Deborah Jourdain was sitting around a pub with some friends when she found out she won the US Green Card Lottery, the highly sought-after US immigration visa that grants a person a permanent resident's status.
She moved to LA in late 2014 and is currently working as an assistant to a talent partner.
Deborah talks to Traveller on what it's like to win the US Green Card Lottery.
Why did you decide to apply for the US Green Card Lottery? Why not move to London or Toronto?
I had worked in the US for 12 months on a J1 visa after I finished university. I really enjoyed it so when I moved back to Sydney after that visa ran out, I entered the green card lottery just to see if it would work out. I knew it would be hard to get a visa to the US any other way. The US is particularly difficult compared to Canada and the UK for Australians wanting to work overseas but because I worked in the film and television industry, it made sense to come back to the US compared to other places.
I knew that the green card was the best way to do it in terms of not having any work restrictions, it just gives you a lot more flexibility in what you want to do and you don't need to have a job to get the visa. I'd looked into every other avenue and it seemed like it would be impossible, so I thought why not try your luck?
What did you think about your chances?
I really didn't know what my chances would be, to be honest. I thought they would be very slim and that I could be entering for 10 years before I won anything, but somehow I got very, very, very lucky on the first try.
What was the process like applying for the green card lottery?
The process of applying for the green card lottery was relatively easy. When the lottery opens, there is a website that the US Government puts up, it's only open to enter in the month of October of every year. From October 1 to October 31 you can submit your name, email address and tick a few different boxes about high school education and you are required to upload a passport size photo with other requirements, but the main thing was once you enter it generates a code for you and you have to write that code down.
They don't email it to you or send it to you, you are responsible for keeping that code. That's the code you need to log back in the following May. After it closes in October, you can't do anything, you have to wait until it reopens to check in on May 1 the following year. You log back in with the same details and that code and it will literally tell you, 'you have not been selected' or in my case 'you have been selected for further processing for the US Green Card'.
What happened when you found you had won?
The way that I found out I won was quite interesting because I had forgotten that I'd entered. I was pretty happy because I'd got a job working in the industry back home and I was in a good position, getting some really good experience and I completely forgot I had entered.
I was meeting up with two friends one night at a pub, two friends who had also lived over in the US on J1s when I'd been there, both are actors and artists looking for a green card to go back there and work with zero restrictions.
They were complaining about how they hadn't won and I was like "Oh, I forgot to check" so I pulled it up on my phone, and luckily I put the code in my phone, and even more luckily, I hadn't replaced my phone in those couple of months and I logged in at the pub, and lo and behold, I had been selected for further processing.
Then there was the shock...
I couldn't believe it. I was still not sure that it was happening. I was both super excited but honestly, so shocked and a little concerned that I had already gotten a job in Sydney and I wasn't that familiar with what the next process would be. I didn't really know what to think, but it was definitely an exciting time.
What did you have to do next?
The next steps for the green card were a little more complicated.
Once you found out that you've won, you go into a certain place and get the documents that you need to fill out, you fill all them out and you have to send some photos in, then you have to send them to the consulate in Kentucky. Once there and processed, if everything is correct, you get generated a number and you have to wait until you get called for an interview.
The process can be a little daunting because you're not quite sure where you fall, there is a link on the main website that you can check. For example, I was in the 500s which meant that my interview came up in January the following year. So I'd entered in October of 2011, found out I won in May 2012 and didn't go to my consulate interview until January 2013.
For that interview I had to get a police certificate with fingerprint certificate, I had to get a full medical, I couldn't find my immunisation records so had to get a bunch of immunisations, I had to get a chest X-ray – it was pretty full-on in that sense.
Then I remember being really nervous about missing the window because the way the green card lottery works is that you have to have that green card processed before the September of the following year, that's when they close entry so that they can start the lottery for the next year (October) so you have to make sure you get it done in that timeframe.
Doing the interview with the US consulate
Then I got called for my interview and I also got kind of lucky with the day and the guy that I interviewed with, he was really cool and I was a little worried because when you got the green card processed, you had six months to go and activate it in the US. It didn't mean you had to move there but it meant you had to travel there within six months of getting it printed and I wasn't sure with my job if I would be able to do that.
I went to Hawaii for a couple of days as I wasn't ready to move yet. That was also a bit of a risk because it can be difficult but they understand that people can't always pick up their lives and move in six months. Price wise it wasn't too expensive, the medical was the most expensive part, that was about $450 but that's because I also couldn't find half the stuff I needed so I had to get extra stuff done. The consulate fee was about $350 but that's about it. Other visas that people get can cost a lot more money. The Green Card Lottery is effectively the best way to do it because on that visa, I can do anything I want as I have the same rights as any permanent resident of the US.
Do you know anyone else who has won the visa lottery like you did?
I hadn't really known anyone who had won. Another girl who I was friends that did the J1, she entered for the first time and won the year after. I've since met some people have won the green card lottery, mostly Australians, but also one from New Zealand.
Being a lottery winner isn't code for getting married
People's reaction when I tell them I'm a lottery winner – it depends who they are. If they are an actor over here on an O1 they are very, very jealous. Most people are very intrigued by it and want to know more. Some Americans think it's code for getting married, but that is not true. Most people can't believe that it's an immigration visa, that it's a real thing and it's something that all I had to do was put my name on the internet in a lottery and now I can be a permanent resident of the US. Some Americans are baffled by it because they didn't realise it was a thing,which is kind of hilarious when people are using it to come to their country.
What was it like when you first moved to the US?
