Winning a Green Card Through the Visa Lottery

50,000 green card lottery slots are available each year -- you could be eligible for one.

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A green card lottery was created by the Immigration Act of 1990 to benefit people from countries that in recent years have sent the fewest numbers of immigrants to the United States. You can enter the lottery if you are a native of one of those countries and meet certain other requirements. Because the winners are selected through a random drawing, the program is popularly known as the green card lottery. Its official name is the Diversity Immigrant Visa Lottery.

Who Qualifies for the Lottery?

There are 50,000 winners selected each year. They are chosen by dividing the world into regions and allocating no more than 7% of the total green cards to each region.

Country of Birth

People from most countries are eligible for the lottery. The only countries not qualified for the lottery with the application period beginning on October 1, 2014 and ending on November 3, 2014 (called "DV-2016") were:

  • Bangladesh
  • Brazil
  • Canada
  • China (mainland, not including Macau, Taiwan, or Hong Kong)
  • Colombia
  • Dominican Republic
  • Ecuador
  • El Salvador
  • Haiti
  • India
  • Jamaica
  • Mexico
  • Nigeria¬†
  • Pakistan
  • Peru
  • Philippines
  • South Korea
  • United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland) and its dependent territories
  • Vietnam.

Different qualifying countries are selected each year, based on which nations -- and which areas of the world -- sent the fewest numbers of immigrants to the U.S. during the previous five years, in proportion to the size of their populations.

Lottery applicants should make sure that they can actually claim what the law describes as "nativity" in an eligible country. Living in a country is not enough. Nativity is usually based on having been born in the country.

What If You Were Born in an Ineligible Country?

If you are a native of one of the ineligible countries, there are a couple of ways to get around this and become eligible to apply:

  • If your spouse was born in an eligible country, you can claim your spouse's country of birth for lottery purposes. However, your spouse must be eligible for and receive a visa to accompany you to the U.S. (a "DV-2" visa) and must actually enter the U.S. with you.
  • If neither of your parents was born in your native country or made a home there at the time of your birth, you may be able to claim nativity in one of your parents' countries of birth.

Employability

In addition, applicants from qualifying countries must have either:

  • a high school diploma or its equivalent (meaning a 12-year course of elementary and secondary education), or
  • a minimum of two years' experience (within the last five years) in a job that normally requires at least two years of training or experience.

U.S. job offers are not necessary. But lottery winners will need to be able to prove that they'll be able to support themselves financially in the United States.

How Do You Apply for the Lottery?

If you're from a qualifying country and you meet the other eligibility criteria, you can submit an application -- but only one per year. People who try to apply more than once will be have all their lottery visa applications tossed out of the running.

All applicants must submit their applications via the State Department's website and attach digital photos, one of themself and one of each husband or wife and child. Paper applications are not accepted.

There is no fee for applying -- so watch out for websites and consultants who claim that there is, or who charge you a lot of money for supposed "special" inside help. The application itself is fairly simple, and the help you're most likely to need is simply dealing with the Internet and digital photo requirement, which any computer-smart friend may be able to offer.

Registrations submitted one year are not held over to the next. So if you are not selected one year, you need to reapply the next year to be considered.

There is a new application period every year, usually in autumn. The most recent application period is called "DV-2016," short for Diversity Visa 2016. Applications for DV-2016are being accepted from noon on October 1, 2014 until noon on November 3, 2014 (U.S. Eastern Daylight Time). Applicants can check the State Department website to find out whether they have won beginning on May 5, 2015. Applicants will not receive any notification, but will have to check the State Department website at www.dvlottery.state.gov.

What Happens If You Win?

Unfortunately, winning the lottery doesn't guarantee you a green card. The U.S. government always declares more winners than there are green cards -- which means if you don't follow up quickly or receive your interview on time, the supply of green cards could run out.

This is a serious problem. The State Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) are so backed up that months can go by with no action, causing you to miss your opportunity altogether. If you win the lottery, you should hire an experienced immigration attorney to help you.

Also, as with all green card applications, you still must prove that you'll be able to support yourself financially in the U.S., which can be a huge challenge for lottery winners.

You must also show that you are not otherwise "inadmissible" to the United States. For example, if you have been arrested for committing certain crimes, are considered a security risk, or are afflicted with certain physical or mental illnesses, you may be prevented from receiving a green card. (For more on inadmissibility, see Inadmissibility: When the U.S. Can Keep You Out.)

Where to Go for More Help

Complete instructions on how to apply for the lottery are on the State Department website at www.travel.state.gov. Check it regularly to find out about the latest lottery.

And for detailed information to help you understand all the requirements for getting a green card, see the articles under "Diversity Visa Lottery Green Cards," and the book How to Get a Green Card, by Ilona Bray (Nolo).

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