Update on 29/10/2022: forum user @US-policy-careers engaged a United States attorney specialising in immigration law to review this post. Some minor updates to the post have been incorporated below.
Epistemic status and disclaimers:
- I am a lawyer who has done some immigration work in New Zealand, but I am not a United States lawyer and first heard of the Diversity Visa Program this year. I think I've read and explained the background information below pretty well, but I don't know how worried to be about the risk identified below.
- Legal risks are usually pretty fact specific, and this is generic advice. Think carefully about your individual circumstances and if you decide to apply you should read the full Instructions/FAQ document published by the State Department.
- The ability to travel to the United States is valuable, especially for folks doing high impact EA work. The costs of a mistake here can be high, which means it might be worthwhile briefly speaking with a good US immigration lawyer if you are already in the United States, have firm plans to work or migrate there in the future, or have reasons to be a lot more risk averse than the typical person.
- This post isn't legal advice, it doesn't give rise to a lawyer-client relationship, and I'll do my absolute best to not be responsible to you if something goes bad in your life after you read it / update your priors on it / make decisions on the basis of it.
*If you are a United States lawyer (especially an immigration lawyer), please comment below or contact me with any corrections/suggestions/additional information.
Thanks also to several people who have applied to the lottery, and to a United States lawyer (practising in an area other than immigration), for their feedback on this post - errors and omissions are entirely mine.
The United States runs a lottery for green cards, and you might be able to enter (by 8 November 2022).
- The US issues around 55,000 green cards (permanent residence visas) each year via a lottery.
- Unless you live in a country which already has really significant migration to the US (list below), you can probably enter that lottery.
- It does not cost you any money to enter, you don't need a passport to enter, you can do it online, and it probably won't take much of your time!
- Your chance of success in a given year as an individual ranges from around 0.28% (worst success rate for Asia region in 2007-2021 fiscal years) to around 10.03% (best success rate for Oceania region in 2007-2021 fiscal years).
- You can increase your probability of success by having a spouse who also applies - only one of you needs to be selected for you both to move.
- This is a game you can play every year, increasing your chances a fair bit (see the table below).
- I know of some EAs who have already done this and are already working or job searching in the United States.
- Carefully consider whether you applying to the Diversity Lottery is, on expectation, good for the world. If you're doing direct work, there's a good chance it is - but remember that this is a zero-sum game, and your success comes at someone else's expense.
- Also consider the legal risks and consequences identified below.
- Finally, if you are going to apply, don't forget! The deadline is 8 November 2022 at 12.00pm ET, but anecdotally the submission system is usually pretty overloaded in the last week, so consider applying earlier if you can.
What is the Diversity Visa Program?
Immigrant visa (green card)
A United States 'immigrant visa' allows a person to reside permanently in the United States (whereas a 'nonimmigrant visa' only allows a temporary, albeit often lengthy, stay). There are four main categories of immigrant visa:
- immediate relative and family-sponsored;
- employer sponsored (or applied for without sponsorship on the basis of extraordinary ability or the US national interest);
- certain humanitarian categories; and
- the Diversity Immigrant Visa.
Darius_M has prepared a useful explanation of the main immigrant and non-immigrant visa categories in Working in US policy as a foreign national: Immigration pathways and types of impact. There's also a fair amount of information (of truly variable quality) floating around the internet if you want to learn more. The best source of accurate information about the categories generally is probably the USCIS website (www.uscis.gov) and the USCIS policy manual (https://www.uscis.gov/policy-manual).
The green card also offers a pathway to US citizenship and a US passport. After a sufficient period of time in the country (five years usually, but it could be more if you spend a bunch of time overseas, and it could be three years if you're married to and residing with a US citizen), you should be able to become a US citizen.
How the Diversity Visa Lottery works
Each year the United States runs a lottery for this category of visa. If you are eligible (see below) and enter, you have a chance to be drawn (by random selection from all eligible applicants) and invited to apply for the Diversity Immigrant Visa.
Between October 5 2022 and November 8 2022 at 12.00PM (ET) you can enter the lottery for the 2024 fiscal year. 55,000 visas are available in the 2024 fiscal year.
Who can apply?
Anyone who meets both of the two tests below:
Test 1 - high school education or qualifying work experience
- You have the equivalent of a United States high school education - basically this means you successfully completed a 12-year course of formal elementary and secondary education (an equivalency certificate like a United States G.E.D doesn't count); or
- You have at least two years of work experience in an occupation that requires at least two years of training or experience;
Test 2 - 'native' of, or chargeable to, an eligible country
If more than 50,000 people born in a country ('natives') immigrated to the United States in the previous five years, people born in that country are not usually eligible to participate in the Diversity Visa program. For the 2024 lottery, the following countries are ineligible:
Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China (including Hong Kong SAR), Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Republic of Korea (South Korea), United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland) and its dependent territories, Venezuela, and Vietnam.
