This expat guide offers information and advice if you are moving to the US. Click on the different tabs to find out about anything from tax rules and banking to education and culture shock.
You can also read our city guides to New York and San Francisco.
Moving to the US
The United States has found success through immigration since its conception. Now with its own distinct identity, the country is a melting pot of colours and flavour, and continues to be a favourite expat destination.
Expats moving to the US will be exposed to one of the world’s largest economic and military powers, supporting more than 300 million people in 50 states across three time zones. Such an immense land area does make it difficult to generalise topics of expat consideration – like cost of living, climate and lifestyle, but there are certainly some clear cut advantages to moving to the ‘Land of Opportunity’.
The US benefits from high wages, a safe child-friendly environment for the family-oriented expat. There is a well-organised and efficient infrastructure which makes systems like education and healthcare some of the best in the world – if you can afford them.
As a downside, the US tends to have a thin safety net and limited aid for those in need of monetary assistance. Since the recession of 2008 competition for jobs in the US has been considerably more intense. In continuation of this the policy changes since 9/11 have resulted in a much more selective immigration allowance, where more expats would like to relocate than are accepted. The group of people who are allowed into the US is by no means an exclusive group, as roughly a million people immigrate annually to America – still leaving the influx of foreigners as the leading cause of the country’s population growth.
Visas for the US
Visas are divided according to immigrant and non-immigrant categories. Most expats in the US will want to obtain an immigrant visa. This is commonly referred to as the 'green card' and is attainable through employment sponsorship, family ties, and a visa lottery system.
Non-immigrant visas are usually reserved for tourists or temporary residents but can be used in some scenarios for temporary employment. There are a huge number of ways to qualify for both types of visa. Processing times vary depending on the location applied, but are usually less than six months. To make options easier many expats hire an immigration lawyer, although these can be expensive.
Go to the Working section for more information about visas and work permits.
Getting a Social Security Number
Expats moving to the US will need a social security number before formally starting a job. This is used by employers to report your earnings to the government.
If you are not a US citizen and do not want to work in the US, you do not necessarily need a social security number. It is still recommended to apply for one in order to receive certain government services that you are entitled to as a resident.
Some businesses, such as credit companies and banks, will ask for your social security number, but most can identify you by some other means. You will not need a number in order to get a driver’s license or register children for schools.
There are two ways to get a social security number:
- You can apply before you depart for the US when filing an application for an immigrant visa with the US State Department.
- You can visit a social security office in person on arrival in the US.
There are offices in all towns and cities. You should wait at least ten days after arriving in the US before applying at a social security office to allow time for your Department of Homeland Security documents to be available online. There is no charge for a social security number and it takes about two weeks to get one.
Shipping and removals
Both the and coasts of the US have major ports, making shipping to these regions less expensive than inland. Regions without ports will require a combination of sea and land transport. Some shipping companies will arrange for the entire transport while others will only offer one part of the delivery. It is a good idea to buy cargo insurance from a company other than the one used for shipping to ensure reliable coverage.
Regulatory law for shipping pets is different depending on the state and port of entry. A dog must be accompanied by a certificate for rabies vaccination, although this is not usually required for cats. Travel through some states requires a health certificate proving vaccinations. Hawaii has stricter pet immigration policies than most mainland states.
About working in the US
Hard work is a virtue in the US and expats should expect working more than 40 hours a week. Less vacation time than what is given in Europe is normal with only two weeks annual leave in many positions.
The American economy is comprised of many different industries that are largely driven by regional location. East coast cities, such as New York and Boston, are strong financial players. The Midwest heartland lays claim to sectors relating to agriculture and natural resources, and the west coast metropolis, such as Los Angeles and Seattle, are famous for technology and entertainment. Production and manufacturing contracts are increasingly being outsourced to smaller economies overseas.
Despite the downward spiral of the recession, there are still a number of employment areas that have plenty of job opportunities. The demand for employees in the medical profession - such as nurses, medical assistants and technicians – is on the increase. Jobs relating to care for the elderly are also increasing in availability as the baby-boomer generation is reaching retirement.
American companies can also apply for foreign workers if they can show that there is a lack of qualified US citizens capable of carrying out the job required. The US is particularly interested in skilled professionals for areas in which it competes for part of the global market, such as the burgeoning IT sector.
Being such a vast and cosmopolitan country, business etiquette varies from state to state in the US but social norms can be applied throughout: punctuality, a smart appearance and a respectful attitude are good starting points. A firm handshake and the use of titles (Mr, Mrs and Ms) are good for introductions, and business cards may be offered before parting. The business week goes from Monday to Friday, with business hours generally from 8am to 5pm, including an hour-long lunch. In many business areas and positions the working hours can be considerably longer than the general business hours suggest.
