The California State Lottery (aka the California Lottery) is one of the most popular state-run lotteries in the US. California Lottery players can play a variety of draw games as well as scratchers or instant win games. California runs several of its own in-state lottery games and also participates in popular multi-jurisdictional games like PowerBall and Mega Millions.
While California does not allow online sales of lottery tickets, there are more than 23,000 California Lottery retail partners located throughout the state where people can purchase tickets. During the 2020-21 fiscal year, California players won more than $5.5 billion playing the lottery.
Read on for an overview of what kinds of games the California Lottery offers players, whom the lottery benefits, a look at the lottery’s history, and answers to frequently asked questions about the lottery.
Draw games available in California
California offers players eight draw games. California Lottery draw games include the two most popular multi-jurisdictional games in the US: Powerball and Mega Millions.
Powerball is a multi-jurisdictional game in which 45 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands participate. California began offering Powerball in 2013.
The game costs $2 to play. In other states, there can be a Power Play option that costs an additional $1 and increases prizes for winning tickets, but that option is not available in California. Players pick five numbers from 1-69 (the white balls) plus one more number from 1-26 (the red Powerball). They have a 1 in 292.2 million chance of getting all six correct and winning the top prize.
Recently a California player won the largest lottery prize in the state’s history playing Powerball. In October 2021, Scott Godfrey picked all six numbers correctly, including the Powerball, to win the $669.8 million top prize. Godfrey chose the one-time lump sum payment option of $496 million.
The Powerball was a twice-weekly contest until August 2021, when it added a third drawing each week. Drawings now take place at 7:59 p.m. PT every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday.
Mega Millions is another multi-jurisdictional draw game involving 45 US states, DC and the US Virgin Islands. California began taking part in Mega Millions in 2005.
Like Powerball, Mega Millions costs $2 to play. Again, players in other states may have a Megaplier option that costs an additional $1 and increases payouts, but California doesn’t offer it. The game involves picking five numbers from 1-70 (the white balls) plus a sixth number from 1-25 (the gold Mega Ball). The chance of guessing all six numbers correctly and winning the top prize is 1 in 302.5 million.
On the day California first joined the Mega Millions in June 2005, the state broke the record for most Mega Millions tickets sold in a state during a 24-hour period. For that first Mega Millions in which CA participated, a special drawing took place at Paramount Studios in Hollywood. Carrie Underwood, who had just won “American Idol” a month before, called out the winning numbers.
Mega Millions drawings take place every Tuesday and Friday at 8 p.m. PT.
In-state draw lottery games to play in California
California additionally offers six other “in-house” draw games that are available only in the state:
- Daily 3 — Available twice daily and costs $1 to play. Players pick three numbers from 0-9.
- Daily 4 — This once-a-day game also costs $1 and invites players to pick four numbers from 0-9.
- Daily Derby — this once-a-day horse racing-based game costs $2 to play and invites players to pick three “horses” to win, place and show and also to guess the winning time. Hitting the “trifecta” and guessing the correct race time wins the top prize.
- Fantasy 5 — For $1, players pick five numbers from 1-39. There’s one drawing each day.
- SuperLotto Plus — A California-only Powerball/Mega Millions-style drawing game that costs $1 to play. Players pick five numbers between 1-47 plus one Mega Number from 1-27. There is one drawing each day.
- Hot Spot — A keno-style game available every four minutes in which players select numbers or “spots” from 1-80. Players can select from one to 10 such numbers and pay from $1 to $5, $10 or $20 per selection.
Top prizes for these games vary from a few hundred dollars to $300,000 for hitting a “10 Spot” in Hot Spot.
California in-state scratch-off lottery games
California also offers several dozen instant scratch-off lottery games, known as “scratchers.” Players purchase cards that they then scratch off to see if they have won. There is no waiting for a drawing to occur — players learn right away if their ticket has won.
