The immigrant visa priority date is an immigration concept that sometimes appears complex to many family-based green card applicants. You may wonder why some applications are processed, with the decision only taking a few months, while for others, it takes several years or even decades. This article explains what family-based green card priority dates are and how they affect your application processing time.
Family-Based Green Card Overview
United States immigration law allows some foreign nationals who are relatives of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to receive a green card and become lawful permanent residents.
A U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident will begin the process by filing an I-130, Petition for Alien Relative with the USCIS on behalf of their relative to indicate his or her willingness and readiness to sponsor the foreign national family member. The form must be submitted with certain documents to establish the relationship between the sponsor and the beneficiary.
Two Main Types of Family-Based Green Cards
The family-based green card is broadly grouped into two categories: the immediate relative and family preferences. The immediate relative group is for the spouses, minor children, and parents of U.S. citizens. This set of applicants enjoys a shorter green card application processing time than others. This is because, provided they are admissible, immigrant visas or green cards are always available to them as soon as the I-130 filed by their sponsor is approved.
For the second category, the family preference, there are statutory limits to the number of green cards that can be issued in a year. Whenever the demand is higher than the immigrant visas available for a given year, there will be a visa queue in which applicants will remain until they get to the front of the line.
Family Preference Green Card Subcategories
Family-based green cards can be grouped into four subcategories:
Family First Preference (F1): This subcategory of the family-based green card is for unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens and their children under 21.
Family Second Preference (F2): This is for minor children, spouses, and unmarried sons and daughters (who are 21 years old and older) of lawful permanent residents. Its annual limit is 114,200. 77% of the green cards in this group are issued to minor children and spouses, while the remaining is allocated to unmarried sons and daughters.
Family Third Preference (F3): This is for married sons and daughters (of any age) of U.S. citizens and their children under 21.
Family Fourth Preference (F4): This subcategory is for brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, and their minor children and spouses, provided the U.S. citizen sponsor is at least 21 years old.
To ensure the available visas are distributed appropriately among various categories, the Department of State (DOS) assigns a priority date to every applicant under this category. Your priority date plays a significant role in how much time it will take to receive your green card.
What is Family-Based Green Card Priority Date?
The priority date is used to determine each applicant’s place in the visa waiting line. It is established based on the date that a properly filed I-130 is received by the USCIS. For every family-based green card application, the priority date is written on the I-797 and mailed to the applicant after the approval of the I-130 petition.
You will have to wait for the priority date to become “current” before you can apply for an immigrant visa or status adjustment. “Current”, in this context, means you have reached the front of the waiting line or there is no backlog, and a family-based green card is available to you. Sometimes, an entire subcategory preference can become current if there is no backlog within that category.
To know whether or not your family-based green card priority date has become current, you will need to check your priority date with the final action dates posted in the visa bulletin, which is released monthly by the Department of States (DOS).
How to Check Your Priority Date on the Visa Bulletin
The visa bulletin is a monthly update that lets visa applicants check the final action dates and also estimate how much time it will take before a green card will be issued to them. It is posted with charts showing the list of all green card categories and applicants’ countries of origin. As a family-based green card applicant, you will need to check the ‘Family-Sponsored Preferences’ section of the bulletin, which consists of all the subcategories (F1, F2A, F2B, F3, & F4).
There are some dates in front of each of the subgroups. These dates are called “final action dates.” If the final action date in your preference category reaches the priority date issued to you, this means that your priority date has become current. You can then go through consular processing or apply for adjustment of status.
Why Some Family Preference Subcategories Are Faster than Others
You will notice that sometimes two family preference applicants who filed their petitions at the same time might receive their green cards at different times. The difference can sometimes be several months or years apart. It may even take up to a decade in some cases. This usually happens due to two factors – the difference in numerical limitations for each of the subcategories, and an applicant’s country of origin.
Each year, a total number of 366,000 green cards are issued to applicants in different category preferences. Out of this number, 226,000 go to family-based applicants and 140,000 go to employment-based applicants, which are the two broadest green card categories in the U.S.
