Expat’s guide to living in the USA

Seattle - Washington State

There are so many possibilities when moving to the USA – which is exactly the reputation this huge country is famous for. Taking up about half of a continent, there is a huge variation in everything from culture to business opportunities to the landscape itself. You’ll find vast inland plains, huge cities built in deserts, mountains covered in snow, and stunning coastlines. People have come from all over the world, at all different times in history, to make this place their home.

The diversity of the States is a huge part of its attraction as you can be in a completely different location with a completely different feel but not cross any international borders. In many parts of the USA food and basic household furnishings can be quite affordable and there are plenty of leisure options and activities in whichever state you’re based in – and new adventures are just a car drive or short plane ride away. Some of the top choices for expats are New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. These large cities are bursting with multicultural populations, new ideas, new industries, and opportunity. It’s true that living here doesn’t come without its challenges; particularly in the larger cities it can be expensive and competitive. But, after all, that’s often part of what brings people to the United States.

Moving to the USA tips

For a detailed week by week list, click here

  • Get your passport and papers ready well in advance – it can sometimes take a while to process these for the USA
  • Do some research into the neighbourhood or  state you’d like to live in – know what your priorities are
  • Decide what belongings you want to take with you and which things you can simply buy when you arrive and arrange for their shipment
  • Make sure you have insurance
  • Do some research about which bank you might go with and have some currency or a card you can use when you first arrive
  • If you don’t have a job yet, do some job hunting in advance
  • If you have children, find a good local school and start the enrolment process
  • Make sure you have somewhere to stay for at least the first few weeks

Moving to the USA customs

Regulations

The USA is notorious for strict regulations when it comes to entry, and there are a range of factors that will influence whether or not someone can get in. The first step is to have a look at your options and the options for anyone you’d like to move or visit you while you’re in the USA. The second step is to get the process started as soon as possible. It can take several months or even longer for the visa application process. It may also be worth checking regulations for the State you’re planning to move to as they can differ.

Federal vs State Law

Nothing to worry about too much just yet (we hope) but it’s worth keeping in mind that there are some different laws between the 52 states and jurisdictions. Federal law applies to everyone in the USA, while state or local laws apply to people living within a particular area. If you’re curious to know more, this resource from LawHelp.org will get you started.

Right to work

To work in the USA you’ll need a Permanent Resident Card (the famous “Green Card”), an Employment Authorization Document (work permit), or another employment-related visa which will allow you to work for one specific employer. You can apply online, although often your employer will kick off the application process for you.

The USA has both Immigrant and Nonimmigrant options. In all cases, the easiest way to obtain permission to move to the USA (unless you’re just visiting) is by having an employer or family member already located in the States sponsor you. The US Citizenship and Immigration Service’s website has details about the different visas and requirements. Your options include a range of visas for Temporary Work, generally up to three years, or Permanent Work with a variety of categories.

Moving permanently

There is sometimes the option to apply for a Green Card for which you will need sponsorship from an employer or specific family member. You can find out more about the requirements for permanent residency on the Homeland Security website.

Other options for entry

In most cases your spouse and any children under the age of 21 can also apply for visas to move with you to the USA, but their right to work and how long they can stay will depend on your own visa. There are also options for students and for visitors. In some circumstances a person may not need a visa for temporary travel – check Visa Waiver Requirements here

Visa process

For some of the visas that have a longer duration, the visa process will include a medical examination and an interview, as well as drawing together a range of documents. There are some useful tips on preparing for the interview process that apply for non-permanent visas here and for the Green Card here

Social Security Number

If you want to work in the USA you’ll need to get one of these. It’s a nine-digit number that helps the government track your wages and earnings and will allow you to access some government services. When you apply for your visa, you’ll be able to apply for your SSN at the same time.

Customs and importation

Customs and Border Protection enforce the rules around what you can bring in and send out of the USA. There’s some useful information on their International Visitors page Their restrictions include firearms, some fruit and vegetables, and some animals and animal products. Oh – and leave your dangerous toys behind. They’re first on the banned list. If you want to move to the USA with a dog, cat, or other pet, we have some info on that below.

