I do know a few people who’ve worked diligently and carefully to maneuvre themselves into overseas job positions, but for the majority a relocation offer from your company (or a company which wishes to recruit you) can come as something of a surprise.
There is a lot to think about if you have the opportunity to relocate, and unraveling all the knots can be difficult, particularly if there’s some pressure to provide an answer to the offer.
I’ll admit that it didn’t take me long to accept my own offer verbally, in principle. It was made on a stifling Friday afternoon in a Sunnyvale conference room; I accepted the offer on the following Monday. My reasoning was simple – this was potentially a unique offer. If I moved to California and hated it, I could always move back. If I declined, I was left with a potential lifetime of “what if?”s.
Nevertheless, the process of moving is a complicated one, and it’s worth being prepared for all the steps.
1.) The Discussions
First up, you need to discuss the opportunity with a variety of people. Some will be useful; some might make the decision harder. Broadly, there are a couple of conversations you really must have.
- Friends and family – you’re going to be moving a long way away; It’ll cost you around $700 each time to fly home, and you’ll likely have less “vacation” than you do now. People who see you regularly will likely only see you once or twice a year – a Christmas visit home, perhaps, and any visits which your friends/family make to see you. This needs to be out in the open. Likely, they will be supportive – a relocation generally comes with an amazing opportunity. But let them know what’s going on, and let them talk it through with you.
- Lovers and dependents – girlfriends, wives, children… if you have them. Moving a whole family (or relationship) will complicate visa issues, and might not be immediately possible. If you’re in a casual/short-term relationship and your partner is unable/unwilling to move, the relationship will probably not survive a separation of this distance, and the break-up will likely be painful. Think about it fully beforehand.
- Americans – If you have American friends, or friends-of-friends, talk it over with them. They generally have some useful perspectives on their own country. They won’t be entirely subjective about it, but their insights will give you a good feel for some of the unexpected quirks you’ll likely have to deal with.
- Brits who already made the jump – If you work for a large international firm, the chances are the American office will already have some ex-pats. Try to connect with them – they’ll have a bunch of advice which will be directly applicable to your situation. Failing that, you can search for blogs written by expats in California, and post comments which inspire them to write advice for you…
These discussions should mostly be approached as information-gathering. The final decision on whether to move is yours alone to take, but you need to know how it will affect your relationships; and you can always benefit from knowing more about the kinds of issues you’ll encounter stateside.
2.) The Package
What your company offers you should be paramount in your decision on whether to relocate. Without the right support you run a much higher risk of having a bad experience. What you’re offered will likely depend on who you’re working for (Yahoo! and Google have more resources to support employees than MyWeb2.0Startup Inc.), but there are some basics to consider.
First up, the items that are essential. If any of these are not offered, or flat refused, think very hard about running away.
- A reasonable salary – Cost of living in the Bay Area is slightly (but not much) below that of London. Rent is very similar (perhaps Â£100/month cheaper on average), food (particularly eating out), clothes and electronics are cheaper. At a very informal estimate, I’d say my day-to-day cost of living is about 10% lower here. Anything above $70,000 is a solidly livable wage. A good sign is a firm who will translate your current salary into dollars (and perhaps add a percentage on top )
- Reasonable vacations – “Reasonable” in the US is different to “reasonable” in Europe. 10 days per year is a standard starting allowance; longer-term employees should be getting at least 15 days. “No vacations” is a bad sign.
- Health insurance – It’s absolutely essential, and paying for it yourself isn’t cheap. Try to get some details of the policies. You want to look for high coverage rates – some policies will only cover 70-80% of costs, which could still land you with a $20,000 bill for something like a badly broken leg.
- Immigration lawyers – Immigration law is a minefield, and you want someone in your corner. It’s also worth knowing if your firm will support any Green Card application you might wish to make. The lawyers should advise you on all the doucmentation you need, and the forms you need to fill. They should also check your application before you submit it. The US Embassy is unforgiving – a single mistake on a form will usually be enough to send you back to square one.
Then there are the items which aren’t 100% essential, but make life a whole lot easier.
- Relocation costs – It’s a good sign if your firm will pay to ship your belongings to the US, and will save you considerable amounts of money.
- Housing/Rental car on arrival – Knowing you have somewhere to live (and some way to get around) for your first month will make life a lot less stressful, and gives you a base to do all the settling in that I’ll tell you about in Part II. You can arrange these things yourself, but having support means there’s one less thing to worry about.
- An “arrival allowance” – Settling in is expensive, and wranglings with banks and Social Security can delay your first salary. Some money to set you on your feet is always good.
- A tax accountant – You’ll need to file both a UK and a US tax return after your first year here (April in the UK, January in the US). The US Tax Code is pretty crazy; having someone to help you through it is invaluable.
