Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Tips from my experience as an Aussie moving to San Francisco

It's been a while since I posted anything on this blog - I figured it was about time to rectify that!

Since my last post I've spent nearly 4 years working at Invoice2go, an Australian startup that received funding from some VC firms in Silicon Valley. I spent the first couple of years working out of their office in North Sydney before the opportunity came up to relocate to the Bay Area to work out of the Redwood City office. This was something I'd wanted to do at some point in my life so I jumped on the chance to make the move. 15 months on I am settled into the area and thought I would share some tips that I found during the relocation process. Hopefully this post comes in handy for anyone else looking to make the move.


First of all, some context. There were a number of things that made this move easier on me than perhaps it would have been for other people. First of all, I'm fortunate enough to have been born and raised in Australia, which has a long history of being a very close ally of the United States. As a result we have access to a special class of visa called the E-3. This (strangely enough) was created as part of free trade deal negotiations that happened during the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan - it supposedly was added a a sweetener to try and get Australia to continue it's commitment of troops. This visa is much simpler than other visas like the H1-B in that it's purely reserve for Australians, with a yearly limit that we never come close to hitting. It's a 2 year visa that you can renew indefinitely by leaving the country and doing another interview. It's also very cheap and the process is relatively simple. I often reflect on how fortunate I am to have access to this visa and have sympathy for others who have a tougher visa situation.

Secondly, as I was relocated by my existing employer I'd already had the chance to visit the Bay Area a number of times and knew the team quite well over there. I was also continuing in a pretty similar role to what I was doing in the Sydney office, so there wasn't any stress of starting a new job added into the move - I simply continued my job the next week but in a different office. 

Prior to the move

If you are planning to make a similar move there are some things you can do to make things easier on you when you come over. 

Get an American Express credit card

Building credit in the USA takes a long time, and most credit providers won't recognize your great Australian credit rating. This means that when you arrive in the USA you'll be stuck either with your Australian credit cards, your debit card from your bank (which may take a few paychecks to build up in funds) or a secured credit card with a very low limit. However American Express is an exception to this rule - they can transfer you from Australia to the USA, and they will take into account your internal credit history with them. So as soon as you are thinking of making a move to the USA I'd recommend applying for an Amex. You can often find good bonus points deals for Amex cards on Ozbargain which might help you pay for some flights in the future. Sign up, use it as much as you can and always pay it off promptly. Then when you move to the USA give them a call and ask to do a global transfer

Thanks to my history with Amex in Australia I was able to get approved for a Platinum Amex card, which was very helpful in the first month until a couple of my paychecks at come through. This allowed me to avoid transferring too much money from my Australian bank account (with the associated fees). Even after a year the only credit cards I had were this fancy Amex and a bunch of secured credit cards meant for people with bad credit scores - kind of weird, but it works.

Move your mobile number to a prepaid sim card

This may not apply to everyone, but I wanted to keep my Australian number active while living in the USA. There are a few reasons that I wanted to do this:
  • I planned to keep bank accounts, credit cards etc active in Australia - so a local phone number is useful for authentication purposes where a 2fa app isn't an option
  • While many USA sim cards offer free global data roaming at slow speeds, I'd prefer to use my old number when I visit Australia and pay for high speed data
  • You never know what is tied to your old phone number that you'll suddenly need access to, or who will attempt to contact you
Obviously you don't want to pay a high monthly fee for the phone when you aren't using it, so move your phone to a prepaid sim that has the option of a small yearly top-up. I went with Aldi Mobile. They had a pay as you go option with 365 day expiry for $15. Whenever I visit Australia I just top up with a 'value pack' (last time was $25 for 9gb and unlimited calls/sms). It's great. 

It's worth moving to this plan before you go as transferring your number gets more complicated if the address is different on your two phone accounts and it is more complicated to do it from overseas.

Plan your Australian mailing address

If you're planning on keeping some accounts open in Australia (bank, credit card, super, etc) it's useful to have an Australian mailing address. Hopefully your parents, siblings or close friends are ok with you sending your mail to their place, or you could do a P.O. box or something like that. I'd recommend starting to update all of your addresses before you move. Once you move out of your place in Australia you can also setup a mail redirection through Australia post to this new address to catch any accounts you've forgotten to update. 

