What is a Preference Category?
When preparing a family based immigrant (green card) petition for a family member there are various categories in which the family member may fall. The importance in understanding the preference categories arises out of the fact that depending on the category in which a family member is classified, if they qualify at all, the processing times may vary greatly. The processing times vary greatly as there limited visa numbers available to each classification. Accordingly, the specific visa categories get back logged and thus processing times are affected. Please see Step 7 discussing what a priority date is and where to find the current family based priority dates. Before turning to the various preference categories it is important to note that there is an "Immediate Relative" category which is not subject to any numerical limit.
Before turning to the various preference categories it is important to note that there is an "Immediate Relative" category which is not subject to any numerical limit. To qualify for this category one must be the child, spouse or parent of the U.S. Citizen who is filing the petition on your behalf. Per the regulations, a child must be under the age of 21 and unmarried at the time the petition is filed. Further, in order to apply for a parent, the petitioning U.S. citizen must be the son or daughter of the beneficiary, and must be at least 21 years of age.
First Preference Category
This preference is made for the unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens
Second Preference Category
This category is broken down into two parts. Part 2A is for the unmarried children and spouses of a legal permanent residents. Part 2B is for the unmarried sons and daughters of legal permanent residents.
Third Preference Category
This category exists for married sons and daughter of U.S. citizens.
Fourth Preference Category
The fourth preference category includes brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens.
What is a Priority Date and How do I check the current dates?
The priority dates can be found at the Department of State website. The January 2009 priority dates for example can be found at http://travel.state.gov/visa/frvi/bulletin/bulletin_4406.html. A priority date is a date indicated on the form I-130, which is the first form that must be submitted in a family based immigrant petition for a family member in any of the four preference categories discussed above. This date is the filing date of the I-130 form. This priority date is very important as you use this date to track when there are visa numbers (green cards) available for your family member, and accordingly indicates when the I-485 petition may be filed. The dates in the visa bulletin, associated with each preference category, indicate that cases with those priority dates have visas currently available.