Saturday, July 18, 2015

US Diaries: Coming to America

It's been a couple of months, and last week I was in a focus group discussion to understand the pros, cons, and feedback of the whole moving to the US experience.
Some pretty useful stuff.
I'm going to share this with you - it's always good to have that one single cheat sheet, a to-do list to deal with the vast confusion of paperwork, bureaucracy, requirements, and paperwork.
Did I mention the paperwork?

This is for the specific scenario of moving from India to the US for a long-term, employment-based stay; I'm assuming you already have a job offer and an approved visa.

So, what do you need to live in the US?

  1. The passport, with visa. It's what gets you past the door, for starters. It's a good idea to get 2 scans done - one of the entire passport, and one of the 1st, last and visa pages. 
  2. Form I-94. It's going to be needed in a lot of places initially, to show you arrived legally. Just go to the DHS site, put your name, DoB and passport number, and take a print. Valid for a month, then you print again. You can't save a PDF for later. It takes a couple of days to appear in the system after arrival, though can be faster.
  3. SSN, or Social Security Number. This is your identity in the US; it also records / links with your credit rating (more on that later, it's also vitally important). You're going to need this in most official / government stuff. Fix an appointment at the local Social Security office, and show up with the paperwork needed. Do this as early as possible - in fact, as soon you get your I-94. 
  4. Bank Account. Some banks may let you open an account before you have an SSN, depending on visa class and where you work. Not many. You need the account to set up your check payments, get a credit card (which is needed most places for payments). That credit card? Also ties into your credit score, depending on usage; don't spend more than 30% of your limit, pay all bills, keep few cards and don't roll over / transfer credit.
  5. Housing. Once you have a checkbook and an SSN, you have the basic minimum needed to look for a place to rent. Since you don't have any credit history (Ha! there it is!) at this point, you'll probably need to pay a hefty security deposit; in the US, no history is assumed to be bad history. Craigslist is a good place to look around for apartments. Since your biggest constraint is transport - and everyone in US is used to driving - look for apartments that have a nearby (walkable) grocery market or frequent buses to one.
  6. Phone. Again, no credit history (remember?), so you probably don't qualify for most installment plans. Buy a phone outright, whatever you can afford. Get a data plan, because you'll need google maps a lot to get around. 
  7. Electricity / Utilities: Congratulations, you now have a house! Getting a utilities account usually means heading down to the local utilities office and signing up with your new address, so they can start billing you. The renter will also want you to provide proof of this within a few days. 
  8. Renter Insurance: seems to be a new thing, but some apartment complexes require the tenant to get renter insurance and may help you with it. Can be bought online or on the phone, if you have a credit card. 
  9. Internet / Cable: Again, can be done over the phone; find out who the local supplier is, call them, sign up, and they take your credit card number and send you a modem / router / set top box with instructions. Needs to be set up and activated online, or you can ask the local rep to do it for you if you have some money to burn. 
  10. Furniture: furnished apartments are rare and expensive. Cheaper to buy it yourself. Again, it's back to Craigslist, or IKEA. Buy the absolute minimum, and keep looking out for garage sales / clearances. 
  11. Medical Insurance: Your employer should be covering you and dependents. If anyone isn't covered, get covered ASAP; the US is the most expensive place in the world to fall sick and be hospitalized without insurance. There are insurance exchanges where you can get basic coverage for lower rates, but you'll need to research. Go over the employer benefits in detail, check for exactly what's covered and what isn't. When you need treatment, if possible, before any procedure, confirm that the procedure, the doctor, the staff, and the hospital is covered; for any extensive hospitalization, it's quite possible to hit a combination where one of these is not covered, and you get a massive bill. Medical, Vision, Dental, and Mental may be all separate. Also watch out for the 2nd month; the 1st month, your benefits are being set up, so they may not be deducted for the 1st month salary. The 2nd will charge you retroactively; have money kept aside!
