You've moved, you've gotten settled, and you've got all the tricks sorted. Or maybe you're moving and you want the inside scoop? Well, I thought that right now it might be a good time to get back to fundamentals to make sure we've got some of the nuances of living abroad in the United States down pat.
I'm calling this: Beyond Coffee & Bread. What have I missed?
1. Never use a bank to transfer money internationally (in either direction)
I thought I'd start with something less exciting and more fundamental to know because I still see so many people who are losing dollars every single time they make a transfer.
If you transfer money using your bank: You are losing money. It's as simple as that.
“But my bank doesn't charge fees!”
Ah, see, they do. They just dissolve them into the rate they give you when you calculate how many $USD you get (or when you're going back the other way).
“It's easier and more convenient just using my bank!” –
We've come a long way in recent years with FX transfers and it's now actually just as quick to transfer money using a third party (in addition to getting a great rate).
“When I use the website calculator on my bank/another website it shows me a great rate!”
Be careful when you're comparing rates to make sure you've actually signed up for an account (it's free for all the ones I compare here) and looked for the actual amount that will hit your account. Some sites try to pull the wool over your eyes and they show you the transfer rate, not the amount they'll actually give you.
So who should you transfer money with? Well, I've got a good analysis of the rates by the major players here (and my recommendation is OFX – and America Josh readers can get a preferred rate).
2. Health insurance, health insurance, health insurance
This isn't “private health insurance” or some extra benefit that only some should think about if they can afford it. This is crucially important and needs to be prioritized over (nearly) everything else.
If you get sick without health insurance there is a very high (if not 100%) likelihood that it will cost you tens or hundreds of thousands. There's a reason that an estimated 530,000 families turn to bankruptcy each year because of medical issues and bills.
Health insurance can be expensive if your employer doesn't cover a share of it, so I've got some options here.
Just don't skip it. Ever. You will regret it during COVID-19 and you will regret it after COVID-19. Read up on what you get included (yes, it's complicated but there are good guides available to make sense of it) and what will cost you more down the track. Run the numbers, and work out what's best for you.
So who do I recommend for health insurance? Well, if you're new to the country, if your employer doesn't provide health insurance, or if you've lost your job and you're temporarily without insurance. I've got a solution for you! Hell, even if you are offered insurance, as an expat this is worth looking into: My article on health insurance.
3. There are Federal rules about your stay in the US
The first is that you might be required to carry immigration documentation (“papers”) at all times while you are in the U.S. This is especially the case if you have a green card and I've got some more information here.
Secondly, if you move house or apartment, you need to notify the Federal government in many (most) cases. They want to know exactly where you are, and if you're not there, then you're going to be in trouble. It can also put your future visas at risk. So make sure you update the Federal Government (and everyone else necessary) with your living location.
Thirdly, your I-94. What's an I-94 you ask? It's the date that you are permitted to stay inside the U.S. No exceptions. If you don't know your I-94, you urgently need to check it, because an overstay could result in you never being permitted into the United States again (or a long-term suspension). How do you check your I-94 or make corrections? I've written about that too!
Finally, if you're looking for work visa information, you can see our summary here.
4. There's always a deal to be made (or found)
This is a big country, and while this particular item of advice on this list isn't very specific, it's important to know that with almost every medium to big-ticket item, there's an element of bargaining and business involved.
Leases, big-ticket purchases, subscriptions, and memberships should always include a discussion.
I'm not guaranteeing that you're going to get a discount, and I'm not advocating for you to be aggressive about it, but it's always worth asking the question. Do your research, know what you should be paying, find factual reasons to come to an agreement, and present your evidence in a respectful way.
Coming from Australia, where (in my opinion) more often than not the price is the price, it took me some getting used to, but if you don't ask, you won't receive in the US.
For online purchases, there are also tools like Honey which are fantastic at finding deals and coupon codes to all your favorite sites. Signup for mailing lists before you purchase something too, as there's normally an incentive added in those emails to promote signups.
That being said, you can't haggle on dinner, just pay your damn check (and see #8 below).
5. Drivers licenses are very important and you need a local one
I read way too often that people are driving around the United States with their foreign license and haven't got a local license.
This is terrifying (and is very closely related to #2 above).
Yes, you are allowed to drive on a foreign license as a tourist in the United States. But once you become a resident of a state (not a “permanent resident”, just someone who “lives” there for a period of ~30 days) there is generally a countdown that begins. You have a limited amount of time to get a license, and if you don't, you are driving illegally in that state.
What are the implications of driving without a license? Well, it's a crime, and for your immigration status, you certainly shouldn't be doing that. Secondly, you are most likely not covered by insurance. If you have even a minor accident and the person you hit is injured in some way (e.g. They injure their neck from a fender bender) there is a very high chance that they will sue for damages to cover medical expenses (and other traumas).
