Tips on how to prepare for relocation from Asia to the US

Are you thinking of making the big move from Asia to the US? It can be a daunting task, but with careful preparation, you can make it a smooth transition. Here are some tips to help you get started.

Everyone’s 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. When people are learning how to relocate, they often look for very specific advice. In this post, I will go into some detail to provide that kind of guidance.

1. When to relocate

We moved at the end of November, and it turns out that we were luckier than we first realized.

Since many western countries have seasonal holidays at the end of the year, it may be a less hectic time for you work-wise. Therefore, late November or early December can be an opportune moment to relocate because you will need plenty of time to get settled and deal with any unanticipated issues.

You don’t want to wait too long into December to relocate though, because then people are usually out of the office on leave, and tasks take much longer to complete. Therefore, November is an opportune time to move to a western country.

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. 

If November is not suitable for you, to the extent that you can, choose a period when your work will not be too demanding. Or have arrangements with your company beforehand that you will need time to settle.

2. Have enough credit limit in your current credit cards (or cash) to handle the initial cash flow need

There are many things you will need to pay for out of pocket when relocating for a job, such as moving expenses and new housing costs. Your company may also require your new bank account information (which I will mention later) before they can start paying you. So it’s important to have enough credit available on your existing credit cards or cash in savings to cover these upfront costs.

Another great question is whether you’ll be charged a foreign transaction fee or an exchange rate fee if you use your current credit cards in a new country.

While I agree this is worth looking into, you never want to carry too much cash with you as it can be risky. 

A second choice is to get a debit card that has your account balance in USD. In this manner, you can take out money from US ATMs without being charged a fee. I recommend Citibank’s global wallet debit card since it wouldn’t charge you for using their US ATMs.

3. The sooner you set up bank accounts, the better

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 that 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. 

city national bank los angeles oct 2022

In your first week, it is advisable that you also set up appointments with other banks in the US so you can open accounts with them. This will give you more options to choose from later on.

Setting 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. 

In the near future, it is likely that you might sign up for a credit card with JP Morgan Chase. I recommend setting up a checking or savings account with them so that they start having your record in their system.

4. Try to get a credit card as soon as you can to build your credit history

My friends and colleagues always talked about how crucial credit history is, but I never really understood it until I moved to the United States. Your credit score hugely impacts your life here–from renting an apartment to buying a car or signing up for a post-paid cell phone plan.

Two things I recommend:

  • City National Bank can give you a credit card based on the documents previously mentioned, like your visa and employment letters. So you should go ahead and sign up for one–it may be the only US credit card you can get in the first few months after moving here. Without a social security number or any credit history, it’s difficult to acquire a credit card from most banks.
  • 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 for this credit card provider because they are one of the best in terms of benefits and can use your past credit history from another country to give you a US credit card. This will also help build your credit history in the US.
  • *Why do 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

Like many things, we knew the expensive health insurance rates were coming before we uprooted our lives and moved. What I wasn’t prepared for was just HOW MUCH it would cost to have full coverage here – multiple times over what we paid in Singapore!

It’s crucial to request your employer include you in their health insurance plan starting from the day you arrive in the United States. You never know when an accident might happen, and it’s better to be safe than sorry. Unfortunately, the premium will be deducted from your paycheck.

By sending you all of the insurance cards well in advance (medical, dental, vision), you can use them as needed without worrying about a delay.

Furthermore, it is crucial to locate a pediatrician early (if you have children) as well as a family primary care physician. Even with typical symptoms, it can be tough to maneuver the US health care system. In Singapore, for instance, you can simply walk into any neighboring clinics without an appointment and wait no longer than 20-30 minutes to see a doctor. Here in California however, they will ask that you make an appointment and come back another day or visit an urgent care center– which costs quite a bit more money. It’s not the most enjoyable thing to learn but unfortunately, there is no other way around it.

6. Research carefully and put money in Health Saving Account (HSA) and Flexible Saving Account (FSA)

Your company will most likely ask you if you want to contribute money to a Health Saving Account (HSA) or Flexible Spending Account (FSA) within your first month in the United States. I had no idea what they were or how they could help my family save on taxes, so I didn’t select either option. That was clearly a mistake.

With that said, do your own research (carefully) prior to making any decisions; more often than not, after investigating, you’ll want to set some money aside in both HSA and FSA. They are that crucial, which is why I wrote two additional pieces on HSA and FSA for expats.

7. Finding the right public school for your child is important

Before we moved, we had already decided to send our child to a public school in the US so I focused my research in 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.
  • Which school should I enroll my child in?
    • 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. 
    • We believe that it is essential to have a diverse group of nationalities represented at the school, and you can use a few quick Google searches to find out that information.
    • The school district I chose offers online registration, so I did everything related to registering my child online.
    • The school website generally has the names and email addresses of staff members, so you can email them with questions prior to relocation if desired. I found that they responded quite quickly when I reached out.
    • Before your child attends school, you will be required to submit their vaccination records. Be sure to have a printout or pdf version ready beforehand.
    • The school may request additional vaccines for your child after looking at their vaccination record – this happened to us, so be sure to schedule a pediatrician appointment as soon as you get your health insurance cards. If not, you might have quite a wait before being able to see the pediatrician.
  • Zillow can help you research rental prices and available units near schools. Unfortunately, the closer the school is to your house, generally, the more expensive 😐

8. Car rental with your local country driving license

If your local driving license has your picture and is in English, then you can easily rent a car. If not, you’ll need to get an International driving permit before renting a vehicle.