3.) The Visa
How you’re relocating will be largely affected by your visa eligibility. If you’ve worked for an international firm for more than a year (and they’re relocating you), you will be eligible for an L-1 visa. This lasts an initial period of 3 years, with up to a 2 year extension on top. The downside is that it’s tied to your company – get fired or downsized and you will need to leave the US within 2 weeks. L-1s, however, have no yearly quotas attached, and are fairly easy to obtain if your company is large.
Many immigrants come to America with an H-1B visa. This is for “skilled workers” (such as software engineers). The visa must be sponsored by a company, but is more flexible than the L-1 – you can move to another US firm, provided they’re prepared to take over sponsorship of your visa. However, H-1Bs have yearly quotas set by the Government. The quota pools open in March of each year, and a visa granted from that pool allows entry in October of the same year. Quotas run out fast – usually within 4-8 weeks of the pool opening. Right now, anyone wanting an H-1B will need to apply in March 2008, for entry in October 2008.
A few lucky individuals are eligible for an O-1 visa, for “workers of extraordinary ability”. This is not tied to an individual firm, and has no quotas, but is difficult to apply for. You generally need to be considered a “global expert in your field”, and there is a points-based system for determining this, depending on published works (books, theses), established dominance in a field (perhaps you’re on a W3C committee, or regularly advise the UN on your field) and other “indicators”, such as the grant of patents in your name. Unless you’re pretty sure you’re famously brilliant, an O-1 is probably out of reach.
Applying for a visa takes quite a bit of paperwork, and an excruciatingly dull visit to the US Embassy (where you’ll sit around for 2-3 hours whilst background checks are run). Your firm should provide assistance with this (more in “The Package” above), but even so, you’ll need to gather a lot of supporting paperwork (old passports, degree certificates, references, American-style passport photos – Snappy Snaps do them). You cannot apply without an appointment, which you’ll have to arrange via the Embassy’s Â£1.50/minute “hotline”. Typically, you’ll have to wait 2-4 weeks for a free appointment.
In addition, the US Government has recently added “surcharges” to most visas. In addition to the Â£60-ish fee for the appointment, you’ll pay a varying sum (an L-1 is currently $500) for the visa itself. Make sure you have the money spare, or that your company will loan/reimburse you the costs.
The visa appointment will also contain an “interview”, where you stand at an odd booth and field any questions that an Immigration officer has. The direction of these interviews is entirely on their whim, and they get the final say on whether you get a visa. If you’re a white Englishman, you’re unlikely to get much trouble – I was asked two questions (one forgotten, the other “so, how come you’re an English Lit grad who’s a computer engineer?”) and that was it.
Once you arrive in the US, you will eventually (effectively ‘immediately’ on an L-1; after a year on an H-1B) be eligible to apply for a Green Card. This is worth doing if you think you’re going to want to stay for longer than 5 years. The process of applying for a “labor-based” Green Card takes 2-3 years, but once you’re in the system your visa can be extended indefinitely, until a decision is made regarding your application.
4.) The Hiatus
Once you’ve committed to relocating, you will enter a strange ‘twilight-zone’ period of your life, where things seem to be on hold, all waiting for the day when you move. This is an inevitable, and somewhat disorienting position to be in. But the vagaries of the visa application process, plus the likely need to break a lease (or sell a house), and the fact that you’ll be shipping your possessions to the US sometime before you leave… all these things will leave you with at least a month where you’re no longer quite living in the UK, but neither have you yet moved.
The timing of my lease-break meant that I was sleeping on a friend’s floor for the whole of December 2004, living out of a suitcase which contained the barest essentials of my life. It can be frustrating – having committed to such a dramatic change you really want to just get on with it. Instead, your “old life” slowly winds down and fades away before you can board the plane.
Be prepared to feel a little confused, and a little melancholy.
5.) The Timetable
The severity of “the hiatus” will depend on how well your timetable fits together. This is not entirely under your control – it could be that your employer has a fixed idea of your Stateside “start date”, and it could be that your visa appointment is delayed, or the application takes too long to process.
The two golden rules are:
- Don’t book a flight until you have your visa in your hand
- Try not to cancel your lease/move out too early
The three major things to juggle are the shipping of your belongings, the visa, and your current home. Obviously, it’s easiest to ship your things whilst you’re still living under your own roof, but you don’t want to send a containerload of stuff to a country which might deny you a visa. So sort the visa out early, and then plan everything else around it. Ideally, ship your stuff just before you move out of home (but bear in mind that sea-freight from the UK to California takes 6 weeks). The shorter time your without your stuff, the better.
If you don’t have much stuff (crucially, furniture) it may be as cheap to air-freight your goods. This takes only 2 weeks, so with good timing on your side, you can spend very little time without your belongings.
So with all that under your belt, you’ll likely be sleeping on someone’s floor clutching a one-way plane ticket to the US. You’ve successfully tied up your loose ends, sorted out your new job, got your visa – you’re ready to go. So what the hell happens when you actually step off the plane at the other end? Stay tuned for the next thrilling installment…