Winning a Green Card Through the Visa Lottery

by Ilona Bray

You may be eligible for one of the 50,000 green card lottery slots available each year.

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 whose application period ended in 2007 (called "DV-2009") were:

Brazil
Canada
China (mainland, not including Macau, Taiwan, or Hong Kong)
Colombia
Dominican Republic
Ecuador
El Salvador
Guatemala
Haiti
India
Jamaica
Mexico
Pakistan
Peru
Philippines
Poland
Russia
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.

There is a new application period every year, usually in late winter. The current application period is known as "DV-2009," short for Diversity Visa 2009. Applications for DV-2009 are being accepted from noon on October 3, 2007 until noon on December 2, 2007 (U.S. Eastern Standard Time). Winners are to be notified between May and July of 2008.

All applicants must now submit their applications via the Internet (at www.dvlottery.state.gov) and attach digital photos, one of themself and one of each husband or wife and child. Paper applications are no longer 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.

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, formerly called the INS) 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, if you win the lottery, 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.

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.