Checking into the airport for your “relocation flight” is a profound moment. When you finally walk through security and wait to board the flight, you’re crossing the threshold. Things are in motion at last – all the planning, the paperwork, the goodbyes and the waiting have paid off. This is where a new life starts.
But that’s just the problem, too – what awaits you at the other end of the journey? There are some definite hurdles to jump. Here are 5 of the biggest ones you’ll face.
1.) The “Vacation Feeling”
When you first arrive in the US, you’ll be surrounded by that certain sense of “the other”. The differences between life in the US and the UK aren’t that enormous, but together they quickly add up. The pervasive smell of air conditioning, the different weather, the road signs, the different cars, the “wrong side” driving, the different supermarket layouts, the different fast food chains… and so on. You’re definitely not in Kansas any more, Toto… (well, unless you relocated to Kansas).
The sensation of difference wasn’t anything new to me – it’s the same feeling you get whenever you go on holiday to a foreign country. The difference that gave me trouble, though, was that this wasn’t a vacation.
The upshot is that your first month will probably feel pretty “disconnected” – you’re neither at home in your new situation, or “at home” as you’ve known it up until now.
The good news is that the feeling will fade, until you’ve forgotten it, and one day you’re standing in the DMV, or the Post Office, or a Supermarket, and you suddenly realise “holy shit! this all feels normal now.”
And the bonus good news? Going back to your home country to visit isn’t nearly as weird. For me, the disconnected feeling lasts for a few hours, if that.
2.) The Invisible Man (or Woman)
Get your head around this idea right now: when you arrive, you will not exist. Without a Social Security Number, you are not a real person. You can’t apply for a drivers’ licence at all, and in theory you can’t get a bank account.
Getting a Social Security Number is relatively easy, but you do have to wait until Homeland Security send your arrival records along to Social Security. When I arrived they had a 10-day deadline to do this, and actually managed it in 7 days. Friends who’ve arrived since have found the process taking longer, up to a month.
It’s well worth asking your employer-to-be whether they have arrangements in place to pay you before your SSN is issued, and to arrive with a reasonable stock of cash and at least one current credit card, in case things get tight. Some employers will assign you a “placeholder SSN” in their payroll system.
But what good is this without a bank account, something which you need an SSN for?
More good news – banks are desperate enough for your business that they’re prepared to skirt the official rules to set you up with an account. You’ll almost certainly need to show them a letter from your employer, confirming permanent employment and salary, and take your passport along too. You’ll need it for ID anyhow, and your Visa can be useful in backing up your legitimate status. Smaller banks are less likely to accept such things, but I had no problem with Bank of America, and I know people who have had similar success with Citibank, Wells Fargo and Washington Mutual.
Sticking with banking, your credit record will be non-existent, and there’s no way I know of to get anyone to consider your foreign record. This can be inconvenient at times – you’ll be stiffed (relatively speaking) on loan rates, background checks for apartment rentals may be more stringent (again, keep that letter from your employer handy to smooth things over), and getting a new cellphone contract will likely require a hefty deposit (I had to pay $500 which seems to be the going rate – and after a year the sneaky bastards won’t pay it back; they’ll just credit it to your account).
As soon as you have your SSN, apply for a driving test. The test should prove laughably easy to anyone who’s taken a European test, or driven for any length of time, and official regulations state that anyone who is resident in California must apply for a licence within 10 days of arrival in order to drive legally. This is, of course, impossible, since you need an SSN (which takes at least 10 days). But sooner is safer, if you want to stay 100% legit. Rules vary from state-to-state, but are broadly similar. Whatever, you’ll need that licence.
Unless you’re looking seriously old and wizened you will regularly need to show ID to get into bars and clubs, or to buy alcohol. Carrying your passport around permanently isn’t a great idea, and is pretty inconvenient. If you can’t drive (and don’t want to learn), contact DMV regarding a non-licence ID card.
If you’re going to buy a car and drive, be prepared to be treated as a “new driver” – few insurance firms will consider your past driving record in assessing premiums. The only exception I know of is Farmers Insurance. Of course, if your past driving history is lousy, the opportunity to wipe the slate clean may be entirely welcome!
If you’re only going to rent cars, beware that most rental firms want a licence that’s at least a year old. For this reason, keep your current driving licence (some DMVs may want you to surrender it – try to reason with them on this). Also beware that DMV won’t let you take a driving test in a rented car without a specific letter of authorisation from the rental firm.
