This is a question I get frequently. What is the difference between a lottery, a sweepstakes, and a contest?

Part is legalities, and part is the lingo. Here are two excerpts from How To Win Cash, Cars, Trips & More!


And then there are the legal definitions which are how rules are written.

It’s easier to define sweepstakes and contests by starting with their more familiar grandfather: the lottery. A lottery is any game that consists of three elements. These three elements are chance (luck), the entry fee (sometimes referred to as the “consideration”), and the prize. The first element—luck—is introduced by the very fact that you’re competing against thousands of other people by predicting several numbers that will be chosen at random. The entry fee is generally the price of the ticket itself. Most lottery tickets cost one dollar. And the prizes are usually money.

What differentiates a sweepstakes or contest from a lottery is that one of these three elements has been removed. In a sweepstakes, that element is the entry fee. In other words, the game is still a game of chance, and there are still prizes to be won (although not necessarily cash prizes), but you don’t have to pay to enter.

Contests retain the entry fee but remove the luck as a determining factor. The entry fee is usually in the form of purchasing one or more of the company’s products. For example, a contest often requires you to send in a proof of purchase or label. Obviously, you cannot obtain these items without buying the product. It doesn’t matter whether you personally bought it or one of your friends purchased it. The luck is removed by adding an element of skill. Whereas sweepstakes are determined through random drawings, contests require the participants to perform in some way. A contest may ask you to write a song or create a rhythm, or explain why you use a product. A panel of judges determines which contestant has demonstrated the most skill.

How to Win Lotteries, Sweepstakes and Contests in the 21st Century by Steve Ledoux. Copyright ©2004 Santa Monica Press LLC. Used by permission of Santa Monica Press LLC, 800-784-9553,


Different places around the world refer to the same hobby using local vernacular.

There are several terms used globally to describe someone who enters sweepstakes on a regular basis. In Canada, they refer to themselves as contestors because they enter contests. In the United States, they refer to themselves as sweepers because they enter sweepstakes. (If they did that in Canada, people would think they were curlers!) In the United Kingdom and Australia, they refer to themselves as competitors because they enter competitions. As Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” My favorite term to describe my hobby is winner!

Why the difference?

The reason Canadians enter contests and Americans enter sweepstakes is that sweepstakes are illegal in Canada. This dates back to the introduction of the Irish Sweepstakes and scams revolving around it. The government made all sweepstakes illegal, but companies still wanted to market their products and services in a fun way. Some clever lawyer figured out that if Canadians answer a Skill Testing Question, it, by legal definition, makes the giveaway a contest, which was legal. Hence the different lingo.

You can read a longer blog post and watch a video on This Is Why Canadians Must Answer a Skill Testing Question to Win a Prize.

Did you know the difference?