The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) allows a U.S. citizen or permanent resident to petition the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for an eligible foreign relative to come to the United States to live permanently. The foreign relative is issued a permanent residence card (“green card”). The wait time to process the petition and obtain a “green card” depends on the classification of the foreign relative.
The INA does not limit the number of immediate relative “green cards” that are issued each year. As such, the processing time is not subject to a numerical limitation.
The following is a list of foreign persons considered “immediate relatives”.
Immediate Preference Category
Unmarried Sons and Daughters (under 21 years of age) of U.S. Citizens
Spouses of U.S. Citizens
Parents of U.S. Citizens (21 years of age or older)
The INA limits the number of family based ‘green cards’ that are issued each year to relatives other than “immediate relatives” based on a preference category. Each preference category is assigned a number of immigrant visas (“green cards”). In addition, there is a limit to the percentage of immigrant visas (“green cards”) that can be allotted to each country in a year. Since the demand for immigrant visas (“green cards”) is higher than the limited number and greater for some countries, an immigrant visa (“green card”) “waiting list” forms. As such, your foreign relative’s preference category and country of origin will determine the time the relative petition will remain at the NVC until an immigrant visa number (“green card”) becomes available. The wait time can be years.
The following is a list of foreign persons other than “immediate relatives”.
Family Preference Category 1
Unmarried Sons and Daughters (21 years or age or older) of U.S. Citizens
Family Preference Category 2
A. Spouses and Children (under 21 years of age) of Permanent Residents
B. Unmarried Sons and Daughters (21 years of age or older) of Permanent Residents
Family Preference Category 3
Married Sons and Daughters of U.S. Citizens
Family Preference Category 4
Brothers and Sisters of Adult (21 years of age or older) U.S. Citizens
Immigrant Visa Availability Criteria
As stated, the INA limits the number of family based immigrant visas (based on certain criteria) that are issued per year (unless your foreign relative qualifies as an “immediate relative”). Since the demand for immigrant visas is higher than the limited number, an immigrant visa ‘wait list’ forms. This means that even if the USCIS approves a relative petition your foreign relative will not get an immigrant visa immediately.
The following criteria determine how quickly your foreign relative will be issued an immigrant visa.
Each family preference category is assigned a limited number of immigrant visas per year. If your foreign relative falls into a category with a greater number of immigrant visas then the wait time will be shorter.
Each country is assigned a limited number of immigrant visas per year. If your foreign relative is from a country with a lower demand for immigrant visas then the wait time will be shorter.
The ‘priority date’ is the date that the relative petition is properly filed with the USCIS. The ‘priority date’ can be found on the Notice of Action (Form I-797) issued by the USCIS. The ‘priority date’ is used to determine your foreign relative’s place on the immigrant visa ‘wait list’.
Foreign Relative’s Place on the ‘Wait List’
The Department of State (DOS) distributes immigrant visas based upon family preference category, country and ‘priority date’. The DOS publishes a monthly report of immigrant visa availability referred to as the “Visa Bulletin”. Specifically, the Visa Bulletin allows your foreign relative to verify their place on the ‘wait list’.
In order to verify their place on the ‘wait list’ your foreign relative can review the Visa Bulletin online. The Visa Bulletin contains a chart that should be reviewed using the following.
- Locate the proper family sponsored preference category
- Locate the proper country of birth
- Review the ‘cut-off’ date
An immigrant visa is available to your foreign relative only if their ‘priority date’ is earlier than the ‘cut-off’ date indicated in the Visa Bulletin chart.
If this is the case, then the processing of your foreign relative’s immigrant visa will continue. Specifically, the National Visa Center (NVC) will perform a background check of your foreign relative, collect immigrant visa and affidavit of support fees and documents, process the immigrant visa application and provide instruction regarding the interview and the required medical examination. After processing is complete, the NVC will schedule an interview and forward the relative petition, immigrant visa application and documents to the United States embassy or consulate nearest your foreign relative’s residence.
If you are unfamiliar with what is required, you may wish to take a moment to learn more about the immigrant visa process, to review the requirements for an immigrant visa , the associated visa fees and the timelines for the application process.