As this is related to health insurance, this can send you into tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt.
If your insurer has stated you can continue to drive (and it is legal in your state to do so) then make sure you have that in writing and cleared by the insurance company broadly. But either way, it's not safe and will get you in more pickles than it's worth.
So get your license! In some states, it's as easy as swapping out your foreign license, and in others, you will have to do the full tests (written and practical) again.
P.S. International drivers licenses are only useful if your foreign license is in a foreign language, and even then, they don't do anything but translate. They do not permit you to drive in and of themselves.
6. Networking is king
And Queen, and the Prince, and even the 10.
As I've said before, this is a giant country, and with that comes a hesitancy from people to do business with people they don't know directly. If you don't know the person, then you don't know the quality of their work (or the quality of person they are) so you look to friends and networks for advice.
Referrals are trusted, networks are used constantly, and the follow-up email is essential.
Don't be afraid to reach out to your new friends for connections if they know someone, because when you're applying for jobs or trying to win a contract, that relationship is worth 10x your resume and experience alone.
I realize that at the time of writing this, it's difficult to get out and meet new people, but in normal times it's important that you say yes to every opportunity you can, and seek out as many different (and diverse) groups as you possibly can. If someone invites you somewhere and you're new: Just say “yes”!
I've written some tips and tricks about networking here that I've learned but I'm constantly learning something new! I've also written some things about making friends in big cities here!
7. You should always read the contract and the fine print
In America, the freedom of the individual is held in high stead. While on the surface this sounds like only a positive, it does have it's drawbacks. For those of you from more liberal and socially driven countries, you may come unstuck when it comes to entering contracts or agreements.
There are many fewer restrictions and regulations when it comes to what you can and can't contract in and out of.
The rule of thumb: If it says it in the contract, and you sign that contract, you are bound by those terms.
That sounds like business as usual, but in many countries, there are restrictions on what a person can agree to without it being highlighted to them specifically, or having it written in big red letters across the top.
This becomes especially important when banking, signing professional contracts, entering agreements, or leasing apartments and I've written a bunch about it before to make sure you know what you're getting into!
Don't be hurried into signing things. Sit down, take the time, read everything, know what you're getting into.
8. Tipping is a necessary, required, and non-optional essential
Whether you did it in your home country or not, does not matter here. Here: we tip.
I've actually created a cheat sheet for you so you know how much to tip, but there are very few instances where you shouldn't be tipping something.
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Yes, you can disagree with it to your core and think that it's an unfair and deeply unsettling concept. But that doesn't mean you can just skip it.
Many people who receive tips rely on those tips for their living, and they've most likely provided you a service, so consider the tip part of the cost of the item you just purchased or the service you just received.
One more time: It's not optional.
9. Credit scores are part of your everything
It's important to start building credit as early as you can, and this even applies if you don't think you'll be staying in the US for a very long time.
A credit score is tied to more than just your banking and credit card requirements in the US. It affects whether you can lease a car, lease an apartment, buy a house, and can even affect more minor purchases if you're asking for payment options.
When you arrive from overseas you start without a score, and most Americans have had theirs building since they were young children, so you're starting with a difficult path ahead, but it can be overcome.
I've written about credit here, and I would urge you to jump onto it early. It really doesn't take much, but it will help in many aspects of your future life, and there's no way to later to catch-up if you don't get started early.
I've also written about a great company who help expats: Nova Credit offers to bring your credit score from your home country over to the US to get you started!
10. It's culturally diverse and that extends from friendship to workplaces
With all those fundamentals out of the way, I think it's important we touch on something slightly less tangible.
The United States is not your home country. It's different.
Further to that, it's even different when you like inside the United States itself: States are dramatically different from each other, cities are different from other cities, and the culture and people are different.
You will notice this both personally and professionally, and my mission is to make that transition a little bit easier for you, but not to hide the fact that it's going to take some work from you to adjust. I have personally found that personal relationships with friends require more work to get started, and professionally it requires you to be more diplomatic. Business is bigger, but it's also less direct.
Again, this is just my personal experience in one particular city. It's likely going to be different for you.
Just because something is different though doesn't in and of itself make it worse, and in many cases, you might discover that your way of doing things isn't nearly as effective as a new thing you find over here.
There will also be things you ultimately don't like, and that's ok too. Find yourself a good network, and you'll get through the more difficult times just fine. I'm always here if you need me.
Bonus #11: Trader Joe's Everything But The Bagel Seasoning
Speaking of things you'll find that are better: You need to try this stuff.