What is the Visa Bulletin?
The U.S. government provides the Visa Bulletin to keep track of visa numbers and to give you a tool to determine when you can file your green card petition and when it can be approved. You can use the Visa Bulletin whether you are filing a Form I-485 with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) or consular processing through the U.S. Department of State (DOS) to obtain an immigrant visa in your passport.
The Visa Bulletin is necessary because each fiscal year the U.S. government can only give out a limited number of immigrant visas (or green cards). The law limits how many immigrant visas can be issued for each country and in each category (family-based or employment-based). However, there may be additional visas available in some fiscal years since unused visa numbers from the prior fiscal year may get carried over to the next fiscal year.
How does the Visa Bulletin work?
Before using the Visa Bulletin, you will want to have your “Priority Date” handy. Your Priority Date is the “Received Date” of the Form I-130 or I-140 immigrant petition at USCIS (or, if your I-140 is based on a Labor Certification, your Priority Date is the date you filed the Labor Certification).
The Visa Bulletin consists of multiple charts, including the Final Action Dates Chart and the Dates for Filing Chart (we will describe the differences between these charts below). Each chart has several rows and columns. The top row lists several countries, while the left-hand column lists visa categories (such as first family-based preference or second employment-based preference). For October 2020, for example, the Dates for Filing Employment-Based Chart looks like this:
For a given chart, you would first find your visa type in the first column on the left of the appropriate chart (whether family-based or employment-based). Then you would stay in that row and move directly to the right until you reach your country of birth (as listed in the top row). The date in that box is called the “Cutoff Date.” If your Priority Date is earlier than the Cutoff Date (which means that your Priority Date is “current”), you are allowed to do certain things, depending on whether you are looking at the Final Action Dates Chart or the Dates for Filing Chart. If your box is marked “C,” this means that all priority dates are “current.” A “U” means that this category is “unauthorized” for issuance.
In general, the Final Action Dates Chart shows dates when visas may finally be issued. The Dates for Filing Chart shows the earliest dates when applicants may be able to apply for an immigrant visa.
If you are looking at the Final Action Dates Chart and your Priority Date is current (earlier than the Cutoff Date in the box matching your country of birth and visa category), you (1) can file an I-485 application to USCIS, (2) USCIS can approve your pending I-485, and (3) a consulate can issue your green card to you.
If you are looking at the Dates for Filing Chart and your Priority Date is current, you can gather and submit required documents to the Department of State’s National Visa Center (NVC). NVC will then tell you when you can begin submissions. You may also be able to file a Form I-485 with USCIS, but you would need to visit the USCIS Adjustment of Status Filing Chart to be sure (note that, for October 2020, the Filing Date, rather than the Final Action Date, can be used). If your Priority Date is current based on the USCIS Adjustment of Status Filing Chart, you can file your Form I-485. In other words, if you are planning to file a Form I-485 with USCIS, you would generally use the Final Action Dates Chart unless USCIS has determined that there are more immigrant visas available than there are known applicants for those visas – in which case USCIS would show on its Adjustment of Status Filing Chart that you can use the earlier Dates for Filing Chart. Again, for October 2020, USCIS has made the determination that you can use the earlier Dates for Filing Chart.
As an example, if you were born in China and your Priority Date is May 15, 2017, in the EB-3 employment-based category, the chart above shows that your Priority Date is earlier than the cutoff date of June 1, 2018, for EB-3 China – therefore, your Priority Date is current and you would be able to take the steps listed above (file an I-485 application, receive approval on your pending I-485, and receive a green card).
What do I need to know about the October Visa Bulletin?
The October Visa Bulletin marks the start of the new fiscal year for the U.S. government (the fiscal year runs from October 1 to the following September 30, so fiscal year 2021 runs from October 1, 2020, through September 30, 2021). The October Visa Bulletin shows forward movement of visa numbers for four reasons:
- Each new fiscal year starts with the full number of visas permitted under the law.
- Unused visa numbers from family-based immigration categories are added to the total employment-based category numbers.
- COVID-19 reduced the use of family-based immigrant visa numbers because consulates were closed, thus increasing the visa numbers added to employment-based categories in fiscal year 2021.
- Travel bans enacted by the Trump administration reduced the use of visa numbers.
With the continuation of the Trump administration’s travel bans, and restrictions on travel due of COVID-19, the limited usage of family-based immigrant visa numbers by consulates may continue. This would continue a trend of increasing employment-based immigrant visa numbers.
What happens if next month’s Visa Bulletin changes?
A new Visa Bulletin is issued every month that will be in effect for that one month. Once that month is over, a new Visa Bulletin is in effect. If the new Visa Bulletin shows that your Priority Date is not current, then 1) the consulate cannot approve your green card, 2) you cannot file your Form I-485, and 3) USCIS cannot approve your filed application.
For example, if your Priority Date is current in the October 2020 Final Action Dates Chart, then you can file your Form I-485 with USCIS in October 2020. However, if the November 2020 Visa Bulletin changes and your Priority Date has retrogressed, then your Form I-485 cannot be accepted by USCIS or approved by USCIS in any part of the month. Similarly, someone with a current Priority Date on the Final Action Dates Chart who is applying at a consulate can be issued the green card during October 2020. However, if the Priority Date is no longer current in November 2020 and the individual was told to provide additional documents by the consulate, the visa cannot be issued if they return in November, even if they were interviewed in October.
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