The United States is recognized as a melting pot of diversity, home to innumerable nationalities, ethnicities and races. Many around the world yearn to call the United States home, but do not have the proper immigration pathway, like family or work, to make that dream a reality.
To continue to enhancing diversity of the U.S., the Diversity Visa Program provides a path to permanent residency for applicants from countries with historically lower immigration rates to the United States. This program may also provide a path to permanent residency for applicants without other options to immigrate.
Created in 1990, the program is mostly popular as the “green card lottery.” The program is administered by the United States Department of State (hereinafter DOS) via online application each fiscal year. In recent years, applications open in October and close in November.
The Diversity Visa Program functions as a lottery. Each applicant can apply for free, and their application counts as one entry; one entry allowed per person. When submissions close, the DOS randomly selects from the millions of entries. Diversity visa applicants are allocated 50,000 visas each year. If you win a lottery spot, you are not automatically issued a green card, but you move on to a visa application.
Unlike many immigration applications, the Diversity Visa Program has very few, but very strict eligibility requirements.
1. You must be a native of a country with historically low immigration to the United States.
Each year, the DOS defines which countries are eligible to apply. Additionally, each year the DOS defines which countries are not eligible to apply for that year’s lottery.
For example, for Fiscal Year 2022, applicants from Nigeria, China, Pakistan, Great Britain, Canada, Colombia, Mexico and many more, were not eligible to apply. Why? Because for the past 5 years, they have been high admission countries, with 50,000 people immigrating to the United States through other immigration pathways. The countries defined as eligible or ineligible can change every year.
However, there are some exceptions to apply to the visa lottery if you are not from an eligible country.
If your spouse is from a listed eligible country, you can claim their country of birth. If one of your parents is from a listed eligible country (and they were not born in, or a resident of an ineligible country), you may also claim their country of birth.
2. You must have required education and/or work experience at the time of applying.
As defined by the Immigration and Nationality Act, a visa lottery applicant is required to have a high school education or country equivalent, at minimum. This includes completing an elementary and secondary education in your home country that matches 12 years of education in the United States.
If an applicant doesn’t have the right education, they must have two years of work experience to enter the lottery. The 2 years of work experience itself has requirements – the experience must have been obtained in the 5 years before applying, and demanded a minimum of 2 years training.
To determine if your work experience qualifies, the DOS refers applicants to O-NET Online, a United States Department of Labor database that will help.
The yearly instructions provided by the DOS are clear – you must meet both requirements to even apply for the lottery. If you do not meet both, you are not eligible to apply.
If you have a spouse and/or unmarried children under 21, they can join your lottery submission as derivative applicants! They themselves are not required to meet both requirements, as long as the main applicant does.
I got lucky! What’s next?
If you’ve determined your eligibility based on both requirements, then you can start your application for the diversity visa program! Remember that the application is only administered by the DOS. It is only available online, and you must have a valid passport.
If you are one of the lucky 50,000 randomly selected, congratulations! Although you are not a green card holder quite yet, you are one step closer. Any derivative family members included in your lottery application will also move forward.
Within one year of winning the lottery, you (and your family, if applicable) must start visa applications with the DOS. In fact, applicants are encouraged to apply as early as possible. The visa application is known as Form DS-260, Immigrant Visa and Alien Registration Application.
In addition to confirming you fulfill the two program requirements; the visa application also ensures you are admissible to enter and live permanently in the United States. Although only the main lottery applicant must fulfill the 2 program requirements, the main and derivative applicants must be found admissible.
Without proof you fulfill the two program requirements, your application will be denied. Grounds of inadmissibility to the United States include certain health issues, specific criminal histories, previous unlawful presence or deportation in the United States and more.
If inadmissible to the United States, it might be possible to apply for a waiver to remedy this, but only in very stringent circumstances. First, your ground of inadmissibility must have a waiver option available, as not all of them do. Secondly, it’s possible that a waiver may require you have a U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse, parent or child to even apply. Without a waiver and/or required family connections to apply, your application is denied.
If you are selected and fulfill the diversity visa program’s requirements provided that you are admissible to the United States, your application will be approved! You will be issued an immigrant visa which also means you are now a legal permanent resident! Your actual green card will arrive later in the mail once you’ve settled into life in your new home.
Assuming your derivative family members are also approved, they will also receive immigrant visas and legal permanent resident status.
Once in the United States, you are held to the same standard as all other green card holders. You must abide by the laws of the country and pay your taxes. You are free to travel with your country’s passport and you are also able to legally work.
Your green card will be valid for ten years. After having it for 5 years, you are allowed to apply for U.S. citizenship if you fulfill all requirements, or just renew your green card when it’s time.
Welcome to the United States!
Please note: None of the above should be construed as personal legal advice. Considering the complexity of immigration applications, if you earned a lottery spot, please consult with an immigration attorney.