Demystifying Priority Dates

By Valerie Mahoney, Esq.

Why Are There Green Card Wait Times?

The process of obtaining a green card can be complex, with wait times often a significant hurdle. Why are there wait times? There’s a limit on how many green cards can go to people from each country each year. The law allows for about 140,000 employment-based green cards to be issued annually, but no more than 7% can go to citizens of a single country. This means if there are more applicants from a particular country than the 7% cap, a backlog forms. Those who apply after the cap is reached have to wait until there’s space available. This process has created the need for priority dates. Understanding priority dates is crucial for navigating this system. Priority dates act like a queue system for green card applicants. Here’s how they work:

How Do Priority Dates Work?

Imagine a crowded waiting room. This room represents the limited number of green cards available each year with different sections of the room for various green card categories (family-based, employment-based, etc.) and certain nationalities. Your priority date is like your ticket number in this waiting room. It shows when you officially entered the waiting line for your green card category. The earlier you file the necessary paperwork, the lower your number and the closer you are to the front of the line.

The Visa Bulletin

The State Department issues a monthly Visa Bulletin that lists an action date for each visa preference category and certain countries of origin. The Visa Bulletin helps you understand when your priority date might be called and allows you to track the movement of your category. This bulletin is like a list calling out ticket numbers for each category. If your priority date is earlier than the date listed for your category, you’re eligible to proceed with the next steps. Remember, the visa bulletin is a tool, and using it strategically can help manage your expectations for the green card process.

However, the demand for green cards can fluctuate quickly and without warning. If the date is “current” for your category, it means there are enough tickets (visas) and you can move forward with your green card application. However, sometimes more people apply for green cards than there are visas available that month. In that instance, the date moves back (retrogresses) in the line and people who were previously close enough to get a ticket (visa) now have to wait. When retrogression occurs, the application gets put on hold until visas are available again and the priority date (your place in line) becomes current once more.

So, even with an early priority date, there might be a wait depending on your category and country of origin. Due to the constant fluctuation of priority dates moving forward or backward, it can be confusing to check your priority date against the visa bulletin monthly.

While staying informed about your green card application is important, there are a few reasons why checking the visa bulletin monthly might not give you the full picture:

  • Focus on Long-Term Trends: The priority dates in the visa bulletin can move slowly and monthly fluctuations might not be very meaningful. Instead, looking at the movement of priority dates over several months can give you a clearer picture of the wait time.
  • Focus on Completing Your Part: Many factors beyond the visa bulletin can impact your application processing. Ensuring your application is complete and filed correctly is a more productive use of your time.

Here’s a better approach:

  • Check Quarterly: If your priority date is fairly far in the future, schedule periodic check-ins with the visa bulletin, such as every 3 months, to track the general movement of priority dates.
  • Focus on Preparation: Concentrate on gathering the required documents and ensuring your application is complete to avoid delays in moving your case ahead once your priority date becomes current.


While navigating the wait times associated with a green card can feel complex, understanding the priority date system and adopting a strategic approach to checking the visa bulletin can significantly reduce stress. By focusing on completing your application accurately and staying informed about major priority date movements in your category, you can take control of the process and move steadily closer to achieving your dream of U.S. lawful permanent residency.