Most scratchers generally have smaller prizes than draw games, but the chances of winning are greater. Even so, some scratchers have top prizes of $1 million, $5 million, or even $10 million.
Scratchers features a predetermined number of winners available throughout the period the game runs. For example, in the recent $10 Million Dollar Titanium Black Scratchers game, there were five-game cards containing the $10 million top prize out of the roughly 15.1 million available for sale.
California Lottery scratchers range in price from $1 to $30 to play. They use a number of formats:
- Crossword — Scratch letters to uncover words in a puzzle.
- Poker — Scratch playing cards to form poker hands.
- Bingo — Scratch off numbers on a “caller’s card,” then see if they match numbers on bingo cards.
- Tic-tac-toe — Scratch boxes on a tic-tac-toe board to see if there are three matching symbols in a line.
- Matching games — Scratch to reveal matching numbers or symbols.
- Find legend — Scratch to reveal particular symbols or prizes.
Even if a particular card doesn’t yield a winner, most games offer a Scratchers 2nd Chance feature, giving players another way to win. Players can save the code from a non-winning ticket and submit it at the California Lottery website on a computer or via the California Lottery app (described below). Doing so earns an entry into a 2nd Chance drawing, with every $1 being worth one entry.
How pari-mutuel prize pools work
California is different from other states in the way its lottery uses a pari-mutuel system for determining cash prizes in draw games. This means that all prize amounts depend on how much money California Lottery players are putting into the games and how many winners there are, with no predetermined prizes. Such a system ensures the state will never be in a situation where it must award more prize money than what players spent to buy lottery tickets, which can happen occasionally when there are games with fixed payouts.
When it comes to the multi-jurisdictional Powerball and Mega Millions games, this difference doesn’t matter with regard to the grand prize, which is already determined on a pari-mutuel basis. However, the system does impact the lower-tier prizes in those games.
In other states, the lower-tier prizes for Powerball and Mega Millions all have fixed amounts as prizes. That is not the case in California, where even those lower prizes (levels two through nine) use the pari-mutuel system to determine their amounts. A certain percentage of the prize pool goes to each prize level, and the number of winners in each level split the money.
This payout system is why California does not permit Powerball players to use the Power Play option or Mega Millions players to use the Megaplier option. Those options give players the chance to multiply their winnings for lower-tier prizes, which would violate the pari-mutuel system for payouts.
California likewise uses the pari-mutuel payout system for all of its in-state draw games (Daily 3, Daily 4, Daily Derby, Fantasy 5, SuperLotto Plus) and even for its keno game, Hot Spot.
The California Lottery app and website
You are not permitted to buy lottery tickets online in California. However, the California Lottery does have a useful website with a wealth of information regarding the games and how to play them. It also has an app available for Apple (iOS) and Android devices.
The California Lottery website contains information about all lottery games, including how to play, odds and potential payouts. You’ll also find results for CA Lottery draw games and Scratcher 2nd Chance drawings, retail locations, reports on winners and other information.
You can also register for an account at the California Lottery online website using just an email address and by creating a password. You must register an account (and verify it) to enter the Scratcher 2nd Chance drawings. The app contains all of the same features as the website, plus a way to scan lottery tickets to determine if they’ve won.
California Lottery benefits and revenue
As with other states, California introduced its lottery primarily to help fund public education. Since launching in 1985, the California Lottery has provided more than $39 billion to public schools.
In 2020-21, the lottery generated more than $1.8 billion to help fund public education. While significant, that figure actually only represents about 1% of the state’s total annual budget for public schools. As the CA Lottery points out, “Lottery funds are meant to supplement public education, not replace state and local funding.”
The majority of revenue the California Lottery generates for public education goes to K-12 schools. The rest goes to help fund community colleges, the state’s two public university systems, and other educational entities. The breakdown is as follows:
- K-12th grade — 79.9%
- Community colleges — 14.0%
- California State system — 3.7%
- University of California — 2.3%
- Other educational entities — 0.1%
The law stipulates that all of the funds the CA Lottery provides to schools must go toward educational purposes and cannot fund non-instructional expenses. Most schools use the money to fund programs, supply computer labs, purchase materials, subsidize teacher workshops, and cover other education-related expenses.