Natives of Macau SAR and Taiwan are eligible.
However, a person who is a native of one of the ineligible countries below may be able to qualify by 'charging' (don't ask me why they call it this!) to another country on the basis of their own spousal or parental circumstances. Basically, you might be able to claim your parent's or spouse's country of birth for the purpose of qualifying for the lottery.
For example, an India-born person with an Australia-born spouse could be "charged" to Australia, allowing them to qualify for the lottery even though they were born in an ineligible country.
Similarly, a Japan-born person (who is a native of an eligible country) might be able to get better odds if they can be charged to Australia on the basis of their spouse or partner. They qualify in their own right, but because there are quotas on individual regions they may get more favourable odds by being counted in the 'Oceania' pool.
It's all about where you, your parents, and your spouse were born - not where you're currently a citizen of. As far as I can tell, the law does not let you claim native or chargeable status of a country on the basis that you have that country's citizenship by descent without being born there, or on the basis that you obtained that country's citizenship by immigrating there and being naturalised there.
There are some other special rules for unusual cases, which I won't cover here - such as if you were born in the US but are ineligible for US citizenship, or if you were born in a place where neither of your parents has a residence at the time of your birth. Go look those up if that's you - good sources are the 'Foreign Affairs Manual' and the Immigration and Nationality Act.
You should be careful if you're claiming changeability for a country other than your birthplace because getting this wrong will make you ineligible for a diversity visa.
Do you need to be outside of the United States when you apply?
No. But see the risks section below.
Bringing your spouse or child(ren) - derivative visas
If you have a spouse your spouse is also eligible for a 'derivative' immigrant visa. Same story for your child(ren) who are unmarried and under 21 years of age.
Same-gender marriages count (there is sadly some prospect of the Obergefell ruling that constitutionally protects same-gender marriages might be overturned, which could mean this ceases to be the case in the future, but I do not know much more about this).
For folks in de facto relationships or civil partnerships, if you marry someone after applying to/being selected in the lottery, you can include that person in your application. However, you might expect real scrutiny from the consular officials processing your application - they will want to ensure that the relationship is genuine. Anecdotally, there is some risk that your visa application may be declined because the official doesn't think your claim is honest - while you have some reconsideration rights in this event, I imagine that P(Visa Granted|Selection) is lower where the selected person tries to include a spouse who the applicant married after application, and especially after selection.
Basically, I suspect that the immigration officials may apply greater scrutiny to your post-selection marriage if their (racist and bad) prior (please forgive me for assuming that immigration officers are good Bayesians - a claim for which I have no basis) is that you aren't in economic circumstances where it would make sense to have a relationship for visa purposes. There is anecdotal evidence on the internet of folks being asked hard questions about their partners' interests and habits (and I believe this evidence, as it's consistent with my experience of immigration law and practice in New Zealand). On the other hand, I've heard anecdotal evidence from folks in developed countries that the consular officials are pretty relaxed about marrying someone after having won the lottery.
Poly relationships are not recognised - although a legal marriage between two of the people in a poly relationship probably would be (with some potential risk that the consular official deciding the matter decides the marriage is not genuine). Note that one of the questions on the immigrant visa application is whether you are coming to the United States to practice polygamy. Questions about polygamy also arise in the US naturalization process and could impact eligibility for citizenship.
What are your chances of selection?
Sadly, nowhere near as high as for the H1B lottery (which is around 1 in 3). Your chance each year you enter probably ranges from around 0.28% (worst success rate for Asia region in 2007-2021 fiscal years) to around 10.03% (best success rate for Oceania region in 2007-2021 fiscal years). To find which region your country of birth (or chargeability) is in, check out the full Instructions/FAQ document published by the State Department.
The State Department says:
The number of visas the Department of State eventually will issue to natives of each country will depend on the regional limits established, how many entrants come from each country, and how many of the selected entrants are found eligible for the visa.
P(Selection) depends in the first instance on which region you are a native of or 'chargeable' to. The starting point is that the 55,000 visas are allocated to six regions (Africa, Asia, Oceania, Europe, North America, South and Central America/Caribbean) proportionate to the population of those regions with the population of non-eligible countries subtracted (e.g. the 'Asia' population would not include Bangladesh, China, India, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, and Vietnam). But there is an overall cap for each country of 7% of the total visas available (so, 3850 per country in fiscal year 2024). This means your chances are better:
- in a region with fewer applicants proportionate to population (e.g. Oceania); and
- in a country that isn't at risk of hitting the 7% threshold.