Banking in the US is extremely competitive and an array of services and rates can make choosing where to open an account confusing. It is often easier to maintain your overseas account, open a US based account at the same bank and transfer money back and forth. It is possible to relocate successfully without opening an American account, and expats on short stays usually choose to use their overseas account.
Coffee and newspaper Passport, immigration information, social security number and proof of address are often expected to open a checking account.
Credit histories can be transferred to the US, although this is a hassle many expats choose to forego in favour of making major purchases through their overseas account. Property can be bought without a US bank account.
Tax laws in the US are complex and made more so by expatriation. There are both state and federal taxes on income. Property and sales taxes also differ by state. State taxes differ considerably both in amount and regulation.
Paying taxes as a resident in the US
A resident alien (foreign national; living in the US) is generally taxed in the same manner as a US citizen. Resident aliens can be classified in two ways, either according to the lawful permanent residence test (“green card”) or the substantial presence test.
- Green card test: An alien who is a lawful permanent resident of the United States under US immigration laws (receives a “green card”) will be considered a resident alien for federal tax purposes.
- Substantial presence test: An alien will be considered a US resident if the individual is physically present in the United States for at least 31 days during the calendar year and 183 days for the current and two preceding calendar years.
US residents are required to file an annual individual tax return and to disclose the worldwide income received that given tax year. If you have income from another country while you are a US resident – from assets such as interest, dividends, or rental income - and you pay taxes to the other country, you may qualify to receive a foreign tax credit on your US tax return. Through this method it is possible to avoid double taxation on the same income.
For the first and last year in the US as a resident, you simultaneously may be considered a resident and non-resident; and consequently may still be required to disclose your worldwide income for the portion of the year that you are considered a US resident.
Paying taxes as a non-resident in the US
Non-residents who are doing business in the US are taxed on the income they received in the US if it is significant. Expats in the US may be exempt from some forms of taxation such as social security. All of this is further complicated by tax treaties with other countries. Professional tax advisers are widely used by US citizens even with less complicated tax returns, thus it is highly recommended that expats in the US hire a tax planner specialising in expat taxes.
US Visa options - getting your Green Card
A “green card” is the official card issued by the US Immigration Service (USCIS) to foreign nationals granting them permanent residency in the US. A “green card” allows you to live and work in the US.
Obtaining a Green Card
Generally, the process takes three steps when applying through employment:
(1) the Labour Certification; (2) the Immigrant Petition (I-140 or I-526); and 3) the Adjustment/Permanent Residence Application.
You can either live in the US under a non-immigrant visa while your immigrant visa is being processed; or, you can wait in your home country until final approval. The waiting period will depend on the skill level you are classified under. A US company must file the application petitioning you. The company can be owned by you or not, depending on the visa classification.
The “green card” can also be obtained through family members who are either US citizens or legal permanent residents (“green card” holders); this includes a parent, child, son/daughter over 21, spouse, sibling or fiancé(e). These are generally easier and sometimes faster than employment-based “green card” applications.
The “employment based” Non-Immigrant Visas which allow you to reside in the US while processing your “green card” include:
Available for companies that wish to expand operations into the US by opening a branch, a warehouse or an office. It can lead to permanent residency and is relatively easy to obtain with the right documentation and presentation. You would be transferred from your company’s offices in your home country to the new office in the US With your US company sponsoring you for a “green card” you can skip the first step (Labour Certification). The waiting period is relatively short, from 8-15 months.
This is probably the quickest way to obtain US residency, but does require a direct financial investment into a new or existing US business. The minimum funds required for the investment is either $500,000 or $1,000,000, depending on the geographic area. Your US company can sponsor your “green card” application.
Service and trading companies may qualify for the E-2 treaty trader status. Financial services companies, software companies, attorneys, accountants, and the like, along with companies trading goods, may qualify for E-2 treaty trader status.
You must buy or start up a company in the US with personal funds; you must be the principal owner (at least 50%); a “significant investment’ is required - you must cover at least 50% of the funds required to start up or purchase the business; and the money needs to be at “risk”. Though most countries are eligible for E visas, there are some that are not.
Your US company may not sponsor you for the “green card”. You must find another company to sponsor you.
H-1 visas are for skilled international professionals who want to live and work in America on a long term basis. As these are non-immigrant visas, they are often quicker to obtain than green cards, thus they are ideal for those looking to work in the US for a long duration, but not permanently. In order to qualify for this visa, you must have a US company sponsor or petition for your employment.
Other possible visas include:
- TN-1 Visa
- E-1 Visa
- E-3 Visa
- J-1 Visa
- And various study visas
TABLE TO COME LATER
New in the US
American culture is a mishmash of global customs, traditions, languages and beliefs.