The California Lottery has no say in how the schools use the funds. The only requirement is that the funds directly fund educational purposes.
History of the California Lottery
In November 1984, California voters approved a ballot proposition to amend the California Constitution to authorize a statewide lottery. The proposition earmarked 34% of lottery revenue to fund public education, with at least 50% returned as prizes and no more than 16% going toward expenses. After 57.9% of voters approved the proposition, the California State Lottery was born.
The new law also enacted a statute requiring the creation of the California Lottery Commission to oversee the new lottery. The commission was appointed early the next year, and on Oct. 6, 1985, the first lottery tickets became available for purchase. The first game was an instant game, California Jackpot, and customers bought more than 21 million tickets within the first 24 hours. The first draw game, Lotto 6/49, launched a week later.
In 2005, the California Lottery Commission voted to join the multi-jurisdictional draw game Mega Millions. Later, in 2012, the commission similarly approved the state joining Powerball the following year.
In 2010, California lawmakers passed new legislation (AB 142) that changed how it allocated lottery revenue. From that point forward, only 13% of lottery revenue could go toward expenses. Meanwhile, the remaining 87% would go both to the public as prizes and to fund public education, with not less than 50% of that amount paying for prizes.
Theoretically, the change meant the California State Lottery could increase both prize amounts and the amount of revenue that it used for public education. In practice, prize amounts did increase, which in turn significantly bolstered sales. Over the next decade, the lottery’s overall yearly revenue ballooned from $3.4 billion (2010-11) to $8.4 billion (2020-21). However, the percentage of revenue going to public education actually declined over that same period, slipping from the previously mandated 34% to about 24%-25%.
In early 2020, a state audit revealed that the California Lottery failed to provide $36 million to public education that it should have during the 2017-18 fiscal year. Overall, the amount of funding the CA Lottery provided to public education increased from just under $1.1 billion in 2010-11 to about $1.86 billion in 2020-21.
What is the minimum age to play the California Lottery?
You must be at least 18 years old to purchase California Lottery tickets or claim prizes.
Can I purchase California Lottery tickets online?
No, California does not permit online sales of lottery tickets. You must purchase any tickets at one of the thousands of lottery retailers in the state.
Do I have to pay tax on California Lottery winnings?
Yes, you do have to pay federal tax. California, however, does not withhold state or local taxes on lottery winnings.
If I win the lottery in California, can I remain anonymous?
No, lottery winners in California cannot remain anonymous. The California Lottery must abide by the state’s public disclosure laws. When you win a prize in the California Lottery, your full name, the date and amount of your winnings, and the retailer that sold you the ticket are all part of the public record and are thus subject to disclosure.
Does the California Lottery offer different payment options for large wins?
Yes, for big prizes California Lottery winners can either take a single lump-sum payment or receive their money as an annuity that pays out over 30 years. The tax implications are significantly different depending on which option winners choose, which is why anyone who wins a large cash prize in the California Lottery should make reliable tax advice a top priority.
What are the tax rules for California Lottery winners?
California is somewhat distinct in that it doesn’t withhold state or local taxes from lottery winnings. However, if you reside in another state and travel to California where you win money playing the lottery, you’ll likely have to pay state taxes back in your state.
California is essentially the only state where lottery winners don’t have to pay state tax on their winnings, aside from states like Florida, Texas and a few others that have no state income tax.
You still, however, have to pay federal taxes on lottery winnings in California. California will report winnings of $600 or more to the IRS. Federal taxes actually only apply to winnings of $5,000 or more. Even so, your reported lottery winnings will still count as income and thus could affect your federal tax obligation when you file.