because of a rise in visa applications. This is retrogression.

Retrogression happens when more applicants are in specific visa categories than those available that month. Visa retrogression often happens when a visa category or country meets or is about to meet the annual limit.

What Is the Numerical Limit of U.S. Visas Every Year?

Due to the increasing number of green card applications every year, a backlog of visa applications happens. The bulletin exists to allow Congress to put a limit on the number of green cards issued every year.

Generally, there is a numerical limit to family-sponsored and employment-based preference visas. The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) sets the yearly limit of family-sponsored preference visas to 226,000. For employment-based visas, the worldwide level is at least 140,000. According to immigration laws, these annual visa limits can increase if the visa allocation from the previous year doesn't' get used.

Note that the annual quota does not apply to the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. So, there can be an unlimited number of visa issuances for the following:

  • Spouses of U.S. citizens
  • U.S. citizens' unmarried sons and daughters under 21
  • Parents of U.S. citizens, where the U.S. citizen is at least 21
  • Widows or widowers of U.S. citizens if the citizen filed the visa application before they died. Or if the widow or widower applied within two years after the death of the U.S. citizen's spouse.

The annual limit of visas may also depend on each country. For instance, countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. can take part in the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program (DV Program). The DV Program randomly selects 50,000 immigrant visa applicants from select counties. The selected foreign nationals are then allowed to gain a green card or adjustment of status.

Visa Allocation and Priority Categories

The State Department issues specific rules on how U.S. visas get allocated to people. These rules are as follows:

  1. First come, first served: The U.S. visa availability is often based on the filing dates. This means that the earlier you file your application, the earlier you can get in line to get a visa.
  2. Family preference immigrants: This means the government gives your immediate relatives — your spouse and children — the same status and consideration. This applies to immediate relatives trying to follow or join the principal visa holder.
  3. Per country limit: Some countries have more immigrant applications than others. With this, the U.S. government sets a per-country limit for the number of visas it can issue. When this happens, there are special rules that apply. The following countries have exceeded visa limits: China, India, Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and the Philippines.

Visa Allocation for Family-Sponsored Immigrant Visas:

Section 203(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act specifies particular allotments for family-based immigrant visas based on preference categories. The visa categories are:

Preference Category Description Visa Allocation

First Preference (F1) Unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. Citizens 23,400 plus unused visa numbers from the fourth preference

Second Preference Spouses, children, unmarried sons and daughters of permanent residents 114,200 plus unused visa preferences and numbers above the 226,000 worldwide

Third preference (F3) Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens 23,400 plus any unused numbers from first and second preferences

Fourth preference Brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens 65,000 plus any unused numbers from the first three preferences

How To Use the Visa Bulletin

Visa applicants use the visa bulletin to check their priority date. Your "priority date" is when your sponsoring relative or employer properly filed the immigrant visa petition with USCIS. But, if your visa requires a labor certificate, your priority date is when the Department of Labor accepts your labor certification application.

The priority date is crucial because a visa is available for applicants with a priority date earlier than the cut-off date listed in the visa bulletin. Use this month's visa bulletin to see if your priority date is current by following the steps listed below:

Step 1: Based on your visa petition type, look at the family-sponsored or employment-based chart on the visa bulletin.

Step 2: Find your visa type in the left-hand column.

Step 3: Stay in that row and move directly to the right to find the cut-off date for your country.

Step 4: If your priority date is earlier than the cut-off date listed on the visa bulletin, or if the date on the bulletin is marked "C" (for current), then a visa is available for you, and you may file your adjustment of status application.

To view this month's Visa Bulletin, visit the State Department's site.

Seek Legal Advice from an Immigration Attorney

Understanding the complexities of the U.S. visa bulletin, keeping track of potential retrogression, and checking your priority date can be overwhelming. There are also frequent changes to the visa queue and immigration policies. So, consult an immigration law attorney near you. They can help you understand the intricacies of the U.S. visa bulletin. With their experience and knowledge in immigration law, they can offer legal advice particularly tailored to your case. This ensures that you are compliant with the requirements of the immigration process, giving you the best chance of success.

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