When I first moved over here, I met up with a girlfriend and we travelled around for 4 weeks. I really wanted to get a job in the film and TV industry and I was so busy thinking about what I would do as a back-up for money that I didn't even think that I would get a job very quickly. But I did. I started my job at a talent management company called Management 360 within three days of being in LA (after travelling).
It's a talent and lit management company and I was working as an assistant for a talent manager. The best way to describe it is if you've seen Entourage – I'm Lloyd to Ari. We manage a lot of actors' careers and it's exciting as we have clients like Channing Tatum, Matthew Fox from Lost, Eric Dane who was McSteamy in Grey's Anatomy, Martin Hendersen who is in Grey's Anatomy right now and is a Kiwi actor.
We have a lot of Australians who were in the Beautiful Lie (ABC) like Benedict Samuel, Alex England – who I worked with on shows in Australia, so that was great. We have artists like Joe Mangianello who was also in Magic Mike, and our company also reps clients like Anne Hathaway, Michelle Pfeiffer and my personal favourite – Henry Winkler "The Fonz" – when he came into the office that was probably my most exciting moment. We have some really big names – Julienne Moore, Rooney Mara. It's a very exciting company to work for and you really get thrust into the heart of it as soon as you start. Our company also produces Game of Thrones so that's a big calling card for us.
What was the hardest part of packing up and moving to the US?
It was really hard when I first started the job as I was living in a hostel, I didn't have a car, I was still living out of two suitcases. I got a sublet for a month but I couldn't settle in, it was just to tide me over. Financially, I found it difficult because the pay grade here is significantly lower than what we make in Australia and on top of that the cost of living in Los Angeles is relatively high. I also didn't have much time to get my bearings as I started the job so quickly and the hours are a lot longer, roughly 9am to 7.30pm every day.
Not having a car was a huge struggle. Getting one or two buses to and from work each day to go 8km is insane to me. People can complain and say what they want about Sydney transportation, but Los Angeles takes the cake on that.
Second year in, what's it like now?
I've been living here for 20 months and now that I'm in the second year it's a lot easier. People say the first year in LA is the most difficult and I think that's true. I'm really happy now, I have a good group of friends, I have a car. I also am about to start a new job; going to work for a casting director at Fox Studios. I'm very excited to go into that office. I'll get to work on all the different Fox projects which are going to be released. It's going to be a different angle to what I'm doing now – I'm working as the 'seller' but when I'm at Fox I'll be working as the 'buyer'. It's definitely a really cool way to see the industry and I'll still be working a lot with the actors and managers that I work with over here.
Best decision ever?
I think if you really stick it out here, you can go places. I never expected to be this involved in the industry and about to go into a really good casting position where I'm going to be working on really good films and working with really good people. It's definitely an opportunity that whilst there are certain things in Australia, it's just not on the same level, so I'm super grateful I'm going to get that experience.
Winning the lottery is probably the best thing that happened to me, it's a really great opportunity. I was very scared about it and the process has been long, but ultimately it's very cool that I didn't have to get married, [didn't have to be] related to anyone and I'm going to be eligible to get a US passport.
It's just something that you have to do because if you get that opportunity, why wouldn't you take it up?
How long does the green card last? What do you have to do to keep it?
The green card itself lasts for 10 years and it's renewable.It's also eligible for citizenship so I can apply for dual citizenship which is awesome. Some of the spousal visas don't let you do that but this one lets you.
To keep it is interesting, I have to be in the US for around 90 days of the year and I'm not supposed to be outside the US for more than 12 months at a time, that's the specific rule to being on a green card. If you win, they don't want you coming over for a week to activate it – the idea of it is an immigration visa, they want you to move here so that's a little tricky. Sometimes I get concerned if I wanted to go back home for X amount of time but that's why waiting it out and getting to apply for citizenship is a great idea because then at least you can do that. There's no cost in maintaining it, I don't think there is any cost to renew it – I haven't thought about that – as far as I know there's no cost to renew it. Maintaining it just means you have to stay over here, to be a resident – it's a permanent resident card, they want you to be a resident.
What advice would you give for people wanting to move to the US?
Number 1, do your research! Visas are really difficult over here and I think people don't do enough of it. People also get too much word-of-mouth advice from people who don't have the experience. I think that it pays to talk to someone about it properly, and I don't mean lawyers per se, you just need to do it the smart way. There's a Facebook group called Australians in LA and you can ask questions and get a lot of information.
The green card lottery – my advice is if you want to do the US thing, enter it! You don't know, it's a lottery, you might win. I can safely say that everything in my life has changed since I've moved here. I'm lucky that I have a really supportive family behind me and I'm lucky that I'm getting the experience on a whole different level than I would have got back home. It doesn't mean I like Australia any less, if anything I still love it more, but it's an experience that I'm never going to get in Australia.
I think it's also important to remember that it's really hard. LA isn't an easy place to live, it's really different, there's a lot of things that you don't realise are different. We speak English but there's still a language difference, the financial barriers are hard. I was making $US12 an hour for my first year of work, plus a bit of overtime but no tips and I was doing hard assistant work. I was making less than I did as a bartender at a football stadium when I was 18 in Australia.
The health insurance is also difficult, it's still very confusing to me still. It's expensive and maybe it depends on what city you are in, but LA itself is not an easy city to move to.
But I think if you want to work in the TV and film industry, it's a really exciting place to be.
Two pieces of essential advice
My two big things would be do your research and come over with money.
Be prepared to either not work and to reassess your budget more than you thought. You have to adjust to what your payment grade becomes.
Kate Livingstone travelled at her own expense.