Overview of the U.S. Immigrant Visa Process

immigrant visa numberObtaining a family-based immigrant visa in the United States can be a confusing process. This article provides an overview of the U.S. immigrant visa process including immigrant visa numbers, priority dates and the visa bulletin.

A foreign national that is admitted to the United States with an immigrant visa becomes a lawful permanent resident in the United States. The permanent resident card, better known as a green card, is the identification card that represents this immigration status.

This overview covers who is eligible for family-based immigration to the U.S. and the basic steps that an immigrant will go through to become a lawful permanent resident.

3 Steps to a U.S. Immigrant Visa

There are three basic steps to become a U.S. permanent resident (green card holder) through the family-based immigration process:

Request an Immigrant Visa Number

For family-based immigration, a U.S. citizen or permanent resident relative files Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) must approve this petition. Filing Form I-130 is like asking the United States to reserve a visa number. Learn how to request a immigrant visa number.

Receive the U.S. Immigrant Visa Number

The immigrant must wait for the immigrant visa number to “become current.” Even if the immigrant is already in the United States with a temporary visa, this step can take time. Depending on the visa category, it can take a few months or several years. Once the immigrant visa number is received, this means that a U.S. immigrant visa has been assigned to the immigrant. Learn how long it will take to receive the immigrant visa number.

Obtain the Immigrant Visa by Consular Processing or Adjustment of Status

The immigrant must wait for the immigrant visa number to “become current.” If already in the United States, the immigrant would apply to adjust status to a permanent resident using Form I-485. If outside the United States when the visa number is current, the immigrant would apply through a local U.S. consulate (consular processing). Learn how to claim the immigrant visa.

How to Request an Immigrant Visa Number

Starting the process to obtain a family-based green card is relatively simple. A U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident may file Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative to ask the U.S. government to reserve a visa number for his or her relative. When the United States assigns a visa number, this means that a U.S. immigrant visa has been reserved for the relative.

But not any relative is eligible. U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents can petition only certain relatives.

A U.S. citizen petitioner may file Form I-130 for the following eligible relatives:

  • Spouse
  • Son or daughter
  • Brother or sister (petitioner must be age 21 or older)
  • Parent (petitioner must be age 21 or older)

A U.S. permanent resident petitioner may file Form I-130 for the following eligible relatives:

  • Spouse
  • Unmarried sons and daughters

Once the visa petition (Form I-130) is approved, USCIS will notify the petitioner. USCIS will then send the approved Form I-130 to the Department of State’s National Visa Center (NVC) – it will remain here until an immigrant visa number is available.

The NVC will notify the beneficiary of the application (the relative) when the visa petition is received, and they will notify the relative again when an immigrant visa number is available.

Receive the U.S. Immigrant Visa Number

For immediate relatives (spouse, children and parents) of U.S. citizens, there is an unlimited number of visa numbers and the immigration process can proceed relatively quickly. For everyone else, the time frame to receive a U.S. immigrant visa number varies based on preference category, country of birth and priority date.

When a visa petition is approved for the spouse, parent, or unmarried minor child of a U.S. citizen, an immigrant visa number is immediately available. These people are all classified as immediate relatives. There is no wait because there is no visa limit for the immediate relative category.

  • IR-1: Spouse of a U.S. citizen
  • IR-2: Unmarried child under 21 years of age of a U.S. citizen
  • IR-3: Orphan adopted abroad by a U.S. citizen
  • IR-4: 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

However, U.S. law limits the number of immigrant visa numbers that are available each year for all other relationships. For alien relatives in preference categories, a limited number of immigrant visas are issued each year. In some cases, several years could pass between the time USCIS approves your immigrant visa petition and the State Department gives you an immigrant visa number.

Family preference immigrant visas are for specific, more distant, family relationships with a U.S. citizen and some specified relationships with lawful permanent residents. Unfortunately, there are a limited number of visas issued for each category. Family preference visa categories include:

  • F1 (Family First Preference): Unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and their minor children, if any.
  • F2 (Family Second Preference): Spouses, minor children, and unmarried sons and daughters (age 21 and over) of lawful permanent residents.
  • F3 (Family Third Preference): Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and their spouses and minor children.
  • F4 (Family Fourth Preference): Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, and their spouses and minor children, provided the U.S. citizens are at least 21 years of age.

Complicating matters further, there are per-country limits that cap the percentage of the limited visa numbers which can be given to individuals from each country annually. As a result, individuals from countries with large populations and high rates of U.S. immigration, such as India, China, Mexico and the Philippines, often experience longer wait times for visa numbers than individuals from countries with lower rates of U.S. immigration.

Visa Priority Dates
When an immigrant visa petition is approved, it is filed in chronological order according to the date the visa petition was filed. The date the visa petition was filed is known as your “visa priority date.”

A visa priority date is used to determine your place on the wait list. When the priority date becomes available, or “current,” eligible immigrants will be able to obtain permanent resident status.

The priority date is assigned based on the date the visa petition (Form I-130) is properly filed with the USCIS. A prospective immigrant’s priority date can be found on Form I-797, Notice of Action, for the petition filed on his or her behalf.

Visa Bulletin
Each month the U.S. Department of State publishes a visa bulletin that provides an updated waiting list for each family preference immigrant visa. (Remember, immediate relative immigrant visas are unlimited so there is no waiting list per se.) If the visa bulletin states “C” for a given category and country, that indicates that the numbers are current in the specific category. However if the demand for visa numbers exceeds the supply, the visa bulletin indicates this with a “cutoff date.” If your priority date is BEFORE the date indicated, then you will receive a visa number.

Obtain the U.S. Immigrant Visa

u.s. immigrant visa for family

This is the final step to obtain an immigrant visa (green card). You have successfully secured the availability of an immigrant visa. Now you must use it. There are essentially two paths for acquiring an immigrant visa and obtaining permanent residence in the United States: consular processing and adjustment of status.

If the applicant is outside the U.S., the only path for immigrating to the U.S. is generally consular processing. Consular processing refers to the process of applying for a visa through the U.S. consulate in a foreign country. Learn more about consular processing. If the applicant is already in the U.S., both consular processing and adjustment of status (AOS) are available options. Learn more about adjustment of status. Each path has unique advantages and disadvantages.

About CitizenPath

CitizenPath is an online immigration resource that provides simple, step-by-step guidance through USCIS applications and petitions. Our low-cost service helps to simplify the process by explaining each question and providing alerts if your answer to a question could be a problem. Most people do not need a lawyer to prepare USCIS forms, but many need a little assistance. That’s where CitizenPath can help. CitizenPath provides support for Visa Petitions (Form I-130), the Citizenship Application (Form N-400), and several other popular forms.