If your name has been drawn in the visa lottery (DV), you must act fast to apply for a green card (U.S. lawful permanent residence). Here's why, and what steps to take first.
If you haven't yet registered, see this page on applying for the green card lottery.
Start by finding out your case number, or “rank number,” which the Department of States (DOS) website will give you. It is crucial because you are allowed to submit your application for a green card as soon as a visa becomes available in your regional category according to your rank number. The lower the rank number, the better. Visas start to become available on October 1st of each fiscal year.
To see whether your rank number has been reached, check the latest Department of State Visa Bulletin at www.travel.state.gov. Enter the term: “Visa Bulletin for [month] [year].” The DOS sometimes publishes visa rankings for three months into the future, and USCIS may accept DV adjustment applications 90 days in advance of the actual date that a visa is available (although the visa will not be issued until the rank becomes current).
If your spouse or children will be accompanying you, each of them must file their own green card application.
The next big question is where should you file your green card application—at a USCIS office in the United States or at a U.S. consulate outside of the United States?
If you're living in a country outside the United States, you’ll file at a local U.S. consulate and attend your visa interview in your home country before entering the United States to claim your permanent residence. This method is called consular processing. Do not attempt to find another way to enter the U.S. to apply for a green card, such as using a tourist visa -- that could be considered visa fraud, and disqualify you from receiving the green card.
The most convenient choice for lottery winners living in the U.S. is probably for you to adjust your status (get your green card) without leaving—in other words, send your application to a USCIS Service Center and attend your interview at a local USCIS office. Once your application is filed, your stay in the United States would be considered legal, and you could apply for permission to work. Should problems arise in your case, you would be able to await USCIS’s decision in the U.S., and potentially file an appeal.
But there’s a huge catch: You are allowed to adjust status only if you’re already in the U.S. legally, that is, on a valid, unexpired visa or other form of permission (with a few exceptions). You might, for example, already be on a temporary visa, such as a student, F-1 visa. If, however, you’re living in the United States with no legal status, or have worked without authorization, or you entered legally without a visa under the Visa Waiver program, you are barred from filing your green card application inside the U.S., unless you fall under an exception based on old laws. (Talk to an attorney for details.)
Try to submit your green card application in an office that’s not too slow or backed up. If your immigrant visa isn’t issued before the end of the fiscal year for which you were selected, your registration becomes void and you will miss out on your chance for a green card. The deadline is the end of the fiscal year for, and not in, the year you were picked. The government fiscal years begin on October 1 and end on September 30.
Although that gives you just over a year to apply, attend your interview, and receive an approval, that’s actually less time than one might expect. In fact, a year is the typical processing time in many consular and USCIS offices. If even one little thing goes wrong, you could be out of luck.
Another reason to hurry is that the U.S. government selects twice as many winners as there are green cards available. It assumes some of these will either not qualify or will decide not to immigrate after all. If all the winners do, in fact, mail in applications, the green cards will be given on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s possible that even though you win the lottery, if that year’s green card allotment is used up before your own interview is scheduled, you will not receive a green card.
If you have any children who will turn 21 soon, you have yet another reason to want the process to go quickly. Once the child turns 21, he or she technically loses eligibility for the diversity visa. Fortunately, children have some protection under a law called the Child Status Protection Act (CSPA). This law allows you to subtract from the child’s actual age the number of days that went by between the first day people were allowed to register for the lottery that year and the date your registration was selected.
See a lawyer for details of the visa lottery law and a personal analysis of how best to apply for your green card.