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How to Read and Understand the Visa Bulletin

If you're in the process of becoming a United States permanent resident, you've probably heard of the visa bulletin. For many green card applicants, reading the visa bulletin is essential in the green card process. After reading this guide to the visa bulletin, you will understand the U.S. visa backlog, how to secure a priority date, know your immigration preference category, and be able to read the visa bulletin with confidence. 

What is the visa bulletin?

The U.S. Department of State issues the visa bulletin every month. It is an essential tool to understand if you are interested in becoming a lawful permanent resident (in other words, a green card holder). Once you know how to read the visa bulletin, you'll be able to check the following:

  1. Which immigration categories are eligible to file a green card application
  2. Which filed I-485 applications are ready for final review
  3. An estimate of how long it will take you to get your green card based on current wait times
Why does the visa bulletin exist?

U.S. Congress sets limits on the number of green cards available each year. For instance, the annual cap for employment-based green cards is 140,000, and 336,000 for family-based green cards. 

The U.S. also limits the amount of employment-based or family-sponsored green cards issued to immigrants based on country of birth. Specifically, no more than 7% of annual green cards can be issued to foreign nationals of one country.

Since the demand for U.S. green cards is so high, there is an ongoing backlog. The backlog prevents many immigrants from applying for a green card right away. 

The visa bulletin exists to notify immigrants when they can file a green card application based on their country of birth and priority date.

How to read the green card visa bulletin 

To read the visa bulletin, you need to know three things:

  1. Your priority date
  2. Your preference category 
  3. Which visa bulletin chart is being used this month

How to determine your priority date

Your priority date is essentially your "spot in line" to file your green card application. You must file a qualifying immigrant visa petition to secure a priority date. 

Examples of immigrant visa petitions include I-140 (employment-based) petitions like the EB-1 or EB-2 and I-130 family-sponsored petitions. 

  1. For PERM-based I-140s, your priority date is your PERM filing date
  2. For non-PERM-based I-140, your priority date is your I-140 filing date
  3. For family-based I-130 petitions, your priority date is your I-130 filing date

Note: You lose your priority date if USCIS denies your immigrant petition. 


Liliana filed a self-petition EB-1A petition on January 12, 2023. It was approved by USCIS two weeks later with premium processing. Her priority date is January 12, 2023. 

Gregory's employer filed a PERM labor certification for him on March 1, 2015, which was approved. Then his employer filed an EB-2 petition for him on December 15, 2015. Gregory never applied for a green card, but he still has a March 1, 2015, priority date.  

Leo's employer filed an EB-1C petition for him on October 20, 2022. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has not approved it yet. His priority date is October 20, 2022, but he will lose his priority date if USCIS denies his EB-1C.  

How to determine your preference category 

The monthly visa bulletin is divided into different preference categories. 

Employment-based preference categories:

1st Preference (E1)

The employment first preference category refers to individuals who have filed EB-1 petitions, including the EB-1A for individuals with extraordinary ability, the EB-1B for outstanding professors and researchers, and the EB-1C for multinational managers and executives. 

2nd Preference (E2)

The employment second preference category refers to individuals who have filed EB-2 petitions, including the EB-2 PERM or EB-2 National Interest Waiver (NIW). 

3rd Preference (E3)

The employment third preference category refers to individuals who have filed EB-3 petitions, including skilled workers and professionals.

Other Workers

The other workers category refers to individuals who have filed an unskilled worker immigration petition.

4th Preference (E4)

There are many subgroups within the employment fourth preference category. Refer to USCIS's website for a full list. 

Certain Religious Workers

The certain religious workers category refers to the SR visa category.  

5th Preference

The employment fifth category refers to immigrant investors who have filed a qualifying investment visa

H4: Family-based preference categories

F1 (First Preference)

Unmarried adult children (age 21 or older) of U.S. citizens

F2A (Second Preference A)

Spouses and unmarried children (under age 21) or U.S. permanent residents

F2B (Second Preference B)

Unmarried adult children (age 21 or older) of permanent residents 

F3 (Third Preference)

Married children (any age) of U.S. citizens 

F4 (Fourth Preference) 

Siblings of adult U.S. citizens

Note about other family-based green cards: There is no annual limit on the number of green cards available to spouses, parents, and unmarried children (under age 21), so you will not see these categories on the visa bulletin. 

