The immigration process is very similar to playing a round of the waiting game.
Congress sets limits on the number of visas U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) can issue annually. The congressional limits make the supply of visas much lower than the demand for immigration to the United States. This imbalance between supply and demand often results in long wait times for applicants.
The length of these wait times can vary depending on two things:
- The type of green card or visa you are applying for; and
- Which country you are applying from.
While the length of your wait time is uncertain due to the many factors involved, you’re almost guaranteed to wait for at least some period of time.
What is the Visa Bulletin?
The Department of State publishes a monthly visa bulletin on their website. The bulletin lists the availability and wait times for green card applications based on country and visa type.
If there is no wait time for a specific visa, the bulletin will simply read “C”, signifying that the visa category is current. If the bulletin says “U” for the specific category, visa data from that country is not available.
For visas with wait times, a cut off date will be listed based on priority date. After sending in your original paperwork and receiving a priority date, you must wait in line before continuing the immigration process.
What’s the Point of Wait Times?
The federal government has set annual quotas for each category of visa. When the application number exceeds the quota, the remaining applications start a backlog for that visa category.
There are several policy reasons for setting limits on immigration to the United States, such an economic harmony and family reunification. For example:
The federal government allots 800 high-skilled employment visas for 2014 and 2015. In 2014, USCIS receives 1600 applications for high-skilled employment visas. This means that USCIS is unable to process the other applications until 2015.
In 2015, the government receives another 800 high-skilled applications. Because the 2014 applications spilled over into 2015, this second set of applicants must wait until 2016, after all previous applications are processed.
In addition to numerical limits, there are also limits on how many visas may be issued to each country. No more than 7% of visas for each category may be issued to one country. This means that popular countries, such as India, China, and Mexico, often have much longer wait times than less popular countries.
How can I Check my Wait Time?
No government agency will contact you once your wait time is up. It is entirely your responsibility to monitor the Visa Bulletin for when you can apply for a green card.
You should always check your green card priority date against the date listed on the visa bulletin for your specific country and visa type. You can only apply for a green card when your date comes before the date listed on the bulletin. For example:
Santiago, a resident of Peru, filed his EB-3 visa application in June, 2015. As of the October 2015 bulletin, the cut off date for EB-3 visas from Peru was August 15, 2015.
Because Santiago’s priority date is earlier than the date listed in the October bulletin, he can continue his immigration process whenever he likes.
If you are unsure or confused about your wait time, contact an immigration attorney. The ebb and flow of immigration backlogs are best handled by an experienced professional.
There are no annual limits on visas for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. Thus, the quickest way to immigrate to the United States is through an immediate relative such as a spouse or parent.
You are also eligible for a visa through your immediate relatives who are permanent residents, however these visas do have annual limits and are subject to lengthy wait times.
The visas which are not subject to annual quotas or wait times are:
- IR-1: The spouse of a U.S. Citizen
- IR-2: An unmarried child (under 21 years of age) of a U.S. Citizen
- IR-3/H-3: An orphan adopted abroad by a U.S. Citizen
- IR-4/H-4: An orphan to be adopted in the U.S. by a U.S. Citizen
- IR-5: Parent of a U.S. Citizen who is at least 21 years old
Entering the United States through U.S. citizen relatives is usually the quickest and easiest path to receive a green card.
What can I do While Waiting?
If you are waiting on a visa, and otherwise without status, you may not enter the United States. If you choose to enter illegally while your application is pending, you risk removal and will most likely lose your opportunity for any type of U.S. residency.
For employment visas, applicants are not eligible to begin employment for the U.S. based company until their application has been processed.
This means, if a company petitions for an employee overseas to come work for them, the employee will not be able to begin the work until after their priority date is on or before the cut off date — and sometimes that is years!
If you have another route to status in the United States, you may use that path and apply for work authorization to work for your company until your employment green card is ready.