What is the Visa Bulletin?
Published each month, the Department of State’s visa bulletin announces the estimated waiting times for certain family and employment based visa petitions. In other words, the visa bulletin will tell you how long the waiting line is for certain immigrant-visa categories and allow you to determine approximately where in line a particular petition is at any given time. However, it is important to understand that the visa bulletin is only a snapshot in time, and not necessarily an accurate indicator of how long it will take for a particular visa petition to become current.
What are visa preference categories?
The preference categories are the visa categories with waiting lines. The visa preference categories include immigrant visa petitions for persons who are not the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens (or who are not otherwise exempt from the preference categories). These family-based preference categories encompass most, but by no means all, visa petitions filed for potential immigrants who do not qualify under the law as the “immediate relatives” of a U.S. citizen petitioner. There are four categories of family, preference categories, labelled in the bulletin as F1-F4. The first category is for the unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizen petitioners, which, in immigration-speak, refers to the offspring of U.S. citizens who are 21 years of age or older and unmarried (unmarried children under 21 are considered immediate relatives and therefore do not have to wait in line for an immigrant visa). The second category applies to the immediate relatives of petitioners who are not U.S. citizens but instead lawful permanent residents. This category includes the spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21 of green-card holders. The next category is for the married sons and daughters (again, over age 21) of U.S. citizens, and the fourth category is reserved for the siblings of citizens.
The following table presents the four, family preference categories:
|Category||Definition||# of Visas Available|
|F1||Unmarried Sons and Daughters of U.S. Citizens||23,400 (+ any numbers not used for F4 category)|
|F2A||Spouses and Children of Permanent Residents||77% of the overall F2 numbers, of which 75% are exempt from the per-country limit|
|F2B||Unmarried Sons and Daughters (21 years of age or older) of Permanent Residents||23% of the overall F2 numbers|
|F-3||Married Sons and Daughters of U.S. Citizens||23,400, plus any numbers not used for the F1 and F2 categories|
|F-4||Brothers and Sisters of Adult U.S. Citizens||65,000, plus any numbers not used for the F1, F2, and F3 categories|
Why is the Visa Bulletin Important?
The visa bulletin is the best means for determining how long the line is for each of the preference categories, as well the current place in line for a any particular visa petition. The dates listed in the bulletin are the current priority dates for the various visa categories. To be eligible for a visa, an aspiring immigrant must be the beneficiary of an approved visa petition with an “individual priority date” before the corresponding date listed in the visa bulletin. The individual priority date is shown on the receipt notices and the approval notice for the visa petition. By matching this date against the appropriate, current priority date shown in the bulletin, the hopeful immigrant (and his or her petitioning relative) can determine where in line their petition is.
Here is an example: Suppose that Matilda, a U.S. citizen, files an I-130 petition for her unmarried son George, an Australian national, and the petition receives an individual priority date of July 28, 2015. The petition falls into the F-1 category, and Australia is not an oversubscribed country. The August, 2015 visa bulletin indicates that for an F-1 petition from a non-oversubscribed country, the current priority date is November 1, 2007. This means that the beneficiary of a visa petition with an individual priority date before November of 2007 is currently eligible to apply for an immigrant visa. Assuming that the speed at which visa numbers become available remains the same, Matilda and George can expect that George will have to wait about eight years before becoming eligible to receive an immigrant visa. However, because the line sometimes moves faster or slower, depending on demand for a particular visa category, this estimate of eight years may not actually be accurate.
Why are the Lines for Certain Countries Longer?
In addition to the total number of visas available, there is a separate, per-country cap on the number of visas that may be issued in each category to nationals of any particular country. This cap is 7% of the total, family based AND employment based visas available in any given year. In practice, this means that each country is limited to 25,620 preference-category visas in any given year (with a separate “dependent area” cap of 2% set for a colony or other territory of the country). When the number of applicants from a particular country exceeds the 25,620 cap, the country is said to be “oversubscribed,” a state of affairs that can quickly lead to long wait times for applicants from the country. At the present time, the following countries are oversubscribed: mainland China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines. Some of the wait times for oversubscribed country categories are excruciatingly long. For example, an F1 beneficiary (unmarried son or daughter of a U.S. citizen) could expect to wait about seven years for an immigrant visa if he were from a non-oversubscribed country. If, on the other hand, he were a Mexican national, he would likely have to wait more than twenty years, barring any major change in the law! By comparison, for an F2 beneficiary (unmarried child (under 21) or spouse of a lawful permanent resident), the wait would be only months for most applicants, or at most, two years or so for a Mexican national.
