U.S. Immigration Numerical Limits and Caps

U.S. immigration laws limit the number of immigrants admitted each year. The annual numerical limits, however, are not simple numbers. They are calculated based on rather complicated formula, and some of them may change from year to year. In addition, there are caps for subcategories, such as per-country caps and preference-specific limits.

It is important to understand these limitations as they are directly related to visa number availability and retrogression, as well as how visa bulletin works in general.

Annual Limits for Immigrant Visas

  • The annual limit for total number of legal immigrants is 675,000. This is the maximum allotment of visa numbers per year, covering both foreign nationals who receive immigrant visas at consular offices abroad, and those who adjust status within the United States.
    • 675,000 is a "flexible" cap, with certain categories of immigrants exempted from the limit (for example, immediate relatives of U.S. Citizens and certain special immigrants)
    • The annual limit is divided into three main categories: family sponsored, employment-based, and diversity visa
    • 675,000 = 480,000 + 140,000 + 55,000 (see below)
  • Family-sponsored annual limit: minimum 226,000, up to 480,000. The actual limit is calculated each year as 480,000 minus the total number of immediate relatives of U.S. citizens who became permanent residents in the previous fiscal year (as well as a few other groups), plus any unused employment preferences numbers in the preceding year. If the result comes out to be below 226,000, the annual limit will be set at 226,000, as required by law.
  • Employment-based annual limit: minimum 140,000. The actual limit is calculated as 140,000 plus unused family-sponsored preferences in the previous fiscal year. For example, in 2005 there were 3,949 unused family sponsored visa numbers, so the 2006 employment preference limit was set to 143,949 (140,000 + 3,949). If nothing was left, the limit would be 140,000.
  • Diversity visa (green card lottery) annual limit: 55,000, of which up to 5,000 will be made available for use under the NACARA program.
  • Per-country cap: 7% of the total annual family-sponsored and employment-based preference limits. If the limits are 226,000 and 140,000, respectively, the per-country limit will be 25,620, which is 7% of (226,000 + 140,000). Furthermore, the per-country cap of 25,620 is divided into family-based limit (15,820) and employment-based limit (9800).
  • Per-country cap for dependent areas/territories is 2% of the total annual family-sponsored and employment-based preference limits, i.e. 7320.
  • Each preference class also has its own quota, and depending on allotment of visa numbers throughout the year, these limits may be adjusted accordingly (fall down, "fall up" or "fall across"). In addition, immigration bills (such as authorization to recapture unused visas) may temporarily change the caps for certain categories. Below are explanations provided by DOS' Visa Office:
  • Family-sponsored:
    • Family-Sponsored First (F1): Unmarried Sons and Daughters of Citizens, 23,400 plus any unused numbers from F4
    • Family-Sponsored Second (F2): Spouses and Children, and Unmarried Sons and Daughters of Permanent Residents, 114,200, plus the number (if any) by which the worldwide family preference level exceeds 226,000, and any unused first preference numbers. F2 is further divided into two subcategories: For F2A (Spouses and Children), 77% of the overall second preference limitation, of which 75% are exempt from the per-country limit; for F2B (Unmarried Sons and Daughters): 23% of the overall second preference limitation.
    • Family-Sponsored Third (F3): Married Sons and Daughters of Citizens, 23,400, plus any numbers not required by F1 and F2.
    • Family-Sponsored Fourth (F4): Brothers and Sisters of Adult Citizens, 65,000, plus any numbers not required by F1, F2 and F3.
  • Employment-based:
    • Employment Based First (EB1): Priority Workers, 28.6% of the worldwide employment-based preference level, plus any unused numbers from EB4 and EB5.
    • Employment Based Second (EB2): Members of the Professions Holding Advanced Degrees or Persons of Exceptional Ability, 28.6% of the worldwide employment-based preference level, plus any unused numbers from EB1.
    • Employment Based Third (EB3): Skilled Workers, Professionals, and Other Workers, 28.6% of the worldwide level, plus any numbers not required by EB1 and EB2, not more than 10,000 of which to "Other Workers".
    • Employment Based Fourth (EB4): Certain Special Immigrants, 7.1% of the worldwide level.
    • Employment Based Fifth (EB5): Employment Creation, 7.1% of the worldwide level, not less than 3,000 of which reserved for investors in a targeted rural or high-unemployment area, and 3,000 set aside for investors in regional centers.
  • Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens: No limit.
  • Refugees and asylees: Manually adjusted and exempt from preference and diversity limits.

Fiscal Year 2012 Numerical Limits Set by the Department of State

Family-Sponsored
Preference Foreign State Worldwide
F1 1,638 23,400
FX   65,950
F2A 6,151 21,984
F2B 1,838 26,266
F3 1,638 23,400
F4 4,555 65,000
Total 15,820 226,000

Note: Unused numbers can “fall-down” from F1 to F2A to F2B to F3 to F4. Unused F4 numbers can “fall-up” to F1.

Employment-Based
Preference China All Others Worldwide
EB1 2,803 2,803 40,040
EB2 2,803 2,803 40,040
EB3/EW 2,503 2,803 40,040
EB4/SR 691 696 9,940
EB5 0 695 9,940
Total 8800 9800 140,000

Note1: Unused numbers can "fall-down" from EB1 to EB2 to EB3. Unused numbers can "fall-up" from EB4 and EB5 to EB1.

Note2: Chinese Student Protection Act requires that the China annual limit be reduced by 1,000 (300 from the Eb3 category, and 700 from Eb5 ).

See also:




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