You’ve probably heard of the green card lottery, officially called the Diversity Visa Program(DV). Each year, the US invites 50k people from countries with low rates of immigration to the US to apply for permanent resident (PR) status.

Each year’s green card lottery program is named for the year you’d be eligible to enter the US if you’re invited to apply and approved, usually 3 years from the current year. Those applying to the lottery in 2017 are applying to the DV-2020 program.

Things to know

It is free to enter the US diversity visa lottery, but if you win there will be fees for the required paperwork and the visa itself.

There’s no need to hire an attorney to help you through the process, as it’s quite straightforward. The government discourages you from using visa consultants and agents. You don’t need to take online eligibility tests, since determining if you can enter is simple.

There’s no way to increase your chances of winning, since people are randomly selected. You can only enter the lottery once per year.

The US government will not call you or email you to ask you to wire money.

There are lots of green card scams out there. Don’t get conned.

Winning the lottery doesn’t get you a green card automatically. It simply makes you eligible to apply for permanent resident status in the US, which in turn grants you a green card. You still have to pass a background check and go to an interview.

More people will win the green card lottery than there are available visas. You may win the lottery and not get through the screening process before all the available visas are taken.

You should not make any moving arrangements until your visa has been approved.

You can be denied entry into the US even after your visa has been issued.

How does the green card lottery work?

  1. You enter the lottery online
  2. After the winners are drawn you check your status online
  3. If you win, you submit an application for the diversity visa lottery
  4. Gather documents and schedule your interview
  5. You have a visa interview and present your documents
  6. If you’re approved, you’ll be given a visa to move to the US
  7. You prepare to move to the US before your visa expires
  8. You request admittance to the US at port-of-entry
  9. You are now a US permanent resident

You can only enter the lottery between October and November. Each year has different exact date specifications, so check the DV website in the early fall to make sure you enter the diversity visa lottery before it closes. You can also check for dates on the visa bulletin webpage.

You can only enter the lottery online. The forms are only available when the lottery is open.

Winners are selected in early May. The selection date will be shown when you enter the lottery.

If you win the DV lottery, you will not be notified. You will need to check the DV website with the confirmation code from your entry to see if you were selected.

If you were selected, you will still need to meet visa requirements. You can be denied a visa at any point until you enter the US.

You will only pay fees at two points:

  • In-person before your visa interview
  • To United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) after your visa has been issued.

If you aren’t issued a visa before September 30th, you are no longer eligible, but you can always apply again next year.

Once you have a visa, you will need to enter the US before it expires, typically within 6 months from when it was issued.

Who can enter?

Officially, the green card lottery has only two requirements to enter the lottery. However, in order to be issued a green card, you’ll need to meet additional requirements.

There’s no point in entering the lottery if you don’t qualify for a green card.

Official requirements

In order to enter the green card lottery, you need to have:

  • A high school education (or equivalent) or
  • 2 years of qualifying work experience in the past 5 years.

The GED and vocational degrees are not acceptable as proof of a high school education. Only an education that is sufficient to qualify you for admission to a university will be accepted.

The US Department of Labor classifies jobs into zones. Your two years of work experience must be in job zone 4 or 5.

The diversity visa lottery is for people from countries that are underrepresented in US immigration. If more than 50,000 people have immigrated to the US from your country of nationality, you are not eligible to enter the lottery.

The list of ineligible countries changes every year, but you’re probably not eligible if you’re from:

  • Bangladesh
  • Brazil
  • Canada
  • China
  • Columbia
  • The Dominican Republic
  • Ecuador
  • El Salvador
  • Guatemala
  • Haiti
  • India
  • Jamaica
  • Mexico
  • Pakistan
  • Peru
  • The Philippines
  • South Korea
  • The UK
  • Vietnam

Not all immigrants count toward the total, like refugees and asylum seekers. If you’re from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Cuba, the Ukraine, Russia, Iran, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, you’re probably eligible to apply every year.

Check the list before you enter. It will be provided on the DV website when you enter the lottery and in the PDF instructions for the current year.

Only the principal applicant needs to meet the requirements. If you’re planning on bringing a spouse and/or children, they don’t have to meet the requirements.

Unofficial requirements

It’s at the visa interview that an officer decides if you qualify for an immigrant visa or not. They want to know that you have what it takes to succeed in the US — or at least support yourself.

You can be denied for overstaying a visa in the past or having any sort of criminal conviction, even if it was pardoned.

You can also be denied a visa if one of your family members is ineligible to enter or immigrate to the US.

Proof of funds isn’t an official requirement, but it’s sort of is. You will also need to convince a visa officer that you will be able to support yourself, and your family if you have one, once you’re in the US. Generally you’ll want to show you’ll have access to 125% of the poverty level income for that year for a family of your size.