If you are applying with a spouse (or long term partner who you will marry soon), you each get an entry - so the probability that one of you is selected is doubled. Only one of you needs to be selected, as a successful applicant for a diversity visa can bring their spouse on a derivative visa.
And, of course, you can apply again the next year if you are unsuccessful. This means that even applicants from the least successful region (historically, Asia) have a non-trivial chance of success over many attempts.
Below, I've set out the probability of success for a single applicant and for a married couple where each spouse applies over a five year period.
|Single applicant||Married couple|
The supporting spreadsheet is available here if you'd like to check the working.
What are your chances of getting a visa if selected?
Note that the number of applicants selected is consistently higher than the cap available, presumably because some folks are found to be ineligible after the fact or fail to complete the process, and others might then be offered their place. I'm not sure if or how this happens - take this with a grain of salt - but I feel reasonably confident that if you are well prepared and actually eligible, P(Visa Granted|Selection) is pretty high, especially if you then apply for the visa very promptly.
Anecdotally, I heard from one person who won the lottery but left it too long to apply for the actual visa itself - their application for the visa was submitted late in the fiscal year, and their application was not processed in time.
Note that applicants are not notified if they are selected. You'll need to regularly check your application online. Someone I spoke to set reminders, which seems pretty sensible!
Most people are notified in May, so I set a reminder to check if I won for June 1, and then also for late September (as sometimes they trickle out a few winners after May)
The ethics of accepting a visa - think carefully, but not too scrupulously
Scrupulosity alert! If you tend to be over scrupulous, please downweight the points I make in this section by, like, 50%.
The Green Card lottery is massively oversubscribed, which means that your success at this zero-sum game comes at the expense of another person who, counterfactually, would get to live in the United States. Receiving a green card probably improves a fair bit the lives of recipients in poor or unsafe circumstances in their home country. Moreover, remittances from migrants under the Diversity Visa program can have serious positive effects on the wellbeing of family back home. I think that people applying to the diversity visa lottery should keep that in mind.
If your interest in moving to the United States is motivated by a reasonable belief that, on expectation, the world is better off as a result of you being able to live and work in the United States, then I reckon you should apply.
You might also consider how useful you expect the ability to live permanently in the United States to be for you. If you are quite confident that you would only work in the United States for a short period of time, it might be more appropriate to apply for a temporary visa so that another person can permanently migrate.
While it is a zero-sum decision to accept a place, I think you should generally feel comfortable about applying if either (or both) of the following would be true:
- you are doing or expect to do valuable EA work that would be made more effective by you having a green card, or if your doing that work is contingent on moving to a country like the United States; or
- you expect to increase your earning potential by having a green card, and you would donate a fair proportion of those marginal earnings to an effective charity.
I expect that it is the decision to apply for a visa once selected, not the decision to apply to the lottery, that is particularly zero sum. My understanding is that the United States aims for full uptake of the category and will usually select additional winners in order to do so.
On a personal note, I am sympathetic to folks who are reluctant to take a space from someone else - especially if you are motivated by, for example, social justice more than outright EV max(utility) calculations. I've applied (mostly to see what the process was) but would be in two minds about accepting the visa if successful as I already have two passports and work rights in the UK, EU, Australia and New Zealand, and think the chance that the United States is the best place for me personally to do EA work in the next decade is probably less than 50%. I might get into the habit of applying each year, but would probably think quite carefully before actually accepting an offer. That said, I've been encouraging friends from New Zealand who I think would be impactful in the US to apply - and would also strongly encourage EA folks from developing countries not to let excessive scrupulosity from putting them off applying.
Risks and consequences of applying/accepting
Demonstrating nonimmigrant intent for future temporary visits
Think about this risk before you apply to the lottery, but especially if you are selected and proceed to apply for a diversity lottery visa.
When you apply for a non-immigrant visa or the ESTA visa waiver, you can usually be turned down if you are judged to have "immigrant intent". I.e. the decision maker needs to believe that your visit to the US will be temporary and that you will return to your country in due course.
There is mixed anecdotal evidence as to whether applying to the Diversity Visa Lottery could demonstrate an intent to migrate to the United States, creating a risk of adverse treatment when applying for non-immigrant visas or the ESTA visa waiver (on the basis that the official making the decision on your subsequent application that you want to surreptitiously migrate to the US).
