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How Do I Get an Immigrant Visa Number?

An immigrant is someone who is not a U.S. citizen but has been authorized to permanently live and work in the United States. If you want to become an immigrant, you must go through a three-step process. First, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) must approve an immigrant petition for you, which is usually filed by an employer or a relative for you. Second, a visa number, through the State Department must be immediately available to you, even if you are already in the United States. If you receive an immigrant visa number, it means that an immigrant visa has been assigned to you. Third, if you are already in the United States, you may apply to adjust to permanent resident status after a visa number becomes available for you. (If you are outside the United States when an immigrant visa number becomes available for you, you must then go to your local U.S. consulate to complete your processing.)

U.S. law limits the number of immigrant visa numbers that are available every year. This means that even if the USCIS approves an immigrant visa petition for you, you may not get an immigrant visa number immediately. 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. In addition, U.S. law also limits the number of immigrant visas available by country. This means you may have to wait longer if you come from a country with a high demand for U.S. immigrant visas.

Who Is Eligible?

People who want to become immigrants are divided into categories based on a preference system. The immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, which includes parents, spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21, do not have to wait for an immigrant visa number to become available once the application filed for them is approved by the USCIS. An immigrant visa number will be immediately available for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. The relatives in the remaining categories must wait for a visa to become available according to the following preferences:

  • First Preference: Unmarried, adult sons and daughters of U.S. citizens. Adult means 21 years of age or older.
  • Second Preference: Spouses of lawful permanent residents, and the unmarried sons and daughters (regardless of age) of lawful permanent residents and their children. 
  • Third Preference: Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, their spouses and their minor children.
  • Fourth Preference: Brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens, their spouses and their minor children.

All people who want to become immigrants based on employment must wait for an immigrant visa number to become available according to the following preferences:

  • First Preference: Priority Workers including aliens with extraordinary abilities, outstanding professors and researchers, and certain multinational executives and managers.
  • Second Preference: Members of Professions Holding Advanced Degrees or Persons of Exceptional Ability.
  • Third Preference: Skilled Workers, professionals and other qualified workers.
  • Fourth: Certain special immigrants including those in religious vocations.
  • Fifth: Employment Creation Immigrants.

Applying for an Immigrant Visa Number

You do not directly apply for an immigrant visa number. In most cases, your relative or employer sends a visa petition to the USCIS for you (the beneficiary) to become an immigrant. (Certain applicants such as priority workers, investors, certain special immigrants, and diversity immigrants can petition on their own behalf.) USCIS will tell the person who filed the visa petition (the petitioner) if the visa petition is approved. USCIS will then send the approved visa petition to the Department of State's National Visa Center, where it will remain until an immigrant visa number is available. The Center will notify you (the beneficiary of the application) when the visa petition is received and again when an immigrant visa number is available. You do not need to contact the National Visa Center, unless you change your address or there is a change in your personal situation that may affect your eligibility for an immigrant visa.

How Can I Find Out When an Immigrant Visa Number Will Be Available?

Each approved visa petition is placed in chronological order according to the date the visa petition was filed. The date the visa petition was filed is known as your priority date. The State Department publishes a bulletin that shows the month and year of the visa petitions they are working on by country and preference category (see eligibility information above). You can estimate of the amount of time it will take to get an immigrant visa number by comparing your priority date with the date listed in the bulletin. For instance, suppose you look under your country and preference category, and see that the State Department is working on applications they received in May 2003. If your priority date is May 2005, then you may have to wait several more years for an immigrant visa number to become available.

Next Steps
Contact a qualified immigration attorney to help
you with visa procedures.
(e.g., Chicago, IL or 60611)