What is the Green Card Lottery?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 January 2020
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The green card lottery, formally known as the Diversity Visa Lottery Program, is a United States path to citizenship for up to 50,000 people per year. This program issues visas every year to people who have emigrated from countries and regions that have low annual rates of immigration to the United States. While some praise the green card lottery as a model of diversity initiatives, critics suggest that the process is open to fraud and may bottleneck the process of immigration for people from non-eligible nations.

Started in 1995, the green card lottery is open to applicants that are from low-US immigration countries that meet several requirements. As of 2011, applicants must prove that they have a high school or equivalent education, or show proof of at least two years of work experience in an occupation that requires two years of training. The application period lasts sixty days; in 2011, over 12 million qualified people applied for only 50,000 visas. Countries excluded from the 2011 green card lottery include Canada, China, Ecuador, Mexico, Colombia, the United Kingdom, and Pakistan.


There are additional exclusions from eligibility, including what type of immigration status is already held by the applicant. In general, the only eligible categories are those who have legally immigrated and are on a temporary visa of some kind. Applicants do not need to be sponsored by employers or family members in order to qualify. There is no minimum age, and an applicant does not need to speak English to qualify.

The green card lottery actually awards more than 50,000 visas, but only 50,000 people are permitted to actually receive them. To actually receive citizenship, winners of the lottery must undergo an interview and provide proof of qualification. Scheduling an interview as soon as possible is recommended to have the best possible chance of receiving one of the coveted permanent visas.

Since its inception, the green card lottery has met with various controversies and legislative attempts to abandon the program. Some critics suggest that the lottery is too lenient with regards to security and background checks, and that this could be used by terrorists to secure US citizenship. Others suggest that the process is unfair to immigrants from countries that do not qualify, who may have to wait decades to finally be approved for citizenship despite being model citizens. There have been a number of attempts to cancel funding for the green card lottery in both the US House of Representatives and the US Senate, but none have successfully shut down the program.


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