The Preference System: Immigration Visa Preference Categories
What is the Preference System?
The preference system is a method, based on categories (or "preferences"), of distributing the limited number of immigrant visa numbers available each year. Obtaining an immigrant visa number is an essential step in the immigration process, and it means that an immigrant visa has been assigned to you.
People who want to become immigrants (Green Card holders) based on employment or family are divided into "preference" categories, and if their immigrant visa petition is approved, they must wait for an immigrant visa number to become available according to the limited number of visas allowed in each preference category each year.
An exception exists for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, which includes parents, spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21, who do not have to wait for an immigrant visa number to become available once the immigrant visa petition filed for them is approved. An immigrant visa number will be immediately available for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens.
Because the number of immigrant visa numbers that are available each year is limited, you may not get an immigrant visa number immediately after your immigrant visa petition is approved. In some cases, several years could pass between the time USCIS approves your immigrant visa petition and the time the State Department gives you an immigrant visa number. Because U.S. law also limits the number of immigrant visas available by country, you may have to wait longer if you come from a country with a high demand for U.S. immigrant visas (Green Cards).
For more information, including how to find out when a visa number will be available to you, see Immigrant Visa Numbers: National Visa Center and the US Visa Bulletin.
What are the Family-Based Preference Categories?
Except for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens (see above), relatives in the remaining categories must wait for an immigrant visa number 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 legal permanent residents (Green Card holders), and the unmarried sons and daughters (regardless of age) of legal permanent residents (Green Card holders) 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.
What are the Employment-Based Preference Categories?
All people who want to become immigrants and obtain a Green Card based on employment must wait for an immigrant visa number to become available according to the following preferences:
First Preference (EB-1 Visa): Priority Workers including aliens with extraordinary abilities, outstanding professors and researchers, and certain multinational executives and managers.
Second Preference (EB-2 Visa): Members of Professions Holding Advanced Degrees or Persons of Exceptional Ability.
Third Preference (EB-3 Visa): Skilled Workers, professionals and other qualified workers.
Fourth Preference (EB-4 Visa): Certain special immigrants including those in religious vocations.
Fifth Preference (EB-5 Visa): Immigrant Investors creating employment