I recently moved from London to San Francisco to work at Twitter, as a Software Engineer. This is a rough guide – in the spirit of @chanian’s tutorial for Canadians – based on my experience of relocating, the mistakes I made along the way, and some information I wish I’d had. Use it at your own risk – don’t assume any legal truths; research things for yourself before making decisions!
I’m not going to cover anything about the US visa process. The company that has offered you employment in the US is likely to work with immigration lawyers who will handle (or guide you through) the visa application and processing. I’m also going to assume that your employer is providing temporary accommodation or that you are organising your own (e.g., via Airbnb) while you search for an apartment. Most of this article relates to things you will need to do once you arrive in San Francisco and soon after, but that you should spend some time thinking about beforehand.
Get a phone
You’ll need a US mobile/cell number pretty quickly, especially if you’re apartment-hunting.
The US telecom market isn’t great and will leave you nostalgic for the halcyon days of the EU-regulated, pro-consumer market you’ve left behind. For example, it’s now illegal to unlock a phone from a carrier unless you have that carrier’s permission to do so. Furthermore, if you do get a phone from a carrier (as part of your contract deal), you should be aware of whether or not you will be locked into a proprietary network, like Verison’s CDMA. Without a US credit history, you should expect to pay a sizable deposit when entering into a contract.
One way to reduce the cost of a phone contract is to bring your own phone to the party. If you bring a phone from the UK, make sure to check that your charger will work on US voltage. With an unlocked, GSM-supporting phone you can look to carriers like T-Mobile who offer various “value” and no-annual-contract plans. These prices are significantly cheaper because they don’t subsidise the purchase of a new phone. You’re likely to find “unlimited” data plans easier to come by than they are in the UK.
You’re shit-out-of-luck if you’re thinking you’d prefer a European-style pay-as-you-go (PAYG) approach. The options are thin on the ground. Any airtime you buy means just that – any time you spend talking or texting – so you pay to send and receive calls or SMS’s. My experience suggests that some networks recycle phone numbers or sell on your details. I still receive random texts addressed to previous owners of my phone number, and get messages from marketing companies who have miraculously acquired my personal details, an irritation that is compounded by the fact that it costs you money to be harassed.
If you’re determined to go the PAYG route, the nearest US equivalent is probably AT&T’s GoPhone SIM or Net10. You’ll have to purchase a phone and credit up front; top ups can be purchased in store, at some supermarkets, or done over the phone. This may also be the first time you encounter the US concept of a “restocking fee” – a method of dissuading you from returning items by charging you to do so. The restocking fee for the burner phone I first purchased was almost as much as the phone itself.
Open a bank account, transfer money
Make this a top priority. You should open a bank account as soon as you arrive in the US, especially as some banks will initially let you do so without a Social Security Number or permanent address.
Until you open a US bank account, you’ll be haemorrhaging money on fees levied by your UK bank for dollar transactions, and subject to poor exchange rates.
Choose a bank
San Francisco has a large range of different bank brands to choose from, but you’re probably best sticking to the big name banks that have branches and ATMs throughout the city, such as Bank of America, Chase, or Wells Fargo. There are co-ops and niche services if that’s your thing. Be sure to do some preparatory research on which bank is best suited to your needs. It’s also worth checking if your bank in the UK has a reciprocal agreement with any bank operating in San Francisco; it may cut down the cost of moving your money. Friends recommended going with either Bank of America or Chase. I went with Bank of America, where the customer service was personal and friendly.
Banking fees are a matter of course in the US. In contrast to the UK, you’ll almost certainly be charged for withdrawing money from any ATMs that aren’t owned by your bank. You have to buy cheque books (“check” in American English) and pay a fee to transfer your money to accounts outside your bank. Accounts usually involve a monthly fee, although this is waived in certain situations, such as setting up your salary to be directly deposited. Expect to set up a current (“checking”) and savings account, and to be asked to make a minimum cash deposit to complete the process (at Bank of America it was $100).
Once you’re all set up, your debit card will be sent in the post – so make sure you’ll be at that address for at least another week. In the meantime you may get a temporary cash card to get at what you’ve already deposited. Even if you transfer more money in, your bank can limit the amount you can withdraw within the first 30 days of the account being open – presumably to combat fraud/laundering.
It’s essential that you transfer money from your UK bank as soon as possible. There are many factors to consider when calculating how much money you want to transfer.
- You may enter the US up to 10 days before your visa is valid and you can start work.
- You need money for food, transport, going out, a phone (and deposit), apartment applications, an apartment deposit, buying furniture, etc.
- You might not be able to get paid until you have a Social Security Number.
- You’re unlikely to get paid until the middle or end of the month you start working.
- You’re very likely to get your first pay cheque given to you as a real cheque; your bank is then likely to withhold the vast majority of the cheque’s value for up to 28 days.
- It will cost you several thousand dollars – a deposit and at least one month of rent – to secure an apartment. In general, landlords will not accept a UK banking cheque.
- You’ll have to buy furniture and general household items if you aren’t shipping any from the UK.
All in all, this means you may end up without any significant US-earned money in your account for 30-45 days while making some of the biggest expenses you’re likely to have made for a while.
Transferring money to a US bank account can be done online via wire transfer between banks. Unfortunately, my bank in the UK – Santander – didn’t allow online wire transfers so I had to look for alternatives. The Post Office provide a simple, secure, and fee-free service, but a poorer exchange rate.
I use currency exchange services like Wise and Currencyfair. They provide online quotes without the need to sign up, and the exchange rates are much better. Overall, I saved quite a bit of money.
