What Is the Visa Lottery?

The Diversity Immigrant Visa Lottery is a U.S. program that offers green cards to people living in countries with low rates of migration to the States. Winners can receive a green card and move to the U.S. for residency. The program was established in 1990.

Winning the lottery can be a relatively easy way to access a U.S. green card, and for many people, it may be one of the few possible ways of doing so. 55,000 visas are offered every year, as stipulated by section 203(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The program is managed out of the Kentucky Consular Center in Williamsburg, Kentucky.

The program is run once a year via the Department of State. It adheres to the terms included in section 203(c) of the INA. The Immigration Act of 1990 amended this section to identify a specialized type of immigrant: the diversity immigrant. This is the type of immigrant who would be eligible to come to the U.S. via the visa lottery.

How Does the Lottery Operate?

The U.S. visa lottery program gives visas to global winners who meet relatively straightforward requirements. The lottery occurs through a computerized lottery system. Winners are selected from across the main regions of the world. No country which has sent 50,000 immigrants to the U.S. over the past five years is included, and each country that is included cannot fill more than 7 percent of the total available positions.

What Is the Goal of the Visa Lottery?

The year 1965 saw a dramatic reduction in migration to the U.S. This was mostly because the quota system that had previously governed immigration law was no longer in effect. Immigration that did take place was mostly from Latin America and Asia, but less so from Europe, where it had originally been so popular. Many people could not access visas to the U.S., and the Irish in particular, and their advocates voiced their view regarding this lack.

The plight of the Irish was especially noted when two congressmen, Senator Ted Kennedy and Rep. Brian Donnelly, recognized that the adjustments to immigration law in 1965 had caused the group a big disadvantage. Due to their insight, helping Irish immigrants became a central goal in the generation of the Visa Lottery.

In 1981, three objectives were identified:

  • To join families who had become dispersed.
  • To develop the U.S. economy through diversification of the labor market.
  • To enhance multiculturalism for the purpose of cohesiveness and national identity.

These three objectives were envisioned by the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy.

To begin with, 5,000 visas were distributed to countries that had been disadvantaged. Interestingly, many of these first visas were claimed by Irish people who had already found their way to U.S. soil, but who had been inhabiting the land illegally due to the lack of visas.

In 1989, a program was established to grant visas to 55,000 people. A three-year Diversity Transition Program allotted 25,000 for people already living illegally in the U.S., but who nonetheless qualified, so that these people could be naturalized.

It is due to many organizations who lobbied for the plight of the Irish that today’s lottery is permanently established, though beneficiaries have come from nations across the world. Upon winning the lottery, it is mandatory to come to the U.S. within six months. 28 percent of U.S. businesses are owned by immigrants. While some people may feel that the U.S. allows entry to more immigrants than they can care for, through the visa lottery as well as via other visa programs, the individuals who immigrate tend to work hard at developing the good quality of life America can often offer them.

Who Is Eligible for the Visa Lottery?

To be eligible for the Immigrant Visa Lottery, you have to be a citizen of a country from which no more than 50,000 people immigrated to the U.S. over the recent five years. Eligible countries will fluctuate from year to year. For the 2018 lottery, citizens of the following countries will not be eligible:

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

The remaining countries of the world are placed into six areas:

  • Africa
  • Asia
  • Europe
  • North America
  • Oceania
  • South America, Central America, the Caribbean

Among these eligible zones, those countries which had the lowest number of immigrants to the U.S. will receive the largest supply of visas.

While the country of birth is the foremost factor, there are other stipulations to claiming a winning visa:

  • You must have a high school education or its equivalent.
  • You have to have worked in order to qualify: Two years of experience laboring in a job that needs two years of training or its equivalent. Essentially, you must be a relatively qualified worker who can sustain themselves, and in turn, be a support to the U.S. economy.

What If I Am Not From a Qualifying Country?

You may qualify for the lottery through a spouse or parent who applies for it if they are citizens of eligible countries.

What If I Still Cannot Obtain a Visa Through the Lottery Program?

