Late last year (Nov 2021), I relocated from Singapore to the US. I have help, a lot of help, from my company, friends and a relocation agency. So that made my experience much better. Yet I still experienced many speed bumps along the way. So this post is a way for me to pay it forward, to share what I have learned, in case they are useful to you.
Everyone situation is different (your background, job prospect, financial situation, etc) so I am trying to find the right balance between very specific learnings (which may only apply to me) vs generalizing the learnings so that they can be applicable to more people. The danger of generalizing learnings is that during the relocation process, people look for very specific advices so I intend to go a bit specific in this post.
1. When to relocate
We relocated at the end of Nov. We did this without realizing it at first but then we appreciated how lucky we were.
Depending on your work nature, end of the year for western countries have many seasonal holidays and it may mean a less demanding work schedule for you. Hence, end of the year (late Nov, early December) can be a very good time to relocate because you will need a lot of time to settle your life and deal with the unexpected.
You don’t want to push it too far into December though because then it means people are on leave, and things take a lot longer to get done so Nov is a good time to relocate to a western country.
So to the extent that you can, choose a period when your work will not be too taxing. Or have arrangement with your company beforehand that you will need time to settle your time
2. Have enough credit limit in your current credit cards (or cash) to handle the initial cash flow need
Even when you relocate with a company and a job, you will need to pay out of pocket upfront for many things before you can claim them back or your company may need your new bank account before they can pay you.
So in short, have more than enough credit limit on your existing credit cards to pay for things or use cash reserve.
You may ask what about the foreign transaction fee or exchange rate fee if you use your existing credit cards in a new country?
Agree that this is something to look into but you need to balance it with the risk of bringing too much cash with you every where.
Another option is to use a debit card, with account balance in USD so that you can withdraw USD from US ATMs. Citibank has the global wallet debit card which allows you to withdraw USD from their US ATMs without transaction fee so it can be a good option.
Of course, you need to convert your local currency (in my case SGD) to USD first and their exchange rate is 1% – 2%+ lower than the spot rate. So they kinda already earn their cut upfront.
3. Set up bank accounts in the new country early
There are a few banks in the US that allow expats to open bank accounts right before they relocate. One of them is City National Bank. Yes, it is a real bank, not a fictional one (I had that question before :D). Certainly they are not amongst the largest banks in the US but they have services which are friendly to foreign expats.
With proper verification (company employment letter, US visa, passport), you can start to open a US bank account and a credit card with them before you fly and have them ready to be used after you land.
Of course, I still recommend set up appointments with other banks in the US in your first week to open accounts with other banks. This will give you options later on.
Set up a new bank account with Bank of America is relatively easy. Of course, you need to put in some money but there is no minimum to start so you can put in just a few hundred dollars. To set up a new bank account with Bank of America, you only need your passport, visa and proof of address. Note that you don’t need to have social security number. You can update it with the bank after.
4. Try to get a credit card as soon as you can to build your credit history
My friends/colleagues told me multiple times how important credit history is but well, I didn’t appreciate it until I am in the US. That number has such a big impact on your life, everything from renting a place, buying a car, or even sign up for a post paid phone plan 🙁
Two things I recommend:
- City National Bank can give you a credit card (not debit card) based on your visa, salary, employment letters per the above. So do sign up and get one from them. That may be the only US credit card you Can get in the first few months in the US. Without a social security number and zero credit history, it’s very difficult to get a credit card.
- After you have your Social security number, and if you happen to have a Personal American Express in Singapore or where you lived before you relocated to the US, give American Express US a call and ask them for a card. They have this global membership program. Sign up with them because well, they are one of the best credit card providers in the US from the benefit point of view and they can use your past credit history in another country to give you a US credit card. This will also help you to build your credit history in the US.
- Why I stress the word “after” you get your social security number? Well, it is because having social security number is one of the requirements for them to give you a US credit card.
5. Health insurance is expensive in the US
We knew this before we relocated but I didn’t know it was that expensive to have full coverage for the family. Basically, it is easily multiple times the health/medical insurance cost in Singapore.