If you have a job offer from a US company, you likely will only need to show that you have enough money to move and get settled in the US (unless your employer is paying your relocation costs).

Speaking English isn’t a requirement, but you’ll likely need to speak English to do well in the US. Demonstrating a basic knowledge of English or having a plan in place to learn the language will help you get past the interview.

You’ll be asked about your plans for moving to the US at the interview. If you have friends or family in the US to stay with while you get settled in, you’ll be asked to talk about them. If you’re getting a place of your own right away, you’ll need to say so. Be ready to show you’re ready.

Obviously, you don’t need a plan in place until you’re selected in the visa lottery. You certainly don’t want to book your flights or sell your house until you have a visa in your passport. But make sure you have a vague idea of what you’d do before you enter the lottery. If you can’t imagine actually moving to the US if you could, it’s not worth the effort to enter the lottery and apply for a visa.

It’s easy to enter the lottery and you win — or lose — by sheer chance. But applying for the visa is a lot of work. Moving to another country is even more work. It’s not for everyone.

Lottery rules

If you don’t meet the requirements to enter the lottery or get a visa, you will not be issued a visa if you win. Any fees you pay for the visa will not be refunded if your application is denied.

You can only enter the lottery once each year. If you and your spouse both qualify, you can both enter.

If you enter multiple times in a single year, all of your entries will be disqualified.

If you aren’t eligible for permanent resident status in the US through family sponsorship, employment, or as a refugee, this is the only way to get your green card.

What about your family?

If you’re invited to apply for PR, your spouse and dependent children are included on the application and will get their own permanent resident cards if your application is approved. Dependent children must be under 21 and unmarried in order to come with you.

If you’re legally married, you must include your spouse on your application, even if they don’t plan to come to the US with you.

If you have children who are under 21 and unmarried, they must be included on your application, even if they don’t plan to come to the US with you. If you have a child after you submit your DV lottery entry, you can add them to the application.

If your spouse or child is already a US citizen or green card holder, you should not include them in your entry or application.

How do you enter?

You do not need an immigration consultant or attorney to enter the green card lottery. It is free to enter the diversity visa lottery. You apply online on the electronic diversity visa website.

There is no way to increase your chances of winning the lottery. All eligible entries are weighted equally and the winners are selected at random. If someone claims they can increase your odds of winning the diversity visa lottery, they’re trying to scam you.

The online entry form (DS-5501) is available only when entries are being accepted. The website is often slow (or down!) during the last week entries are being accepted.

If you’re living in the US currently, you apply through US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

If you’re living outside the US, you enter the lottery through the US Department of State (DOS).

Information you provide

The diversity green card entry requires only basic information. You’ll need to provide your:

  • Full name
  • Date of birth (day, month, year)
  • Biological sex
  • City where you were born
  • Country of eligibility for the DV program
  • Photograph
  • Mailing address
  • Country where you live currently
  • Phone number
  • Email address
  • Highest level of completed education
  • Marital status
  • Number of children (total, even if they aren’t coming with you)

For your spouse and children (if you have them), you’ll need to provide their:

  • Full name
  • Date of birth (day, month, year)
  • Biological sex
  • City of birth
  • Country of birth
  • Photograph

Even though the DV lottery entry requires your email address and telephone number, you will not be contacted this way. You have to check online for your status to know your next steps.

Photographs

You must provide photographs of everyone who would be coming to the US with you. Each person needs their own photos. The photo needs to be from within the past 6 months.

There’s no need to pay for passport photos. There are lots of free online passport photo makers. Be sure to follow the instructions.

Notification of winning the diversity visa lottery

Once you’ve entered the lottery, you’re given a confirmation number. Don’t lose this, as you’ll need this in order to see if you’ve won the lottery.

Lottery winners are selected on or around May 5th. The exact date changes every year.

Once people have been selected, you can check your status online using your confirmation number. You will not be notified if you win the lottery. The only way to find out if you won is to wait until people are selected and go online to check your status.

You may get an email or phone call announcing that you’ve won the green card lottery and asking you to wire money. This is a common scam. The US Gov’t will not notify lottery winners by email, phone, or letter. The government will not ask you to wire money to pay application processing fees. There is a fee for your visa, but this is paid in person at the US embassy or consulate.

If you lose your confirmation number they cannot resend it to you and you will not be notified. The embassy or consulate will not provide you with a list of people who won or tell you if you won.

The diversity visa program ends on September 30th of each year. If you haven’t applied for or been issued your visa by this date, you’ll no longer be eligible.