If you are not eligible to apply for the lottery, you can still access a green card in other ways, including:

  • By being sponsored by a family member. Immediate family members, such as spouses or parents, can petition to sponsor you to join them in the U.S. Distant relatives such as brothers and sisters may apply for you as well, but the wait via extended family members may be longer and acceptance is not guaranteed. Also, simply having family in the U.S. can help with green card applications in general.
  • By being offered a job in the U.S. You can obtain a long-term work visa by receiving a job offer from a U.S. employer. There are various work visas to choose from, including student visas, skilled worker visas, and visas for specific countries and professions.
  • By marrying someone with American residency or citizenship.
  • Regardless of which path you choose, the U.S. makes sure that families travel together, and that you will be able to bring your immediate family with you.

What Do I Do If I Win?

If you win the green card lottery, you are eligible to pursue your winnings, but this still does not mean you will definitely receive the green card. Each year, there are more winners chosen than there are green cards available. Also, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is so busy that it can miss an application, or time can pass without anyone realizing that they have done so. Once this time has passed and the spots are filled, the USCIS will likely be unable to correct the error. Therefore, to ensure you receive the card you've earned, you must:

  • Claim it immediately.
  • Follow up with your interview as soon as you can.
  • Pass the necessary security screening.

There is also the expectation that you will be able to support yourself financially in the U.S. without a problem. That means you must arrive in the U.S., have a home or place to stay, and either find a job quickly or be able to cover your expenses until you do. As already mentioned, a security screening will be in order, which will attest to whether you are "inadmissible;" this means that you have not been arrested, that you have not committed certain crimes, are not a risk to security, and do not have certain mental or physical illnesses. A working background requirement is necessary, in addition to these stipulations.

If you win the lottery, you can increase your chances of getting your green card if you hire an experienced immigration attorney.

Current Views on the U.S. Diversity Visa Lottery

Over the past century, policies of immigration to the U.S. have fluctuated from having doors heaved open to newcomers to having them slammed shut. For example, after 9/11, security increased, and immigration weaned. Once a few years passed and new security features were in place to maintain the country's safety, immigration policy relaxed again.

We are now seeing a change to closed immigration doors yet again, as the beginning of Donald Trump's presidency in the United States has changed the overall immigration picture in the U.S. The first term U.S. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas hopes to close the Diversity Visa Lottery for good; he claims that the Diversity Lottery is no longer of good use.

Cotton's immigration legislation, The Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act (The RAISE Act), may lower immigration by 41 percent in the first year implemented and by 50 percent after 10 years. Specifically, The Act plans to amend U.S. immigration policy in the following ways:

  • By placing limitations on U.S. citizens and residents petitioning for their families to join them in the U.S.
  • By placing a cap of 50,000 on the number of refugees given permanent residency.
  • By changing the eligibility of U.S. citizens and residents petitioning for their extended or adult family to join them in the U.S. The relatives affected would include adult parents, adult siblings, unmarried adult children, and married adult children of U.S. citizens, as well as unmarried adult children of legal permanent residents.

In December 2016, the New York Times published an op-ed that explained Senator Cotton's view, that immigration in the U.S. has long favored the rich and powerful, helping them gain less expensive labor. The result of that, according to Cotton, is a great deal of low-skilled labor in the U.S. and a lowering of wages. Cotton states that Americans who graduated high school have had a decrease of two percent in their wages since 1970. Even more alarming is the decrease of wages for those who do, in fact, have a high school diploma: For this demographic, wages have lowered by 20 percent.

Cotton attempts to maintain a humane approach to his limiting immigration policies by giving temporary visas to parents who need medical help. If U.S. citizens must bring sick or elderly parents to the U.S. to help care for them, a renewable temporary visa will allow for their parents' entries. Such non-immigrant visas will not allow people to work in the U.S. or to access public benefits. The visa holders must be fended for by their children.

Presently, whether Cotton's RAISE Act will change the number of H1-B visas or other employment visas is unclear, and it is not certain yet whether the visa lottery will remain in place. It is likely that such new immigration policies will be challenged, though, by those who advocate for legal immigration for employers, such as Fortune 500 executives.

Does Canada have a Visa Lottery?

Presently, inaccurate information has been spreading regarding the possibility of Canada adopting an immigrant lottery much like the U.S. Diversity Lottery. However, no such lottery has been created in Canada, nor has Canada created a new plan for visitors' visas, either.

