The Only Lottery With a Positive Expected Value: The Green Card Lottery

The Only Lottery With a Positive Expected Value: The Green Card Lottery

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A couple of years ago a friend won the green card lottery, and as a true person who worked in finance, he proceeded to calculate the expected value of his lottery entry.

How did he do it? Well, he assumed the value of the lottery was equal to the cheapest way you could pay money and guarantee US citizenship. The cheapest way you can “buy” yourself into the US currently hinges on getting an EB-5 Visa, where you need to put $500,000 down for investment in the US.*

We quickly found the odds of winning the green card lottery in each country and calculated the expected value of his lottery entry to be $30,000 per entry. You can enter once a year. The odds of winning from his country of citizenship was around 6 percent. Not bad for a FREE lottery.

Expected value: $500,000 * 6% = $30,000

Now, this got me thinking. What if you immigrated to a country with low barriers of becoming a citizen, and then entered the US green card lottery? This is next level travel hacking, ie. visa hacking.

I took a look at the top 20 countries with the highest expected value of lottery entries. 75 percent of them were small islands. Perhaps they already live in paradise so people don’t care to move? They include Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Fiji, Niue, etc. These are some of the places with the best scuba and free diving in the world. 2 countries were low-population incredibly wealthy European countries, Monaco, and San Marino. I’m not sure why you’d want to immigrate to the US from these two countries as they clearly have a better tax system, but that’s what the data says! The other countries are Lesotho, a landlocked country surrounded by South Africa, along with Australia and New Zealand.

Maybe the clear blue water keeps people happy? Hmmm.

I wouldn’t recommend trying to get citizenship to the small European countries and then to the United States, as it is nearly impossible and will definitely cost you more than just becoming a US citizen directly. The small islands? I’d say look into it. You’d get to live in paradise for a few years in the meantime.

I should warn you that the US** is one of only two countries in the world that taxes you based on citizenship and residency. The other is Eritrea, which taxes you at 2 percent when you’re out of the country, so basically nothing. All other countries tax based on residency.

So, considering the above. You should definitely enter the US Green Card lottery if you’d like to be a citizen. Especially if you have a H1-B or other type of visa and are already working in the US.

I wrote this blog post because being in a developed country gives you the greatest chance of being able to be financially independent. It’s a blessing to even be able to consider it. For people in 3rd world countries, it’s hard to consider such a concept when you are truly living paycheck to paycheck — not by choice, but really out of necessity. I wrote about the US Green Card lottery because it is the one I’m most familiar with, but would definitely be interested in getting information out to readers about lotteries or other forms of immigration into developed countries more easily.

I’d love to interview someone with more experience in this matter. Any other lotteries you guys know of with a positive expected value?


It’s worth noting that citizens from countries who have had more than 50,000 citizens get green cards in the last 5 years (excluding refugees, asylum, etc) are prohibited from entering the lottery. The prohibited countries are Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China (mainland-born), Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, South Korea, United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland) and its dependent territories, and Vietnam.

**The US does have FEIE, which gives you $100k/year, but with stipulations.

*Sure, you can also get green cards by getting an employee to transfer you to the US (possibly difficult), but it’s not guaranteed you’ll get a green card.

Author: Olivia

Olivia worked in finance and wants you to learn the secrets of financial independence. She’s on track to reach financial independence before 30, and she wants to teach you how you can retire in less than a decade as well.

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8 thoughts on “The Only Lottery With a Positive Expected Value: The Green Card Lottery

  1. A friend won the green card lottery a couple of years ago! She was torn about proceeding as she’d just gotten a great new job here in NZ and was getting settled in many ways. I assume she didn’t take it in the end – as she still lives here.

  2. If you already have an H1B, your employer would apply for a green card on your behalf. That is what I have seen happen predominantly. And that is how we got in.

    I wasn’t aware of this way to “buy” your green card 🙂

    1. That’s true, but there’s a long wait time for some friends (due to which country they have citizenship in) for them to actually get the greencard, and then a long wait to naturalization as well. They’re a little apprehensive as to what will happen in the meantime, given the current political landscape. Most of them enter the greencard lottery so they can just win one, and some of them have bought citizenship through investments.

  3. My husband and I got our green cards through a self sponsored application (quite complex process).
    I had just graduated in my home country and it was really difficult to get a job and someone that wanted to sponsor my visa prior to this. As soon as I had the work authorization it was very easy.

    15 years later with a good career behind me I must say that your negotiation power and career advancement path is very different when you’re not dependent on a visa and when you have a green card or is a citizen. Seeing my foreigner friends around me that got green cards later this was a real disadvantage from a salary perspective.

    I think the independency and freedom was my real lottery win with having the green card!

    1. Wait, which one is that? I thought I’d learned all the ways!

      It’s very true. If someone is here on H1-B, it’s much harder to get a job in some places because of the cost of sponsoring. Plus if you sponsor, some companies will pay you less because if you leave, then no greencard! Then there’s the fun L1, where you can’t even switch companies. Oh joy. With your comment, I’m sure the real expected value of the lottery is much higher!

      Are you considering going back to Sweden? Some days I am envious of all the EU healthcare/free schooling/etc. Tiny cities in which you can bike and see historical buildings everyday. It seems so happy there!

  4. The green card lottery entry is based on the country of birth not on the country of citizenship. There is an option to base it on the country of birth of your spouse so you have some control there (by marrying someone born in one of the countries you mentioned).

    1. Hm, less arbitrageable than I thought! Oh well, the article is hopefully still of some interest. Thanks HB! You’re incredibly knowledgable. I would read your blog.

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