Why is the F2 Category So Different from the Others?
The rules for determining the available visa numbers for the F2 category are different from any other category. First, there is an overall limit of 114,200 F2 visas plus “the number (if any) by which the worldwide family preference level exceeds 226,000,” plus any unused F1 numbers. The “worldwide family preference level” is the minimum number of family based visas that the Department of State must issue, which is set by law at 226,000. This is a minimum number, and in years in which this number exceeds the minimum, the difference between the minimum and actual numbers is added to the number of available F2 category numbers. Any unused numbers from the F1 category are also added. In other words, the total number of F2 visas is determined as follows: (114,200) + (amount by which family preference visas actually issued exceeds 226,000) + (any unused F1 visa numbers). These rules make it very likely that, in a given year, there will more F2 category visas available than are available in other categories.
In addition, the F2A subcategory, for the spouses and unmarried children under 21 of permanent residents, has its own rules, which all but ensure that this subcategory will have the shortest line in most years. First, the maximum number of F2A visas that can be issued is capped at 77% of the overall number of F2 visas available. Of this 77%, a whopping 75% are exempt from the per-country allotment of visas, meaning that for these numbers, it does not matter whether or not the applicant’s country is “oversubscribed.” The practical effect of this rule is that the F2A category usually has the shortest line, and often, it is the shortest by far, particularly for petitions filed on behalf of relatives from oversubscribed countries.
Here is an example:
In the image above, the priority date for an F2A category petition, for the spouse of a lawful permanent resident, is found at the top of one of the USCIS receipt notices for the petition. The petition, filed on June 12, 2002, has a priority date of June 10, 2002. This date indicates the petition’s place in the waiting line. Now, look at the visa bulletin for August of 2015:
For all countries other than Mexico, two sets of numbers are available: numbers chargeable to the per-country limit and exempt numbers. To qualify for the first category, a petition would have to have a priority date on or after November of 2013 but before December 15, 2013 (this is explained in the note below the table). To qualify for an exempt number, however, the petition need only have a priority date before November of 2013. The situation is different for petitions for intending immigrants from Mexico: There are no per-country F2A numbers available at all (again, see the note). Instead, the only numbers available are those from the 75% of F2A visa numbers exempt from per country limits. Therefore, to be current, a petition in the F2A category for an intending immigrant from Mexico must have been filed before November of 2013.
How Are the Visa Numbers for the Other Categories Determined?
- The F1 category, for the unmarried sons and daughters (21 or older) of U.S. citizens, is capped at 23,400 visas per year, with any unused numbers from the F4 category added to this amount.
- The F3 category, for the married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, is also capped at 23,400, plus any unused numbers from the F1 and F2 categories.
- Finally, the F4 category, for the siblings of U.S. citizens, is capped at 65,000, plus any numbers left over from the first three categories.
In practice, all of the available numbers are used in almost every year, which means that there are almost never unused numbers available to be added to the other categories. In any given year, therefore, the F1 and F3 categories will each probably have 23,400 visa numbers available, the F4 category will likely have 65,000, and the F2 category will have at least 114,200 visa numbers available. And, of the 114,200 F2 numbers, around 87,934 will be available for F2A petitions. In addition, of these 87,934 or so F2A visa numbers, about 65,951 will be exempt from the per country cap on visas, and it is these cap-exempt numbers that are often so valuable for individuals from oversubscribed countries. The effect of these cap exempt numbers can be seen by examining the processing times for Mexico. In August of 2015, for example, the waiting line for the F2A category was about 1 year, 9 months long, while the lines for the F1, F2B, F3, and F4 categories were all close to 20 years long, with the next shortest being for the F4 category, which came in at 18 years, 5 months.
Where Do Derivatives Fit In?
Derivatives of preference-category visa applicants are the spouse and children (unmarried and under 21) of the principal visa recipient, and they are eligible to be accorded the same status and priority date as the principal. Derivative status is also available to the spouses and children of refugees and asylees (and in other instances beyond the scope of this discussion).
It Can Get Very Complicated
There are special rules that apply to certain kinds of petitions, and perhaps the most significant are those created by the Child Status Protection Act, which I discuss in other posts. In complicated instances, great care must be taken in applying these rules to determine whether an aspiring immigrant remains eligible to receive a visa.