  12. Taxes: Your employer will give you a bunch of documents; W2, W4, W9. Hang onto them. Taxes have to be filed before April 15, and you do it yourself; legal help can be costly. The first year, you can't file online, have to print and submit physical copies. Taxes will be around 30-40%, and both the state and the center tax you. Get an ITIN (income Tax Identification Number) or SSN for everyone you're claiming as a deduction when filing. 
  13. Public Transport: Google Maps on your phone is your best friend, will tell you exactly when and where to catch what to get to wherever you want. Find out if where you live has some kind of common pre-loaded swipe card (eg. Clipper) for buses / trains, much more convenient than fumbling with change. Consider a bicycle if the weather's decent. 
  14. Driving License: An Indian license may or may not be allowed after the first few weeks, depending on the mood of the cop who pulled you over; usually, not after the 1st month of arrival. You can apply for a US license with your I-94, Passport, and $40; you have to get your eyes checked, give biometrics, and do a written test, all in one shot at the Dept of Motor Vehicles, but the lines are long and appointments take a long time to get. Very likely you'll also have to do a driving test, which is by appointment only; that can take weeks. Use that time to learn; passing the written gives you a permit that lets you practice IF there's someone with a valid license with you in the car. Time to call up all your friends with licenses! You also need to be insured (with car insurance) before the driving test. A DL is also a standard ID, used in applying for cards / loans / buying liquor and some medicines; even if you're not driving, get an ID card at the DMV (same process and documentation but no tests needed). 
  15. Car Rental: you can rent (most expensive) on a monthly / weekly / hourly basis. You can lease for a 1 or 2 year period (cheaper, but you're locked in for the duration). Both of these are possible without a credit history, but they also require extremely expensive insurance, since anyone leasing / renting to you wants to be fully covered. Buying a car lets you get away with a minimal insurance payment, when...
  16. Buying a car: Remember, you have zero credit history (you getting an idea of how critical this is?), which also means no dealer is going to give you the time of the day or bank, a loan. You can get financing, though; look up credit unions and get a pre-certification. It's a bit more expensive than bank loans, but a lot more possible. 
  17. 401K and HSA accounts: This is still your money, tax-free, but you will not be able to access it except under specific circumstances. Find out what these are, and take full advantage of employer matching to 401K contributions even if you have to eat grass for a week. It's free money!
  18. Shopping: Never buy full price retail. Everything comes on sale sooner or later, and the discounts are worth it. Don't wait for special day sales either like Black Friday, the slow-moving (meaning low-quality) stock has the biggest discounts. Search for discount codes online before buying. Eating out is expensive, cooking at home remarkably cheap; when you're out exploring the city, carry your lunch. 
  19. Kids and Schools: Preschools and daycares (under 5 yrs) are private and expensive, and usually unaffordable on a single salary. They also come with a long waitlist period, so pick some options and get on the waitlist as early as possible. Public schools zone according to where you live, so if you have kids in that age range, look for schools when choosing a place to live. 
  20. EAD: Employment Authorization. i.e. a Work Permit. Not for you, but some visa categories allow the spouse or dependent to work; costs about $300-400, takes a few months, but is usually a good idea. If nothing else, stops the dependents from getting bored or going berserk with the credit card. 
  21. Missing home? Look for the famous neighborhood Indian Store. It's like an explosion of FMCG; almost anything and everything you could want that's South Asian will be here in some form. 
And as an add-on, some stuff to think about before you leave from India:
  1. Medicines: enough for the 1st 2 months until your paperwork is in place and benefits kick in; no need to carry a mini pharmacy in your bag like you've been told. 
  2. NRE/NRO account: You can't operate a local bank account in India as an NRI, need to convert to NRE. This will let you keep paying recurring payments like PPFs and LICs, or accept refunds / payments / etc. 
  3. IDP (International Driving Permit): Not needed unless your Driving License is not in English.
  4. Leave behind a bunch of signed blank cheques for an operational account with funds in a safe place, accessed by a trusted person; may need to make some emergency payments if there's any problems with the NRE account setup. 
So that's it - I've covered only a few basics, any suggestions / advice welcome. All the best!

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