Renew your passport and drivers license

This is something I didn't do, but wish I did. My passport had a 10 year expiry and I was over 8 years through it when I got my E3 visa. The visa gets affixed to a page inside your passport, and if you get a new passport it doesn't get transferred. There are generally problems with traveling to the USA on a passport with less than 6 months until the expiry, so after a year of living in the USA I had to get a new passport. This involved finding a a place who understood the strict Australian passport photo requirements (A Better Passport Photo in San Francisco was perfect for this) and then going to the Australian Consulate to renew the passport. This wasn't such a big deal, but as the E-3 doesn't transfer you I now had to carry around two passports everywhere I went. It would have been easier if I just renewed it in Australia prior to applying for the visa.

I also have a NSW drivers license that is going to expire soon, and I'm sure renewing it will be a pain - I have no NSW residential address (my parents are in QLD) and even just getting to the office to renew it will be a pain given I mainly transfer over the holiday period. It would be easier if I had a longer expiration date on my license to begin with. 

The visa application process

After receiving the offer to relocate we kicked off the visa process. There's a few good posts online about it so I won't go into too much detail, but in my experience the process from engaging the lawyers to receiving my passport with visa attached was around 3 weeks. This fluctuates depending on appointment timing and other factors, but for me it went quite smoothly.

Some people opt to do this process without the assistance of an immigration lawyer, but I'd recommend getting your employer to engage with one - it reduces the stress and uncertainty of the process. 

I was living in Sydney and did my interview at the consulate there, whilst working with the lawyers in the USA. Here's an idea of the timings:

Day 1 - Lawyers started the process
Day 3 - LCA filed
Day 8  - LCA certified
Day 14  - Documentation signed & case filed
Day 20  - Visa interview at consulate, approved on the spot
Day 22 - Received passport with visa in the mail

Logistics of the move 

Moving country is always going to be a logistical challenge. My partner and I had no pets or children and our apartment lease was month to month which meant that things were simpler for us than they might otherwise have been. It was still a lot of work to pack pup the apartment, sell my car & a bunch of other possessions, make good on the lease, move to temporary accommodation and then get to the airport. 

Every situation is likely to be unique, but some tips that I have in general are:
  • Before you sell every little thing on Gumtree/Ebay consider if it's worth your time. It may not be worth the hassle to sell various $10-50 smaller items in the rush of planning a big move. The weird and wonderful people of Gumtree can take up quite a lot of your time!
  • Take note of the local council rubbish collection policy in your area. My area only collected large items (like mattresses) on a certain day of certain weeks. We thought someone was going to buy our whole bed/mattress setup so we didn't put it out for collection on that day, but they didn't end up coming. As a result we had to pay a bunch of money for a garbage collection agency to come pick up the mattress and some other items in a last minute rush. Granted we could have just dumped it outside our apartment but we wanted to do the right thing.
  • Use the recommended cleaners from your real estate agent. It just makes the process easier - they know each-other and if the cleaners don't do a good enough job they'll chase up with them directly. You don't want that stress just before you fly out of the country!
  • Think about if you really want to move your stuff to the USA. I decided that it wasn't worth it. The cost of shipping is quite high and it takes a long time. Consumer goods are much cheaper in the USA, chances are you can furnish your whole apartment with Ikea and Amazon for around the same price as shipping everything across. We ended up just maxing out our luggage allowance on the flight over (we had status with Virgin Australia so were able to get 6 checked bags total).

Getting setup in the USA

When we arrived in the USA we were in a motel for a few weeks while we found an apartment to live. It'll probably take 3-4 weeks to find an apartment so you'll definitely need some temporary accommodation, and in the Bay Area even Airbnb is not cheap, so make sure you factor this into your costs/negotiation with employers. 

Finding an apartment

The Bay Area has a real housing shortage at the moment, so housing is competitive and very overpriced. A one bedroom apartment can set you back between 3 and 4.5 thousand dollars a month. If you thought Sydney was expensive wait until you arrive here! 

There's a few websites for finding rental properties - Zillow, Trulia and Craiglist are some popular ones. Craiglist can be known for scams - if it looks too good to be true it probably is. 

