Dear Sophie: What is a diversity green card and how do I apply for one?

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

Dear Sophie,

I started a tech company about two years ago, and ever since I’ve dreamed of expanding my company in the United States.

I would love to have a green card. Someone mentioned that I should apply for a diversity green card. Would you please provide me with more details about it and how to apply?

— Technical in Tanzania

Dear Technical,

As a startup founder from Tanzania, you have several immigration options available to you, including the Diversity Immigrant Visa (green card) Program.

My law partner, Anita Koumriqian, and I recently discussed the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program (DV Program) on a podcast episode. Take a listen for how to apply and tips for applying. Each year, the U.S. Department of State, which oversees the DV Program, reserves 50,000 green cards for individuals born in countries that have low rates of immigration to the United States. The State Department publishes instructions each year, which includes the countries whose natives are eligible to register for the annual diversity lottery. Here is the latest version.

How does the diversity lottery work?

You must register online in the fall — usually from early October through early November — for the annual random lottery by completing the Electronic Diversity Visa Entry Form (DS-5501). There is no cost to register for the lottery, but be aware that you will be automatically disqualified if you register yourself more than once, and incomplete forms will not be accepted.

Once you complete the online registration form, you will get a confirmation number. Do not lose this number! It is the only way to access the online system that will tell you whether you were selected in the lottery and are eligible to submit a green card application. In May, registrants can log into the online system to find out whether they’ve been selected. No notification will be sent by email or snail mail; checking online by entering your confirmation code is the only way to find out. After you enter your confirmation code online, you will receive a diversity visa number, which you will use to determine when you can file your green card application.

What are the eligibility requirements?

To be eligible to register for the diversity lottery, you must have:

  1. Been born in a country on the list of countries designated by the State Department as having a low rate of immigration to the U.S. (You can find the updated list in the annual instructions published by the State Department.)
  2. At least a high school education or two years of work experience within the past five years in an occupation that requires at least two years of training or experience.

Assuming you were born in Tanzania and meet the education or work experience requirement, you would be eligible to apply. Your spouse — if you have one — is also eligible to apply as long as they meet the requirements. You and your spouse can both apply to increase your chances, listing each other and any dependent children (under 21 years and not married) on your registration form. If, however, you are a citizen of Tanzania, but you were born in Nigeria, you are ineligible to apply because Nigeria is not on the list and it goes by country of birth.

If neither of your parents was born or legally resided in the country in which you were born and the country of birth of one of your parents is on the list, you can claim that parent’s country of birth and register for the DV Program.

There is no minimum age requirement to participate in the DV Program, but the education and work experience requirement means that most applicants are 18 years or older.

A composite image of immigration law attorney Sophie Alcorn in front of a background with a TechCrunch logo.

Image Credits: Joanna Buniak / Sophie Alcorn

What do I do if I’m selected?

Once you find out whether you’ve been selected, I recommend immediately paying the nonrefundable diversity green card fee. It usually takes two to three weeks to receive a receipt for that payment — and you will need to include that receipt with your diversity green card application.

I also recommend hiring an experienced immigration attorney to guide you through the green card application process, particularly one with a track record of getting quick green card approvals. If your registration is selected, you will have until September 30, the end of the federal fiscal year — less than five months — to get your green card application approved. You will need to consult the monthly Visa Bulletin to find out whether a green card number is available — or current — for individuals from your region (Africa), which means you can file your green card application. If the Visa Bulletin lists a number, that means individuals with that diversity visa number or lower are eligible to file.

Remember, having your registration selected in the diversity lottery does not automatically guarantee that you will receive a green card. Your green card application will be adjudicated by a consular officer just like all other green card applications.

Once you are eligible to file, you will have to go through the green card application process at the U.S. embassy or consulate near you, which includes filling out an Immigrant Visa Electronic Application (Form DS-260) and scheduling a green card interview. Be aware that many U.S. embassies and consulates are not processing routine green card applications or conducting interviews due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Individuals who are already in the United States in a valid nonimmigrant status could file for a green card through the adjustment of status application and interview process with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office near them. (Individuals on or seeking a student visa or work visa other than an H-1B or another dual intent visa must be careful if they’ve registered for a diversity green card. Entering or returning to the U.S. or renewing a student or work visa and maintaining nonimmigrant intent — which requires you to prove to immigration officials that you intend to eventually return to your home country — is tricky, so I recommend consulting an immigration attorney.) Individuals who go through the interview process at USCIS should bring their immigration attorney with them.

What can I do if I’m not selected?

You can enter the next diversity lottery as long as your country of birth remains on the list of eligible countries. There are also many other immigration options for international founders to explore. Take a look at my previous column in which I lay out other visa and green card options for international startup founders. Also, check to see if you’re eligible for International Entrepreneur Parole, which I discussed in a recent column.

Best wishes for your immigration to the United States!

Have a question for Sophie? Ask it here. We reserve the right to edit your submission for clarity and/or space.

The information provided in “Dear Sophie” is general information and not legal advice. For more information on the limitations of “Dear Sophie,” please view our full disclaimer. You can contact Sophie directly at Alcorn Immigration Law.

Sophie’s podcast, Immigration Law for Tech Startups, is available on all major platforms. If you’d like to be a guest, she’s accepting applications!