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What Are the Different Visa Preference Categories?

Why Do The Preference Categories Matter?

Applying for a Visa

USCIS uses visa preference categories to sort certain immigrant visa petitions in order of importance. Your preference category can significantly impact how your immigrant visa petition and visa is processed, especially in terms of your wait time. Understanding how preference categories work before you file your immigrant visa petition paperwork is important.

What Are Visa Preference Categories?

Visa preference categories are categories that USCIS considers when reviewing immigrant visa petitions. Cases with a higher preference value are reviewed and considered before cases with a lower preference value. These categories are designed to help USCIS adhere to their priorities when processing cases.

Why Does the U.S. Have Visa Preference Categories?

The U.S. government uses visa preference categories to help them meet their goals. The U.S> Government can only grant a specific number of visas per visa category each year, and preference categories help them issue visas in cases they feel are the most important.

The U.S. government wants to help facilitate family reunification for immediate family members. They also want to bring top talent and bright minds into the United States workforce. These types of immigration have a direct and measurable benefit to society as a whole, which is why the U.S. government prefers to devote a substantial amount of time and effort to reviewing cases in these categories.

1. Family-Sponsored Visa Preference Categories

The U.S. government strives to keep families together. If one member of a family is a green card holder or a citizen of the United States, their family members with citizenship outside of the United States are eligible for immigration benefits. USCIS prioritizes immigrant visa requests for immediate relatives over immigrant visa requests for members of your extended family.

Immediate Relative Immigrant Visas (Unlimited)

There is virtually no visa waiting period for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. Immediate relatives include spouses, parents, and unmarried children under the age of 21. U.S. citizens can request immigrant visas for eligible family members, and there is always a visa available to such family members. 

Green card holders who are eligible to become citizens may find that it’s easier to obtain U.S. citizenship before attempting to bring their family members to the United States. Naturalization removes a lot of the barriers and obstacles in the family immigration process.

Family First Preference (F1)

Family first preference applies only to U.S. citizens with unmarried adult children over the age of 21 years old.

Family Second Preference (F2)

Family second preference applies to green card holders. This preference category includes spouses and children of lawful permanent residents, regardless of their age. Unmarried children over the age of 21 are included in the family second preference category. 

This preference category is broken into F2A and F2B. The F2A category is for spouses and unmarried children under 21 while F2B is for unmarried children who are 21 or older. The F2B category allows unmarried children under the age of 21 to immigrate with the principal applicant. 

Family Third Preference (F3)

Third preference applies to married children of United States citizens. This category allows the spouse and children of the married person to immigrate with the principal applicant. 

Family Fourth Preference (F4)

Fourth preference is for adult siblings of U.S. citizens. This category allows the spouse and children of those adult siblings to immigrate with the principal applicant. 

2. Employment-Based Visa Preference Categories

Employment-based visas exist to fortify the United States workforce with the best and brightest minds from around the world. A diverse workforce makes society better, and contributes to American innovation.

First Preference EB-1: Priority Workers

The EB-1 preference category includes those with extraordinary ability, outstanding professors and researchers, and certain multinational executives or managers. The U.S. government sometimes adds or amends initiatives for some categories of professional workers and uniquely skilled individuals if the United States workforce is lacking people with specific necessary skill sets.

Second Preference EB-2: Professionals with Advanced Degrees or Exceptional Ability

You must have the equivalent of a master’s degree or higher to qualify for an EB-2 visa or the equivalent of a U.S. bachelor’s degree and at least 5 years of progressive post-baccalaureate work experience in your field. This category also includes people who have made exceptional contributions to arts, business, or sciences. You may be able to qualify for a waiver of the labor certification requirement if you can show your work is in the national interest of the United States. 

Third Preference EB-3: Skilled Workers, Professionals, and Unskilled Workers

Third preference for workers encompasses most other workers. Anyone with a degree less than the equivalent of a master’s degree (including specialty certifications) and people with extensive work experience in a specialty field fall into the third preference category. 

The term “unskilled workers” is somewhat misleading. It doesn’t refer to workers without skills. It refers to workers who are successful in a career field that doesn’t require a degree. This can include construction workers, landscapers, and experienced restaurant staff.

Fourth Preference EB-4: Certain Special Immigrants

This category is very broad. It includes a significant number of foreign nationals, including:

  • Former Panama Canal Zone workers
  • Foreign nationals who have worked with the United States government or United States military
  • Retired NATO-6 civilians and their immediate family members
  • Afghan or Iraqi translators or helpers of the United States military
  • Abused spouses or children of U.S. citizens or green card holders
  • Special immigrant juveniles

Fourth preference is commonly used for religious workers. The U.S. government allows immigrants to enter the United States specifically to perform religious duties.

