The Diversity Visa Program, often referred to as the “Visa Lottery” was established in 1990. Under this program, 55,000 visas are allocated annually via a random process to natives of countries that have relatively low rates of immigration to the United States. In 1997, 5,000 of these visas were reserved for individuals who qualified for legal permanent resident status under the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act. Those 5,000 visas are not granted under a lottery process.

What is the visa lottery?

The Immigration Act of 1990 established the Diversity Visa program, usually referred to as the visa lottery, making available 55,000 immigrant visas starting in fiscal year 1995. The lottery “aims to diversify the immigrant population in the United States, by selecting applicants mostlyfrom countries with low rates of immigration to the United States in the previous five years.” The program is administered by U.S. Department of State, Kentucky Consular Center, Williamsburg, Kentucky.

Natives of countries that have sent less than 50,000 immigrants to the United States in the previous five years are eligible for the visa lottery. Eligible countries are divided into six regions: 1. Africa 2. Asia 3. Europe 4. North America 5. Oceania 6. South America, Central American, Caribbean. Visas are allocated to these regions based upon the relative population of each, and weighted to favor those countries who sent fewest immigrants to the United States over the previous five years. The number of lottery visa recipients from any one country cannot exceed 7 percent in any one year.

If you were not born in a qualifying country, you can still qualify through a spouse or parent. Same-sex spouses are eligible.

Ineligible countries in FY2018:

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, and Vietnam.

Starting in FY1997, 5,000 visas were reserved each year “for as long as necessary” for use under the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA), so, in effect, 50,000 lottery visas are granted each year. (back)

Why is there a visa lottery?

After the Immigration Act of 1965 ended national origin quotas, the availability of immigration visas available to natives of countries that had sent large numbers of immigrants to the United States in the past were greatly reduced. Prior to 1965, most immigration had come from Europe. After the national quota system was abolished, immigration largely came from Latin America and Asia. Some groups, particularly the Irish, believed that there were not enough visas available to them under the new immigration system.

In 1981, the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, commissioned by Congress to evaluate current laws regulating immigration and refugee policy and make recommendations to Congress and the President, came up with three overarching goals: family reunification, economic growth balanced by protection of the U.S. labor market, and cultural diversity “consistent with national unity.”

The meaning of “diversity” in the context of immigration was not defined by the commission, and it was interpreted in different ways. Two members of Congress from Massachusetts, Senator Ted Kennedy, and Rep. Brian Donnelly, believed that the Irish had been disadvantaged by the changes made to immigration law in 1965 and pushed for legislation that would allot visas specifically to allow more Irish to immigrate to the United States.

In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) contained a program designed by Rep. Brian Donnelly (D-Mass.) that allocated 5,000 visas in 1987 and 1988 to natives of countries that had been “adversely affected” by the Immigration Act of 1965, with the State Department determining which countries qualified. The State Department determined eligibility for the program by including countries whose average annual rate of migration to the United States between 1966 and 1985 was less than its average annual rate between 1953 and 1965. Since countries that had sent few immigrants to the United States before 1965 were disqualified, and because visas were allocated on a first come first serve basis, many of these visas went to Irish living illegally in the United States. In 1988, Congress extended the IRCA lottery and increased the numbers of visas available annually to 15,000.

In 1989, Rep. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) devised a program that ultimately became part of the Immigration Act of 1990, and a visa lottery granting 55,0000 visa annually became permanent in 1994. There was also a three-year Diversity Transition Program added by Rep. Bruce Morrison (D-Conn.), which set aside 25,000 visa for illegal aliens who qualified under the IRCA diversity provisions.

