What Is the Green Card Lottery?

The green card lottery is an annual program where the government awards 50,000 visas to people from diverse backgrounds.

One thing many people don’t realize about getting a green card to live and work in the United States is that not everyone who applies, even with an exceptional application, gets approved. There are only 50,000 green cards available every year to those from other nations whose immigration rates to the U.S. have traditionally been low. These visas are granted through a computer lottery.

The DV, or Diversity Visa, lottery program was first established by the Immigration Act of 1990. The purpose is to favor nations that send the fewest immigrants to the U.S. The official name is the Diversity Immigrant Visa Lottery.

It can sometimes take years for a person to receive a green card through normal means. At present, you usually have to wait at least two years. However, it’s possible to wait as long as twelve years. Entering the Green Card Lottery is a way to shorten this wait time. Those that qualify for this lottery are meant to help bring diversity to the U.S. population. If you are selected in the Lottery, your wait time may be only a year.

History of the Program

The history of the green card lottery program dates back to 1986 when temporary opportunities went into place outside the usual avenues.

The first of these ran between 1987 and 1989 and offered a limited number of green cards on a first come, first-served basis. The second program ran from 1989 to 1991 and was the first to make visas specifically available to countries with low immigrant numbers to the U.S. The third, which operated from 1992 to 1994, showed preference to those nations that had suffered under earlier statutes. These programs benefited people from Ireland and Northern Ireland above others. They were named for the sponsoring congressmen, Berman, Donnelly, and Morrison.

The current program was established by the Immigration Act of 1990. It’s informally called the Schumer program, again after the sponsoring congressman who introduced the legislation. The aim of the lottery is to diversify to the immigrants entering the U.S.

Originally, the lottery operated through the regular postal service, and winners received a mailed notification. Starting in DV-2005, an online system began, but winner notifications were still sent by mail. In 2010, applicants received notification by mail but could also check their status online. Before 2010, there was no way to check the status of an application. As of DV-2012, mail notifications ended.

How to Apply

The Department of State website has information on how to apply for this lottery and who is eligible. Normally, registration for the lottery is held in October. It’s fairly simple and doesn’t cost anything. The following May, registrants log back into the website to see if they were selected to receive a visa.

The application is submitted through the website and requires a digital photo of yourself, your spouse, and each of your children. You get a confirmation number when you complete the process. Record this number or print the screen so you have a record of your application in case there are any problems.

To find out if you were chosen, you need to check back in May. You will not be notified any other way. Note that if you aren't chosen, you need to submit a new application every year.

Who Qualifies as an Immigrant

In order to qualify, you must be an immigrant, someone who came to the U.S. as part of a family-sponsored or job program, or an immediate relative of a U.S. citizen. Refugees, NACARA beneficiaries, prior diversity immigrants, and those seeking asylum cannot qualify.

Beware of Scams and Fraud

There are organizations who offer “assistance” to apply for this lottery. They promise a better chance if you use the service. They may offer the ability to apply all year around as a “benefit.” Of course, these services carry a hefty fee.

The State Department warns people to beware of these services, as they are generally scams. They cannot boost your success rate, and the process of applying for a lottery is very simple. It doesn’t require help from an outside company. In fact, many of these offers are considered fraudulent by the government.

Even those sites that offer year-round application may simply keep your application on file until the next registration date and file for you at that time. It’s your decision whether or not to pursue one of these services, but you should be careful.

Most people wonder if there is any fee for entering the Green Card Lottery. Fortunately, entering the lottery is free of charge. To enter the lottery, you only need to submit an electronic form during the registration period set by the U.S. State Department. Some companies charge a fee to help you complete the application.

Beware of these businesses. They often claim to improve your chances of winning the lottery. They also claim affiliation with the government. Neither of these claims is true.

Dates and Dating Conventions

Understanding the naming conventions is important in understanding how the system works. The first year, in 1995, was DV-1. Starting in 1996 through 1999, the format was DV, followed by the last two digits of the year (so 1996 would’ve been DV-96). Since the year 2000, a four-digit year has been implemented, so DV-2017 is for 2017. The year refers to the fiscal year in which visas are awarded; it begins in October of the prior year. As such, DV-2017 began in October of 2016.

There are a number of important dates and deadlines to remember when applying for the U.S. Green Card Lottery. For Diversity Visa (DV)-2017 (this current year) and DV-2018, registrations are closed. Some important dates this calendar year for those who have already applied are as follows:

  • First Day to Check for Online Status: TBD, later this year
  • First Day to Send KCC emails for Status: August 1, 2017
  • Last Day of Prior U.S. FY: October 1, 2017
  • Interviews of Winners Begin: October 1, 2017
  • Last Day for Online Status Check: June 30, 2017 (DV-2017); June 30, 2018 (DV-2018)
  • Last Day to Get Permanent Resident Status: September 30, 2017 (DV-2017); September 30, 2018 (DV-2018)
  • Last Day of Listed U.S. FY: September 30, 2017 (DV-2017), September 30, 2018 (DV-2018)
  • Last Day to Enter the United States: March 31, 2018 (DV-2017), March 31, 2019 (DV-2018)

The Lottery and Geographic Regions

There are six different geographic regions among which the lottery is split. These regions are roughly by continent and include Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, North America, and Oceania (Australia and its surrounding islands).