The many influences and integrated cultural characteristics are too long to list, but each contributes to the national ethos. This is particularly apparent in the cities which are blends of many different cultures; smaller towns often retain characteristics of their founding nationalities.
Despite its many inspirations US culture still has distinct attributes of its own. In fact, there are a number of differences from other western cultures that may take expats living in the US by surprise. This includes the geographical size of both countries and big cities. As a result long commutes and long drives are normal and a dependence on vehicles is a common characteristic of American life. It is illegal to drink before 21 years of age, and although this law is routinely broken, police usually take it very seriously.
Cost of living
The cost of living in the US varies from region to region and from city to city.
The major cosmopolitan centres such as New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles are the most expensive places to live. The cost of living in a major city can be 50% more than that of the national average. To compensate, wages are increased in cities but often not in proportion to the cost of living. A large portion of the high cost of living is due to expensive property prices. Living outside city centres can make your cost of living markedly cheaper.
On average, expenses are less than in western European countries. However, expats may be unaccustomed to some expenses. For example, you need a reliable vehicle for commuting in every area of the US, except a very small group of big cities. Petrol is much cheaper than in Europe, but more is consumed. Heating and air-conditioning are also widely used and can become very expensive.
As a whole the country is a safe expat destination with a strong police presence. Poorer neighbourhoods where crime is more common are avoidable and down-town areas and business districts tend to be safe. Expats in the US should become familiar with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sections of cities before they rent or buy property.
Except for very wealthy and gated residential neighbourhoods, employing private security companies is rare and residents can expect quick and quality responses by police or even a local neighbourhood-watch programme.
There are no specific health risks associated with the US.
Southern and eastern states may experience hurricanes in June and November, and the west coast may experience wildfires between March and November.
The US is a vast country, spanning six time zones from east to west, with just as many climate variations. Generally speaking, the west coast experiences a pleasant Mediterranean climate, and the climate on the Pacific Northwest is milder, more maritime, while the central regions have a continental climate with cold winters and hot summers.
Expats moving to the US will find a high standard of accommodation options available. Whether you are looking to rent a house, or whether you’re looking to take advantage of the recovering property market by purchasing a prime plot of land, you’ll likely find a lovely home, well-suited to your needs and your budget.
Types of Accommodation in the US
Accommodation in the US has its own unique terminology, and is usually divided into the following classifications:
- Apartments (self-contained units in larger buildings)
- Single family homes (stand-alone houses, usually on a small plot of land)
- Duplex homes (when two or more living quarters are housed in the same building)
- Condominiums (separate, often similar-styled homes, located close together)
- Mansions (large, extravagant, expensive houses)
All these forms of housing are widespread throughout the US, with apartments being the most popular to rent for expats, and single family homes being the most commonly purchased.
Renting Property in the US
Finding a place to rent in the US is a relatively easy process. First, you should conduct some research into the city you are relocating to in order to get some perspective on a neighbourhood that would best align with your priorities. From there, you can use one of the following avenues to start investigating individual rental properties:
- There are plenty of website – such as Craig's List, Rent.com and Apartments.com – that carry both short- and long-term rental listings. You should be able to browse these sites for free, without needing to register and to share any of your personal information. Stay clear of sites that insist that you provide them with this kind of information.
- Local newspapers and magazines – known as 'home and apartment finders' – are widely distributed in most US cities. These often specialise in providing rental listings.
- If you find a neighbourhood you like – and if you're very lucky - you might be able to find a place simply by driving around in that neighbourhood looking for a 'For Rent' sign outside a property.
- The USA's Multiple Listings Service – a huge, constantly updated database of homes and apartments available to rent and to buy – is also a great resource. However, it is generally better when looking for homes to buy, as many landlords realise they can find tenants on their own terms, without having to advertise their properties on the MLS.
- Real estate agents can be used – however, many US realtors specialise in selling and buying homes, not renting them.
Once you've found a property you like, you'll need to tender a lease application. This will probably take the form of a generic document known as a State Rental Agreement.
In order to be taken seriously as a candidate for renting the property, especially as a foreigner, you will need to demonstrate that you have at least enough funds to cover the first month's rent upfront, and also pay another month's rent as deposit.Credit checks and background checks will be carried out – if you have any references from previous landlords, be sure to include them with your application.
Lease agreements in the US are generally signed on a six-month or one-year basis. Whether or not you will be liable for your own gas, electricity, water, refuse, phone and Internet bills will depend on your specific rental agreement.
Buying Property in the US
The process of buying a house in the US is as follows:
- A mortgage or loan is obtained. As a foreigner – in the current economic climate – you will need plenty of supporting documentation to organise your home loan, and will need to prove that you are both legally employed in the US, and financially able to commit to the purchase of your new house
- Once you've identified the home you wish to buy, a formal offer is made to the seller, in the form of a (legally binding) sales contract.
