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What is the Green Card Lottery?

To many hopeful immigrants around the world, the Green Card Lottery is the “golden ticket” for entry into the United States.

In many ways, Green Card Lottery, officially known as the Diversity Immigrant Visa program is a cheap and straightforward way to enter the U.S.

Applying is free and fewer forms are needed than for the family-sponsored or employer-sponsored visas. However, even though about 500,000 have won the Lottery since 2007, the odds are not in your favor.

The application window for the 2017 fiscal year closed in November and more than 19 million hopefuls applied for the Lottery. Only 50,000 visas will be awarded. Which means, only 1 in 386 applicants will be awarded a visa.

If these odds sound good enough to you then read on. For many people, it is the best or only way to immigrate into the country. This is our comprehensive guide for getting a green card through the Green Card Lottery.

The Basics

What is the Green Card Lottery?

The Green Card Lottery, officially, the Diversity Immigrant Visa program is enacted in section 203(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act and codified in title 8 section 1153 of the United States Code. President H. W. Bush signed it into law back in 1990. It came after a series of temporary diversity programs, as an attempt to broaden the range of admitted immigrants. At the time, it especially helped the Irish fleeing their country due to unrest.

Although Diversity Immigrant Visa program is the official name, it is often referred to as the Diversity Visa Lottery or the Green Card Lottery, or some mixture of these terms. Immigrant visas awarded are often called diversity visas.

To summarize the process, applicants apply; applicants are selected at random using a computer; selected applicants are then screened through an interview process; those that pass the screening process are awarded immigrant visas; upon entry into the U.S., they are awarded their green card.

So, it is called both a visa lottery as well as Green Card lottery because winners are first given a visa which is then upgraded to a Green Card upon entry into the U.S.

Officially, 55,000 visas are awarded, however, each year 5,000 goes to the NACARA program, dropping the available number down to 50,000. The Green Card Lottery is one of several peripheral immigration programs that exist outside the more common route of family or employer sponsorship.

The Diversity Visa Lottery has come under some scrutiny lately and some lawmakers are even calling for it to end. Sayfullo Saipov infamously entered the country through the Diversity Lottery and then used his vehicle to slaughter innocent people in an act of terror.

Read more about Trump’s bill to end the program.

What is a green card?

A green card is an identification card carried by lawful permanent residents. They receive it when they become authorized to live and work in the U.S. on a permanent basis. Perhaps most importantly, green card holders can apply for U.S. citizenship.

The Green Card lottery compresses hassle of getting a visa and then obtaining a green card into a single process. About 1 million people are granted lawful permanent residency each year, so the Lottery makes up about 5% of those receiving green cards each year.

Go here for our complete guide on getting a green card.

The Application for the Green Card Lottery

As visa applications go, applying for the Diversity Visa Lottery straightforward. It can be broken down into four main parts:

  1. Submitting your application
  2. Getting selected
  3. Passing the interview
  4. Receiving your Green Card

Submitting your application

Each year, the U.S. Department of State publishes here the instructions on that year’s application process. Because the process takes a couple years, application years are given the name of the year in which their applicants will enter the U.S. So the application open in 2018 will be called DV-2020 because winners will enter the U.S. in 2020.

To apply, you’ll submit your Electronic Diversity Visa Entry Form, E-DV Entry Form or DS-5501, online at dvlottery.state.gov. Applications can only be done online, only one entry is allowed per person, and submitting an application is free. Usually, the application process is only open for a limited time from October to November.

The online application will ask you for basic background information including:

  • Name
  • Gender
  • Birthdate
  • City where you were born
  • Country where you were born
  • Country of eligibility for the Diversity Visa program
  • Entrant photographs – these are individual photographs taken within the last six months of yourself, your spouse, and each of your children.
  • Mailing Address
  • Country where you live currently
  • Phone number (optional)
  • Email address
  • Highest level of education you have achieved
  • Current marital status
  • Number of children

Married children and children who are already aged 21 or older when you submit your entry are not eligible to be included on your application.

Most importantly, you must meet the three basic requirements. You must:

  1. Be able to apply from an eligible country
  2. Have completed high school OR have two years work experience
  3. Be admissible

Requirement #1: The visa lottery countries

Not all countries are eligible for the green card lottery. Because the green card lottery is designed to admit immigrants from less common countries, countries with the highest rates of immigration are prohibited. The State Department uses a fairly complex formula to determine high-admission and low-admission countries and regions. If more than 50,000 immigrants have come from a country in the last five years, then that country will be ineligible.

Areas with the fewest number of immigrants are prioritized. This equation has lately favored Africa and Eastern Europe and consistently disfavored the most populous countries. No single country may receive more than 3,500 DVs.

In 2019, on the prohibited list was:

  • Bangladesh
  • Brazil
  • Canada
  • China (mainland-born)
  • Colombia
  • Dominican Republic
  • El Salvador
  • Haiti
  • India
  • Jamaica
  • Mexico
  • Nigeria
  • Pakistan
  • Peru
  • Philippines
  • South Korea
  • United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland) and its dependent territories
  • Vietnam

Natives from all other countries are eligible to apply. If you are from one of the prohibited countries, do not despair. Your country may be taken off the list in the future. Also, there are two other ways you might be able to qualify.

  • Use your spouse’s country. If your spouse was born in an eligible country then you can claim your spouse’s country of birth. For this to work, both you and your spouse must be named on the selected entry, be found eligible and issued diversity visas, and enter the United States simultaneously.
  • Use your parents’ country. If you were you born in an eligible country, but your parents were neither born in nor residents of that country, then you can claim the country of birth of one of your parents.