Territories are treated as part of the nation that controls them. Bermuda, for example, is part of the UK, and the Gaza Strip is part of Egypt. Notable exceptions include Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Northern Ireland, which are nations of their own, and Macau, which is part of Portugal, despite China being its technical controller.

More visas go to the regions that have the lowest immigration rates. Applicants from a country that sent more than 50,000 immigrants to the United States over the past five years is not eligible to receive a visa through the green card lottery program. Regardless of how low the immigration rate for a region is, that region can receive no more than 3,500 available diversity visas in a given fiscal year—seven percent of the total visas awarded. Roughly 80 percent of all DVs go to immigrants from Europe and Africa.

For the most recent application cycle, ending on November 7, 2016, those countries not eligible included Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Mainland China (though Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan were eligible), Columbia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Hiati, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, South Korea, the United Kingdom and territories (save Northern Ireland), and Vietnam.

However, every year the eligible and ineligible nations change based on which countries sent the lowest number of immigrants to our nation over the preceding five years, based on the sending nation’s population size.

Eligibility for a DV

In order to enter the lottery for a diversity visa, you need to meet certain basic standards. At a minimum, you must have completed a twelve-year course of education in primary and secondary subjects, which is comparable to a U.S. high school diploma. This education must be formal study; correspondence does not qualify, nor does G.E.D. equivalency. You may complete your education in fewer than twelve years, but it must be equal to a high school education in the U.S.

Alternately, you must have, during the past five years, completed a minimum of two years of practical work experience in an occupation requiring two years of formal experience or training. The DOL website maintains a list of occupations that meet these qualifications. In general, qualifying jobs are Job Zones 4 and 5 or classified with an SVP (Specific Vocational Preparation) between 7.0 and 8.0.

If you are accepted to the DV program, you need to present proof of your qualifications at the time of your consular face-to-face interview.

Age, Current Status, and Other Criteria

Even if you are already in the United States, so long as you are eligible for the DV lottery, you can file an application, regardless of your current status. If you are married, you and your spouse can both file applications, each including the other on their entry. Spouses of DV recipients receive derivative status under the visa.

There is no minimum age to qualify for this program, though the minimum educational requirement effectively serves to disqualify those who are under 18 in most cases. You do not have to speak, read, or write English. You don’t have to have a job lined up in the U.S. You do not need to have relatives here, nor do you need to meet any financial pre-qualifications.

All you need is to meet the general qualifications as an immigrant. This means you cannot be mentally disturbed and you may not have a criminal record. You must be able to work and earn a living and you can’t represent a threat to U.S. national interests. You can enter the green card lottery even if you’re registered for a visa in some other category.

Applicants who die automatically have their DV entry revoked, which also disqualifies spouses and children who have not filed their own entry.

Applying from Ineligible Nations

If your country of birth is ineligible in a given year, you may still be eligible to apply if your spouse is from an eligible country. This requires them to receive a visa. Likewise, if both of your parents come from eligible countries, you may be able to claim nativity from their country.

If You Win

Winning the lottery, unfortunately, is not a guarantee of a green card. It’s just the first step towards getting one. There are always more than 50,000 winners chosen. This makes it essential to stay on top of your application and follow up quickly. You need to complete an interview as the next step and compete with other winners. You also need to prove your eligibility during this interview.

Since U.S. Immigration Services are so backed up, you may want to consider speaking with an immigration lawyer for help.

Legal Issues and Criticism

The DV lottery program has been challenged based on the potential for fraud and the opportunity for terrorists to get into the U.S. Examples include Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, a terrorist from Egypt, who got into the country in this way. Other criticisms include questions of fairness in granting random residency to 50,000 people while providing no clear path to permanent residency for those in skilled work visa programs.

According to an Inspector General report, almost 9,800 immigrants from countries with state-sponsored terrorism have gained green cards to the U.S. via DV lottery wins. However, the same report noted that there is no evidence that these immigrants posed a threat to the U.S., as all immigrants go through background checks.

Challenges to the program include an amendment to our border enforcement bill, approved by the House in 2005 but never passed in the Senate. A bill to end the program was defeated in 2007 and followed by a second bill including line items that would de-fund it. While this second bill passed, the funding items were removed, so the program remained. The 2007 bill was re-introduced in 2009 but again failed to pass.

Another 2009 bill would have doubled the number of available visas, offering 110,000 annually, but it was also defeated. Had it passed, the program would likely have been abolished in 2015, however. Congress continues to debate whether it needs to be fixed and how this can be done.

Other Options for Earning a Green Card

Some people are not able to get a green card through the lottery. However, there are other options for applying. These options include:

  • Through Family: Anyone with family members who are citizens or permanent residents may be able to get a green card. Having your family member sponsor you can improve your chances.
  • Employment: Skilled and unskilled workers who find an employer sponsor may be able to eventually attain permanent residency. The ‘Green Card Through Employment’ application kit has more information about this process.
  • Family and Children: Family and children of green card holders often receive special consideration by the U.S. government. If you have a green card, your spouse and children can usually immigrate with you.
  • Marriage: A spouse or fiancé of a U.S. citizen usually receives a green card.

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