3.) The Urban/Suburban Divide
Many small American towns, particularly those in boom areas and those further west, are completely unlike European towns. Sprawl is frequently the dominant town-planning methodology, and it can be a shock to outsiders. Many heavily-built-up areas (such as Silicon Valley and the LA tri-counties area) consist of a series of towns which all merge into each other. If you miss the “welcome to Mountain View!” sign, you’d never know that you’d crossed a boundary.
Suburban America requires a car. Even in areas with relatively good transit networks, getting around at night or running many errands is virtually impossible without one. Useful amenities are generally scattered miles apart from one another. Where sidewalks even exist, the pedestrian is still very firmly a second-class citizen. The situation is improving, slowly, but it will take years to remove the car-centricity from suburbia.
I spent a year living in Sunnyvale, and the commute was fantastic (6-7 miles each way, about 15 minutes) but in all honesty, holding together a social life was hard work. Driving to bars means that evenings are short – after a couple of drinks, you’ll need to stop (do not be tempted by the relatively cavalier attitude a lot of locals have to driving drunk. Get caught and you’re facing mandatory jail time (only a token day for a first offence, but nonetheless…). The charge will also play havoc with any future application for a visa extension, green card or citizenship.
Sunnyvale is fairly typical of the utter disregard for walking (or cycling). Although the city is now pushing ahead with plans for a foot/cycle bridge, at present it is literally cut in two by the 101 freeway. There is no easy way to walk from the south of Sunnyvale to the northernmost part, and cycling requires several kamikazee dashes across the entrances to freeway onramps.
That said, some like the suburban lifestyle. It’s quiet and laid-back. On the West Coast, suburbs tend to be inland and get better weather for much of the year. And if you’re a tech worker, your office is likely somewhere in the Silicon Valley sprawl, so choosing to live in San Francisco means a long commute.
Nevertheless, my ultimate personal choice was to live in the city, where I can walk (or cycle) from place to place, where a social life is easy to maintain, and where the attitude is just more cosmopolitan.
It’s worth spending some time in both modes, if possible, before you ultimately decide where to live.
4.) The Linguistic Hurdles
There are some changes you’ll need to make to the way you talk. If you want tomatoes, you’re going to have to ask for “toe-may-doe”; tuna is “tooh-na”. You’ll find yourself talking about the “shed-ule” a hell of a lot, and the last letter of the alphabet will have to become “zee”.
These seem to be the worst culprits in terms of pronunciation. Then there are the things which are just a different word altogether; places where British/Commonwealth English simply isn’t understood. A “mobile” is a “cell” (although in tech circles, “mobile” is generally understood). What I always called “saloon cars” (the 4-door family variety) are “sedans” out here. “Coriander” means the seed of that plant only; the leaves are “Cilantro”. What the English call “Courgettes” are “Zucchini”, and the English “Aubergine” is “Eggplant”.
Sticking with your English spelling won’t cause too many problems – most Americans are familiar enough with it. And I find that if I try to “-ize” my “-ise”s I’m inconsistent in how I do it.
If you’re at all foul-mouthed, you’ll probably need to tone it down a bit. Swearwords which are generally milder today (“shit”, say) have about the same level of offensiveness, but in many circles “fuck” is frowned upon more than it would be in the UK. And as for the ‘c’ word… it has a level of offensiveness here which simply doesn’t exist in England. Best to drop that one altogether. Some profanities simply aren’t understood. “Wanker” and “bollocks” aren’t in the American vernacular at all; “bastard” is known, but only really used in the context of a man who wronged a woman.
You will find over time that your accent will start to drift a little, depending on who you’re talking to. I “americanise” my vowels far more now than I did when I arrived, although I still sound ostensibly British (with the occasional “are you Australian?” thrown in.
5.) The Network
This is obvious, but in a way which makes it easy to overlook. Unless you’re pretty lucky, landing in the US will place you back at “ground zero” in terms of friendships and social circles.
When I arrived in the Bay Area, I knew three or four people who had made the hop before me, all of them through work. None of them were close friends at the time, but I got to know all of them better in the months that followed my arrival. Together with various team-mates at work, they became the “seeds” for building a network of friends on the West Coast. Without them, I would have been pretty lost.
In the past year and a half, a tech resurgance has meant that more of my London-based friends and acquaintances seem to be moving to the Bay Area, and they’re lucky since I’m already in position to be one of their social “seeds”. But individual networks and circumstances vary, and when you arrive, you may not know anyone.
It’s essential that you’re outgoing when you first arrive, and that you take some time to socialise with the people who you meet and like, whether they be at work or a local bar. Together with the initial hard work of setting up an existence in America, and the varied ways in which you’ll be disoriented, a network of people who you can have fun with (and get help from) is the single best way to make the transition into a new life an easy one.