Moving to the USA for work

Industries

shaking handsSeveral people ask “Is moving to the USA a good idea?” and sometimes, if you’ve got a background in a particular industry, the answer could definitely be yes. According to the Founder’s Guide, the top industries in the USA in 2017  were Health, Construction, Information Technologies, Energy, Professional Services, Government, Finance, Education, Manufacture, and Real Estate. Of course, major industry varies from state to state and city to city. To pick out a few, California has a strong reputation for its technology industry, New York for banking and credit services, and Illinois for insurance. 247 Wallist has a list of the largest industry in each state in 2017

Income

In 2016 the median household income in the USA reached all-time highs, rising by 3.2%. According to the USA Census Bureau, the median household income in 2017 was $57,617. If you want more of an indication of how much you could be earning in your sector, the Statista website neatly breaks down the 2016 stats .

Job search

Looking for a job is easiest if you can narrow your search down. If you’re after work in a specific industry or state there are specialist job sites, and for federal work you could look at the USA government’s job website Linkedin is a popular networking and job search tool. As one of the job seeking websites with the highest traffic, Indeed could be a good place to start, along with Monster Jobs and ZipRecruiter Craigslist is great for finding vacancies as well as furniture and household items (need to furnish your new place?). Finally, if yyou’re applyingfor a job but are not sure about the company why not check out Glassdoor  It’s filled with company reviews from past employees and can be both very useful and very entertaining.

Language

There is no official language in the United States. However, the main language is English – the American version, where they drop out the “U” in “colour” and have lots of “Z”s instead of “S”s. If you’re used to British English you can check out these helpful rules of thumb for spelling . Besides English, there are over 500 different languages spoken across the country which reflects the multicultural nature of America. Spanish and French have a huge presence in some states.

Finances

Cost

pen and calculatorWith the USA being so huge, your cost of living really does depend on your location. You can expect to pay more in the larger cities – Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City all ranked in the top 25 most expensive expat cities in 2017. To try and plan your costs, the Economic Policy Institute has an incredibly helpful tool  that will allow you to estimate and compare your living costs based on location and how many people you’re living with. Numbeo also has some useful figures about average costs.

Currency

The US Dollar is the main currency and it generally performs quite well on the international market. US$1 is approximately AUD$1.8, SGD$1.3, and HKD$7.8. You can check the latest exchange rate on XE’s website . Oh, and one thing to keep in mind – you’ll very rarely need to carry cash in the USA as most places use plastic.

Banking

If you’re a recent arrival opening your first account, you’ll need to go into the bank in person. You’ll need to provide your visa or immigration papers, passport, proof of address, and (if you have one) your Social Security Number. Some banks may need more documents or information. Make sure at the very least you have a checking account and a debit card. Many international banks have a presence in the USA, including BarclaysDeutsche BankCitibank, and HSBC , which may mean you can actually get an account opened before you leave. If you’re not sure, just check in with your bank.

Home country accounts

Plan to keep these open? Pop into your bank and talk to them before you move to find out what you need to do. They could also have suggestions about USA banks and making international transfers.

Sending money

You’ll have a range of options for sending money overseas so it does pay to shop around. You may like to start by checking with your bank (home country or your new USA bank) and could also have a look at well-known companies like OFX,Transferwise ,World Remit , and Western Union.

Taxes

Federal tax is progressive with 7 tax brackets from 10% to 39.6% based on your income.There may also be some state or local taxes. Questions? They’ve got a site for that. The government website is your best first point of call for everything from how much you’ll pay to how to actually file tax returns. You can find details on Personal Income Tax by State here.

Living in the USA

Choosing a city and state

white coloured kitchenIf it’s not determined by your job or other circumstances, there are so many great places to live in the USA. Everything can vary greatly from one state to another. Things to take into consideration are climate, culture, industry, the school system, and housing. There’s also a definite East Coast-West Coast rivalry, just in case you already sit on one side of the fence. Expat Infodesk has some awesome general and specific guides on moving.