- A deposit on the property is placed by the buyer in escrow, showing good faith that they will commit to the full purchase of the property once certain conditions have been met. As a foreigner the amount of deposit money you are required to part with might be larger than would be expected of US citizens
- The buyer sees to it that inspections and appraisals are done. While not always necessary, if you are borrowing money to purchase your house, the bank or financial institution that lent it to you will insist on this step
- A title search is conducted, usually by the real estate agent working on behalf of the buyer
- A deed of sale contract is drawn up, signed, and filed with the county – creating an official record of sale. At this point, all money must change hands, and possession of the property must be turned over.
Foreigners looking to buy property in the US should also bear in mind that one of the most crucial steps along the way is to secure the services of a reliable estate agent: one with whom you’ll be able to foster a good working relationship.
By providing them with a comprehensive list of your housing requirements, your realtor will be able to use the Multiple Listing Service to generate a list of potential properties. Once you've identified one or two that seem promising, your realtor will then further assist you in liaising with the seller; organising viewings, house inspections and property reports (if necessary); negotiating yours sales contracts; advising you on market trends and prices; conducting title searches, etc. Suffice it to say, that buying a house in America is far less a project undertaken individually, than it is in partnership with your estate agent.
Colleges and Universities
The US has over 4,000 degree-granting institutions, which translates into an amazing wealth of opportunity for expats with children approaching college age. Though the magnitude of options can seem daunting, it can be easy to narrow down the school selection process and focus on specific applications once you have a bit of background knowledge.
There are three kinds of institutions that new arrivals in the US ought to consider (note that Americans tend to use the words “college”, “university” and even “school” quite interchangeably; therefore the term used in normal conversation may not necessarily denote a difference in size, quality or category).
The US has a system of community colleges, which grants graduates an associate’s degree (AA/AS) after two years of study, often at significant lower cost than at four year institutions. Many of the courses offered by community colleges are vocational – auto mechanics, secretarial training, medical technology, paralegal education, etc. But they will also offer many courses that allow students to transfer to four-year institutions after completing an associate’s degree.
are institutions that grant bachelor degrees (BA/BS) and in a few instances also master’s degrees (MA/MS). They tend to be smaller in size, and they vary in selectivity and in quality. Some of them are state institutions, though the majority are private. Some colleges run by specific religious groups, and there are also a few women’s colleges.
award bachelor degrees but also grant master’s and doctoral degrees (PhDs) as well. Some state schools may have tens of thousands of students and they often have very good research facilities.
The universities and colleges in the US tend to be well-financed and often have a number of scholarships or financial aid available to supplement tuition. Though expat children do not usually qualify as easily as US citizens, there are still opportunities worth researching. Check with government and private organisations in your country of origin to see if your child can take advantage of any available financing.
Time: There are six times zones in the USA: Eastern time is GMT -5, Pacific time is GMT -8, Central time is GMT -6, Mountain time is GMT -7, Alaska is GMT -9, and Hawaii is GMT -10. Daylight saving time sets the clocks back by an hour between March and November in all states except Arizona and Hawaii.
Electricity: 120 volts, 60Hz. Standard plugs have two flat pins but three-pin plugs are also used.
Language: English is the official language but Spanish is common in the south-western states.
Communications: The international access code for the US is +1. To dial out of the US, use 011 followed by the relevant country code (eg 44 for the UK). Area/city codes must be dialled before the local number required. There is mobile network coverage in all populated US destinations but expats should be aware that their phones from home will only work if they have tri-band. There are Internet cafés throughout the States and broadband at home is also available in most areas 900/1800 coverage throughout Spain. Broadband internet connection at home and in internet cafés is available in all but the smallest of Spanish towns.
Emergencies: Dial 911 for emergency assistance.
Currency: The United States dollar (USD, $) is the official currency of the US. It is divided into 100 cents, also called pennies. You can check the latest exchange rates here.
Embassy contact details
United States of America Embassies
- United States Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 (0)20 7499 9000
- United States Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 688 5335
- United States Embassy, Canberra, Australia: +61 (0)2 6214 5600
- United States Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 (0)12 431 4000
- United States Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 (0)1 668 8777
- United States Embassy, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 (0)4 462 6000
Foreign Embassies in United States of America
- British Embassy, Washington DC: +1 202 588 6500
- Canadian Embassy, Washington DC: +1 202 682 1740
- Australian Embassy, Washington DC: +1 202 797 3000
- South African Embassy, Washington DC: +1 202 232 4400
- Irish Embassy, Washington DC: +1 202 462 3939
- New Zealand Embassy, Washington DC: +1 202 328 4800