Moving to a new country entails new mores, currency, banks, cellular providers, health care, transporation, and housing. It's a daunting task, especially amongst the various beaurocratic forms. Once you've navigated those treacherous waters, how do you make sure your paycheck goes into a place you control? How do you get a drivers license?
Many of my friends and colleagues are moving to the US and asking questions about getting established like a normal citizen. Which is the best bank, do I want kaiser or blue cross? Which cell company is the right one? Who has the best burger? This is a short guide with tips and advice from friends who’ve also done it and some things to avoid. Plus, the best burger.
SSN, banks, phones, housing, and cars are the highest priorities. If you live in Silicon Valley, you’ll want a car. If you live in SF or NYC, you can get around without one. Most of the US is dependent on having a vehicle of your own, or using ride sharing. I'm no expert on this, so take this witha grain of salt.
Big brother wants you to have a social security number. It’s a private unique ID that everything is tied to. Treat it like your password that you cannot change (easily). Be skeptical who you share it with. There are a lot of scams out there and if they get your SSN they can pretend to be you. A SSN is a prerequisite for getting a bank account (though there are sometimes exceptions), a credit card, to rent most apartments, and to get a driving license.
- For noncitizens, here's how to get a SSN.
- A list of documents you need.
- Getting a SSN is free, there’s no fees according to ssa.gov.
- SSN FAQ
If you’re moving here for work and need to get paid, you want your money deposited into a US bank account. There are a ton of choices, and sadly there’s no best choice. Banks in the US often try to charge fees for things like checking, monthly maintenance, ATM fees, etc. Usually they or a competitor will wave those fees if you carry a minimum balance or meet other criteria. Be sure to ask/do your research and make sure they’re FDIC insured (most are). In my research it seems that all online bank signups (for physical and online banks) require a SSN. If you visit some banks in person, they’ll may let you use alternative forms of ID, though it’s a hassle.
A colleague was able to setup a bank account with Wells Fargo using just their visa and passport. That’s pretty significant. He said you’ll also want a US phone number. This might differ based on your country of origin.
If you have an ITIN, or get one, some banks will also let you use that instead of an SSN. Here’s more on ITINs: https://www.irs.gov/individuals/individual-taxpayer-identification-number
“An Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) is a tax processing number issued by the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS issues ITINs to individuals who are required to have a U.S. taxpayer identification number but who do not have, and are not eligible to obtain, a Social Security number (SSN) from the Social Security Administration (SSA).”
From my friends:
So for me it took a while before I set up a bank account. It’s definitely tricky to get one without a SSN. You can do it with a tax identification number though. I went with Chase and just needed a bunch of paperwork proving I had a job, was paying tax etc.
It was a decade ago but the only bank that would let me create an account was Chase, I'd start there
Of course you're starting from zero again in the US – I'm still building my credit score 10 years later, oldest credit card is 6y
- Can I get a checking account without a SSN?
📈 Credit Score
If you ever want to rent an apartment from a big chain, get a loan, lease or buy a car, then you’ll need a credit score. It takes a while to build up. The easiest way to start is to get a US bank account and a US credit card. It’s frustrating to do many of these things without a credit score.
Renting an apartment or a house is going to be your best bet. You likely don’t have a credit score in the US if you don’t already have a US based credit card. There are apartments for rent that don't require a SSN. AirBNB and Hotels are also available without a SSN.
Many rentals will ask for a credit score, according to Tom:
For one of my rentals I had to show them bank statements in lieu of having credit score.
He recommends if you go this approach to have more than a few months rent in that bank account.
🚗 License to Drive
You’ll need a US license at some to become established. Even if you switch states, you’ll need to update it to the new home state (even as a US citizen). To get a license, each state will make you take a test and they’re all different. Study up, in my experience the tests ask the weirdest questions. Most states call them the Department of Motor Vehicles. Searching for this and your state’s name will help you find it. Maryland calls it the Motor Vehicles Association, or MVA.
Thanks to Grant, Neil, Tom, and Andy for help with content in this post. I hope you find this useful. If you have any suggestions, please send me an email.
Oh and on the burger? Five Guys is good, but come around mine for one better 😄.