Save money on your car rental by booking through Costco instead of directly with the company. You’ll need to sign up for a membership and create a travel account, but it’s worth it to get access to Costco’s prices. Bonus: you don’t have to pay in advance or worry about cancellation fees!

If you’re looking to rent a car in the United States anytime soon, be prepared to spend. Without insurance, it’s easily $50-$60/day. And once you factor insurance into the equation, things start adding up quickly. If you’re new to the country, your insurance options are unfortunately quite limited. I recommend checking out a few things:

  • Save money by signing up for annual roadside assistance with the American Automobile Association. This way, you won’t have to pay per-day charges from a car rental company.
  • I have very little experience with collision damage waiver (CDW) claims as I’ve never filed one before, so you’ll need to do your own research. A good place to start is by checking with your credit card company to see if they offer coverage for CDW and other situations. More often than not, if you use their credit card to pay for the rental car, you will be covered; but make sure you read the fine print.
  • 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 please do your own research or share your thoughts at the bottom of the post and I will update it with what you say.

9. How to change your local Apple app store account or Google Play account to the US accounts

If you want to download US mobile apps, you need to change your local Apple/Google app store account to a US one. Unfortunately, neither Apple nor Google makes it easy to change the country setting, so I had to create new accounts.

The only way to create new Apple or Google accounts is with a U.S.-based debit or credit card and an American address—but you can’t set those up until you have a United States bank account. The good news is that if you open one with Bank of America, you won’t have to wait for your physical debit card to arrive in the mail 1-2 weeks later (as is currently the norm due to pandemic-related delays). Instead, once your checking account has been approved, you’ll be able to start using their digital debit card for Apple Pay or Google Pay right away.

Keep all your data on the phone by selecting the corresponding option when you change to another account; otherwise, it will be a total mess.

10. Get your social security card / number

Upon arrival in the US, you should set up an appointment with the social security office. At the end of 2021, appointments can only be made 2 weeks after arriving in the country, so make sure to schedule yours as soon as possible. The visit is relatively straightforward and should take no more than 1 hour. However, due to the current situation in the US, it may take 3-4 weeks for your social security card to arrive in the mail instead of the normal 1-2 week wait time.

Be aware that after you get your SSN, other systems may not have record of it because it is brand new. For example, this can cause problems when 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 the 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. 

11. Ways to make your apartment-hunting easier

Given that it can be difficult to find a rental property in an unfamiliar area, this topic should be given priority. However, since my experience is limited to only one instance, I can only offer tips specific to my situation.

  • Use Zillow or craiglist to find multiple suitable listings.
  • Your company should provide you with a letter of employment that outlines important information such as your legal name, job title, annual salary, and start date. This will come in handy when relocating to the United States.
  • If you’re relocating from another country, let the agent, property manager or owner know immediately. You may not have a social security number yet but you’re in the process of getting one. This means that your credit history is limited to only your home country. If they don’t accept this, move on and look elsewhere; there are plenty of other places that will be happy to house you.
  • Cultural norms play a role in where people feel more comfortable living- for example, locals in California usually opt for houses over apartments. My family and I lived in Singapore, so we were used to apartment complexes. Use this fact to your advantage; what this really means is:
    • There’s no need to feel pressured into signing a lease for an apartment within 24 hours of seeing it or paying an extortionate deposit fee. There are plenty of units and complexes to choose from.
    • I always walk away from a property management company or landlord if they ask for more than one month’s deposit. I did this when I didn’t have my social security number yet, because you’re not a first jobber or fresh graduate.
    • Although you may feel anxious about being a foreigner without credit history, don’t fret. It is simply a game of supply and demand, and luckily for you, people tend to prefer not staying in an apartment complex. You have the advantage.
    • Most leases are for one year, so it’s no wonder that few offer a two-year cope.
    • It is important to consider which public school your children will be attending, based on the location of your apartment or house.
    • Of course, once you find a place that you really like, then it’s fine to conclude the deal quickly.
    • Always remember to request a discount at the beginning. For example, we received one month free rent after our two-month stay; this is a popular promotion that many property management companies offer.
  • In my situation, one property asked for a notarized letter of employment. However, I checked with my US company HR and two property agents then decided against it because it is not standard business practice to do so.
  • Having a co-signer will make the process smoother, but it is not necessary. I did not have a cosigner when I rented my current place and didn’t have to pay a 1-month deposit either.

Since not many reviews are available on Google Maps, it’s ineffective to only base your research off of those. And furthermore, once you look at a handful of apartments, you’ll see that their star ratings are relatively the same because people use Google Map review mostly to complain rather than compliment. So instead, visit the place in person. Don’t write-off older complex just yet–often times they’re better kept and cleaner than newer buildings that aren’t maintained as well.

