Immigration processing periods can be notoriously long. And if you are like most people interested in the path to US citizenship through green cards, one of the most critical dates you need to know about is your priority date. What is it, how does it affect your permanent residence application case and are there steps you can take to change your priority date?


This guide explores the information you need. If you are applying for a green card, it's best to seek the help and counsel of an experienced immigration attorney.


What Is A Priority Date?

A priority date is used to determine a green card applicant's place in the visa queue while their application is processed by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).  The application filing date with the immigration authorities is the applicant's priority date.


Priority dates depend on whether you are under the family-based or employment-based sponsored category. For the family-sponsored preference case, your priority date is the date that an I-130 visa petition is properly filed by your relative with the USCIS. For an immigrant petition based on employment, the priority date is either based on when the PERM application was filed by your employer and accepted for processing by the Department of Labor or the date the I-140 visa petition was filed with the USCIS.


Why is Priority Date Important?

There is usually an annual visa limit to the immigrant visa number available to a prospective immigrant applying for a green card and US permanent residence. Immigrant visas are only unlimited to individuals considered by immigrant authorities as immediate relatives of citizens, including spouses, parents and unmarried children under 21 years.


However, immigrant visas for applicants under preference categories are limited in numbers. As such, your priority date is so crucial since the green card system works on a first-come, first-served basis.


The limit for family-sponsored preference case visas is 226,000 per year, while the employment-based immigrant visa preference category has a limit of 140,000 per year. In addition to these figures, the percentage of country-based immigrant visas is also limited each year. Therefore, when your priority date becomes current, you become eligible to apply for a green card.


But this will depend on whether the USCIS (for individuals applying for adjustment of status in the US) or the Department of State (for individuals immigrating from abroad) decide to use the Filing Dates or Final Action Dates chart of the Visa Bulletin in a certain month.


What Next After Your Priority Date Becomes Current?

When your priority date becomes current, it indicates your waiting period is over. You are now eligible to proceed to the next step and file an application for an immigrant visa.  


If you are an immigrant already living in the US, you are entitled to apply for an adjustment of status and get interviewed at the local offices. You can immediately submit your application to the USCIS without having to wait for notice from immigration authorities.


For those living abroad, you can apply for an immigrant visa at a US Embassy or Consulate in your home country through what's known as consular processing. The wait time for this application process can take many years.  You will get notified by the National Visa Center (NVC) when the priority date is current.


Regardless of the application process you follow, you will then receive a green card and, thus, a permanent residence. However,  if you apply through consular processing, you must immigrate and move to the United States for your permanent residence to be activated.


How to Read the Visa Bulletin to Find Your Priority Date

When your priority date becomes current, you will be eligible for an immigrant visa or green card. The United States State Department publishes a monthly Visa Bulletin that lists applicants' priority dates for various preference categories and home countries, allowing green card applicants to check which priority dates are becoming current and their place in the line.


To read the State Department's Visa Bulletin, you'll have to know how your priority date was designated and your family preference category.


Figure out your priority date

The applicant's place in the immigrant visa queue is determined by a priority date. The date you filed the I-130 visa petition becomes your priority date.


So to locate your priority date, review the I-130 Approval Notice or the I-797 Notice of Action you received when your I-130 petition form was approved. Your priority date is located in the document's top section.


Determine the family preference category you fall under

Unlike the employment-based immigrant category, the family-sponsored preference category creates a waiting list. It defines the type of relationship the applicant has with the petitioner, who is either a US citizen or a family member with permanent residence. The USCIS assigns priority to the different relationships.


The caps on family preference category are broken down into four basic preference categories:


  1. F1: Unmarried adults of 21 years and above who are children of U.S. citizens.
  2. F2A: Spouses and unmarried kids under 21 years of a green card holder.
  3. F2B: Unmarried adult children aged 21 and above of permanent residents.
  4. F3: Married children, regardless of age, of US citizens
  5. F4:  Siblings (sisters and brothers) of US citizens

Once you have determined your priority date as well as your family preference category, you can easily read the Visa Bulletin to find your priority date status.


How to read the Visa Bulletin

With your priority date and particular category, go to the US State Department's Visa Bulletin, which is published monthly and select the "Current Visa Bulletin." Proceed to the "Family-Sponsored Preferences" and find your family-based category. Some categories are also divided further into countries, like China, India, Mexico and Phillippines since per country visa limitations make the demand high. The Visa Bulletin shows a list of visa cutoff dates for every category.


So look under your preference category and home country. Compare the priority date from the I-130 Approval Notice to the date listed in the Bulletin.


How Do I Know If My Priority Date Is "Current"?

If the Visa Bulletin chart indicates a C, your priority date is current, and you may soon hear from the National Visa Center (NVC). And if you are applying for an adjustment of visa status, you should prepare to file your green card application.


What if it's just a date under your preference category?