Make sure that you ask your employer to:
- Include you and the family in a health insurance plan from the day you land in the US as you never know when you might need insurance. The money will be deducted from your pay check of course.
- Send you All of the insurance cards early (medical, dental, vision cards) so that you can use them as/when needed.
In addition, find a pediatrician (if you have children) and a family primary care physician early. It is not easy at all to navigate the health care system in the US, even with common symptoms. For example, in Singapore, you can just go to any nearby clinics without appointments and wait maximum 20-30 mins to see a doctor. Here in California, they will ask you to make an appointment and come back another day or you need to go to urgent care center and it can cost quite a lot with urgent care. Not the most fun thing to navigate but well, there is no choice but to learn how the system works.
6. Find a public school for your child
Before we moved, we already decided to send our child to a public school in the US so I focused my research along that direction. A few things to note:
- You can enroll your child at any time during the school year. This is different from Singapore. As a foreigner in Singapore, you can’t enroll your child at any time during the school year. So this makes it easier to decide when to move to the US.
- Which school to enroll your child?
- While I understand that academic results are not everything, I use a few websites below to research: https://www.niche.com or https://school-ratings.com/index.html for California schools.
- To us, having diverse nationalities at the school is important so with a few Google searches you can roughly find out that information.
- My chosen school district allows online registration/submission so I did everything online to register for my child.
- The school website often has staff names and their email addresses so you can email them to ask questions even before you relocate if you want to. In my case, they replied back quite promptly.
- Prepare your child vaccination record carefully. Print it out or at least have a pdf version. You will need to submit the record before you child can go to school.
- Upon seeing your child vaccination record, the school may have additional questions or ask you to go and see a pediatrician to get additional vaccines for your child. This was what happened to us so plan to see a pediatrician early, right after you get your health insurance cards. Otherwise, you may need to wait some time for an appointment with the pediatrician.
- Zillow can be a good resource to check out the rent/available units for rent near the schools. Good or bad, generally, the rent near good school is more expensive 😐
7. Car rental with your local country driving license
If your local country driving license is in English, then it is pretty straight forward. You don’t need to prepare anything else in advance before you can rent a car. Otherwise, you may need to get an International driving permit with your picture on it.
I am in California and people recommend using Enterprise Rent a car. I have been using them without any issues for a while now so I recommend them too. I haven’t tried Avis or Hertz or other brands extensively or at all though. So take my recommendation with a grain of salt.
I recommend using Costco to book your car rental as it is cheaper than booking direct. So sign up for a Costco membership and then create a Costco travel account and use it to compare prices between different car rental companies and book through them. You don’t need to pay in advance through Costco and there is no cancellation fee so that’s pretty sweet.
Renting a car in the US at the moment (from late 2021 until 2022) is an expensive affair though. It is easily about $50-$60/day without insurance. If you take insurance into account, it adds up very quickly.
With insurance, given that you are likely new to the country, there are limited options for you. I recommend checking out a few things:
- Sign up with American Automobile Association so the membership comes with roadside assistance. This way you don’t need to get it from the car rental company, which charges per day.
- Collision damage waiver (CDW): my experience in this area is extremely limited as I haven’t never filed a claim before so do your own research please. One important option to look at is to check with your credit card company to see their coverage for CDW and other situations. More often than not, if you use their credit card, you will get coverage as long as you use the card to pay for the car rental. But read the fine print.
- If you are ok with the insurance from the credit card then you can save quite a bit of money.
- Third party liability insurance: this is to cover situations where someone wants to sue you/seek compensation in case of accidents. I don’t have an informed opinion here unfortunately so do your own research or share your thoughts at the bottom of the post and I will update it.
8. How to change your local Apple app store account or Google Play account to the US accounts
In order for you to start downloading US specific mobile apps to your devices, you need to first change your local Apple app store account/Google Play account to the US one. Unfortunately, Apple or Google doesn’t allow you to change the country easily so I ended up creating new US accounts.