The available 226,000 are distributed based on the preference level that each applicant belongs to in this order:
- F1: 23,400
- F2: 114,200 (this is divided into two F2A (87,934) and F2B (26, 266)
- F3: 23,400
- F4: 65,000
With this order of distribution, those who file their applications under the subcategories that have a larger quota may have their green cards available to them before those with a lower number. For instance, spouses and children of green card holders under F2A subcategory usually enjoy much shorter waiting time than other family preference applicants due to its large quota.
Wait Time Differences Based on Applicant’s Country
Apart from the numerical limitations for each subcategory, another factor set by the U.S. Congress is the 7% annual cap based on country of origin. This means applicants from a single country can only account for a maximum of 7% of the green cards under each category in a year.
This criterion is the reason why those from countries with a high rate of green card applicants usually wait for a longer period. Heavily-populated countries like India, Mexico, and China usually exceed the 7% quota in many of the subcategories. The backlogs sometimes lead to wait times that are decades long in some subcategories. Applicants from most of the European and African countries aren’t affected by this 7% cap, as fewer people from these countries tend to apply for a green card.
In fact, none of the countries from these continents generate enough green card demand to meet the annual cap in any of the categories. This is one advantage that the nationals of those countries enjoy over applicants from countries with a high family-based green card demand.
Why Are Green Card Priority Dates So Important?
The visa bulletin is a general summary of the availability of immigrant visas in a given month. The bulletin will let you compare your priority dates with the cutoff dates released in the bulletin, and let you know how much time you may still have to wait. Having this information will let you know when to gather the required documentation for your application and prepare for the next step as soon as your priority date becomes current.
What to Do When the Date Becomes Current
Once your priority date becomes current, the next action will be dependent on your location. There are different routes for applicants in the U.S. and those who are overseas.
If You Are In the U.S.
If you are in the U.S. on a valid nonimmigrant visa—such as an L-1, H-1B, or K-1—you will need to file for an adjustment from nonimmigrant to immigrant status. To do this, you will need to file an I-485, Application to Register Permanent Resident or Adjust Status with the USCIS.
The I-485 is submitted with relevant documents to prove your eligibility, confirm that you have a qualifying family relationship with your sponsor, your biographic information. You will also need to pay a filing fee, which may vary depending on your age.
For example, the filing fee (form and biometric service fees) for applicants between the ages of 14 and 78 is $1,225, while those under 14 and over 78 will only pay the form filing fee of $1,140, excluding the biometric service fee. If your I-485 is well-filed with all the necessary documents attached, the USCIS will process it and you will likely receive a decision approximately six months afterward.
If You Are Outside the U.S.
In this case, you will need to go through consular processing in the U.S. embassy or consulate in your country. The National Visa Center (NVC) will notify you of when to submit an immigrant visa application with supporting documents and processing fees. You will also need to complete a DS-260, Application for Immigrant Visa and Alien Registration and bring the confirmation page to the consulate. This will be followed by an interview where the consular officer will review your documentation and interview performance to decide if you are eligible for an immigrant visa. If your application is approved, you will be given a visa packet.
The visa packet has an expiration date, meaning you must travel to the U.S. before it expires. At the port of entry, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection will inspect you and determine whether you are admissible or not. If you are found admissible, you will be allowed to enter the United States as a permanent resident. And a few weeks after your arrival (usually within 45 days), the USCIS will mail your family-based green card to you.
How Our Immigration Attorneys Can Help
The role of priority dates in your family-based green card application cannot be overstated. Knowing how it works will keep you aware of the progress made on your petition and help you prepare for the next line of action. This is where our immigration attorneys can help.
Here at Immi-USA, we have highly qualified family-based immigration lawyers with years of experience helping people from all over the world become green card holders in the U.S. We will help you file your petition properly, making sure that common pitfalls that cause delays or denials are avoided. Whether you are an immediate relative or family preference applicant, you can count on us for the best immigration legal services. To schedule a consultation with one of our immigration lawyers today, you can fill out this contact form.