Fifth Preference EB-5: Immigrant Investors

Fifth preference is for immigrant investors who can create jobs for the American workforce. There are strict requirements for the EB-5 visa, and a substantial investment in a designated economic area is a prerequisite for approval. 

EB-5 visas work differently from most EB visas. Most immigrant investors will receive conditional green cards, which come with limitations. The conditions will be removed after the investor meets a list of requirements associated with their investment. 

3. Diversity Immigrant Visa Program (DV)

The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program is sometimes referred to as the visa lottery. The U.S. government reserves 50,000 visas a year specifically for applicants from countries with low immigration rates to the United States. 

Applicants for the diversity program don’t need to have a valid reason to apply for a visa to the United States and are free to apply solely because they would like to live in the United States. They’re only expected to meet the minimum eligibility requirements for immigration, which includes passing a criminal background check and consenting to a biometrics appointment.

Since this program is a lottery, those who can apply are selected completely at random. Once selected, they can apply for an immigrant visa once their number is current on the visa bulletin.

What Is the Role of Visa Preference Categories in Immigration Policy?

Immigration policy is intended to favor safe and documented immigration while welcoming immigrants into the United States who can help to make the country stronger. The United States also highly emphasizes family values and immigration institutions would like to see families reunited as often as possible. 

USCIS and the Department of State use preference categories to categorize family-based and employment-based immigrant visa petitions for processing. This allows them to process petitions where a visa is likely to be available sooner over those petitions where the wait for a visa can be many years. 

Visa preference categories tie into immigration policy because preference categories are designed to help USCIS and the U.S. Department of State achieve goals efficiently. 

How Do You Determine Your Visa Preference Category?

It’s usually easy to determine your visa preference category when applying for a family-related visa. You only need to know two pieces of information. 

The first important factor to consider is whether the family member in the United States is a citizen or a lawful permanent resident. Born U.S. citizens and naturalized U.S. citizens have the same rights and privileges when requesting immigration benefits for their foreign-born family members. Lawful permanent residents have some rights and privileges but may not be able to make requests for members of their extended family.

The second factor to consider when determining a family visa preference category is the citizen or permanent resident’s relationship to their foreign-born family member. The closer the relationship, the higher the preference category will be. 

It can be slightly more difficult to determine your preference category for a work-related visa. The rules and qualifications are extensive for these visa preference categories. If you’re in the United States with an O-1 or L-1A visa, you’re likely in the first preference category. If you’re applying for a general EB visa and you aren’t an investor, you’ll need to check your qualifications and work experience and compare them to the category requirements.

What Should You Do If You Are Unclear About Your Visa Preference Category?

If you received an offer of employment from a United States employer, they will likely be able to tell you which preference category applies to your situation. If you’re applying for yourself, applying on behalf of a family member, or assisting a potential employee with the process, you may benefit from the assistance of an experienced immigration attorney.

Visa Preference Category FAQs

Understanding which visa preference category applies to your situation is only half of the information you need to plan the immigration process. You’ll still have to consider wait times and USCIS processing to have a realistic understanding of what will happen next.

How Do Preference Categories Affect Wait Times?

Visa cases are processed by preference and allotments. A specific number of visas is set aside for each category every year. The lower the preference category, the fewer visas will be issued. The U.S. government awards more visas to spouses and unmarried minor children of citizens and permanent residents than they do to siblings of U.S. citizens. The U.S. government finds that reuniting minor children with their parents is higher on the list of priorities than reuniting adult siblings. 

Priority can affect wait times because fewer visas are usually awarded to lower categories. That doesn’t mean that visas will be denied to people who apply for a visa in a lower preference category. It just means they’ll have to wait longer until visas become available in future years. It isn’t unusual for some people to wait as long as eight years for family visa approval.

Do You Need Legal Help With Your Immigration Case?

Visa processing can take a long time. When filing your paperwork, it can take even longer if you make any mistakes. Errors can lead to denials, and a denial means you’ll need to start the process over from the beginning. It’s important to complete your paperwork correctly the first time, especially when wait times can be as long as several years.

The experienced team of immigration attorneys at Cohen, Tucker + Ades can assist you with filing immigration paperwork for family or EB visas. Contact us for a consultation when you’re ready to start the process.


The Rules for Immigrants Wanting to Work in the United States on a Permanent Basis | American Immigration Council

The Non-Immigrant Special Immigrant Religious Worker Visa Program | USCCB

Green Card Through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program | USCIS

Immigration Wait Times from Quotas Have Doubled: Green Card Backlogs Are Long, Growing, and Inequitable | Cato Institute


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