You need US debit or credit cards and an US address in order to set up new Apple app store or Google accounts. Hence, this can be done only after you set up US bank accounts. The good thing about having a banking relationship with Bank of America is that while you wait for the debit card to be delivered to you, you can start using their digital debit card for Apple Pay or Google Pay. So it is quite neat because it may take between 1-2 weeks for you to receive your physical debit card, given what is going on with the pandemic.
Please make sure to select the option to keep all of your data on the phone when you change to another account, otherwise, it will be a disaster.
9. Get your social security card / number
For my case, in California, they only allow you to call (yes “call”) and make an appointment at least 2 weeks after you arrive in the country so make sure you set up an appointment early. The visit to the social security office is relatively straight forward and you can be in and out of that within 1 hour. Given the current situation in the US though, instead of the normal 1-2 week wait to have your social security card to arrive in the mail, it can be a 3-4 week wait.
And even after you receive the SSN, don’t be surprised to learn that your number has not been reported/shared within different systems because it is too new. This makes other stuff rather difficult like signing up for a post paid phone plan 😀
Yeah, I know (:D) I had to jump through hoops to sign up for a post paid phone plan even after I got the SSN. The plan itself is less than $60/month so you know, not a big amount of money by any stretch of imagination. It is of course completely different from Singapore. After you receive the EP card, you are set. Setting up different services is a breeze. So adjust your expectation and plan for it. I didn’t clearly.
That’s all from me for now and I will update this post with more tips as I learn them.
10. Small tips for finding an apartment for rent
It is not easy to find a suitable place to rent in a completely new environment so this topic should be up on top. However, given my experience is so limited in this area i.e. I have gone through it only once, I can only offer some small, specific tips to my situation.
- Use Zillow or craiglist to find multiple suitable listings.
- Remember to ask your company to send to you a letter of employment. It should include your legal name, job title, annual salary, start date and the fact that you are relocating to the US.
- Make it known up front to the agent, property manager or owner that you are relocating from somewhere else and you do not have a social security number Yet. You are in the process of getting one though. This means that you don’t have a credit history in the US. If they don’t accept this, too bad, move on.
- Culturally, local people like to stay in a house vs an apartment. We lived in Singapore so we are comfortable living in an apartment complex. Use this to your advantage. What this means in reality is:
- There are plenty of available units, apartment complexes to choose from. Don’t feel pressure to sign a lease within 24 hours of seeing the apartment or pay excessive deposit fee.
- Normally, if a property management company or landlord asks for more than 1 month of deposit, I walk away. This was what I did when I didn’t receive my social security number yet. Because again, you are not a first jobber or fresh graduate.
- Yes it is true that you are a foreigner without credit history but so what? It is a supply and demand game and culturally, people don’t want to stay in an apartment so you have the edge there.
- The typical lease length is 1 year or shorter so don’t be surprised that most of them don’t offer 2 year lease.
- Make sure you check out which public school your children will go to based on the location of the apartment/house.
- Of course, once you find a place that you really like, then it’s fine to conclude the deal quickly.
- Remember to ask for discount up front. For us, we get 1 month free rent after 2 month stay. It is very common for property management company to offer 1 month free rent.
- In my case, there was one property who asked for notarized letter of employment. This is complete nonsense. I checked with my US company HR and two property agents then I walked away because it is not standard business practice.
- Have a co-signer is a big plus but not a must. I didn’t have a co-signer/guarantor when I rent my current place and I didn’t need to pay 1 month deposit too.
Checking Google Maps for reviews of various apartments is not a very effective way because not many reviews are available. And more importantly, once you look at 4-6 apartments, you can see that their star ratings are more or less the same because people use Google Map review to complain only, not to compliment, most of the time. So visit the place in person. Don’t be put off by older complex. A well maintained older complex can be a lot cleaner, newer vs a new one that is not maintained properly.
We didn’t take note of this up front and it was a coincident that our apartment complex has a separate garage for each unit. It is such a big plus! Because basically you can use your own garage as a huge storage room :D. Coming from Singapore, most condos or HBDs don’t have garage for each unit so we didn’t know to look for it or take note of it.
