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If you’ve never heard of the Diversity Visa Program before, you might think this headline is a joke. But there really is a green card lottery! It’s completely free to enter and if you meet the qualifications, it could be your ticket to the USA.

The registration window for this program always begins at the start of the immigration fiscal year which is October 1. There is only a short time period during which you must submit your application – it generally ends at the start of November. This means you have about one month in which to enter this lottery. I remember trying out for this a few times before I came to the U.S. but I didn’t ever win a spot. However, I do know people who did so it certainly is worth a try.

Here is how you qualify:

The entry period is always 2 years ahead of the actual Program Year. For example, applicants who submitted entries in Oct. 2014 are qualifying for the Diversity Visa 2016 Program.

First, you must be a native of a country that is eligible to participate.

A “native” is someone who is born in a country so don’t confuse this with “citizenship” of a country. For example, you can be born in one country but be a citizen of that same country and also of another country if dual citizenship is permitted.

Each year some countries are not eligible if more than 50,000 people from that country immigrated to the U.S. in the previous five years. For the 2016 Diversity Visa program, the countries NOT eligible were:

Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China (mainland-born), Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, South Korea, United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland) and its dependent territories, and Vietnam. (This list may change for future programs).

If you are not from one of the eligible countries, you may still qualify through your spouse or parent’s native country.

If your spouse was born in one of the eligible countries, then as long as your spouse is listed on your application, you can qualify through your spouse’s native country. If one of your parents is a native of an eligible country, as long as they were not a resident of your country of birth at the time of your birth, then you may use that parent’s native country of eligibility.

What is considered a “resident”? A resident is not someone who is only visiting the country or studying there temporarily or conducting business there temporarily. For example, if you were born in Canada, a country that is currently not eligible, and one of your parents was not residing in Canada at the time of your birth, yet that parent is a native of a country that is eligible, you can use that parent to qualify for the lottery.

Second, you must have the required education or work experience.

Each applicant in the lottery must have either a high school diploma or its equivalent, or two years of work experience within the past five years in a job that required at least two years of training or experience to perform. To figure out if your job qualifies, look it up on the O*Net Online Database and see if it shows up under either a Job Zone 4 or Job Zone 5 classified in a Specific Vocational Preparation range of 7.0 or higher.

If you meet the country and education/work requirements, you may submit your electronic entry.

Your application can only be submitted online at the Electronic Diversity Visa website, there is no paper form to mail in. Even your passport-style photograph must be digitally uploaded. Since the entry period is short, generally during the month of October, do not wait until the final week to enter because there will be high demand and there could be website delays. (Many of us experienced this with Healthcare.gov when so many people logged on in the first weeks to sign up for Obamacare!).

Only one entry per person allowed.

Of course that makes sense, it wouldn’t be fair to let people enter multiple times in the same year. But you can enter again the following year. (Long before the sophisticated technology used by the Department of State to detect multiple entries and way before the internet even existed, my parents told me about their friend who mailed in lots of applications, apparently put into different mailboxes  – and guess what? He won! Now that was cheating and was likely not even permissible back then.)

You and your spouse can increase the odds by each submitting your own entry, as long as you each qualify. That way if either is selected, the other would be entitled to the green card by being a derivative dependent (your children under 21 who are not married will also be entitled to a green card).

Even if you are already registered for an immigrant visa in another category, you can still apply for the Diversity Visa lottery.

How are the winners selected?

Everyone who submits an application will get a unique confirmation number. This is what you will use to find out if you were selected. There is about a 6-month waiting period to find out if you are a winner. For example, those who entered in October 2014 would be able to go online to check their status as early as May 2015 through to June 2016.

All entries are given individual numbers from each region. A computer will randomly select entries for each geographic region. This makes all regions have an equal chance of winning. If you are already in the U.S. when you are selected, you must be eligible to adjust your status (apply for your green card) – meaning that you can’t be in the U.S. unlawfully or out of status or in overstay. If you are in your home country, then your adjustment of status will go through the U.S. Embassy or Consulate.

All green card applications, including eligible family dependents wherever they may be, must be fully processed by the end of September. For example, if you entered the lottery in Oct. 2014, you are applying for the Diversity Visa Program of 2016 and if selected, your case will need to be processed by September 2016.

Even if you win, you could still lose!

For the program year of 2016, 50,000 visas are available for this Diversity lottery, however, some of these winners will either not pursue their cases or for other reasons not qualify. For this reason more than 50,000 entries will be selected. This could be bad news if you do get selected because there might not be enough visas to give out as The Department of State will not exceed the allotment amount.

It will be up to you to go to the website during the status check period to find out if you were selected because you will not be notified. If you do win, further instructions will be provided and you will proceed to the interview stage if all your paperwork checks out. (The interviews begin about one year after the applicants submitted their initial entry).

Once all the 50,000 visas are used up, that’s it, it’s all over for the program year. This is why you need to act promptly if you are selected – being randomly selected does not guarantee you will receive a visa number! 

Filing fees will be required if you win.

While it is free to enter your application, if you are selected and you proceed with your green card application, the applicable government filing fees will be required. Keep in mind that if you have a spouse and children, this could add up to several thousands of dollars. As there is no carry over beyond the visa program year, you will have to come up with the money or else forfeit your visa number.

If you are selected and you proceed with your case, you will also need to prove that you have the financial ability to support yourself in the U.S. by submitting a financial affidavit to declare that you will not become a “public charge” in the U.S. (This means that you agree not to become dependent on the U.S. government for financial support). If you don’t have evidence to document this, the affidavit of support can be submitted by someone other than yourself such as a family member or friend residing in the U.S. or a U.S. employer.

There’s a lot to think about when you enter this lottery.

If you didn’t know much about this before, you will understand that entering the green card lottery is a big decision and should not be taken lightly. Your personal circumstances and willingness to move quickly, plus the money you will have to spend, should all be taken into account before submitting your entry.

If you do decide to go for it – good luck!!

If you need assistance completing your Diversity Visa application, please contact our office at 561-290-0101 or 844-224-0139.

Nadine Heitz

Nadine Heitz is an immigration attorney in Lake Worth, Florida where she helps her clients obtain legal status in the United States. Book your consultation with her to find out how to solve your immigration issues and achieve your desired goals.