Understanding the Diversity Visa Lottery Program

The United States is notoriously selective on how and to whom they issue permanent visas. The process is known to be very detailed and can take many, many years. The two most common and quickest ways to permanently immigrate to the United States involve either a family or employment-based sponsorship. Top priority is given to those who have family in the United States who are citizens or permanent residents. This is often referred to as “chain migration.”

The next priority goes to those who are employed by a US-based company. Even with an employment-based sponsorship, there is no direct path to permanent residency. This often means years of documentation, adjustments in visa statuses, extensions, temporary returns back to your home country, and re-applications.

However, that doesn’t mean that emigrating to the US permanently without family or job connections is impossible. There are a few options available to those with special circumstances, or with luck to “win” the Diversity Visa Lottery.

Permanent entry options without family or employment sponsorship

Some individuals may be able eligible to apply for a green card under special circumstances. Other additional circumstances for green card qualifications can be found here.


This is granted when proof is provided that the individual is afraid to stay in their home country due to a “well-founded fear of persecution.” This can also apply if the person has been persecuted in the past. Once asylum is granted, then you can apply for a green card.


The EB-5 investor program provides a path to green card status for immigrant investors who invest between $500,000 and $1 million in a US-based company that creates at least 10 American jobs.

Extraordinary Ability

This option is available for individuals who can provide documentation of extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business, arts, or athletics. This is typically proven by achieving three of the ten criteria to establish eligibility including the receipt of a major award such as the Nobel Prize or an Academy Award, published material in a major trade publication, or evidence of a significant contribution to your field of expertise.

Diversity Visa Lottery Program

Lottery winners are randomly selected among applicants from countries of low immigration rates to the United States. Only 50,000 visas are available each year. Winners are still subjected to security and eligibility requirements.

Diversity Visa Lottery background

For some, the Diversity Visa Lottery is the only option for achieving permanent legal residency in the US. But like any lottery, the chances of winning are rare. Created as part of the Immigration Act of 1990, the Diversity Visa Program was established as a way to increase diversity and the number of immigrants from smaller countries and countries that typically don’t emigrate to the US.

The program was initially designed to benefit Irish and Italian immigrants. According to the American Immigration Council, in the first three years of the program, 40 percent of recipients were Irish citizens. In more recent years, immigrants from African and Eastern European countries receive the bulk of the diversity visas.

The program, run by the US State Department randomly selects the winners. To be eligible for the program, the winner must be from a region that accounts for no more than a sixth of all immigrant admissions to the US in the last five years. And no more than seven percent of the year’s visas may go to any citizens of any one country.

Countries NOT eligible for the 2020 Diversity Visa Lottery Program include:

  • Bangladesh
  • Brazil
  • Canada
  • China (mainland-born)
  • Colombia
  • Dominican Republic
  • El Salvador
  • Haiti
  • India
  • Jamaica
  • Mexico
  • Nigeria
  • Pakistan
  • Peru
  • Philippines
  • South Korea
  • United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland) and its dependent territories
  • Vietnam

How to apply for the Diversity Visa Lottery Program

Applying for the Diversity Visa Program requires you to submit an electronic DV-2020 form. It is free to apply. To be eligible for the program, you must:

  • Prove that you were born in an eligible country
  • Considered admissible to the United States
  • Have at least a high school education or two years work experience within the last five years

You must meet all requirements to be eligible. The odds of winning the lottery are less than one percent with the US Department of State receiving an average of 13.3 applications each year. You can submit your entry every year starting in early October until the beginning of November.

If you were not born in an eligible country, there are other ways for which you can be considered qualified to apply:

  • Your spouse was born in an eligible country, and you intend to enter the US at the same time as your spouse
  • You can claim the country of your parents if their native country is eligible and they are not legal residents of your birth country

The US State Department has created an informative video with detailed instructions on how to apply, you can view the video here.

What to do if you’ve “won” the lottery

The only way to know if you’ve won the lottery is by checking your status using the Entrant Status Check. You will not receive mail or an email notifying you. Some fraudulent sites may call, mail, or email you with the news that you have won. Please note that the only way to be notified is through the Entrant Status website. The Entrant Status website will also provide you with a numerical rank to indicate when you can apply for your visa. Winning the lottery does not mean that you will immediately receive a visa, but instead, it provides you with the opportunity to apply for a green card. You can check the Visa Bulletin to see when you should submit your application. Lottery winners must undergo the same vetting and processing as other green card applicants.

Most lottery winners do not live in the United States and must immigrate through consular process once they are notified of their winning. For the small number of applicants who are residing in the US, they must adjust their current visa status by filing a Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status.

Once you are notified of winning, you have a short period to file the necessary forms and documents before a visa can be issued. This process also includes extensive interviews, medical screenings, and criminal background checks. The process also applies to any immediate family members that you wish to bring to the US. It is crucial that you do not delay in filing because your visa must be issued by the end of the fiscal year for which you were selected.

Benefits of the Diversity Visa Program

The Diversity Visa Program has been the subject of much controversy, especially under the current Trump administration. Complaints have been made that the program creates more competition for US jobs and enhances the threat of terrorism. But this is not the case. Lottery winners are not guaranteed employment when they enter the United States, and they receive the same intensive background screening of green card applicants.

The program was created to attract talented individuals from countries who otherwise would not have considered emigrating to the US. Immigrants tend to gravitate towards countries where other immigrants from their home country live. By encouraging people from countries of low migration to settle into the US, we are creating the opportunity to reduce the uncertainty that highly-skilled and talented individuals encounter when considering immigration. As detailed in the Stanford Law Review, these early immigrants create networks, communities, and opportunities that prove enticing to future foreign entrepreneurs.

Even if the Diversity Visa Program becomes something of the past, it is still laying the groundwork for potential merit-based visa applicants from all over the world. Established immigrant communities clear the path for future highly-skilled immigrants. There’s comfort in being able to re-establish oneself in a new country when there are others from your home country to help lead the way. The Diversity Visa Program helps to play an essential role in keeping the United States as the top destination for highly-skilled individuals from all over the world.

Ending the Diversity Visa Program

In 2017, Sayfullo Saipov, a Diversity visa lottery winner, killed eight people by driving a rented van into civilians near New York’s Brooklyn Bridge. He claimed to be motivated by ISIS. The US State Department, when determining eligibility for any visa applicant, looks into the applicant’s criminal background including any terrorist ties. The USCIS believes that Saipov was not radicalized at the time of his entry into the United States.

Proposals to end the program have been attempted since 2005; however, Saipov’s terrorist attack brought the program widespread attention in 2017. Trump had said that to pass a bill to protect DACA recipients, four main immigration demands must be met, including the discontinuation of the lottery program.

Reforms have been proposed to replace the lottery program, including the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act, presented by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga. This proposal includes a merit-based point system that would base admission on education level, employment opportunities, and English language fluency. This act would reduce the number of green card recipients by 50%. The bill failed to pass in the Senate.

As with many current immigration programs and visa processes, the Diversity Visa Program is subjected to government approval and support, and its status is subject to change.

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