Orlando Immigration Attorney Henry Lim explains the importance of the State Department Visa Bulletin and how understanding it can help anyone navigate the challenging immigration process.

Journalists and immigration advocates often compare the legal immigrant experience in the United States to waiting in line. The phrase stirs images of whole families sitting on suitcases or in lawn chairs outside government offices, hoping today they move forward a little further.

Many would-be immigrants feel this sense of frustration, because the nature of U.S immigration law means the existence of multiple lines, each one moving at a different pace.

Visa Bulletin: Your Immigration Timetable

Since 1952, Congress has issued a specific number of permanent immigrant visas each year. Currently, this quota allows approximately 675,000 immigrants into the United States each year (www.immigrationpolicy.org). The State Department divides these visas into two primary categories: Family-Based and Employment-Based.

Of the 675,000 available Visas, the State Department allocates 480,000 to Family-Based applications and 140,000 to Employment-Based cases. The department randomly allocates the remaining 55,000 visas to nationals from countries which have sent less than 50,000 immigrants to the United States in the previous five years.

In their application process, the Visa Office further subdivides these categories based on preference levels. In the Family-Based Immigration category, the assigned preference depends on the status of the US sponsor (citizen or permanent resident) and the relationship of the immigrant to the sponsor:

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Note: LPR means Lawful Permanent Resident

Employment-Based Categories, on the other hand, provide a structure for US-based employers to recruit talented foreign nationals who can contribute productively to the US economy. These range from persons with extraordinary abilities, to skilled and unskilled workers or investors.

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US immigration law also restricts visas based on the overall immigration demand from their home country. The Visa Office allocates no more than 7% of the total available visas to any one country each year; as a result, visa requests from some countries develop a backlog in their preference categories. Applicants for visas, and the professionals who assist with their requests, monitor the Visa Bulletin for updates on where applicants ‘stand’ in line.

How the Visa Bulletin Works

Since the Visa Office often experiences backlogs, the Visa Bulletin updates consular officials, attorneys, and aspiring immigrants on the monthly status of the different categories of applicants.

At the beginning of any given month, the Visa Office receives an updated number of waiting applicants from the US Customs and Immigration Service (travel.state.gov). Using this data, they calculate how many visas can be allotted to different categories and nations for the following month.

Based on the visa numbers available, the Department publishes a cut-off date for each category in the Visa Bulletin. Immigrants who submitted their application to USCIS before the published date can be issued visas by the State Department. The Visa Bulletin refers to this date of application as the priority date.

Reading the Visa Bulletin

Alan immigrated to Orlando from England on an employment visa, and became a legal permanent resident (LPR) of the United States. On a trip to Brazil in November 2012, he met Elena, a widow with a five-year-old daughter. In August 2013, he married Elena and submitted an application for a family visa to USCIS. Alan has looked at the “all chargeability areas” column on the Visa Bulletin each month, under Category F2A. This month, it shows her priority date within the cutoff period, and Alan expects to receive news about the visa applications any day now. (Please note that this is a fictional example based on real-life immigration scenarios. No resemblance is intended to persons living or dead.)

Alan would have seen this chart when he looked at the family-sponsored visa categories in this month’s State Department Visa Bulletin (issued in June 2016):

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Chargeability Areas refer to countries who currently maintain an active immigration relationship with the United States. Potential immigrants in the family-sponsored category from most countries fall into this column. In some nations—specifically mainland China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines– visa demand so exceeds the per-country limit that the State Department has prorated visa allocations.

When the Visa Bulletin status for a given category shows as a “C”, the State Department has no backlog and can issue visas promptly to immigrants in that category. This month, 3rd Category immigrants show a backlog in the Visa Bulletin, as do 2nd Category immigrants from mainland China and India.

The additional lines in the employment-based categories of the Visa Bulletin, calling out “Other Workers” and “Certain Religious Workers,” exist because at times the cut-off dates of these subcategories differ from other groups within the 4th and 5th employment-based preference.

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Though the sense of ‘waiting in line’ for immigration opportunities can be frustrating, the monthly updates released via the Visa Bulletin provide a welcome sense of the motion (or lack thereof) within immigration categories as applications fluctuate. Experienced immigration attorneys know how to use these updates to advocate for your application, so if you have any questions, do not hesitate to reach out to someone trustworthy in your area.


Ask Henry Lim
Do you have a question for Henry Lim? During over 20 years of practicing law, he has helped more than 10,000 families move to the United States. You can Ask Henry a question at [email protected] or submit a video question by sending a link to one of our channels. For legal assistance, email or call for an appointment: 407-897-8870. Our first consultation is complimentary. 

This article is general advice and does not represent the establishment of a client-attorney relationship. For counsel specific to your circumstances, always consult a licensed lawyer.