It was a total happy coincidence that our rental complex had its own garage for each unit. It’s such a bonus! With it, you can treat your garage as one giant storage space :D. We hadn’t been looking for this feature specifically because where we’re from –Singapore– most condos or HBDs don’t have a designated garage per unit.

12. Download Google Map offline

The offline map function from Google Map is especially useful in areas with bad or spotty internet connection. For example, I have lousy service just outside of San Francisco, Mountain View, and the East Bay area. In less than two months, there have been at least two occasions where the internet stopped working and we were stuck for 15 minutes each time. I had to switch service providers from T-Mobile because their coverage was not good enough in comparison to my other options. If you’re looking for a provider, I would advise against using T-Mobile.

I haven’t explored California extensively, so I depend on the map to get around.

13. Asian supermarkets and Vietnamese supermarkets

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.

14. Set up a utility account with PG&E

If you live on the west coast, you’re going to need an PG&E account. You can sign up for one here. Even if you don’t have a social security number, there’s no need to fret–you can still set up your utility account by calling the customer service line provided on their website.

Don’t forget to request your account number from the representative over the phone so that you can then set up online access.

15. Renter insurance

I live in an apartment complex, and the management company requires all tenants to have renter insurance. After doing some research, I found that AAA‘s prices were the cheapest, so I decided to go with them. This is my first time getting renter insurance, so I don’t know how the claims process works yet. All I know is that their price was almost half of what the other provider (that the management company recommended) quoted me. My real estate agent told me about AAA’s renter insurance in the first place.

16. Good car review websites

Edmunds is one of my favorite sites when researching cars. I like that their review are so comprehensive – they provide clear recommendations about which trim level to choose, depending on your preferences. And if you want a more immersive experience, definitely check out their test drives and reviews on Youtube.

Kelley Blue Book is another good option too.

As of February 2022, car prices in the US have skyrocketed. You can’t buy a new car unless you pay an exorbitant price, and used cars are becoming increasingly unaffordable. My solution is simply to not buy a car and wait it out – which works for me because my lifestyle allows it. But I understand that this might not be possible for everyone.

If something you want to buy isn’t worth the money, don’t get it. Some people say that reason prices are high is due to pandemic-induced supply chain disruptions and chip shortages. However, I’m not very convinced by this argument because the pandemic has been going on for approximately 2 years now, and vaccines have been available for over a year.

17. Resources about different life hacks in the US

I am new to this country and want to find efficient ways of living rather than wasting time trying to figure things out myself. Based on my research, I recommend the following:

  • All the hacks podcast: I learned a lot about credit cards from Chris on the All The Hacks podcast. I now know which card to apply for, when to use them, how to get airline miles and points etc…
  • The car chick podcast: discussing everything from purchasing cars to leasing them.

18. Sign up for a Costco membership and get the free household membership

You can sign up for the Costco membership program without a social security number, so I signed up during the first month of moving here. Certain Costco locations also have cheaper gas prices at their stations, so take advantage of it if you can. I didn’t know until later that executive members could 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.

19. You can use a car rental for the “behind-the-wheel” driving test

You can use a rental car for your driving test, but you need to let the rental company know in advance. They will need to prepare a letter saying that you are not violating the contract when you drive the car for the exam. Also, make sure to take all of the insurance offered by them. The DMV wants to make sure that the car is fully insured when you go for your exam.

I had no idea you needed someone with a valid driving license to accompany you to the exam. And it can be anybody – not just somebody related to you. I went by myself and they didn’t let me check in for the behind-the-wheel test.

20. What credit cards to get?

If you can get a credit card from City National Bank, get it. Do not get multiple City National Bank credit cards as the benefits are significantly worse in comparison to other options, even if it’s the only credit card you can get for a few months. It’s important to establish credit history, but one card is sufficient. If City National Bank offers you a high credit limit, take it! It’s likely that other banks won’t offer you as much money, and having a higher credit limit lowers your utilization rate which helps improve your score.

Deciding whether or not to get another credit card is a personal decision that depends on your lifestyle, preferences and objectives. From my research, I recommend the below in sequence:

  • If you have an American Express card from your previous country of residence, apply for a suitable Amex credit card in the US. The benefits of Amex cards are definitely better than those offered by City National Bank.
  • I wrote another post about which credit cards to get for travel benefits here.

What not to do:

  • Before signing up for any credit cards, always check if there are sign-up bonuses. For example, some banks have limits on the number of new accounts you can open within a certain timeframe (like Chase’s 5/24 rule), so compare the bonus offers from other companies to see if it’s worth maxing out your limit with one bank first.
  • For example, as of now, Chase has an 80,000 points sign-up bonus. Macy’scard only gives you $200 dollars in comparison.

Last but not least, I recently created a group on Facebook called Asian Expats in the US so that we can share/discuss more tips directly. Feel free to join.

That’s all from me for now. 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

Cheers,
Chandler

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