How to Navigate the USA Immigration Visa Availability and Priority Dates

Immigration Reads Jan 28, 2020

Excerpt —

Despite the daunting task, knowing a few basic terms and the underlying meaning of it will help make quick work of this report.

Introduction —

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) sets the number of visas available and categories the visa types for an array of purposes to enter into the USA. It also provides direction on how to implement this law for the U.S Department of States, Homeland security, and USCIS collectively.

For those who want to become lawful residents, the availability of visa is limited based on an individual's qualifications. And allocations of visas, in a given year, primarily driven by individual applicant's visa and preference category and their home country.

However, for specific criteria — such as applicant status as immediate relatives to either citizen or permanent residence, the law has made available an unlimited amount of visas.

These immediate relatives include —

  • The spouses of U.S. citizens
  • The children (unmarried and under 21 years of age) of U.S. citizens
  • The parents of U.S. citizens at least 21 years old
  • And Widows or widowers of U.S. citizens with some caveat.
How to Navigate the USA Immigration Visa Availability and Priority Dates - RentTheAnt.Com

Then, the rest of the individuals seeking entry classified under two different buckets of category and attract numerically limited visa availability.

  1. Employment-based  visas
  2. Family-based visas

These groups further subdivided and classified into preference categories and visas allocated every year based on the statutory number granted in the INA.

Here is the example of employment-based immigration visas and preference breakup looks. And the allocation of total available permits per year works.

Total Available visa —

The worldwide level for annual employment-based preference immigrants is at least 140,000.

First: Preference Workers: 28.6% of 140k, plus any left out from fourth and fifth preference.

Second: Holding Advanced Degrees or Persons of Exceptional Ability: 28.6% of 140k, plus any left out from first preference.

Third: Skilled Workers, Professionals, and Other Workers, 28.6% of  140k, plus any left out from first and second preference.

Fourth:  Special Immigrants, 7.1% of 140k.

Fifth: Entrepreneur visa, 7.1% of 140k.

Coming to the troublesome part —

Though, reading and understanding the visa bulletin to find your place on the queues may feel like figuring out a research paper from the pharmaceutical industry. Knowing a few basic terms and the underlying meaning of it will help make quick work of this report.

Here are those terms that frequently trip you up while swallowing those texts in the report; Priority date, Cut-off date, Chargeability country, Final action dates, and Dates for filling, etc.

Understanding these terms and a few basic scenarios of how these applications are received and processed will help you have the bigger picture of this system and how to negotiate it.

To start with how this system works —

Typically, two types of applicants exist who are seeking immigrant status today. First, the applicant is still outside of the USA and living in their home country, and the second — beneficiary already exists inside maybe with temporary visas.

Outsider  — for them, an application must be submitted with the National Visa Center (NVC) when they are eligible as per the visa bulletin.

Living inside the USA — since they are present in the country, apart from asking for "Adjusting of status" with USCIS - changing Non-Immigrant to Immigrant status. They can also request an employment authorization card (EAD) for lawful work.

The way these two applicants have to read the visa bulletin and other notices from USCIS is a little different than others.

Critical terms and their meaning —

Priority date - This date is different based on preference visa one applying. For employment-based visas, this could either be your labor application or the I140 petition date. For family-based visas, this is the petition date for I130.

Country chargeability — This is another beast in the immigration law, called a Country cap that any given country resident is not supposed to receive, not more than 7%.

For example, someone filing for EB1 from China. Then that year, only 2802 visas are available towards this category and country combination.

140,000 * 7% = 9800 (country limit) * 28.6% (allocation) = 2802 (available)**

Note — The plus part in the breakup above will ultimately add unused visas to this number every year. Hence a country with a lot of demand will get more than 2.8k visas.

Cut-off date —

Represent the country and visa preference category "Oversubscribed" than the available visas allowed as per statutory limit.
Date mark the stop line in the queue of a timeline, people having priority date before this cut-off date eligible to apply for a visa.

All these following dates represent either the availability of visas or individual eligibility to start the process of sending application.

If any preference category and country combination is not current means, you should expect some date in the past against your country of birth column.

Final Action Date

All the applicants having priority dates before this final action date have a visa available, and they can apply for one.

Date for Filling —  

This is different for outsiders and people already in the USA.


These dates represent when they are eligible to submit an application with the National Visa Center (NVC). Usually, this date is a few months in advance to that of the final action date and allow them to apply earlier than visa availability.

Living Inside USA

USCIS is issuing separate reports in a similar format to notify when to apply for "Adjustment of status." Just like the visa bulletin, if any country preference category is not current, then they have to work with the "Date for filling" column to identify their eligibility in the queue.

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