U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is a federal agency that operates as part of the broader U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This agency is tasked with providing several critical services that impact foreign nationals who wish to come to the United States to work and/or live for any period of time. USCIS handles the processing of a number of different kinds of forms associated with visa applications, as well as applications for permanent residence status (green cards), and applications for naturalized citizenship. If you’re interested in living and/or working in the U.S., sponsoring a family member or sponsoring an employee to come to the U.S., you’ll likely need to submit paperwork to USCIS before that transition can be approved.
One of the most challenging aspects of working with USCIS involves, quite simply, waiting. Processing immigration applications tends to take a significant amount of time. Notably, some kinds of immigration paperwork take longer to process than others. Similarly, paperwork submitted from foreign nationals residing in certain countries takes longer than others and paperwork submitted to specific USCIS processing centers takes longer than documents submitted to others. While there are logical reasons why certain submissions and/or sites take longer to process than others, the uncertainty, frustration, anxiety, and practical challenges associated with waiting for the USCIS to process an individual’s paperwork are similarly felt by all aspiring immigrants.
What Kinds of Immigration Petitions Are Processed by USCIS?
There are several major categories of petitions that USCIS manages: Work-related, family-related (including foreign adoptions), naturalization/citizenship, and humanitarian-related petitions. The number of ultra-specific kinds of petitions processed by USCIS is overwhelming. Chances are that if you’re looking to live and/or work in the U.S. (even if you’re hoping to work in the U.S. as a nonimmigrant) or you’re hoping to sponsor a family member or worker so that they can legally enter the U.S., you’ll need to submit paperwork to USCIS.
It’s important to note that forms associated with these petitions are not only processed by USCIS; specific elements of these petitions are managed by alternative agencies as well. For example, visa and naturalization matters are not only processed by USCIS, they are also processed by the U.S. Department of State. Similarly, some elements of certain work-related petitions are handled by USCIS, while others (including prevailing wage requests of specific “H” visas and PERM applications and labor certifications) are managed by the U.S. Department of Labor.
If you ever have questions about how your immigration petition wait times may be affected by form submissions to multiple agencies, don’t hesitate to ask your attorney. Immigration processes and their wait times tend to fluctuate significantly under certain circumstances, so it’s generally a good idea to request regular updates on the status of your paperwork and expected wait times from your attorney. That way, you’ll always know “where you stand” and what to expect next in your petition process.
Expected Wait Times for USCIS Processing
Wait times for USCIS processing vary according to the type of form an applicant has submitted to the agency and which processing center or local field office that form has been submitted to. Depending on an applicant’s circumstances, the applicant’s nation of residence may also influence how long it will take USCIS to process their paperwork. It is important to remember that not all forms are processed by the USCIS. A number of application elements is also processed by the Department of State and/or Department of Labor. This is inclusive of most visa request paperwork.
When researching USCIS processing times, take into account the fact that other elements of your application may be affected by wait times related to additional steps in your petition process. If a specific form begins with the letter “I” or the letter “N,” it is likely subject to USCIS processing (and specific wait times associated with that processing) at a USCIS service center or local office. Other elements of your petition will be affected by processing-related wait times influenced by broader agency policies and protocols.
USCIS Service Centers
There are six different USCIS service centers that have processing times that fluctuate significantly at any given time. Note that not every service center manages every “I” form submitted by applicants. Some centers only process specific “I” forms and some “I” forms may be processed at a local office. The USCIS Service Centers that process most USCIS forms are:
California Service Center
National Benefits Center
Potomac Service Center
Nebraska Service Center
Texas Service Center
Vermont Service Center
The processing times at each of these service centers vary according to staffing levels, the volume of petitions received and internal turnaround priorities. Most of the paperwork filed with USCIS is processed at these major service center locations. Only a few kinds of petitions are processed at smaller, “local” USCIS facilities. Note that any forms submitted to service centers are subject to constant fluctuations in wait times, so check regularly for updated information.
By contrast, processing times for local USCIS offices (located in most major U.S. cities) tend to be more predictable. This is because these offices handle fewer types of petitions and have more stable staffing as a result. According to the USCIS website, the “most common forms handled at the field offices include Form I-485, Form N-400 and the Form N-600.”
Visa Application Wait Times
As previously mentioned, the wait times for USCIS form processing and overall visa application processing are not the same thing. The USCIS processes key forms related to visas, naturalization, changes in immigration status, etc. but multiple governmental departments process different parts of visa applications. As a result, it’s important to understand that if you’re applying for a visa, your visa application wait times are not singularly defined by how long it will take USCIS to process forms required for different elements of the visa application process.
The U.S. Department of State maintains a so-called “Visa Bulletin” that approximates the overall wait times associated with applying for specific kinds of visas. This bulletin is updated monthly, so visa applicants can get a sense of how long their application will take to process overall. To effectively read this bulletin, you will first need to determine whether you’re filing an employment visa, a family visa, or a diversity immigrant visa. You’ll then need to determine what “preference” your visa is classified under. Preference categories are determined by the type of visa you’re filing within the broader employment, family, and diversity categories. For example, “first preference” classification of employment visas are extended to so-called priority workers. “Second preference” applies to “Members of the Professions Holding Advanced Degrees or Persons of Exceptional Ability,” etc.
Once you’ve located the section of the bulletin that applies to your broad visa category (and you’ve found the chart that applies to your status – for example, there are different charts that refer to wait periods for final action on certain petitions as opposed to initial filing), and you’ve located your visa preference classification, you need only locate your country of origin to determine your estimated visa processing wait time.
USCIS Visa Bulletin Wait Times
Wait time is not expressed in a straightforward way. It doesn’t actually indicate how long it will take the U.S. government to physically process your application. This is because many factors could impact how long it may take an application to be processed from start to finish. The “wait time” published by the Visa Bulletin lists the start of the backlog for a visa as designated by priority date.
For example, a first preference employment visa submitted by a foreign national of the Philippines may be listed as having a backlog priority date of April 22, 2018. This means that the employment visa application backlog for petitions submitted by first preference residents of the Philippines starts with petitions submitted on April 22, 2018. The closer your visa application date of submission is to the backlog priority date, the sooner your visa application will be reviewed. Or, in the case of final action, decided upon.
There’s no straightforward answer to the question of “how long does it take a visa application to be processed.” It just isn’t possible to provide applicants with a hard deadline of when their applications will be decided. However, experienced immigration attorneys can tell individual applicants about the kind of wait times they may expect. This is based on their nation of origin, type of visa applied for, trends in State Department and USCIS processing, etc. This is one of the many reasons why working with an attorney when you’re seeking U.S. visa approval is beneficial.
Immigration Assistance Is Available
If you’re interested in applying for a visa, changing your immigration status, sponsoring a family member, or sponsoring a foreign national employee who wishes to work at a company office located within the U.S., please consider scheduling a consultation with an immigration attorney at LawTrades today. Our immigration attorneys have experience assisting visa applicants, foreign investors, and immigration sponsors with all aspects of the immigration process. Once we learn more about your specific immigration needs, we can advise you of your legal options. Our legal team looks forward to speaking with you.