A permanent visa is commonly referred to as a “green card.” This is an immigration document that allows a person to live in the United States. The Green Card Lottery, or the “Diversity Visa Lottery Program”, is a United States immigration program that grants approximately 50,000 green cards each year to applicants from selected countries. The applicants are randomly selected by a computer-generated drawing.

An applicant who is selected under the Visa Lottery Program is given a chance to apply for permanent resident status in the U.S. This status allows the foreign national to live and work permanently in the U.S. Additionally, permanent residents can bring along their spouse, as well as any unmarried children who are younger than 21 years of age to the U.S.

It is a common misconception that a Green Card Lottery “winner” is automatically granted a permanent visa or green card. However, this is untrue; essentially, the winner is given the opportunity to apply for a green card, not the green card itself. What this means is that they still must satisfy all of the requirements for permanent residence.

Who Can Apply for the Green Card Lottery?

In order to apply, you must be from a qualifying nation as well as meet certain occupational and educational standards. If you are married or plan to marry a U.S. national, you may apply for a green card under U.S. immigration marriage laws. Different countries qualify each year based on which countries in the world sent the fewest immigrants to the U.S. during the five previous years. The State Department releases this list of eligible countries each year.

Generally speaking, people who are applying from countries that have sent over 50,000 immigrants to the U.S. in the past five years cannot apply. If you are unsure if your country has been approved for participation in the Green Card Lottery Program, you should consult with a lawyer for advice.

If the applicant is immigrating from an approved country, they must meet other, additional eligibility requirements. The applicant must hold at least a high school diploma, or its equivalent as defined in the U.S. Alternatively, the applicant must have at least two years of work experience, within the past five years, in an occupation that requires a minimum of two years of experience or training to perform. In some specific cases, a person may be eligible for the lottery if their parent was born in a country that has been selected for participation.

As previously mentioned, these eligibility requirements only apply to the application phase for the Green Card Lottery. If they are selected, the winner will need to complete the application process for a permanent visa. This process has its own unique set of requirements that must be met in order for the immigration process as a whole to continue.

How Can I Apply for the Green Card Lottery? How Do I Know if I Won?

As previously mentioned, each year the U.S. Department of State (“DOS”) publishes the list of countries that have been selected for participation in that year’s green card lottery. The DOS also manages the online registration period, which usually runs from October until December of each year. You must apply online, and submit a digital photo.

You can apply for the green card lottery with the DOS during this time period. There is no application fee for the Lottery program. However, if you are selected, you will be required to pay the filing fees for the permanent resident card application. If you do not win the lottery in the year that you apply, you may apply the following year.

The Department of Labor provides more information on qualifying occupations. Additionally, the applicant must not be inadmissible to the United States. A person may be considered inadmissible if they have been convicted of certain violent crimes, drug offenses, or are afflicted with certain illnesses.

If you are selected in the lottery, you must immediately apply for your permanent visa. There will be more people chosen in the lottery than there are available visas. This is due to the fact that not all selected winners will satisfy the green card requirements. As such, the lottery ends when all 50,000 visas have been successfully issued.

Candidates who are selected as lottery winners will be notified through mail at the addresses provided in their applications. If you do not receive any notifications, it can generally be assumed that you were not selected. If you are selected for the Diversity Visa program, you must also complete the following:

  • A visa application;
  • Payment for all required fees;
  • Medical examination and record of that examination; and
  • Interview at an Embassy or Consulate.

What Else Should I Know About the Green Card In General?

It is important to know a few general facts about green cards, in addition to understanding how the green card lottery works. Prior to September 2002, the agency that was charged with overseeing immigration issues was the Immigration and Naturalization Service (“INS”). In September of 2002, Congress passed and President Bush signed the Homeland Security Act.

This Act is responsible for transferring the powers of the INS to the Department of Homeland Security. The immigration service functions of the INS are now placed under the Bureau of Citizenship, as well as Immigration Services (“BCIS”).

In order to have your application for a green card processed and approved by the BCIS, you will need to complete the following steps:

  • Get a Sponsor: A sponsor can be a relative who is a United States citizen, or an employer;
  • Apply to a U.S. Consulate or Embassy: this would be in your home country. If you are already in the United States on a valid visa, you can apply at your company’s Embassy located within the states; and
  • Inadmissible Check: The BCIS will check to see if you are “inadmissible.” Inadmissible is defined by many categories such as: specific mental or physical disorders, a past conviction of a crime, or prior activity deemed subversive.

Depending on your connection to the United States, you may qualify for a different green card category. The United States puts a quota on the amount of green cards issued for people who fall into each green card category:

  • Immediate Family Members Visas: This was briefly mentioned previously. Immediate family members of U.S. citizens can qualify for a green card. This category of green cards is for those who are:
    • Spouses of U.S. citizens;
    • Unmarried children under 21 with one U.S. citizen parent;
    • Parents of a U.S. citizen under 21;
    • Step children or step parents of a U.S. citizen, depending on the age of the child; and/or
    • Someone who adopted or was adopted by a U.S. citizen, depending on the age of the child at the time of adoption.
  • Marriage Visas: Immigration Marriage has its own specific procedural rules. The BCIS may grant “conditional permanent residence” for those who are married to U.S. citizens while the full green card application process is completed;
  • Work Visas: Those moving to the United States because of a certain type of skill required for employment may qualify for a green card, if they fall into one of the preference categories established by the United States government. These preference categories are very limited and specific regarding the criteria required to receive a green card. Additionally, quotas are established for each of these preference categories; and/or
  • Long Term Undocumented Residents: Some individuals who have resided undocumented in the United States for a long period of time may be eligible for a green card if the undocumented resident’s immediate family members are U.S. citizens. They may also qualify if the immediate family members would suffer undue hardship, were the undocumented resident forced to leave the United State.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Assistance With the Green Card Lottery?

It is important that your application meets all of the requirements, as even the slightest errors on your application can disqualify you. If you are considering applying for the green card lottery, you should consult with an immigration lawyer for advice.

An experienced local immigration attorney can help you determine whether your home country is eligible for the program, and whether you meet all the entry requirements. Additionally, you can retain the services of your lawyer if you are selected so they can help you with the following visa application. An attorney can also represent you in court as needed, should any issues arise.