Get a Clipper card
The Clipper card is San Francisco’s equivalent of London’s Oyster card. Getting one will take some of the pain out of using the various modes of public transport in San Francisco. You can get a Clipper card online and I’d suggest setting up “Autoload” (you’ll need a bank account) to get the card for free and never worry about remembering to top up your credit. Alternatively, you can buy them on the high street from shops like Walgreens.
Get a Social Security Number
Social Security recommend that you only apply for a Social Security Number once you’ve been in the US over 10 days.
My experience was that the process is quick and simple. You complete a short SSN application form ahead of time and take it to the nearest Social Security office along with the documentation they advise you to bring. Arrive first thing in the morning to avoid any wait. It can take a few weeks for your Social Security card to arrive so you may want to have it sent to your employer’s address if you don’t have a permanent address yet.
Once you have your Social Security Card, you should keep it safe and be judicious in giving your SSN out. However, you should provide it to your bank and employer as soon as possible.
Find somewhere to live
Living in the city of San Francisco is just one of the (more expensive) options available to you. I chose to live in the city but many of my friends and colleagues live in other areas, like the East Bay. Have a look around before making up your mind.
Rent is very expensive in San Francisco, even compared to prices in London, especially since it’s very rare to find furnished accommodation. It also appears to be rising at a staggering rate. However, buildings constructed before June 1979 are covered by San Francisco Rent Control which heavily constrains the rate at which your rent can increase once you become a tenant. Therefore, it’s worth taking the time to find somewhere that you could imagine living for a few years.
The rental market is extremely competitive. Many places rely on one-off, brief, herd-style viewings where you’re in the apartment with half a dozen other desperate people at the same time, and more arriving every minute. People hand over all their paperwork and a cash application fee (if applicable) there and then.
Things are made slightly harder because you’re unlikely to have any US credit history, which is something quite important over here. But an offer letter and salary details from a tech company seems to put you in good shape. It’s in your best interest to put together a dossier of papers to provide alongside any application you make. You should include scans of your employer’s offer letter, your visa, and ideally character references from a previous landlord, etc. Print out several copies to take with you to viewings. You might have to pay $30-$40 to make an application (which is meant to cover credit history checks), but I never did.
I found that using Craigslist or a listing aggregator like Lovely was the best way to find apartments for rent in the city. They will also help you to narrow your focus to the neighbourhoods that you’re most interested in (spend some time learning about the city). Before moving to San Francisco, I heard a lot of stories about how it was essential – if you are to have any hope – to be “first” to make contact with the poster of a listing, but my experience was that you’re generally given the date and time of a mass-viewing to attend. This means that making a good impression in person, and having a bit of a chat with your potential landlord or building-manager, is likely to improve your chances and help you make a decision. Be prepared for it to take a while to find an apartment – it took me over a month of searching.
Once you’ve found a place to rent and signed all the paperwork, call PG&E to create an account to pay for your heat and electricity. You can set up e-bills and automatic payments online once your account has been processed. It’s a good idea to sort out an ISP before you move in – I went with Sonic.net. Again, the monthly cost (which I was told includes 17 different taxes and “renting” of the router) is a little higher than you’d expect in the UK, and you can expect to pay an installation fee. Other things to do: get Renters Insurance and have your bank automatically mail out your monthly-rent check to your landlord or building manager. All these things are quick and easy to do.
If you’re interested in your renters rights, you can search the California Department of Consumer Affairs for information.
Buying stuff for your place
You’re going to need furniture and basic household items. There’s always Ikea, which is located in Emeryville across the bay. If you have any previous Ikea experience, you’ll know that it’s one of the most stressful shopping experiences imaginable. The Ikea in Emeryville is even worse but the prices are pretty good. You can get there by bus from San Francisco and have large items delivered, or sort out your own transport.
Other stores to look at include West Elm and Crate & Barrel; they sell nicer things but are significantly more expensive. Alternatively, there are a lot of independent and second-hand furniture shops in San Francisco, particularly in the Mission district and a few along Van Ness. They’re well worth checking out. Van Ness also has 3 or 4 stores that sell mattresses – Sleep Train came particularly well recommended. I’d suggest that you leverage the lower costs of similar mattresses online in order to significantly reduce the price of your purchase, while benefiting from the great service, free delivery, and returns policy of the high-street stores. And if you have no idea what you’re doing: home decor tips, infographics, and cheat sheets
Get a California I.D.
Once you have your SSN and have found a permanent address, you should apply for a California I.D. at the DMV. This is handy if you don’t want to carry your passport (with visa) around and don’t have alternative I.D., such as a driver’s licence. You should register for an appointment to avoid a long wait in line. It can take up to 60 days for your California I.D. to arrive.
Get a credit card
The U.S. revolves around consumer credit. You need to start building up a credit history as soon as possible if you want to avoid paying large deposits or higher prices. Ask your bank about the soonest that you can apply for a credit card and then start using it – buying on credit even if you don’t need to.
Inform HMRC and the Student Loans Company
Once you’re settled, you should make time to inform HMRC that you’ve left the UK. They’ll be able to assess your tax status. If you are repaying student loans, after 3 months in the US you’re expected to contact the Student Loans Company by completing an overseas income assessment form. They will then work out your repayments.
Welcome to the United States of America
Hopefully you settle in within a couple of months and get to know San Francisco. There are many faces to this city, but the social scene is pretty diverse and there are many restaurants, bars, cafes, parks, and attractions – plenty of places to explore and things to do while you find your feet.