You check your lottery status at the US Department of State website: https://www.dvlottery.state.gov/ESC/

If you don’t win the lottery

If you aren’t selected, you can enter the green card lottery again next year.

winning the green card lottery usaIf you win the green card lottery

Winning the diversity visa lottery doesn’t automatically get you a green card. It just makes you eligible to apply for one.

If you’re already living in the US, you’ll need to file for adjustment of status. Once your status has been adjusted and your green card has been issued, family members included on your original entry (and children who’ve been born since you entered) can apply for their permanent resident visas.

You will need to submit all the documents mentioned below, except for the police certificates.

If you’re living abroad, the diversity visa website will provide instructions for what to do next.

Your confirmation number will become your case number. You’ll enter this and it will pull the information from your lottery entry into form DS-260. Check carefully to make sure all information is correct and up-to-date.

If your marital status has changed or you’ve had a child since you entered the lottery, this is your chance to update your information. If you did not include an existing family member on your original application, your visa will be denied.

Once you’ve completed form DS-260 and submitted it online, you need to print the confirmation page. You need to bring this printed confirmation with you to the visa interview.

Preparing your documents

Once you’ve been selected in the green card lottery, you should begin preparing the documents that will be required for your visa application.

You will need to bring an original (or certified copy) and a photocopy of each document to your visa interview. If the document is not in English, you will need to provide a translation. The translator will need to provide a signed statement that the translation is accurate and they are competent to translate.

Do not mail the documents. Bring them with you to your in-person visa interview.

  • School diplomas, transcripts, or other evidence of your education
  • Documents proving your work history
  • A long form original birth certificate
  • A police certificate from any country you lived in for more than 6 months after you turned 16
  • A police certificate from any place you were ever arrested, at any age, for any reason
  • Original marriage certificates and proof of divorce, if applicable
  • Military records if you have served in the armed forces of any country
  • Any court or prison records for crimes you have been convicted of, even if you were granted amnesty or pardoned
  • If you were ever deported from the US, you must provide form I-212

If your birth certificate is not available, you must provide a certified statement from a relevant government authority explaining why the document is available. You must provide other evidence, like a baptismal certificate, adoption decree, or affidavits from your parents that has been notarized. If your parents cannot provide this, you can provide an affidavit from another close relative.

Police certificates are valid for one year, unless you have not been in that country since it was issued. If you cannot provide a police certificate, you will need to provide a written explanation of the reason it’s unavailable.

The visa interview

When you apply for the visa with form DS-260, you’ll select the US Embassy or Consulate you would like your interview to take place at.

Each month the DOS issues a bulletin showing how many diversity visas are still available. When the cut-off is met, you can only get a visa if your number is below the cut-off number for your geographic area.

All diversity visas must be issued by September 30th. If you delay your interview, there may no longer be a spot for you.

Preparing for the interview

You will get an email prompting you to check your status on the DV website. When you log in using your DV case number you will see when your interview has been scheduled for. You need to print this information and bring it with you to the interview.

The DV website may provide instructions for preparing for the interview. Follow them carefully.

If your spouse and children are included on your application to receive a visa so they can immigrate with you, they will need to attend the interview. If necessary, family members can be interviewed separately. Remember that this could mean there is no longer a spot for them or they may run out of time before the September 30th deadline.

If you cannot attend an interview at the assigned time, contact the embassy or consulate as soon as possible.

If your child is about to turn 21 and you wish to bring them to the US with you, contact the embassy or consulate to see if you can get an earlier appointment.

You will not get your visa the day of the interview, even if you’re approved.

The medical exam

You and any family member who is applying for a visa needs to get a medical exam. The medical exam and any required vaccinations must be completed before your visa interview.

You cannot go to just any doctor, they must be approved by the US Embassy or Consulate. They will provide you with a list of acceptable doctors.

After the medical exam, you may be given a sealed envelope. If you get an envelope, you must bring it to the interview. Do not open it. If you aren’t given an envelope, the doctor will send the results directly to the embassy or consulate.

You will be given copies of your x-rays. You will need these if your visa is approved.

Passports

You must bring your passport to the interview. Anyone applying with you must also bring their passport. All passports must be valid for 6 months after your intended date of entry to the US.

If you do not have a passport or if it expires within 6 months of when you plan on moving to the US, you need to get a new passport.

Proof of support

While proof of support is not an official requirement, you can be denied a visa if the visa officer believes you’ll be unable to support yourself (and your family) in the US.

In order to ensure this doesn’t happen to you, be prepared with:

  • Bank statements or other proof of funds
  • A job offer letter for work in the US (or permission to work remotely or proof of self-employment)
  • Information showing you will be able to find a job in the US

If you are concerned that you may still be denied, you can get a US resident to sponsor you. This entails getting a letter saying they’ll support you while you’re in the US, providing proof that they can afford to support you, and completing form I-134.

