How to Read the Visa Bulletin

Anyone who has ever attempted to move from their home country to another knows how stressful it can be when you are awaiting a decision on whether or not you can remain in the new country. Most of those in this situation is constantly looking for updates about their status. Meanwhile, bureaucracy marches to the beat of an incredibly slow drum.

If attempting to get your green card in the United States, the Visa Bulletin is your source of information about the current standing of your application. However, like every part of the immigration process, it can be confusing. It’s critical to learn how to read the Visa Bulletin so that you can fully understand the progress of your situation.

permanent resident card
A Permanent Resident Card. Discover how to read and understand the Visa Bulletin after applying for your green card.

The Visa Bulletin Explained

The Visa Bulletin is a product of the Department of State. It is issued monthly and shows the status of all current green card applications. You can read the bulletin to discover if your application is ready to move forward based on when you filed your Form I-130 petition. 

You can also use the bulletin to estimate your wait time by looking at how quickly the line moves from one month to the next.

Who is applying for a green card plays a vital role in determining how long the process will take. For instance, things are expedited for spouses, parents, or unmarried children (under age 21) of U.S. citizens. For this group, there is no reason to even read the Visa Bulletin because they are exempt from the backlog.

Meanwhile, the spouse or unmarried child (under age 21) of a U.S. green card holder will have to wait 12 to 18 months for their green card to become available. Those not fitting into either of these top two categories can find that their time on the list will vary from years to decades.

Reasons for the Green Card Backlog

There is a cap on the number of green cards issued by the United States each year. The number of applicants far exceeds the number of available spots, which has created growing backlogs within the system, leading to very long wait times in many cases.

Those applying for a green card get separated into multiple groups that each have their own limit on how many green cards can be issued each year. The two main categories into which people are sorted are family-based green cards and employment-based green cards.

Additionally, no single country can account for more than seven percent of the green cards issued for that category. For many countries with small populations and low numbers of people immigrating out of the country, this cap never comes into play. 

However, for larger countries in Latin America and countries with huge populations, like China and India, the country cap can play a significant role and create massive backlogs.

Preference Levels for Family-Based Green Cards

Some green cards fall outside of the yearly caps. There is no limit on the number of family green cards issued for spouses, parents, or unmarried children (under age 21) of U.S. citizens. Beyond that, family members are given preference based on their relationship to someone living in the U.S. and whether that person is a citizen or green card holder.

Each preference level comes with its own individual cap.

F1: First Preference

On the Visa Bulletin, F1 indicates that the applicant is an unmarried adult child (age 21+) of a U.S. citizen. These applicants receive top consideration for a green card.

F2: Second Preference

The F2 category comprises spouses and unmarried children of green card holders and gets further divided into two sub-categories. F2A is for spouses and unmarried children (under age 21), while F2B contains unmarried adult children (age 21+).

F3: Third Preference

F3 is the category for married children of U.S. citizens, with no special consideration for age.

F4: Fourth Preference

The F4 category contains siblings of U.S. citizens.

Deciphering the Visa Bulletin

There are many terms in the Visa Bulletin that you need to learn to properly understand the information.

Priority Date

The priority date refers to the date that your I-130 petition was received by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Your priority date can be found on the I-797 form mailed to you by USCIS, approving your I-130 petition. This date essentially marks your place on the waiting list.


Your green card will become available when your priority date becomes current. Categories without backlogs may also be marked as current to denote that there is no wait time for people applying under these categories.

Chargeability Area

This refers to the country of birth for the green card applicant.

Immediate Relative

An immediate relative refers to a spouse, parent, or child (under age 21) of a U.S. citizen.

Cut-Off Date

The cut-off date separates those eligible to apply for a green card from those who must continue to wait. Applicants with a priority date before the cut-off date can submit their green card application, while those after will have to wait at least one more month.

Dividing the Visa Bulletin

Those who are ahead of the cut-off date find themselves in Section A: Final Action Dates, which allows them to submit their green card application for approval immediately. Everyone else is in Section B: Dates for Filing. There is another cut-off date in this section for those close to reaching their final action dates. 

Those ahead of this cut-off date who are applying from outside of the United States can begin to submit their applications to the National Visa Center (NVC). While they will still have to wait to receive their green card, they can submit their paperwork and ensure that everything is ready for approval when they become eligible to receive a green card.

Those living inside the United States while waiting for their green card must consult the monthly page published by the USCIS entitled, “When to File Your Adjustment of Status Application.” This page will let them know if they can submit their application sooner or if they must wait until they are in Section A.

For those living inside the country, filing sooner can provide additional benefits. These benefits include allowing them to immediately obtain a work permit so that they can get a job or obtain a travel permit to take a trip out of the country and return without any trouble.

Explaining Visa Retrogression

Occasionally, you might find yourself moving backward in line. This process is known as retrogression. There are times when the applications for a green card category in a certain month exceed what was expected, and as a result, the following month, the cut-off date will move backward rather than forward.

Because of this possibility, it is always crucial to have all your paperwork in line and submit your green card application as soon as you are able. Otherwise, you could find yourself back to waiting to be eligible to submit your application rather than starting your new life with a green card in hand.

Always Be Prepared for a Long Wait

Understanding the Visa Bulletin and being prepared to take action as soon as permitted are the best ways to ensure that you get your green card as quickly as possible. However, unless you are an immediate relative of a United States citizen, be prepared for a long wait.

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