A U.S. visa program that faces elimination under several bills being considered by Congress has attracted more than 156 million applicants from around the world over the past decade, even though only a small fraction of those applicants end up receiving visas through it.
During the application period for fiscal year 2017, about 19 million people applied for the U.S. diversity visa program, otherwise known as the visa lottery. That’s more than twice as many as the 9 million who applied a decade ago, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. State Department data. During the same period, the number of visas issued to the principal applicants, spouses and children via the lottery has remained stable at about 50,000 per year (due to an annual ceiling set by Congress), or a little more than 500,000 since 2007.
In operation since 1995, the visa lottery seeks to diversify the U.S. immigrant population by granting visas to underrepresented nations. Citizens of countries with the most legal immigrant arrivals in recent years – such as Mexico, Canada, China and India – are not eligible to apply. Legal immigrants entering the U.S. on a diversity visa account for about 5% of the roughly 1 million people who are awarded green cards each year.
Those eligible for the lottery face few barriers when applying. There is no fee to apply; applications are available in many languages and only limited biographical information must be submitted. If selected for a diversity visa, however, individuals must provide detailed background information and submit to visa interviews, security checks and health screenings and pay $330. Upon entry into the U.S., diversity visa recipients are given lawful permanent residence status, which gives them permission to work and live permanently in the U.S.
The U.S. visa lottery program is unique in the world. (New Zealand has a similar program, but it is smaller in scale and only open to neighboring countries in Oceania.) Immigration programs in many other countries prioritize skills, family relationships or humanitarian need.
Open to eligible people from around the globe, the U.S. visa lottery provides a window of opportunity to countries where the idea of “the American dream” holds the most appeal. In fiscal 2015 (the most recent year for detailed data on application countries), about 12% of the 14.4 million people who applied for the visa lottery were citizens of Ghana (1.7 million). An additional 10%, or nearly 1.4 million applicants, were from Uzbekistan. Other top application countries included Ukraine (nearly 1.3 million applicants), Iran (more than 900,000) and Nepal (nearly 900,000). Numbers include principal applicants, their spouses and their children.
In some countries, a marked share of the population has applied for the program. In the Republic of Congo, for example, 10% of the country’s citizens applied for the program in fiscal 2015. Other African countries with high shares of applicants included Liberia (8%), Sierra Leone (8%) and Ghana (7%). European countries such as Albania (7%), Moldova (5%) and Ukraine (3%) also saw substantial shares of their populations submitting applications. In Asia, Uzbekistan (5%) and Nepal (3%) also had vast shares of their populations apply.
Since the program’s start in 1995, the U.S. has awarded about 20,000 visas annually to African citizens and another 20,000 to European citizens. Roughly 8,000 citizens of Asian countries, including islands in Oceania, have received diversity visas each year. Nearly 2,000 are given annually to those from the Americas. (Since 1999, the U.S. has awarded up to an additional 5,000 visas each year to citizens of Nicaragua, Cuba, El Salvador and Guatemala under the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central America Relief Act.)
The origins of those eligible to apply for the lottery have changed over time. When at least 50,000 citizens of a country have immigrated to the U.S. over the previous five years, the citizens of that country becomes ineligible for the visa lottery. For example, due to an increase in immigration to the U.S., citizens of Bangladesh became ineligible to apply to the program beginning in 2013 (which could explain the drop in total applicants in 2013), while Nigerians became ineligible in 2015. Russians became eligible to enter the lottery in 2010 and Poles could begin applying in 2014 because immigration to the U.S. from these countries had declined.
Correction: A previous version of the map graphic gave an incorrect number for Russia. About 265,000 Russians applied for diversity visas in the application period for fiscal 2015 (map rounds to nearest 10,000).