Moving to New York City

New York City aerial viewNew York is a state and, of course, a buzzing, famous city. It offers a vibrant and varied cultural and business life. It’s a hub of finance, professional services, retail, and knowledge – and it has a great public transport system. Summers can be very hot and winters can get cold and wet, so you’ll need to make sure you’ve got a good pair of boots and a warm jacket as well as light summer outfits. Like any of the larger cities it can be expensive to live, depending on your expected lifestyle – you can get an estimate of your living costs at Expatisan You can visit the official website for the state here. Some of the best suburbs to move in with a family include Kensington, Syosset, Jericho, and Great Neck Estates – but as always you can do some research to find out exactly what each suburb has to offer.

Moving to San Francisco

San Francisco bridgeThis beautiful, hilly city on the West Coast is famous for its artistic approach, some impressive landmarks, and its seafood and sourdough. With mild winters and hot summers, it can be a nice climate to live in – but you can definitely expect rain in the cooler weather and a lack of it in summer. Rent is high in most areas but there are a huge range of suburbs with different characters, from the start-up central of SOMA to the more family-focused Noe Valley. Get an estimate of the living costs here, and visit the official government website here.

Moving to Los Angeles

Los Angeles buildingsWelcome to the cultural, commercial, and financial centre of Southern California. It’s incredibly busy and very big. It is competitive, and it is expensive but it has a lot to offer whatever your interests may be.Even those outdoorsy types have plenty of options to get out and about because the city is surrounded by mountain ranges, but make sure to take a raincoat with you – although the summers are warm the winters tend to get a little damp. Manhattan Beach, Irvine, and Santa Monica all have good reputations for being family-friendly suburbs. The City’s official website will tell you more.

Searching for a place to live in the USA

You need to consider a few things when you’re looking at houses – how far is it to your work, to school if you have kids, and what’s the area’s reputation? You might also want to think about how long the property has been up for rent and why the previous tenants moved out. A lot of people choose to carry out their search online – websites like Rent.comRent Jungle and the infamous Craigslist are all great places to start. You can also consider an agent to help you with the process. And if you’re not yet in the USA and want to wait until you’re there before you commit, you could simply find some temporary accommodation while you continue the job search from American soil. In larger cities you should have no problem finding somewhere temporary for a few weeks or months.

Renting

When you first arrive, renting is probably the best option, even if you plan to buy a house later. The most common types of accommodation are apartments, duplex houses, single family homes, and mansions. This 2016 article outlines the average rental cost in 50 of the USA’s major cities. Make sure that you have a rental agreement or lease before you move in, outlining all the rights and obligations of the landlord and of yourself as the tenant. This should include the security deposit, rent, terms and conditions, and utilities included. Keep in mind that in some building blocks and streets there may be regulations or restrictions on changes you can make to your property and about your responsibilities as a homeowner.

Buying

Owning your own home is common in the USA, so it is something you could consider. Non-citizens can purchase, and if you need a mortgage as long as you have good credit and an Individual Tax Number you should be able to get one. Look for a financial institute who has a history of dealing with foreign buyers so they can give you proper support and information. You can search on your own using online tools, such as Realator.com but you might also like to team up with a real estate agent to help you find the ideal place.

Your sidewalk

As a homeowner or renter, you’ll be responsible for shovelling snow off the sidewalk and keeping it clear. Check your state regulations to see if there’s anything else you need to keep in mind.

Setting up shop

Medical insurance

Put this on your Moving to the USA Checklist. You will definitely need it. You will need this. In the USA you will need to pay for your own health costs, including the cost of an ambulance, and it can be expensive. Health insurance may be a part of your employment package, so make sure you check with your company. There are a range of different types of health insurance, and a good starting point to find out more is on the government website.

Internet

According to PBS, internet in the USA is about twice the cost of cities like London and for a slower service. This is often put down to most American homes having limited choices when it comes to their provider – Comcast and Centurylinkare the main players. Some states have created their own municipal service though, which can provide better value for money. If you’re looking at your options, some of the highest rated internet providers in 2017 were Xfinity, Fios, and HughesNet.

Phones

If you have an unlocked tri- or quad-band mobile phone, you should be able to use an American SIM card with it. A no contract service might be the best option when you first arrive, allowing you to buy prepaid minutes at retail locations and some grocery stores. T-mobile Verizon, and AT&T offer some great options, and you may also be able to link this up with a landline phone or internet service. Although landline phones are now on the way out they can still be useful, especially if you live in an area with limited cell phone reception.

