With the exception of the immediate family of U.S. citizens and refugees/asylees, United States green card allocations are subject to two types of quotas and a preference system that prioritizes certain green card categories over others.

First, quotas are based on classification or category of eligibility. For example, there are 10,000 immigrant visas (IVs) available worldwide each fiscal year to the employment-based fifth (EB-5) category for immigrant investors and 40,000 IVs available to extraordinary ability workers (EB-1).

Second, within each IV category, green cards are allocated based on country of nationality, which usually means country of birth. Each country is allocated 7% of the total of all quota categories, i.e., all family-based and work-based green cards available each year. This works out to about 25,620 green cards per country per year for all types of green cards.

Next, the green card allocations are prioritized by category, giving preference to higher priority categories. Under this “preference category” allocation system, categories such as highly skilled workers or nuclear family members receive green card allocations first.

Some countries never reach their per-country limit. Foreign nationals from those countries only face quota delays in categories that receive lower visa allocation priority, such as siblings of U.S. citizens or workers in jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree level of education or lower (EB-3). Other countries (e.g., China, India, Mexico and the Philippines) have more than 25,620 people who want to immigrate to the United States each year. For that reason, these countries have longer backlogs in several categories, even in high-priority categories like EB-1 and workers with advanced degrees (EB-2).

A quota delay based on category or country, or both, is when IV numbers allocated in the current year are applied to applicants who applied many years ago. A “priority date” is the date an individual’s first green card filing is made (e.g., the receipt date). The “cut-off date” is published in the monthly Visa Bulletin and is the date for which the State Department is currently allocating IV numbers to that category and country. Only when an applicant’s priority date is on or before the cut-off date is issuance of a green card possible.

Given the length of time occasioned by quota delays, applicants should monitor their priority date, confirm the priority date on their IV petition approval notice (I-526 or I-140), and check when that priority date becomes current in the monthly Visa Bulletin.