In the context of another kind of visa, the 'TN' visa that Canadians and Mexicans professionals can use to temporarily work in the United States, a US lawyer writes:
Merely submitting an Electronic Diversity Visa Entry Form (E-DV Entry Form) should not be considered evidence of immigrant intent sufficient to warrant the denial of a subsequent TN application. Filing the entry form is simply the first step in the process. The diversity immigrant visa program’s 50,000 permanent resident visas are drawn from random selection among all entries. There is no guarantee that an applicant is even going to be selected. Filing a diversity visa entry form is only a sign of intent to potentially immigrate in the future.
But, as sensible lawyers are trained to do, they caveat that there is always some risk that the immigration or consular official takes a different view in practice:
Caveat: This does not mean that an immigration officer may not question you on the issue or potentially even deny you a TN on the basis of having filed for a diversity visa (assuming her or she has access to these filings with the Department of State). We can never assume that immigration officers will always properly interpret the law. The role of an immigration attorney is to ensure they rectify any misinterpretations when they occur.
The MIT International Students Office writes:
International students can enter the Diversity Visa Lottery, and guidance in the past from the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have indicated that simply submitting an entry does not constitute an individual demonstrating “immigrant intent” to the U.S. — which may make an individual no longer eligible to enter the U.S. in a non-immigrant status (including F-1 or J-1 student status, or as a B-1/B-2 tourist status, which are nonimmigrant visa types).
However, if an individual is selected in the lottery to submit an immigrant visa application, if the individual moves forward and submits the immigrant application then they have demonstrated an intent to immigrate to the U.S. and would potentially impact their ability to apply for and/or obtain a nonimmigrant visa status.
Anecdotally, I spoke with someone who travelled to the United States after being selected and applying, who was waiting for their visa application to be processed. That person reports successfully travelling to the United States, and told me:
I was just super clear that I was here for specific non-immigrant reasons, was not looking for work here, and had maintained ties to [country of orgin] and had return flights etc booked
Another point to note is that some non-immigrant visas allow for 'dual intent'. I haven't looked into these, but Nolo.com describes the concept as follows:
...a few types of nonimmigrant visas allow for dual intent. It's a not entirely logical concept, which allows foreign nationals in the U.S. to have two things in mind at once: nonimmigrant intent ("I'm going to leave the U.S. when my visa term is up") and immigrant intent ("While I'm in the U.S., I'd also like to try to qualify for lawful permanent residence").
As with everything in this post, I'd welcome comments from any US lawyers - especially US immigration lawyers - who might read this.
If you are in two minds because of this risk, a practical tip might be to set a calendar reminder now to check back on this post on 18 October, three weeks before, or 25 October, two weeks before the deadline to apply (November 8 2022 at 12.00PM ET). In the meantime, you can think about whether to apply and read up on the program. That way, if any US lawyers have commented on this risk, you'll be able to read their responses - plus I'll add a comment and/or edit this post to reflect anything else I learn about this risk in that time.
Becoming subject to United States taxation on your worldwide income
This is only a risk if you accept an offer and take up a green card - so it is safe to apply, and then consider your position later if you want.
If you become a United States permanent resident, you will need to file US tax returns as a Resident (IRS Form 1040 or 1040EZ) every year and declare income you earn worldwide - i.e. even income that you earn outside of the United States.
This might, but doesn't necessarily, mean you'll have to pay more tax. Double taxation rules will usually mean that you don't pay more overall than the maximum amount you would have paid in any one of the countries you are tax resident in.
For some people, this won't matter. If you plan to migrate permanently to the United States and if your home country doesn't impose worldwide taxation, you probably won't need to submit home country tax returns too. But there are many, many permutations of tax residence combinations and personal circumstances, and you shouldn't treat any generic advice about this as applying to your personal situation.
Folks with complex financial situations should think especially carefully about this.
At the very least, you'll have another chore to worry about every year - and possibly face a cost in paying a tax preparer to help you with your tax return. Because the intersection between US immigration and tax law is complicated, it would be advisable to review your tax obligations with a US tax attorney, Certified Public Accountant, or competent tax preparer.
Needing to move to - and remain in - the United States
This is only a risk if you accept an offer and take up a green card - so it is safe to apply, and then consider your position later if you want.
A green card does not automatically guarantee re-entry to the United States. When a green card holder travels abroad and returns, an immigration officer can question the holder to determine whether permanent resident status has been abandoned.
Trips abroad of six months or less seem fine from what I can tell from a google search. After six months, it seems like you can expect some additional scrutiny and may need to prove you have maintained ties to the US despite the extensive time spent abroad (e.g. employment, residential, property, financial, social, family ties.). After spending a year or more abroad, your green card will be considered abandoned. One way to avoid abandonment is to apply for a reentry permit before you leave the US for an extended period. It would allow you to stay abroad for more than a year at a time but never more than two years. If you are deemed to have abandoned your green card, you can apply for an SB-1 returning resident visa at the US consulate abroad, but these are difficult to obtain and require a showing that your extended absence from the US was due to circumstances beyond your control. Even if you are granted an SB-1 you would still need to re-apply for an immigrant visa at the consulate
Take advice from someone actually qualified on this if you take up US residence. But for the purposes of deciding whether to apply, bear in mind that this status requires actual residence.
