Have you heard an immigrant in your community talking about how he or she “won the lottery?” In all likelihood, the lottery your neighbor is talking about is the Diversity Visa program, which is administered by the Department of State as a way to increase the diversity of the immigrants coming to live in the United States.
Each year, the Diversity Visa program allows 50,000 randomly selected people—only from countries that don’t send many immigrants to the United States—to obtain permanent residency (commonly called a “green card”). It’s a way for individuals and families who otherwise wouldn’t have any way to legally immigrate to the United States to get a green card.
Entering the Diversity Visa lottery (aka green card lottery) involves filling out a simple form online, and it doesn’t cost anything. You can enter the lottery every year from early October through early November. The winners are selected at random by a computer, and they and their immediate families receive green cards.
The Diversity Visa was established by the Immigration Act of 1990 as a way to increase the diversity among immigrants to the United States. There have always been a handful of countries from which the majority of immigrants to the United States come, and Congress established the Diversity Visa program to increase the number of immigrants from smaller countries and countries that don’t send many immigrants to the United States.
The Diversity Visa is administered primarily by the U.S. State Department. The State Department runs the lottery and selects and notifies the winners. Over 95 percent of immigrants who win the green card lottery go through the State Department to get their green cards, as most of them are living outside the United States when they win the Diversity Visa lottery.
Just because the Diversity Visa exists now doesn’t mean that it isn’t subject to change. Several past and current immigration reform bills in Congress would eliminate the program entirely—though for now, none of these proposals have been enacted yet.
Country of birth
In order to qualify for the Diversity Visa, you must have been born in a country that sent less than 50,000 immigrants to the United States over the past 5 years. There is some yearly variation in the countries that are eligible, but Canada, China, India, Mexico, and the United Kingdom never make the list, because these countries all send a large number of immigrants to the United States.
If your native country is not eligible, there are still two ways you could qualify for the Diversity Visa:
- If your spouse was born in an eligible country, you can apply with your spouse and choose your spouse’s birth country on your application.
- If neither of your parents were legal residents in your own country of birth, you can choose your mother or father’s country of birth.
The second major requirement for Diversity Visa applicants is that you must have at least a high school degree, or at least two years of work experience within the past five years in a profession that requires at least two years of training, as determined by the U.S. Department of Labor.
If you’re selected in the green card lottery, you and your family members will have to meet the same requirements as any other U.S. green card applicant. Certain types of criminal records could make you ineligible for a green card. There are also some medical conditions that could make it difficult or impossible to get a green card.
What if I’m Married to a U.S. Citizen or Have Other Family Ties to the United States?
If you’re married to a U.S. citizen, you could still apply for the Diversity Visa lottery. However, there’s little advantage to doing so, since you will almost always be able to come to the United States sooner by applying for a marriage-based green card instead.
If you have another family member who could sponsor your green card, it might still be worthwhile to apply for the Diversity Visa lottery. Some family-based immigration categories—for example, siblings of U.S. citizens—take a very long time, and you would be able to come to the United States much sooner if you won the Diversity Visa lottery.
Entering the Lottery
Participating in the lottery is relatively easy. You fill out a form on the State Department’s website while it is available, from early October through early November. Most of the questions are easy to understand; however, there are a few places where these extra suggestions may be helpful:
- For “country of birth,” list the country you were born in, regardless of where you currently live. If the country has a different name now than it did when you were born, use the country’s current name.
- For “country of eligibility,” list either your country of birth, or—if you qualify to use your spouse’s or your parents’ birth countries—list that country. The country you currently live in is irrelevant for this question.
- Your spouse: You must list your spouse, even if he or she doesn’t live with you and does not intend to immigrate with you.
- Your children: You must list all of your biological children and all of your adopted children, no matter how old they are. You should also list all of your step-children under age 21, even if you are no longer married to their parent.
Once you submit your application, it’s essential to keep your confirmation number, because this is the only way to know if you’ve been selected.
Selection and Notification
The winners of the Diversity Visa lottery are chosen at random by a computer program, with a certain number of visas allocated to each region of the world and no one country receiving more than 7 percent of the Diversity Visas available in any given year.
Although the exact dates vary, people who have entered the Diversity Visa lottery can check the status of their application beginning in early May the year following their application, by using the Entrant Status Check link on the Diversity Visa webpage. This is why it’s so important to save that confirmation number: Without it, you won’t be able to see if you’ve been selected or not.
If you’re selected in the green card lottery, it’s important to act fast, even though it could still be a year or more before you’re able to come to the United States. There are two reasons to act immediately: First of all, your application must be processed and your visa must be issued by the end of the fiscal year for which you were selected. Second, there are more people selected for the Diversity Visa than there are visas available, and if you wait until the last minute there might not be any visas left.
When you’re notified that you won the Diversity Visa, you’ll get a numerical rank, which will tell you when you can apply for your visa. Towards the end of July, you can check the State Department’s visa bulletin to see when you can submit your application. The first visas are available on October 1, the first day of the U.S. government’s fiscal year, and you can submit your application up to 90 days ahead of time.
If you’re outside the United States
The vast majority of people who are selected for the Diversity Visa aren’t in the United States, and will apply for a green card through the U.S. consulate in their home country. As soon as you see that there is a visa available, you should submit form DS-260 with the National Visa Center. Once your application is processed, it will be forwarded to the U.S. consulate, which will schedule a visa interview. If you meet all the requirements, you will be approved for your immigrant visa at the interview.
If you’re in the United States
If you’re in the United States in a temporary immigration status (technically known as “non-immigrant status”) when you win the Diversity Visa lottery, you’ll apply for a green card through United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) by filing Form I-485. You should submit your application as soon as a visa becomes available, based on the visa bulletin.
Unfortunately, the Diversity Visa program is sometimes abused by scammers as a way to defraud hopeful immigrants. Here are a couple of tips to avoid common scams related to the Diversity Visa:
- Entering the Diversity Visa lottery is free. Anyone claiming to collect a fee on the Department of State’s behalf is scamming aspiring immigrants.
- The Department of State does not notify winners either by mail or by email; the only way to know if you’ve been selected is to check your application using Entrant Status Check.
Entering the Diversity Visa lottery is like entering any other lottery—the odds of winning aren’t high—but if you’re lucky, it can be a way to come to the United States even if you don’t have any family or employment contacts. If you’re married to a U.S. citizen, though, applying for a marriage green card is almost certainly the better option.