What Is the USCIS Visa Bulletin?

USCIS Visa Bulletin is a monthly publication put out by The United States Department of State (DOS) that contains information on the number of available immigrant visas. It is also called the "immigration backlog" since it refers to the number of people who have applied to immigrate to the country.

In November 2014, the DOS began working with USCIS to make sure that all visa recipients are authorized by Congress and eligible to receive visas. Another reason the DOS works with USCIS on the visa bulletin is to determine when visas are available to those seeking to immigrate during the fiscal year. 

The U.S. limits the number of foreign nationals who can immigrate to the U.S. for permanent residence each year. These limits fall under three main categories:

  • Employment-based
  • Family-based
  • Diversity lottery 

Family-sponsored visa categories are shown on the USCIS Visa Bulletin as:

  • F1: Unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens
  • F2A: Spouses and children of permanent residents
  • F2B: Unmarried sons and daughters (21 years old or older) of permanent residents
  • F3: Spouses and children of permanent residents
  • F4: Unmarried sons and daughters (21 years old or older) of permanent residents

Employment-based visa categories are shown on the USCIS Visa Bulletin as:

  • 1st: Priority workers
  • 2nd: Members of the professions holding advanced degrees or persons of exceptional ability
  • 3rd: Skilled workers, professionals, and other workers
  • 4th: Certain special immigrants
  • 5th: Employment creation

Section 201 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) also has a system in place to control permanent immigration rates. The system includes per-country and per-category limits, along with a general number of annual immigrants that can come into the U.S. each year. Preference is given based on filing date, also called the priority date.

Exceptions to these limits include the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, such as their parents, spouses, and/or minor, unmarried children. There are no numerical limits on immigrants in this sub-category of the family-based category. 

Between the restricted categories of family-based immigration, the number of immigrants allowed per year is just under 500,000. The employment-based categories allow only 140,000 immigrants per year. No more than 7 percent of the visas in a specific category can be given to natives of one country, regardless of the country's size or population.

Another factor in determining the number of visas provided to residents of a country is the historical rates of drop-off for applicants. The drop-off rates include denials, abandonments, and withdrawals.

The charts within the USCIS Visa Bulletin contain dates by country and category, which are cutoff dates for the limited number of visas available. An applicant's priority date must fall before the cutoff date to qualify for a visa within that category. If the applicant's priority date meets this requirement, he or she is referred to as "current."

Those filing under the diversity lottery are exceptions to the cutoff dates and priority dates. The lottery allows for a certain number of immigrants to come to the U.S. without going through the traditional method of application. Within the lottery, more immigrants from certain countries are allowed into the U.S. These countries are traditionally under-represented in immigration to America.

As the USCIS Visa Bulletin shows, there are always more people applying to immigrate to the U.S. than the limits will allow. This is especially true in the employment-based and family-based categories among residents of China and India. The bulletin refers to these categories as oversubscribed.

The bulletin also contains numbers of family-based and employment-based categories, along with statistics for refugee applications, diversity lottery numbers, and immigration application dates from various countries. The Department of State updates the information several weeks before the month to which the cutoff dates apply. 

In August 2016, USCIS proposed a new rule for international entrepreneurs. It would allow entrepreneurs living in other countries to receive temporary permission to enter the U.S. to start up businesses and work. The benefits of this proposed rule include job creation, improved entrepreneurship, and innovation. To qualify for entry to the U.S. under this rule, the entrepreneur would have to demonstrate:

  • Plans to create a new start-up entity, which must meet the U.S. definition of a business entity
  • Evidence of involvement in the company, such as:
    • At least 15 percent ownership in the business
    • An active and central role in the future growth and operations of the business
  • Capital investment and/or government funding in the U.S.

In November 2016, the Department of State reported a slight advancement to the final action cutoff date in many of the employment-based categories. This final action cutoff date refers to the date published in the USCIS Visa Bulletin, helping applicants determine filing eligibility.

Why Is the USCIS Visa Bulletin Important?

