You’ve made it! You have finally arrived to the country of your dreams! The first few months in America can be quite overwhelming. Not only is everything very exciting but you will have to find your way through the madness of bureaucracy. It is said to be a lot easier than in many other countries, but due to the new language it can become quite an adventure.
Here are the most important things you need to accomplish once you arrive in America:
Get a Phone number
To get your new life started in America, you should get a phone number as soon as possible.
Your quickest option is to use your old cell phone and get a matching prepaid card.
There are several providers like Simple Mobile, Cricket, Boost Mobile and Metro PCS, just to name a few. Each of them offer several plans, depending on your calling habits and data usage. I chose Simple Mobile because their plans offer free international phone calls and text messages. This makes it a lot easier for me to stay in contact with my friends and family back home. Prepaid phone plans (and phones, in case you don’t have one) are available at stores like Best Buy, Walmart or Target and online.
If you prefer to get a cell phone plan with one of the big providers, which may include a nice cell phone, you might have to wait a bit, as you have not established a credit history (**see below) yet.
You might have the option to pay a security deposit to secure a contract. Please check with your desired cell phone provider.
Apply for your Social Security Number
A social security number is issued to U.S. citizens, permanent residents (green card holders) and temporary residents who are here on a non-immigrant visa. It is used by your employer to report your income to the government. It is also used by banks and credit institutions to check if you are credit worthy. You will be asked for it when you open a bank account, visit a doctor, apply for an apartment and when you apply for your driver’s license, just to name a few. A Social Security Number is your #1 form of identification in America.
After your arrival you should wait around two weeks before you submit your application to your local social security office. This time is needed by the USCIS to check your immigration status and update their data base accordingly.
To apply for your social security card, you need the following documents:
- The completed Application Form
- Your passport and proof of immigration status, such as your Green Card, Employment Authorization Document or work permit and a copy of your latest I-94, which you can obtain here. If you are an au pair, you must show your DS-2019
- Your birth certificate as a proof of age
There is no charge for a social security card and you will usually receive it within 2 weeks.
You will keep the same social security number for the rest of your life, so make sure you keep it in a safe place.
Open a Bank Account and get a Credit Card
You have the option to apply for a checking and savings account. The checking account is usually the best choice for your everyday payments and income. It comes with a bank card, so you can get cash from the ATM. I would suggest you get a checking account at a local bank, so you can always walk in and ask their employees for help if you have any questions. Another advantage of a checking account with a local bank is that you won’t have to pay any fees when you pick up cash from their ATMs.
For a savings account I have found that online banks offer much better interest rates than local banks. I have had good experiences with Ally Bank and Capital One. It is pretty easy to sign up for an account online and transfer money between your checking and savings account.
To open a bank account in the USA you will need the following documents:
- Your passport and visa
- Proof of address (for example the letter that was sent to you by the Social Security Office or a pay stub from your employer)
- Your social security number
I know this doesn’t seem important to you right now, but in order to build your credit history (** see below), you will need a credit card as soon as possible. If you have never lived in the US before, you will most likely only qualify for a secured credit card since the bank does not know if you are trustworthy when it comes to making your payments. A secured credit card means that you will have to pay a deposit to the bank and they will use this money as your spending limit. You can ask your local bank if you can open a secured credit card with them or check out some of the many online credit companies. Most of them have credit card options for people who are trying to build their credit.
(** Your credit history is a report about your payment history on loans and credit cards. This history will always be considered when you apply for a cell phone plan, rental apartment, buy a house or need a loan to make another big purchase like a car. When you have bad or non existing credit history, it will be hard to find an apartment or get a loan of any kind.)
When you open your first credit card, your bank will report you to credit bureaus and they will open a file about your credit history. Make sure you pay your credit card on time to establish a good credit history.
Find a home
If you were not able to find an apartment or a house to rent before you moved, now is the time to start your search. Landlords will usually ask you to provide the following information with your completed application form:
- Your passport and visa
- Proof of employment like your work contract or pay stubs
- Bank statement
- A list of previous landlords including contact information
- Your social security number
They will run your background check and credit history, but since you are new to the country they will not find any information about you. Please don’t get discouraged if you get a few refusals, I’m sure you will find something, but it might take some time.
It might be easier for you to rent an apartment from a private person rather than a big housing company. Zillow and Craigslist are good websites to search for a privately owned home to rent. Send a nice email to the landlords explaining your situation and hopefully you will find a beautiful place soon.
If you already have a driver’s license from your home country, it can be fairly easy to get an American license. In many states you are allowed to drive with the driver’s license from your home country plus an international license for some time before you have to switch to the American license.
Please check with your state’s department of motor vehicles about the rules that apply in your area.
When I was an au pair in Virginia, I received my driver’s license without any testing. Here in New Jersey on the other hand, I had to take a written test to get my license, so it really varies from state to state.
Without decent health insurance coverage you are putting your health and finances at risk.
The USA is one of the most expensive countries when it comes to health care. You might think that you are young and healthy, but you never know what the future brings.
Ideally you have already informed yourself about health insurance before your arrival.
There are several health insurance options available:
- Health insurance through your employer
- Health insurance through your partner if you are married to an American citizen
- Long term travel insurance through an insurance company in your home country
- Health insurance directly through an American insurance company
Before you sign an insurance contract, please read the conditions carefully. If you plan on having a family soon, make sure prenatal care is included. Also, dental and vision plans are not included in most health insurance plans in America, they are sold separately.
Before I moved to America, I created a few lists to help me stay organized. I made sure to include all the documents I needed for each step so I didn’t forget any papers for my appointments. This system worked out well for me and everything went smoothly.
The only problem I had twice, once at the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) and once at the social security office, was that the employees didn’t know anything about my kind of visa. I’m here on an E2 work visa, which apparently is not very well known. Because it is called an E “2”, they thought that it was connected to an American spouse, but I’m not married. It took a little of convincing, googling and talking to their supervisor to get them to believe that it was an actual work visa. I hope you won’t have to deal with any issues like this.
Do you have any questions about your start in America? If you have already arrived, did any weird things like this happen to you when you were dealing with the officials?
I’m looking forward to hear from you.