Documents

When you go to your visa interview, you must bring:

  • A printout of the appointment information
  • A printout of the DS-260 confirmation page
  • Your passport and the passport of any family members applying with you
  • Original documents and a photocopy of each, as well as any translations
  • 2 photographs of each applicant

The embassy or consulate will specify requirements for the photographs.

Fees

When you attend your interview, you will need to pay a fee of $330 per person. You will pay at the embassy or consulate. You will not be asked to wire or otherwise transfer money, you only pay in person at the embassy or consulate.

If your visa is denied, the fee will not be refunded. You have to pay the fee when you arrive at the embassy or consulate, before the interview takes place. Check with the place of your interview for specific instructions.

The visa interview

When you arrive, you’ll be asked to present your documents and pay the fee, if you haven’t already. Your fingerprints will be scanned.

Often the visa interview will only last a few minutes. It’s up to the discretion of the visa officer.

The most common questions are:

  • Where did you study? When did you graduate?
  • What work do you normally do?
  • Do you have a job waiting for you in the US?
  • Where will you live in the US?
  • Who will you live with in the US? What’s your relationship to them?

If you’re married, they’ll ask basic questions about that.

  • When were you married?
  • How did you meet?
  • What trips have you taken together?

Be prepared with answers that are both true and simple. Don’t give too much information and confuse the visa officer. Don’t make up an answer because you think it sounds good.

If you have a career with transferable skills, you likely won’t face scrutiny about finding a job or supporting yourself while you do. This is especially true if you work for a company that could transfer you to a US office. Don’t lie and say your job is going to be transferred if that’s not the case.

At the end of the interview, you will be told if your visa has been approved or denied.

Occasionally your visa will be denied for administrative processing. This means there will be an additional step before the final decision. You’ll get a letter saying this and explaining what to do next in your specific circumstances.

Reasons for being denied a green card

There are lots of reasons you might not be issued a green card after winning the DV lottery. These include:

  • Inaccuracies on your initial lottery entry or visa application
  • Not providing supporting documents
  • Did not pass your background check
    • You were convicted of crimes of moral turpitude or drug violations
    • Have 2+ criminal convictions with 5 or more years in jail
  • Don’t have the means to support yourself in the US
  • Have committed or are suspected of committing fraud
  • Violated previous US visas

Your application fee will not be refunded if your visa is denied.

If you were denied because you did not provide sufficient documents, you can provide the missing documents and your case will be reexamined. Remember that this must be done in time for the final visa to be issued by September 30th.

If your visa is denied for other reasons, you can still re-apply. You’ll want to present evidence of “significant changes in circumstance.”

Getting your visa and preparing to move

If your visa is approved, they will keep your passport(s). Passport(s) will be mailed back to you within a few weeks with the visa on one of the pages. Check to make sure all the information on your visa is correct.

Your visa will say when it expires. You must move to the US before that date. It’s generally 6 months from when it’s issued or when your medical exam expires.

You need to pay your USCIS immigration fee after your visa(s) have been issued and before you move to the US.

You’ll also get a sealed immigration packet. Do not open this. You’ll need to give it to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) when you arrive in the US and declare your intent to immigrate.

If you have children, they’ll require certain vaccinations in order to enroll in school. Check with the school district to see what the requirements will be and make sure they get any required vaccinations before you move.

Moving to the US

If you’re immigrating to the US with your family, whoever won the visa lottery must enter the country first or at the same time as other family members. Other family members cannot activate their visas until the primary applicant has activated theirs.

Once the primary applicant has activated their visa, other family members can come any time before their visa expires.

When you arrive at the port of entry in the US, you need to declare your intent to immigrate and request permission to enter the US. You will need to provide your sealed immigration packet, the visa in your passport, and the x-rays from your medical exam.

A visa does not guarantee entry into the US. You may be denied entry at the border.

If you are admitted, you are now a permanent resident of the US.

Getting settled in the US

Once you’ve arrived in the US, your permanent resident card, aka green card, will arrive in a few weeks. Do not lose this. If you lose your green card you cannot leave the country until it’s been replaced (or you could be denied re-entry).

Make sure you’re familiar with the rights and responsibilities of being a US permanent resident. You’ll also want to know the rules for traveling as a US permanent resident.

You can lose your PR status if you immigrate to another country, spend too much time abroad, or don’t file your US taxes. As a US green card holder, you must file US taxes regardless of where you live and report your worldwide income.

You can also lose your PR status if a judge issues a removal order.

Getting help

The US Department of State has an in-depth video tutorial for submitting a green card lottery entry.

If you need help entering the diversity visa lottery or completing your permanent resident application, be sure to hire an actual lawyer or accredited representative.

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