The misinformation has come from a story attesting that Canada's Parliament has given its acceptance to a visa lottery program, very much like that in the U.S., to be targeted at 16 countries, including Jamaica, Oman, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Ghana, Guyana, Nigeria, Gambia, Cameroon, Kenya, Pakistan, Zambia, Thailand, Uganda, Fiji, and Lesotho. Further, the fraudulent instructions for the lottery suggested that interested candidates should apply independently for the program, which would begin on March 1, 2017, and that interviews would be scheduled for August 1st, 2017.

All of this information is untrue. If you are interested in finding reliable information regarding how to emigrate to Canada, or information about express entry, study and work programs, visitor visas or visa appeals, you should visit Canada's website for Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship .

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is there a limit to how many times I can apply to the U.S. Diversity Visa Lottery?

You can apply a maximum of once per year, but for as many years as you wish. Both you and your spouse may apply each year. Note that duplicate applications can disqualify you.

  • What is the likelihood I'll win a visa?

Less than one percent of entrants are successful, and approximately five million people enroll annually. If you're selected, a screening process is still necessary, and you still must meet several qualifications.

  • I'm already in the U.S., though I'm not a resident. Am I eligible?

If you are in the U.S. on a non-immigrant visa (if you are a tourist, for example), you may still apply.

  • How will I find out if I'm a winner?

Winners are notified online, and you can check your status by logging onto the Diversity Lottery web page in March. Be sure to keep a printed copy of your application form so that you can check your status. If you lose your login information, you cannot retrieve it later. The only other way to then be notified would be via mail.

  • If I win, what do I do next?

You must act on the winning order right away in order not to lose your place. If you meet the necessary qualifications and a visa is given to you, you must travel to the U.S. within six months.

  • Is there any other country in the world who runs this kind of lottery?

The only other country in the world that offers a lottery like this is New Zealand, which gives 1,750 visas per year, which is a large amount considering the country’s small population.

  • When can I get started with my application?

Applications are open on the Diversity Visa Lottery website from early October until early November of each year, and eligible countries are listed on the Diversity Lottery site. The application is completely based online.

  • Is there a fee to apply?

There is no fee to apply, though if you do win, are qualified and accepted, you must pay $330 dollars in order to process your visa.

Steps to Enroll in the Visa Lottery

To apply for the Immigrant Visa Lottery, you must apply online through the State Department Site.

  • First, make sure that you are on the correct site. There are some sites that are run by businesses that try to solicit applications for a fee. It is not necessary to use those sites. Go directly to the government site instead.
  • Next, make sure you are visiting the site during the application period, which runs between early October and early November. It is best to apply as early as possible within this time frame. As the application period draws to a close, website traffic can slow or stall the system.
  • Once you're online, find the form with the name, "DS-5501: Electronic Diversity Visa Entry Form." This form will only be viewable during the application period, so if you don't see it, applications may not yet be open.
  • Fill out the form, step by step. No forms need to be mailed in. Since the application is completely online, make sure you have all of your information in front of you, ready to type in. You must fill in the form fully; missing information may disqualify you. Also, make sure you fill in the form only one time. Multiple submissions will disqualify you. Here is what you will need to note in the application:
  1. Your full name, date of birth, city, and country of birth, and the country which you will represent in the lottery.
  2. A recent digital photograph of yourself and your family.
  3. Your mailing address, the country where you live, your phone number, and your email address.
  4. Your highest level of education.
  5. Whether you are married, how many children you have, and your spouse's and children's information, too.
  • After you fill out the application, click submit. Be sure to print off a copy of the confirmation screen, as this information will help you log in to check your application's status. You cannot receive this data later, so you must keep this copy. If you lose your login information, the only other way to learn if you've won is if you receive a letter via post.
  • Then, wait to hear if you've won. You will want to log into the site again in March. Do not be late checking the site for your status or claiming your visa. If you are late, you may lose your visa. Good luck!

If you have any questions about the U.S. visa application process or the Diversity Visa Lottery Program, post your legal need on the UpCounsel marketplace and an experienced lawyer will be able to answer any questions you have.