A green card, which is issued by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), lets you live and work in the United States on a permanent basis. While there are several avenues to getting a green card, including through family, employment or status as a refugee or asylee, not everyone qualifies. (For more, see Green Cards: How to Get One.) Even if you do qualify, wait times under certain family or job status categories can be as long as 20 years. If you do not qualify – or if you want to “roll the dice” while waiting – the Diversity Immigrant Visa (DV) Program (popularly known as the green card lottery) might be for you.

What Are Your Chances?

The DV program issues 50,000 immigrant visas annually, based on the results of a random drawing. The visas are apportioned among countries with “historically low rates of immigration to the U.S.” In 2015, the last year for which statistics are available, the number of applicants (excluding family members) was about 9.4 million. From that number 125,514 names were drawn. The first 50,000 to register, after notification, were the “winners” for that year. The reason for drawing more than 50,000 names is that not everyone selected will start the green-card application process, and some who do will not complete it. 

Who's Eligible

Before registering for the green card lottery, you should determine if you are eligible. You must be eligible by country as well as by education or work experience.

Country – Diversity visas go to natives of selected countries in six geographic regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania plus South America, Central America and the Caribbean. The list of countries is subject to change each year and will appear on the Diversity Visa entry instructions posted here. If you were not born in an eligible country, you may still qualify for the DV program if your spouse was born in an eligible country, both of you are named on the same entry and both of you intend to enter the U.S. at the same time. Also, if you were born in an ineligible country – but neither of your parents was born in or legal residents of that country at the time of your birth – you may still qualify, assuming one of your parents was born in an eligible country. 

Education or Work Experience – In addition to eligibility based on country of birth, you must also meet certain education or work-experience requirements in order to register for the green card lottery. Basically, this means that you must have a high school education (or equivalent) or two years’ experience within the past five years in a qualifying occupation. The U.S. Department of Labor’s O*Net Online database can be used to determine if your work experience is sufficient. For details on eligibility requirements go here and scroll down to Frequently Asked Questions. 

When to Register

The online registration period for the DV Program typically runs between Oct. 1 and Nov. 3 each year. You should register as early as possible once it opens. If you wait until the end of the sign-up period, you could miss out due to heavy website traffic. Late entries will not be accepted, no matter whose fault it is. The sign-up period for the FY 2018 green card lottery will likely begin Oct. 1, 2016. The U.S. State Department has not yet released registration information regarding this year’s lottery. 

Where and How to Register

Registration for the green card lottery is done online using the English-language version only. When available, a link to detailed instructions and to the official online lottery application form can be found here. Although your application must be done in English, detailed instructions in a variety of languages are available by following the link to instructions referenced above. It’s important that you read the instructions carefully, noting all required documentation, photos and so forth. The U.S. State Department video tutorial on registering for the green card lottery appears here

Buyer Beware

There are plenty of scammers out there ready to take your money in exchange for useless or even harmful information. You may run across private websites (many of them look legitimate) that offer everything from tips on winning the green card lottery to secrets to help you “game the system.” Some even offer to help you apply – all for a fee, of course. You may also receive fraudulent emails, letters and other types of communication that try to convince you that you have been selected as a lottery winner.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Entering the green card lottery is free.
  • The drawing is random and by computer.
  • You can only find whether you have won by going to www.dvlottery.state.gov (typically beginning May 1). 
  • If you win and are permitted to apply, you will have to pay a fee, but that will be in person at a U.S. embassy or consulate.

If you feel you do need professional help with the application process, the USCIS has information here. This includes ways to spot con artists, as described above.

Increasing Your Odds

Even though you are entering a random drawing, there are a couple of legitimate (and free) things you can do to increase your chances of winning. Both you and your spouse – if eligible – should apply. This gives you two chances to win, as opposed to one. If one of you wins, the other can ignore his or her application and enter as a derivative spouse.

 As there is no limit on the number of eligible members of the same family that may apply, if your children meet the educational or work experience requirements they should enter as well. You should note that if one of them wins, he or she will not be able to bring you to the U.S. immediately but will be able to start a process that could get you there eventually.

What Happens If You Win

Winning the green card lottery does not result in your automatically getting a green card in the mail. If you are lucky enough to win, all it means is that you may have won the opportunity to apply for a green card. You can find out if you are a lottery winner on or after May 3 by going to the DV Entrant Status Check link online. If you have won, you will be directed from there to a confirmation page with further instructions.

Waiting List – As roughly 125,000 names are drawn, with only 50,000 eligible to actually receive a green card, everyone whose name is drawn is put on a waiting list and given a number. If your waiting list number is high, and 50,000 people ahead of you successfully complete their paperwork, you won’t get a chance to apply – let alone receive a green card. 

Currently Living in the U.S. – If you currently live in the U.S. under a non-immigrant or other type of legal status, the process you will follow – should you win the lottery and be allowed to apply for a green card – is outlined here

Currently Living Outside the U.S. – The vast majority of green card lottery winners live outside the United States and follow a process called consular processing

The Bottom Line

Because applying for the green card lottery is free, even if you are “in line” waiting for your green card through another avenue, you may want to consider applying for the lottery, just in case. Even though it’s a lottery it follows strict rules, which are outlined in the instructions. Read them carefully before applying. You can only apply once per year, so you don’t want to be disqualified from achieving your dream due to a simple application error. (And if you have your green card, see How to Pass the U.S. Citizenship Test.)