Alternatively, the Visa Bulletin may display a date instead of a C or 'current' under your particular category.


If your priority date comes before the Visa Bulletin's listed date, your immigration visa is available, and you can expect to get correspondence from the NVC– or prepare to submit your permanent residence application.


However, if your priority date comes after the date listed, your immigration visa is not current, and you aren't yet eligible to file your green card application. The dates in the bulletin chart change monthly, so continue regularly checking to know when you can file your green card application.


Is the Priority Date the same as the Received or Filing Date?

While these terms are often used interchangeably, they mean different application dates. A filing date is when you file your application. A receipt date is when you receive the I-130 approval notice. And a priority date is when your legal rights over your application commence.


How is the Priority Date Assigned & How is the Priority Date Decided?

An applicant's priority date is assigned using the date the application was received and accepted by the date the United States immigration authorities.


If your application category is family-based, your priority date will be the date the USCIS receives from you or, on your behalf, a completed I-130 visa petition or Form I-140. For the employment-based category, your priority date is the date the United States Labor Department received from your employer a labor certification application form and accepted it for processing.


Generally, the priority date is decided when either the US Department of Labor or the USCIS receives your certification application or visa petition. If your application has an error, your priority date is delayed as the petition is sent back to the petitioner.


Therefore, it's best for a foreign national to hire an experienced and skilled immigration attorney if they want to avoid any setbacks on the petition and smoothly get a lawful permanent residence.


How Long is a Priority Date Valid?

After the "Final Action Dates" chart indicates that your priority date is current, applicants will have one year to contact the NVC and pursue their green cards. If the government doesn't receive any response within 12 months, it will be assumed that you have abandoned the application, and the subsequent application in line will get your visa number.


This is why it's important to regularly check the Visa Bulletin and keep track of their priority date to ensure it has not become current.


How Often, Why, and How do Priority Dates Change?

Each month, the Visa Bulletin shows how priority dates have changed, or not, for visa or green card applicants. This is often known as visa retrogression, which refers to cases when the demand for visas for a particular country or category is higher than the available visas in that month. 


Generally, the Visa Bulletin includes the cut-off dates indicating the front of the line. If your application date comes earlier than the cut-off date, then you are eligible to submit your green card application. However, some situations can cause changes where the cut-off date is moved backwards. The changes depend on various factors, including how many visa applications were received by the immigration authorities in the previous month and the annual visa limit allocated for various categories or countries.


Typically occurring in September, near the end of the government fiscal year, priority date changes can end up meaning that your priority date meets the cut-off date one month and possibly not the next due to the increase in demand.


What do priority date changes mean to an applicant?

If your priority date moves backwards from a previous, current status, your case becomes pending, and the application is put on hold until your priority date becomes current again.


Note that visa retrogression does not impact green card applicants under Form I-140. Their application continues to be processed as usual, even when the applicant is retrogressed.


Ideally, the applicants are often warned by the Visa Bulletin of an upcoming visa retrogression, giving them time to adjust. However, sometimes the Visa Bulletin publishes the priority date changes without warning, making some individuals move backwards rather than forward. Therefore, it's vital to prepare all your green card applications as soon as possible so you can submit your application when the Visa Bulletin publishes a good application date. That date could move backwards the following month, cutting you off from being eligible to apply for your visa.


Tracking Your Place on the Immigrant Visa Waiting List

The monthly Visa Bulletin by the Department of State is a relevant source of information to help you track the visa waiting list.


On the website, you will find various charts for "Employment-Based Preferences" and "Family-Sponsored Preferences." These will help you find your place on the visa waiting list and tell you when you are eligible to apply for the visa. In addition, you can check to find out when you can actually receive the visa. Here are a few crucial tips on how to use the charts to track your place:


  1. First, find your application preference category in the left column.
  3. On the top, find your country. Some countries, including China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines, often display specified columns due to a large number of green card applicants, meaning they usually wait longer.
  4. You will find the cutoff date. To determine your place in the visa line, compare the cut-off date of your country or preference category with your priority date to help map your visa progress.

Although an earlier priority date means you are close to the front line, the current cut-off date will not specifically tell you how long you have to wait before your visa is available. However, you can find information on the waiting time for previous applicants from the Visa Bulletin to help you check your approximate waiting time.


Sometimes the government prolongs the cut-off dates for months. This usually depends on the following:


  • High demand for immigrant visas
  • The per country visa limitations
  • The allocated number of immigrant visas for each  preference category

Should You Hire an Attorney for Help With Your Priority Date?

As you can see, tracking and determining priority dates for your green card or visa application is difficult. Therefore, you may need to talk to a skilled immigration attorney in your area for help with a green card or visa application or any other immigration services.


Depending on your priority date issues and what steps are needed in your visa application, a good law firm from UpCounsel can help you. In addition, if you need to be interviewed before an immigration panel or judge, your attorney can offer your proper legal representation. Get in touch!