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What are Immigrant Visas?

An Immigrant Visa is required of anyone who wishes to enter the United States to reside there permanently, whether or not that person plans to seek employment in the United States.

In general, a person who wishes to immigrate to the United States must have a petition approved by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) before applying for an immigrant visa. The petition is filed either by a relative or a potential employer at a USCIS office in the United States. Specific information about how petitions are filed can be found at the USCIS website. An individual with an approved petition and a priority date that is current for processing is eligible to apply for an immigrant visa or K and V non-immigrant visa.

An Immigrant Visa category is determined by the type of petition filed on behalf of the beneficiary that is approved by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Depending on the visa category, an immigrant visa is either immediately available or is numerically limited by law. For immediate relatives of U.S. citizens (IR category), visa numbers are immediately available once the petitions filed on their behalf are approved by the USCIS. Immediate relatives are parents, spouses and minor children (unmarried and under 21 years of age) of U.S. citizens. Each relative must have a separate petition filed on his/her behalf.

U.S. law limits the annual number of visas issued for the family-preference (F) and employment-based (E) categories. Beneficiaries of approved petitions who fall under these visa categories are not eligible to apply for immigrant visas until visa numbers become available for the applicable visa category. This numerical restriction may result in long waiting periods for applicants in the F and E visa categories when categories become oversubscribed, that is, when the number of qualified applicants exceeds the number of visas available for the year. In some cases, several years can pass after a petition is approved before a visa number becomes available for a qualified applicant. The wait is longer in countries where there is a high demand for immigrant visas. U.S. immigration law also allocates the number of immigrant visas by country.

For the numerically-limited categories, visa numbers are issued according to the date that petitions are filed or what is called the priority date. A beneficiary becomes eligible for a visa number when his/her priority date becomes current. The State Department releases a Visa Bulletin regularly, listing the priority dates that are currently processed for each visa category and country.

Beneficiaries in the F and E visa categories are classified according to a preference system. Under this system, a single petition may be for a principal applicant or the individual being petitioned and “derivative applicants.” Derivative applicants are spouses and/or minor children (below 21 years of age) of the principal applicants.