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How the Green Card Lottery Really Works

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A green card, which is issued by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), lets you live and work in the United States on a permanent basis. While there are several avenues to getting a green card, including through family, employment, or status as a refugee or asylee, not everyone qualifies.

Even if you do qualify, wait times under certain family or job status categories can be as long as 20 years. If you do not qualify—or if you want to “roll the dice” while waiting—the Diversity Immigrant Visa (DV) Program popularly known as the green card lottery might be for you.

Key Takeaways

  • The Diversity visa program issues 55,000 immigrant visas annually, based on the results of a random drawing.
  • Your eligibility depends on your country as well as your education or work experience.
  • The online registration period for the DV Program typically runs between Oct. 1 and Nov. 3 each year.
  • It is free to enter the lottery.

What Are Your Chances?

The DV program issues 55,000 immigrant visas annually, based on the results of a random drawing. The visas are apportioned among countries with historically low rates of immigration to the U.S.

For fiscal year 2023, more than 9.5 million people applied to the green card lottery. The first 119,000 to register, after notification, were the “winners” for that year. The reason for drawing more than 55,000 names is that not everyone selected will start the green-card application process, and some who do will not complete it.

Who Is Green Card Eligible?

Before registering for the green card lottery, you should determine if you are eligible. You must be eligible by country as well as by education or work experience.

Country 

Diversity visas go to natives of selected countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States in six geographic regions Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania, and the Southern Americas (including South America, Central America, and the Caribbean nations). The list of countries is subject to change each year and appears on the Diversity Visa entry instructions.

If you were not born in an eligible country, you may still qualify for the DV program if your spouse was born in an eligible country, both of you are named on the same entry, and both of you intend to enter the U.S. at the same time. 

Also, if you were born in an ineligible country—but neither of your parents was born in or legal residents of that country at the time of your birth—you may still qualify, assuming one of your parents was born in an eligible country.

Education or Work Experience 

In addition to eligibility based on country of birth, you must also meet certain education or work experience requirements in order to register for the green card lottery. Basically, this means that you must have a high school education (or equivalent) or two years’ experience within the past five years in a qualifying occupation. 

The U.S. Department of Labor’s O*Net Online database can be used to determine if your work experience is sufficient.

When to Register

The online registration period for the DV Program typically runs between early October and November each year. You should register as early as possible once it opens. If you wait until the end of the sign-up period, you could miss out due to heavy website traffic. Late entries will not be accepted.

Where and How to Register

Registration for the green card lottery is done online using the English-language version only. Although your application must be done in English, detailed instructions in a variety of languages are available by following the link to the instructions referenced above. 

It’s important that you read the instructions carefully, noting all required documentation including your passport number, photos, and so forth. The U.S. State Department video tutorial on registering for the green card lottery explains the steps as well.

Buyer Beware

There are plenty of scammers out there ready to take your money in exchange for useless or even harmful information. You may run across private websites (many of them look legitimate) that offer everything from tips on winning the green card lottery to secrets to help you “game the system.” Some even offer to help you apply—all for a fee, of course. 

You may also receive fraudulent emails, letters, and other types of communication that try to convince you that you have been selected as a lottery winner.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Entering the green card lottery is free.
  • The drawing is random and by computer.
  • You can only find out whether you have won by going to dvprogram.state.gov (typically beginning May 1). 
  • If you win and are permitted to apply, you will have to pay a fee, but that will be in person at a U.S. embassy or consulate.

If you feel you do need professional help with the application process, the USCIS provides many helpful resources. This includes ways to spot con artists, as described above.

Winning the green card lottery does not guarantee you a green card; it grants you the opportunity to apply for one.

Increasing Your Diversity Visa Odds

Even though you are entering a random drawing, there are a couple of legitimate (and free) things you can do to increase your chances of winning. Both you and your spouse—if both are eligible—should apply. This gives you two chances to win, as opposed to one. If one of you wins, the other can ignore his or her application and enter as a derivative spouse.

As there is no limit on the number of eligible members of the same family that may apply, your children should also enter if they meet the educational or work experience requirements. You should note that if one of them wins, they will not be able to bring you to the U.S. immediately, but will be able to start a process that could get you there eventually.

Winning a Diversity Visa

Winning the green card lottery does not result in your automatically getting a green card in the mail. If you are lucky enough to win, all it means is that you may have won the opportunity to apply for a green card. 

You can find out if you are a lottery winner on or after May 8 by going to the DV Entrant Status Check link online. If you have won, you will be directed from there to a confirmation page with further instructions.

Waiting List

As roughly 125,000 names are drawn, with only 50,000 eligible to actually receive a green card, everyone whose name is drawn is put on a waiting list and given a number. If your waiting list number is high, and there are 50,000 people ahead of you who have also successfully completed their paperwork, you won’t get a chance to apply, let alone receive a green card.

Currently Living in the U.S.

If you currently live in the U.S. under a non-immigrant or another type of legal status, the process you will follow—should you win the lottery and be allowed to apply for a green card—is through USCIS.

Currently Living Outside the U.S

The vast majority of green card lottery winners live outside the United States and follow a process called consular processing.

What Disqualifies You From Winning the Green Card Lottery?

Applicants for the green card lottery are required to show that they have sufficient education and work experience, and that there is no risk of them becoming a public charge. They are also required to disclose any criminal history. Applicants who have ever overstayed a visa, lied on a visa application, or committed certain crimes may have their applications for a visa rejected. Similarly, applicants who try to game the system by submitting multiple entries for the lottery system will also be denied.

What Are the Interview Questions for the Green Card Lottery?

Common interview questions during the diversity visa application may ask about your work history, family, and past travel to the United States. The goal of these questions is to ensure that you have accurately and honestly answered the questions in your application. You may also be asked about your career prospects in the United States.

How Hard Is It to Win the Green Card Lottery?

In 2023, there were 9.5 million lottery applications for only 55,000 available visas. That means the odds of getting a visa through the green card lottery are about one in 172—and that’s if you satisfy the education and work requirements.

The Bottom Line

Because applying for the green card lottery is free, even if you are “in line” waiting for your green card through another avenue, you may want to consider applying for the lottery, just in case. 

Even though it’s a lottery, it follows strict rules, which are outlined in the instructions. Read them carefully before applying. You can only apply once per year, so you don’t want to be disqualified from achieving your dream due to a simple application error.

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