The U.S. Congress places a limit on the number of family-based immigrants who are admitted to the United States annually to 480,000 persons per year. A cap is imposed on every family-based category except “immediate relatives” (spouses, unmarried children under 21 and parents) of US citizens. There are slight variations in the number of visas available each year. Because of this numerical cap, there are long waiting periods to obtain a visa or apply for adjustment of status in most of the family-based immigrant preference categories.
You can learn more about family-based immigrant categories in our guide Family-Based Immigration: Immediate Relatives and the Preference System.
There is no numerical cap on the number of immediate relatives of US citizens admitted annually. This means that visas for spouses, unmarried children under 21 and parents of US citizens are always available without a waiting period.
The following are the number of visas available in each of the four family-based preference categories:
- First preference (unmarried sons and daughters of US citizen) – 23,400 visas per year, plus any visas left over from the fourth preference;
- Second preference:
- F2A, spouses and minor children of permanent residents) – 87,900 visas per year, plus any visas left over from the first preference;
- F2B, unmarried children over the age of 21 of permanent residents) – 26,300 visas per year, plus any visas left over from the first preference;
- Third preference (married children of US citizens over 21 years of age) – 23,400 visas per year, plus any visas left over from the first and second preferences;
- Fourth preference (brothers and sisters of US citizens over 21) – 65,000 visas per year, plus any visas left over from the previous preferences.
To determine the waiting period of a family-based category, you must review the most recent Visa Bulletin that gets updated every month. To read the Visa Bulletin you must understand the following terms:
- Priority date – family-based immigrant visas are distributed on a chronological basis, determined by the date Form I-130 was properly filed with USCIS. This filing date becomes the so-called “priority date”. The Form I-130 is properly filed only after USCIS issues an official receipt known as Form I-797C, Notice of Action.
- “Current” date – if the priority date becomes “current”, it means that applications filed before that date are not subject to further wait. If the priority date is current, the beneficiary of Form I-130 can apply for immigrant visa (if abroad) or adjustment of status (if in the US in lawful nonimmigrant visa).
How to read the Visa Bulletin
A. Final Action Dates For Family-Sponsored Preference Cases
To determine if your priority date is current you need to compare the priority date against the date indicated in the section, Application Final Action Dates, in the most recent monthly Visa Bulletin, taking into consideration the preference category and the applicant’s country of birth.
The priority date must be before the date listed under Chart A, Application Final Action Dates, to be considered current.
- For example, an Indian permanent resident sponsoring his unmarried daughter over 21 years of age in the F2B category will look at the most recent Visa Bulletin for that preference category under the column for India. In September 2023, the date on the Visa Bulletin for that category and nationality was September 22, 2015. Only applicants whose Form I-130 were filed before September 22, 2015 are considered current.
B. Dates For Filing Family-Sponsored Visa Applications
A separate chart B called Dates For Filing Family-Sponsored Visa Applications indicates when a beneficiary may apply for adjustment of status if in the US or the National Visa Center (NVC) can start the immigrant visa application process (Consular Processing).
- For example, the same daughter of an Indian permanent resident in the example above could file for Adjustment of Status beginning September 01, 2023 if the priority date was before January 01, 2017 and USCIS allowed the use of the chart B. Dates for Filing Family-Sponsored Visa Applications for filing purposes. Each month USCIS will indicate on their website whether Adjustment of Status applicants are authorized to use the Dates for Filing Family-Sponsored Visa Applications or whether they must use the Application Final Action Dates.
What is Cross-Chargeability and How to Use it to Shorten the Wait Time
Country of Chargeability: Normally, the country of chargeability is determined by the beneficiary’s country of birth. This means that if the beneficiary was born in a country with a high demand for visas (for example, India, Mexico, China, Philippines), they may face longer waiting periods to receive a visa number.
Cross-Chargeability: Cross-chargeability allows beneficiaries to use the priority date of their spouse if it benefits their immigration case. If the spouse or parent was born in a country with a shorter visa backlog or no backlog, it can significantly expedite the beneficiary’s visa processing.
- For example, a U.S. citizen is petitioning for his married Mexican son, the son and his Honduras wife can choose to have their visas charged to Honduras, since the third preference (F3) for Mexicans is backlogged compared to Honduras.