Given that you've just arrived in the area, you won't have any credit or rental history, so some of the cheaper more competitive places might be harder for you to get. Given that we had limited time in our temporary accommodation and were brand new to the area our strategy was to just pay a little extra for an apartment in a large building. There's a number of newer developments that have a rental office attached to them, you can book an appointment and go for a tour of the amenities and see some example apartments. We figured we'd rather pay more for at least the first year and avoid any stress with bad landlords or not-so-great areas. 

When we applied for a place our lack of credit history meant we needed to pay a months worth of rent up front as a deposit, not a big deal but it was lucky we had a couple of pays in our bank account by this point. 

Something else to keep in mind here is the location of your work and what your commute will be like. As we were working in Redwood City we ended up in Mission Bay as it's close to the Caltrain. There's only 2 Caltrain stops in the city, so it really constraints your options unless you are willing to  do a commute that involves multiple forms of transport. 

Social Security Number

One of your top priorities after landing should be to get your Social Security Number. The advice I received is that you need to wait 4-5 days after entering the USA in order for your information to be in the system, so we waited a week and then tried to go into the social security office. Katherine has a good post on this process. It took me 3 visits to get it done, first day I went there was a public holiday that government offices observed so it was closed. Second day I went as soon as they opened and the line was massive already - part of this is because of the build up from the day before I'm sure, but from what I've read this isn't uncommon. Third day I decided to get there 40 mins before they opened, and was 6th person in line. This is what I'd recommend you do - get there before they open and line up. 

Once you've got your SSN, you should provide it to your employer. Strangely enough I didn't need it in order to get my first pay - a temporary SSN was used and the tax agency was updated afterwards. I'm not really sure how that works, but it was helpful.

Bank accounts

Getting a bank account was surprisingly easy. I walked into a Wells Fargo office and was able to get a bank account by bringing in my Australian passport. I didn't have an SSN (I added it later - it's important for your credit score) and put in my companies address.  It's important to fix all this information up later, and apparently you should remember that your companies address was once used as a bank account location as it may come up when dealing with credit score related things later on. 

For a credit card, as mentioned above I did a global transfer with Amex. A couple of months later I also setup a couple of secured credit cards in order to build my credit score. Don't rely on your Amex alone to build the score as it's a charge card rather than a traditional credit card so it will hold you back a bit. 

Drivers license

Your Australian drivers license will only work for a short period of time in California. There's a bit of confusing information flying around (apparently the DMV has been giving out conflicting information). The guide I followed was that 10 days after arriving in the state on your E-3 visa you won't be able to legally drive with your Australian license anymore. It will probably be different in other states as each state has a different set of rules. Some people choose to continue driving after this point, but the main thing I was worried about is not being covered under insurance if you are technically driving unlicensed. 

So after 10 days you'll need to look at getting a Californian drivers license. Katherine has a great blog post with some information on this. It involves taking a knowledge test, much like the learners license in Australia, and then a practical test. In my experience the knowledge test took a bit of study, as there's a different enough set of rules to remember and all the speeds and distances aren't in the metric system like I was used to. The DMV website has a downloadable handbook to refer to, and I found a great website with extra practice tests. With some study I was able to pass the written test. 

Even though I had signed up for Zipcar (possible even with an Australian license) to get easy access to a car to drive around, you cannot use it for the practical test. Because you aren't legally allowed to drive, you need someone to bring you to the test and you apparently can't just bring a rental car. I found a great service called YoGov who will pick you up, let you practice for a couple of hours and then come with you to the test. The couple of hours of practice were more than enough for me - the practical test was much less strict than in Australia - instead of parallel parking all I had to do was reverse in a straight line! 

Make sure to refer to the DMV website to find out what forms of I.D. you need to bring to your appointment, and be sure to make an appointment - the lines can be very long without it. 

Useful resources 

There's a good community of fellow Aussie expats that have also made the move to the USA. I found some great Facebook groups that are useful to search through for information, particularly around the visa process. Here's a list of useful resources I found:

Good luck!

Hopefully there's some useful information in this post for anyone who is looking to make a similar move. The USA is a great country to live in and explore, and is full of great people. Feel free to reach out to me if there's anything I can do to help you on your journey, or post on one of the Facebook groups - there's lost of helpful Aussies there.