Family-based Preference Systems & Visa Number Availability


Under the Family Preference System, visa numbers are allocated to qualifying family members based on their relationship to the petitioner. The following are the different categories under this system:

  1. Immediate Relatives: Minor (under 21), unmarried children and parents of US citizens
  2. First Preference: Unmarried sons and daughters of US citizens
  3. Second Preference: Spouses and unmarried sons and daughters (can be over 21) of legal permanent residents
  4. Third Preference: Married sons and daughters of US citizens
  5. Fourth Preference: Brothers and sisters of US citizens.

Visa numbers are issued based on the date of filing the preference petition with the USCIS: US Citizenship and Immigration Services. This date is known as the priority date. Petitions for immediate relatives are not subject to this preference system, and visa numbers are immediately available upon filing the petition. The US Department of State issues the “Visa Bulletin” each month with visa number availability based on current priority dates.

Certain immigrant visa petitions automatically convert to other preference categories. These include:

  1. First to third preference upon marriage of son or daughter of US citizen
  2. Immediate relative to third preference upon child of US citizen marrying
  3. Third preference to immediate relative upon the divorce of a child under 21
  4. Third preference to first preference upon divorce of a son or daughter over 21 of US citizen

Second preference to immediate relative upon naturalization of parent of minor, unmarried child
In some instances, a change in circumstances invalidates the petition and a new preference petition must be filed. For example, a petition for a second preference minor, unmarried child of a legal permanent resident becomes invalid upon the child reaching 21, and a new preference petition must be filed. However, this second preference petition is accorded the priority date of the initial preference petition.