How to figure out which visa bulletin chart to reference

There are several visa bulletin charts, so you need to know which one to reference. The chart you reference must be:

  • The most recent visa bulletin chart for the current month: There is a new visa bulletin every month. 
  • The visa bulletin chart related to your category type: There are different charts based on your category type, for example, whether you are filing a green card based on employment or family. Make sure you're looking at the correct chart. 
  • Dates of filing chart or final action dates chart: Each month, USCIS publishes whether they will use the "Final Action" chart or "Dates of Filing" chart to accept I-485 applications. Review USCIS's website each month to check.

Each month, USCIS publishes whether they will use the "Final Action" chart or "Dates of Filing" chart to accept I-485 applications. Review USCIS's website to check.

Step-by-step guide to reading the visa bulletin

Let's walk through the process of reading the USCIS visa bulletin with Anika's case as an example.

Anika, EB-2 Applicant

Anika is interested in pursuing an employment-based green card. She is unmarried and was born in India.  

Step 1: Review the USCIS bulletin website to see which chart USCIS uses to accept new I-485 applications. For example, in April 2023, USCIS uses the Final Action dates chart for employment-based I-485 applications.



USCIS visa bulletin example

Example from the March 2023 visa bulletin

Step 2: Open the current visa bulletin on the U.S. Department of State's website. Scroll down the applicable filing chart. For Anika, this is the Employment-Based Dates for Filing chart.  Final Action Dates Chart for Employment Based Green Cards

April 2023 Employment-Based Dates for Filing chart

Country of birth and cross chargeability: As you can see, the visa bulletin is divided up based on countries of birth (also called chargeability areas). The first column, "all chargeability areas except those listed" refers to any country not listed in another column—chargeability areas area based on country of birth, not nationality. However, the cross-chargeability rule allows married immigrants to file a green card application based on their spouse's country of birth. 

Being "current": "C" on the visa bulletin stands for "current." If your country of birth is current for a certain category, you can file a green card application immediately. 

Cut-off dates: A date under a category represents the minimum priority date needed to file a green card application in that category and birth country. This is also referred to as a "cut-off date." 

Since Anika was born in India, she is not current for any employment-based category except for EB-5 (5th preference). If she were born in a different country, such as South Africa, she would be current for an EB-1 (1st preference) or EB-3 (2nd preference). 

If Anika previously filed an EB-1 petition with a priority date of January 5, 2022, she would be eligible to file a green card application this month since the cut-off date for EB-1s is February 1, 2022.  

Essential Things to Keep in Mind When Reading the Visa Bulletin 

Retrogression happens

Retrogression happens when visa cutoff dates move backward. It typically occurs when an influx of people apply for visas in a specific category. It's difficult to predict when visa retrogression might happen, but historically it most often occurs near the end of the fiscal year.  

Since retrogression can happen unexpectedly, it's a good idea to begin your immigration journey sooner rather than later. Discuss your employment-based green card case with an immigration expert to get a head start. 

You cannot apply for a green card without filing an immigrant petition

You can't apply for a green card right away. You need to file an immigrant petition (I-140 or I-130) first. As a reminder, your I-140 or I-130 filing date is your priority date. If you still have questions about the difference between immigrant petitions and green card applications, read our guide on the difference between Form I-140 and Form I-485.

You may be able to file your immigrant visa application (ie, I-140 or I-130) and green card application (1-485) at the same time

If you are current for your immigrant visa category, you can file your I-140 and I-485 concurrently. This can save you time and get you a green card more quickly, but you may risk losing money on your I-485 filing fees if your I-140 petition is denied. If you're uncertain which path is best for you, consult an immigration attorney

Adjustment of status applications, green card application, I-485, and permanent residency application mean the roughly same thing.

There are so many immigration terms that it can get confusing. These terms mean roughly the same thing.

Adjustment of status refers to the process of becoming a permanent resident from inside the U.S., which consists of the I-485 application. Green card application refers to the I-485 application. I-485 refers to the legal immigration form for becoming a permanent resident. Permanent residency application refers to that same application. 

The process of applying for a green card abroad is different from the process of applying inside the U.S.

Applying for a green card from outside the U.S. is different from applying inside the country. For instance, an immigrant visa filed outside the U.S. is processed by the National Visa Center, whereas an immigrant visa filed inside the U.S. is processed by USCIS. In general, the wait times to get a green card form outside the U.S. are longer, but it depends on a variety of factors.

Take your next step in the green card process.

Now that you understand the visa bulletin, you can take the next step in your immigration journey. Explore your green card options with a business immigration expert or browse additional immigration resources.

About the author:

Allison Davy

Vice President Marketing, Legalpad

Allison helps startup founders from around the world navigate the complex U.S. immigration system so they can pursue their goals and purpose.