The USCIS Visa Bulletin is important to consular officers, immigration attorneys, and those seeking to immigrate to the United States. Everyone involved in the immigration process should rely on the bulletin's data to get an idea of how many visas are available within a given month. The data can help attorneys give their clients a reasonable estimated timeline for the immigration process. For those who are filing forms on their own, the information can also help them see how long it might take to be approved for immigration.

This bulletin also lists the oversubscribed countries separately, allowing residents of those countries to see how many immigration visas were given. Oversubscribed countries include China, Philippines, Mexico, and India. The other category, which includes countries that are not as oversubscribed, is titled "Worldwide." 

Reasons to Consider Not Using the USCIS Visa Bulletin

There is no reason for a potential immigrant not to use the information presented in the USCIS Visa Bulletin. The data helps immigration professionals and those who hope to live and/or work in the U.S. understand how many visas are given and how many are still available.

Reasons to Consider Using the USCIS Visa Bulletin

If a resident of another country sees in the USCIS Visa Bulletin that certain categories are current and certain are unavailable, he or she might seek to immigrate under a different category. For example, if the employment-based category has more visa opportunities available than the family-based category, that applicant might fill out an application for employment-based immigration. The information is very useful and may help an applicant estimate how long it might take to receive an immigration visa.

Before an applicant can review the USCIS Visa Bulletin, he or she should have the following information:

  • Which office is handling the case
  • The type of form filed
  • What date the case was received by USCIS

The information is available on the USCIS receipt notice, which is sent to the last mailing address on file for the applicant. When reading the chart, the reviewer should find the visa type in the first column. The options are family-based and employment-based. After locating that column, move to the right to find the date under the country of birth. If that column reads "C," and the priority date of the applicant is earlier than the date listed, he or she can submit an adjustment of status application.

Deadline

To qualify for an immigration visa under the month presented in the current USCIS Visa Bulletin, the applicant's priority date must fall before the cutoff date. If it doesn't, he or she will fall to the next month.

If an applicant submits form I-765, he or she can submit an inquiry after 75 days. When filed with form I-821D, which requests deferred action for childhood arrivals, the case will have a 90-day period for adjudication, which doesn't start until USCIS makes a decision on form I-821D. 

What Could Happen When You Use the USCIS Visa Bulletin?

When using the information presented in the USCIS Visa Bulletin, an immigration attorney can help the client understand how likely it is that he or she will qualify for an immigration visa and how long the process might take.

If the applicant is from an oversubscribed country, seeing that the application could be delayed for several decades might influence him or her to take advantage of other immigration opportunities. For example, the alien might choose to move to another country that doesn't have as many immigrant visas. Using the data in the monthly bulletin gives more awareness and understanding to the current state of visas available and granted.

What Could Happen When You Don't Use the USCIS Visa Bulletin?

Without reviewing the information in the USCIS Visa Bulletin, applicants will not know how many visas are available or which categories are unavailable. This could result in a lot of wasted time and effort to fill out and file forms in categories that are backlogged. An applicant can also learn which categories are current. The current categories offer a better chance of receiving an immigration visa in a timelier fashion. 

Not using the USCIS Visa Bulletin could also be problematic for those from oversubscribed countries. Those who reside in these countries who are trying to apply may have to wait several years before receiving approval. The information could help an applicant understand his or her potential to be approved as an immigrant in the near future.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does the "C" on the USCIS Visa Bulletin chart mean? 

When the chart shows a "C" in one of the boxes, it means that the category is current, or has no backlog.

  • What does the "U" on the USCIS Visa Bulletin chart mean?

When it shows a "U" in one of the boxes, it means that the category is unavailable, or that people cannot apply for immigrant visas in that category.

  • How can I get the information in the USCIS Visa Bulletin for the month?

Anyone can listen to recorded visa availability information by calling the Department of State at 202.663.1541. The recorded information reflects what is printed in the USCIS Visa Bulletin. A printed version is available on the State Department's website

  • Do the USCIS Visa Bulletin dates always move forward?

No, these dates do not always move forward in time. A priority date might show up as current one month, then not current the next month due to a cut-off date being moved backwards. Referred to as "visa retrogression," this happens when a country's or category's annual visa limit is nearly reached.

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