Utilities

Previously each region had just one company who provided households with power, but now most areas have a range of options so be sure to compare prices. As well as calling companies direct, your employer or landlord might be able to give you some advice. Some of the larger gas and electric companies include PG&E Corporation, Duke Energy Corporations, and Exelon Corporation, but there are several smaller, local companies too. You’ll also need to consider water and sewage services, cable and satellite TV, and garbage costs.

Moving in

This can always be stressful, but as part of our moving process we arrange to have things delivered to your new houseas well as put your furniture in place and unwrap your larger containers (as you request). To make sure you’re moving into a clean and comfortable place, Links also have a maid service

The post

USPS, the US Postal Service, is the country’s national and international postal service. They offer a range of services and have hundreds of local offices, as well as helpful online services. You can even buy your own stamps online.

Expat advice

Internations has a useful guide for expats, as does Transferwise. If you’re looking for communities, you can probably do a search for what’s happening in your city or state, from internet forums to actual in-person meetings.

Update your address

When you’ve found your house, make sure you update your address for any services you’ve signed up to so far (or still have back in your home country) – including any official government services.
Moving your family?

Schools

One of the interesting things about school in the USA is that, like so much else, the system and curriculum are largely managed on a local basis (although the Department of Education does overseas things generally). Most children will join a kindergarten or nursery school before their 6th birthday, which is when compulsory formal education begins. There are up to 13 years spent in elementary, middle, and secondary school, divided into grades by year. The school year generally runs from early September until May or June and is divided into semesters with breaks between. All children are entitled to attend public schools, but because of the lack of national funding and regulations there can be a lot of variation between their quality. Some public institutes will require that you live within a certain distance from the school to enrol your kids. If you’d like to research public schools you can find information on the Petersons website. Private schools are another option, and for this you’ll need to do specific research. There are also some international schools designed for students from international backgrounds. It’s a good idea to research the schools you’re considering, private or public or international, before you move, and to make sure you know details like eligibility, any costs, and deadlines for registration.

Pets

There are some regulations about the animals you can bring into the country and the kind of papers you’ll need to prove their health. For example, if you’ve got a dog you’ll need to prove they’re rabies-free and show they’ve received required immunisations. For some states your cat will also need to have had a rabies shot. Other animals that have specific regulations are turtles, snakes, lizards, some birds, and some rodents. If you have an exotic pet (hey you never know) like a monkey, bat, or civet you’ll need to look closely at the details too. All the information you need to check and get started is on the CDC website.

Getting around

Public transport

With the USA a grand total of 9.834 million square kilometres, public transport is always going to be a bit tricky in places. Most of the bigger cities will have good public transport systems including buses, trams, and trains, and most cities have taxis. Outside of that, though, public transport can be quite poor and it pays to plan ahead if you want to travel and don’t have your own vehicle. Flying is a common way to travel, and websites like Expedia and Orbitz can help you identify cheaper tickets. There are also inter-state busses, which can mean a long journey but you can get tickets quite cheaply. If you’re looking for moving to the USA tips, one of our top suggestions is to research local connections when you’re deciding where to move.

Private transport

Unless you’re living in one of the big cities, you’re likely to need a car, and even then it’s worth considering. You will need to make sure you have an International Driver License if you need one, and you’ll need to get insurance before you drive. The government website has some helpful tips on buying a car If you want to take a car with you, make sure you look at the regulations first It will need to meet safety, bumper, and emission standards – and it’s worth keeping in mind that not all overseas vehicles will. The Environmental Protection Agency’s page on importing vehicles will give you more info on regulations and procedures If you have a car you’d like to bring with you, Links can help.

Tipping

You need to know when you’re moving to the USA tips are a big thing. It’s not just confined to wait staff either. This is a big thing in the USA. It’s not just confined to wait staff either. Whether you’re catching a cab, visiting a bar, or even getting your hair done, it’s likely you’ll be expected to tip. This is tied into the minimum wage levels, which are generally quite low, so many people depend on tips to help them make a basic income. The general advice is to tip around 15% of your pre-tax bill.

Don’t know what to pack for your move?

Check this article out: what to pack and what to leave when moving overseas