After a sufficient period of time in the country (five years usually, but it could be more if you spend a bunch of time overseas, and it could be three years if you're married to and living with a US citizen), you should be able to apply to become a United States citizen. If that citizenship application is successful, you're generally free to come and go as you please without putting your status at risk, but still have US tax obligations regardless of whether you live abroad.
There are probably heaps of other consequences that as someone who isn't a US lawyer, I'm not well placed to know or advise about. Lots of these depend on your individual circumstances, and some consequences might flow from your home country's law and not just US law.
As one easy example, it looks like you would currently be required to register with the 'Selective Service' if you are a cis male or AMAB person aged between 18 and 25 (plus there is some prospect that this expands later to include women, AFAB folks, and older folks). If your estimate of the chance of WWIII happening is way higher than the current forecasts (4% on Manifold Markets by 2025 at the time of writing), then I suppose you might want to estimate P(conscription|WWIII) and factor that into account! Of course, if your timelines on WWIII are a lot further out, then war might involve less in person action and more remote warfare, so this might not be such a concern for you. The key point is that before you take on allegiance to an entirely new country and agree to follow its laws, you should give a bit of thought to whether there are any other risks or consequences particular to your situation.
Cost: a modest amount of time
There is no financial cost to enter the lottery. Put your credit card away.
There is a time cost, but it doesn't really take very long to enter - I timed myself and it took 7m23s. I think it probably also took a further 5 minutes to have someone help me take my photo, check it against the State Department requirements, and use their cropping tool to get it to the right size.
You should probably allow some further time to read the full Instructions/FAQ document published by the State Department, seek advice if you think you need it, and consider whether entering makes sense given your own personal circumstances.
Important! You should also factor in a few minutes to save your application number somewhere safe, to set reminders to check your application, and to then actually check your application twice or a few times (e.g. late May, mid June, early September). Seriously - it seems you don't get a copy of your number by email, and there doesn't seem to be a way to retrieve it later. This isn't a system designed with compassion!
Possible next steps
- Putting a calendar reminder in place a week before, or a few days before, 8 November 2022 to remind you to apply.
- Signing up for email reminders from me to apply and to check your application. (I won't use your email address for any other purpose.)
- Before you apply, arranging for someone to help you take a passport-quality digital photo that meets the State Department requirements to upload with your lottery application. If that will be tricky, you might also consider getting a passport photo taken professionally.
- Read the full Instructions/FAQ document published by the State Department. At a minimum, please read this before applying.
- Put a calendar reminder in place to check this post on 18 October, three weeks before, or 25 October, two weeks before the deadline to apply (November 8 2022 at 12.00PM ET), if you are in two minds about applying and want to see any updates from people who know more than me about this.
- Speak with a US immigration lawyer if you are worried about the risks described above or any other risks of applying.
- Consider telling promising EAs who might be able to increase their impact by working in the United States about this post, specifically telling them that this is time sensitive.
- For groups/organisers in relevant countries, consider popping something in your newsletter or telling engaged EAs in your group about the opportunity, noting that it is time sensitive.
If you would like to speak to someone who has been through the process, one EA so far who has successfully applied for - and received - a diversity visa has agreed to speak with folks with questions. DM me to be put in touch, and also DM me (or comment below) if you've been successful and you're happy to talk with EAs thinking about entering.
For further explanation of what US authorities consider equivalent, see paragraph c. "High School Education or Equivalent" in the 9 FAM 502.6-3 (U) DIVERSITY VISA ELIGIBILITY section of the State Department Foreign Affairs Manual at https://fam.state.gov/fam/09FAM/09FAM050206.html#M502_6_3
See section d. "Work Experience" in the same document (https://fam.state.gov/fam/09FAM/09FAM050206.html#M502_6_3)
The Department of State suggests using the U.S. Department of Labor’s O*Net Online database to determine qualifying work experience. https://www.onetonline.org
Immigration and Nationality Act, section 202(b).
Some sources suggest that
I'll take it on faith that these numbers are accurate.
Mergo, T. (2016). The Effects of International Migration on Migrant-Source Households: Evidence from Ethiopian Diversity-Visa Lottery Migrants. World Development, 84, 69–81.doi:10.1016/j.worlddev.2016.04.