Department of State Fact Sheet on How the Immigrant Quota System Works

The Department of State is responsible for administering the provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) in regards to numerical limitations on immigrant visa issuances. This information sheet explains how it works.

At the beginning of each month, the Visa Office (VO) receives a report from each consular post

listing totals of qualified immigrant visa applicants who already possess the documents required by their consular office in categories subject to numerical limitation. No names are reported. Cases are grouped by foreign state chargeability/preference/priority date. Chargeability means the country determined to be the applicant’s origin, usually his or her country of birth. The preference system is a method, based on categories (or “preferences”), of distributing the limited number of immigrant visa numbers available each year (i.e., in family-based categories, the first preference is unmarried, adult sons and daughters of U.S. citizens. Adult means 21 years of age or older.) Priority date is the date United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) receives the petition filed on behalf of a family member in family-based petitions or the date an immigration petition is filed with USCIS for employment-based petitions. In all cases, the priority dates are not established until USCIS approves the immigration petition. During the first week of each month, this demand for visas is tabulated.

VO subdivides the annual preference and foreign state limitations specified by the Immigration and Nationality Act into monthly allotments. The totals of qualified applicants which have been reported to VO are compared each month with the numbers available for the next regular allotment. Once this is done, the cut-off dates are established and numbers are assigned to applicants in order of their priority dates, the oldest dates first.

If there are sufficient numbers in a particular category to satisfy all reported qualified demand, the category is considered “Current.”  For example, if 3,000 visas are allowed in a specific category and there is only a demand for 1,000 applicants, the category can be “Current.”

If the number of qualified applicants in a category exceeds the number of visas available for a particular month, the category is considered to be “oversubscribed” and a visa availability cut-off date is established. The cut-off date is the priority date of the first qualified applicant who could not be accommodated for a visa number. So if 3,000 visas are available for a month and there is a demand for 8,000 applicants, a cut-off date would need to be established so that only 3,000 numbers are allocated. In this case, the cut-off would be the priority date of the 3,001st applicant. Only people with priority dates earlier than the cut-off date are entitled to allotment of a visa number. Allotment means the distribution of an immigrant number to a consular office or to Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS). The priority dates are published in the Visa Bulletin and also published online at the website www.travel.state.gov.

Visa allotments for use during that month are transmitted to consular posts. CIS requests visa allotments for adjustment of status cases only when all other case processing has been completed.

Applicants entitled to immigrant status become “documentarily qualified” at their own initiative and convenience. By no means has every applicant with a priority date earlier than a prevailing cut-off date been processed for final visa action. On the contrary, visa allotments are made only on the basis of the total applicants reported documentarily qualified each month — i.e., with all the required documents and with all the necessary processing procedures of their consular office completed. Demand for visa numbers can fluctuate from one month to another, with the inevitable impact on cut-off dates.

Visa numbers are always allotted for all documentarily qualified applicants with a priority date before the relevant cut-off date, as long as the case had been reported to VO in time to be included in the monthly calculation of visa availability. If not, the request was either not dispatched in time to VO or the information on the request was incomplete or inaccurate.

Per-country limit: The annual per-country limitation of 7% is a cap, which visa issuances to any single country may not exceed. Applicants compete for visas primarily on a worldwide basis. The country limitation serves to avoid monopolization of virtually all the annual limitation by applicants from only a few countries. This limitation is not a quota to which any particular country is entitled, however. A portion of the numbers provided to the Family Second preference category are exempt from this per-country cap. The American Competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century Act (AC21) removed the per-country limit in any calendar quarter in which overall applicant demand for Employment-based visa numbers is less than the total of such numbers available.

When visa demand by documentarily qualified applicants from a particular country exceeds the amount of numbers available under the annual numerical limitation, that country is considered to be oversubscribed. Oversubscription may require the establishment of a cut-off date which is earlier than that which applies to a particular visa category on a worldwide basis.