Organizations in the United States lobbying for the legalization of illegal aliens from Ireland, and for increased immigration from Ireland, particularly the Irish Immigration Reform Movement (IIRM), were instrumental in the establishment of the permanent lottery. Rep. Donnelly explicitly said that his 1986 lottery program was intended to enable more Irish to immigrate to the United States, and IIRM lobbyists worked directly with Rep. Schumer to craft what ultimately became the Diversity Lottery Program. One of the key provisions of the final legislation was that Northern Ireland, despite being a part of the United Kingdom, would be treated as a separate country when allocating visas for the lottery. The Diversity Transition Program was also set up in such a way that 40% of the 40,000 annual visas would go to Irish natives.
See: “The Diversity Visa Program of the Immigration Act of 1990(back)

Who qualifies for the visa lottery?

If an individual is eligible was born in a qualifying country (see above) there are also education and work experience requirements that must be met. An individual must have completed a course of study comparable to a 12-years of elementary and secondary education in the United States. A General Education Degree (GED) or its equivalent does not meet the education requirement. To meet the work requirement experience, one must have two years’ experience within the last five years in an occupation defined according to the U.S. Department of Labor as requiring at least two years of training or experience that is has a Specific Vocational Preparation (SVP) rating of at least 7.0.(back)

How does a person apply for the lottery?

The entry process is done on-line through the State Department’s website. (back)

When can a person apply and when is the drawing for the lottery?
Application entries can be submitted from early-October to early-November for the drawing which takes place the following May. The drawings are for the Diversity Visa that will be issued the following year. For example, application submitted by the deadline in 2016 will be entered the lottery taking place in 2017 for visas to be issued in 2018.  (back)

How much does it cost to apply?
There is no cost to apply for the lottery. If an individual is selected in the lottery and chooses to apply for the Diversity Visa, there is an application fee of $330. (back)

How many times can a person enter the lottery?
Persons may enter as many times as they wish, but can only submit one application a year. Submitting more than one application a year will cause all applications to be rejected. (back)

Can both spouses apply at the same time?
Both spouses may both apply as principal entrants and would list their respective spouse as a derivative on their application. (back)

How many people apply for the lottery?
There are no limits to how many people worldwide can enter the lotter. The State Department keeps track of how many individuals apply on their own, and the number of derivative entrants, or family members who would accompany to the U.S. if the lottery entrant is he/she was selected. In FY2014 and FY2015, 9.4 million persons entered the lottery, and in both years, there were approximately 5 million derivative registrations. (back)

Can those already in the United States apply for the lottery? (back)
Individuals already in the United States on non-immigrant visas are eligible for the visa lottery. If chosen, these individuals would apply for a change of status to a permanent legal resident. Illegal aliens residing in the United States are not eligible.

Do visa lottery applicants have to undergo background checks? (back)
Visa lottery applicants are required to furnish personal, educational, and professional information on their application. If chosen in the lottery, an individual would go through the routine screening process as any other individual who is applying for admittance to United States.

How are the “winners” chosen
Individuals who may apply for a Diversity Visa are selected by a computerized random drawing.   (back)

How are individuals notified if they are selected in the lottery?
Individuals who applied are responsible for checking the State Department Electronic Diversity Visa Lottery webpage to see if they have been selected. Notifications are posted on-line from May through the September of the following year. (back)

If selected in the lottery, how soon can a person come to the U.S.?
Being selected in the visa lottery only allows one the opportunity to apply for a Diversity Visa. If selected, individuals must apply for a visa issuance by September 30 of the year in which they are eligible. For example, those who applied in 2016 and were selected in the lottery held in 2017 must apply for a visa by September 30, 2018. Only if the visa application is approved can an individual outside of the United States enter the United States, or an individual already in the United States adjust to permanent legal residence. In some cases, those selected in the visa lottery will have their visa applications denied.

If a non-U.S. resident submits a visa application by the dead-line and the application is approved, the State Department will issue a visa and recipient must travel to the United States before the expiration of that visa, generally within six months of issuance. If the visa expires the individual will no longer be eligible to enter the United States on a Diversity Visa. (back)

Is a Diversity Visa different than a Green Card?
The visa lottery is simply one way of obtaining a green card. If an individual is approved for admittance to the United States through the Diversity Visa Program, that individual is subject to the same immigration laws that apply to all legal permanent residents. (back)