There are two processing options available to foreign nationals who seek to apply for permanent residence: "adjustment of status" or "consular processing". Adjustment of status is the process via which a foreign national applies for permanent residence while physically present in the U.S., through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Consular processing is when a foreign national applies, at a U.S. consulate abroad, for an immigrant visa ultimately used for admission to the U.S. as a permanent resident.
In either case, the end result is permanent resident ("green card") status; however, there are considerable differences in these two avenues to that ultimate goal. One chief distinction lies in the various processing timelines. Some consulates process their immigrant visa caseloads quite quickly and incorporate streamlining efforts for data collection and interview scheduling, while others take extensive amounts of time and often calendar a final interview abroad with little advance notice to the applicant. Adjustment of status applications all receive initial processing at one of the USCIS processing or service centers and, where necessary, final interview scheduling at one of USCIS' local immigration offices where foreign national resides. In addition, consular decisions are unreviewable, whereas due process provides for the ability to respond to information requests and to reopen case denials for adjustment of status applications. Moreover, some individuals to whom certain grounds of inadmissibility apply are ineligible for adjustment of status and must seek consular processing (along with any appropriate waivers).
Nonetheless, an application for adjustment of status may not be filed and/or approved, and a final consular interview may not be scheduled, unless a visa number is available for the foreign national. For the so-called "preference" categories that are subject to annual limitations, a visa number is not available until the foreign national's "priority date," or place in line for a green card, is "current," according to the U.S. Department of State's monthly Visa Bulletin, which sets forth immigrant visa availability by preference category and by country of birth. In such cases, an individual's priority date is the date of filing of the underlying immigrant visa petition (I-140 or I-130) or, in certain employment-based cases, the filing of the PERM labor certification application. Backlogged waiting lines are common, especially for persons born in India, China, Mexico, and the Philippines