Requirement #2: School or work experience.

An applicant must also meet the second requirement. This can be done in one of two ways.

  • Graduated from high school. You must have at least a high school education or its equivalent. This means you must have successfully completed a 12-year course of formal elementary and secondary education
  • OR two years work experience. You must have two years of work experience within the past five years, in an occupation that requires at least two years of training or experience to perform.

For this second requirement, the State Department uses the U.S. Department of Labor’s O*Net Online database to determine qualifying work experience. It requires two years of training or experience that is designated as Job Zone 4 or 5, classified in a Specific Vocational Preparation rating of 7.0 or higher.

Requirement #3: Admissibility

Additionally, an applicant must be admissible to the US — categories of inadmissibility to the US broadly include terrorism connections.

Generally speaking, to be admissible, an applicant must not be inadmissible.The main categories of inadmissibility include health, criminal activity, national security, public charge, lack of labor certification, fraud and misrepresentation, prior removals, unlawful presence in the United States, and several miscellaneous categories. Sometimes, a person may apply for a waiver.

Getting Selected

The INA requires diversity visas to be distributed “strictly in a random order.”

Around May 15 each year, applicants are notified through the online portal if their applications are accepted. For the few that are selected to continue the application process, this is a happy day; for the many not selected, they hope to find better luck in the year to come.

It is important to note that not all selected at this stage will ultimately be submitted. About 100,000 applicants are selected at this stage. They will be narrowed down to 50,000. Try not to get ahead of yourself by selling your house, car, or other properties, quitting your job, or making travel arrangements; don’t do any of that stuff until after you actually have your visa.

To proceed in the process, selected applicants must complete the online Form DS-260 application immediately to schedule an interview appointment at the appropriate U.S. Embassy or Consulate.

Passing the Interview

The next step in the process is the in-person interview. At this point, a fee is required to continue on to the interview:  $330 per person. Each family member who will accompany the applicant to the U.S. must be present.

Fingerprints are recorded at the interview.

An applicant must bring many things with them to the interview:

  • Appointment Letter – Snag this from your appointment information from the Entrant Status Check on the Electronic Diversity Visa (E-DV) website.
  • DS-260 Confirmation Page – Print this from the Consular Electronic Application Center any time after you complete your DS-260 application.
  • Passport – You must have for each applicant an unexpired passport valid for six months beyond the intended date of entry into the United States.
  • Photographs – Two identical color photographs for each applicant. Go here for requirements.
  • Medical Exam Results – You and each family member applying for a visa with you must schedule a medical appointment with an authorized physician in the country where you will be interviewed. This examination and required vaccinations must be completed before your interview. The results may be mailed to the Embassy or Consulate or you may need to bring them with you yourself.

Beyond this, a long list of documents is required. For each document, you must have:

  • An original or certified copy
  • A photocopy
  • A certified translation, if the original document is not in english.

Required documents could include all applicable civil documents:

  • Documents demonstrating the requisite qualifying education or work experience
  • Birth certificates
  • Court and prison records
  • Deportation documentation
  • Marriage certificate
  • Marriage termination documentation
  • Military records
  • Police records
  • Custody documentation

Read this to understand consular processing.

Receiving your Green Card

At the end of the interview, the consular officer will inform you whether your visa application is approved or denied. If denied, then your passport comes back empty. If approved, your passport will be returned to you with a nice, new, beautiful visa.

Time to pack your bags! You are coming to America.

A diversity visa is usually valid for up to six months. So an applicant must arrive and apply for admission in the United States before the expiration date on the visa.

Of course, there is one more fee. You must pay the USCIS Immigrant Fee to USCIS after you receive your immigrant visa and before you travel to the United States. Currently, it’s $220.

The primary applicant must come before or at the same time as other family members with visas.  At this point, your diversity visa will grant you entry to the U.S., although that entry is not 100 percent guaranteed. Any immigrant still must conform with the Customs entry requirements.

If you are admitted, you will now be a lawful Permanent Resident, a green card holder. Congratulations!

After you are admitted to the United States, USCIS will mail your green card to the address you provided to the State Department at the time of your immigrant visa interview or to Customs at the time you arrived in the United States.

You will be allowed to work and live permanently in the United States.

What if I’m already an immigrant in the U.S. and I win the Green Card Lottery?

If you are already in the U.S. under a lawful immigrant or nonimmigrant status and you win the green card lottery, you can apply for a change of status to receive your green card. This process is done through USCIS. Your application with USCIS must be completed by September 30 of the fiscal year the lottery pertains to.

You must:

  • Have won the Green Card Lottery
  • Have an immigrant visa immediately available at the time of filing an adjustment application Form I-485, and
  • Be admissible to the United States.

To obtain the Green Card, you must file Form I-485, change of status request. Read this tutorial.

You’ll need to provide these documents:

The Happy Ending

Now that you have a Green Card, you must keep it safe and keep it in your possession at all times. It is valid for 10 years.

You should renew your green card when it has 6 months left or request a new one if it was lost or stolen by filing the Form I-90

You can use your Green Card to:

  • Prove employment eligibility in the United States when completing the Form I-9
  • Apply for a Social Security Card
  • Get a state-issued driver’s license.
  • Re-enter the U.S. after a trip abroad if you do not leave for longer than 1 year. If your trip will last longer than 1 year, a reentry permit is needed.
  • Sponsor family members to come on over next!
Updated on May 13, 2022

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