11. Download Google Map offline
Use offline map function from Google Map because internet connection here is Not great. I am not talking about a remote area, I am talking about just outside of San Francisco, or along the way to Mountain View or just over the bridge to the East bay area. In less than 2 months, I have had at least 2 occasions where the internet stopped working and we got stuck for at least 15 minutes each time. I was using T-Mobile at that time and then I had to switch to another provider. So well, don’t sign up with T-mobile since their coverage is not good/consistent enough in comparison to other providers.
I am not familiar enough with the entire state of California to be able to drive without using the map.
12. Asian supermarket and Vietnamese supermarket
I recommend 99 Ranch market for Asian supermarket because:
- You can find a variety of asian food/ingredients here
- They sell very fresh/live seafood including crabs, lobster, fishes. You can ask them to prepare the fish to your liking and that is a big plus
For Vietnamese supermarket, we like to go to Dai Thanh supermarket in San Jose. You can find many things there. Or you can go to San Jose Vietnam Town. It has pretty much everything that you need for cooking/snacks.
13. Set up an utility account with PG&E
If you live in the west coast (like myself), then you need to set up an utility account with PG&E. Their website is here. As I didn’t have the social security number (SSN) when I needed to set up an utility account, I couldn’t sign up online. Just call them using the number given on the website and it can be done that way. You do not need a SSN to set up the account.
After setting it up, remember to ask the rep via phone for your account number so that you can then set up your online access.
14. Renter insurance
If you live in an apartment complex, it is typical for the management company to ask you to have renter insurance before you move in. After checking a few sources, I bought mine from AAA as their price is the cheapest and I am already a member. I have no idea if the claim process will be tedious as this is my first time buying renter insurance so I can’t comment. Their price is almost half of the other provider that the management company recommends to me though. I got to know about AAA renter insurance through my real estate agent.
15. Good car review websites
I really like Edmunds as their review is very comprehensive. They give your clear recommendations about which trim level to go with too, depending on your preferences. Check out their test drive, reviews on Youtube too as it gives a clearer idea of how the car feels like driving it.
Kelley Blue Book is another good option too.
As of now Feb 2022, the car price in the US is going crazy. Used (i.e. Pre-owned) car price is going through the roof and you can’t buy new cars unless you pay exorbitant price. So well, my solution is not buying 😀 and wait. Of course, my life style allows our family to wait but it may not be applicable to yours.
There is no reason to buy something when its value is not comparable to the money you pay for it. The common narrative is supply chain disruption, chip shortage, etc… but well, I don’t find them very convincing because the pandemic has been here for about 2 years and the vaccine has been out for more than 1 year.
16. Resources about different life hacks in the US
Since I am new to the country, I want to learn more about different life hacks so that I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. After going through a number of resources, I recommend the below:
- All the hacks podcast: I learnt a lot about different credit cards, which one to apply, when to use them, airline miles, points, etc… from Chris.
- The car chick podcast: all about cars, buying cars, leasing cars.
17. Sign up for Costco membership and get the free household membership
You can sign up for Costco membership program without a social security number. So I signed up during the first month of moving here. Certain Costco locations also have Costco gas stations and the price is cheaper there so take advantage of it. I didn’t know until later on that executive member can get another free membership card for one household member. Check out the details here. This way each person can go on their own if they want to.
18. You can use car rental for the behind the wheel driving test
Yes that is right, you can use car rental for the driving test. And you need to let the car rental company know in advance (calling them usually works) so that they can prepare a letter for you saying that you are not violating the rental contract when you drive the car for the exam. Also you will need to take all of the insurance offered by them because the DMV wants to make sure that the car is fully ensured when you go for the exam.
One thing I didn’t know before is that you need someone with a valid driving license to go with you to the exam 🙁 It can be anyone. I showed up by myself and they didn’t allow me to check in to take the behind the wheel test. I explained that I have a foreign driving license and I am using a rental car but well, that didn’t work.
And remember to relax! Relocation can be stressful.
“I wish I could live a little more
Look up to the sky, not just the floor” – Million Years Ago by Adele