L’America: Starting Out

My very first days in America were slightly chaotic. On top of having to deal with a new job and a new country, on top of missing my friends and having to make new ones, I had to deal with bureaucracy that operated in ways completely different than what I was used to. This article is to explain what I learned back in the day (1998). Much of it probably still applies.

First of all, you should know that America is ill-prepared for immigrants, legal or otherwise. The country is largely homogenous, and it has a hard time with people that don’t fit the standard mold. Sometimes, you need to do some extra work just to get the same deal as everybody else. That’s not because people don’t like legal immigrants (they do), but because they don’t know how to handle their particulars.

The first thing you’ll need, even before you move, is a temporary address. That should be an address that can forward mail to you for real, and if possible should not be a P.O. Box. Your employer is a good choice, or your hotel/temporary residence. Sometimes a local postal shop will allow you to use their address for a fee.

The reason you need an address is that the very first thing you should do once you move is to get a Social Security Number. The SSN identifies you to the IRS (the tax service) and pretty much everybody that deals with you in the economy will need it. It is also (mysteriously) used as a public identifier, and you will eventually memorize the last four digits of it because a lot of places ask for it for identification verification.

You get your SSN at the Social Security Department. You will need to fill out a form and this is very important you have to make sure the form is easy to read. That’s because Americans write slightly differently than people elsewhere, in particular numbers, and any error in the form is going to cause a ton of problems. It is best to fill out the form on a computer, or have an American fill it out for you.

After a few days of waiting, you should get your Social Security Card in the mail. Now, that piece of paper is extremely important and you have to make sure you keep it in a safe place. Your wallet is not a safe place, since it could get stolen. Put it in your passport, preferably attaching it in some non-permanent form.

Once you have your SSN, you can start actually living like an American. You will need the SSN to open a bank account, which is one of the first things you should do. If I were you, I would go to a credit union instead of a big bank, because the fees are lower, especially for entry level accounts like yours.

Your SSN will also be typicall required for most transactions of value. If you want an apartment, the application form will ask for your SSN. If you want to buy a car, you will need your SSN. That’s because the SSN is a unique identifier used to determine your credit risk.

In America, every SSN is assigned a credit score by a series of independent agencies. People that don’t pay their bills on time or default on their payments entirely get a lower score. If you please the agency, you will get a higher score, up to a maximum of (I believe) 800. A higher score means lower interest rates, better deals with banks, etc. A lower score may be a problem when buying things or renting an apartment.

Of course, initially your credit score will be abysmal. You may need help from your employer or friends to overcome the stigma of a low (or non-existent) credit score. One of the first things you should do is check into getting a credit card, which will start the process of getting you a better credit score. Since you don’t have a score, you may have a hard time getting a credit card. Try secured credit cards instead.

After you dealt with that, you will probably want to get your drivers license. Surprisingly, that’s not a big deal: you go to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV, there are plenty of those around), fill out a few forms, and take a test. Depending on where you are from, they may dispense with the driving test and just give you a quiz, but make sure you ask first.

The quiz is nothing like you are used from back home, at least it was for me. We were asked oodles of questions about right of way in bizarre constellations. In America, it’s all much more practical and you can get most of the questions right just by using common sense. The questions are not tricky if you are an experienced driver and focus more on confusing the poor souls that are just starting out. Take for instance this question from the California driving test:

3. When parking your vehicle parallel to the curb on a level street.


The first answer would be correct if you were parking on an incline. The third one just doesn’t make any sense, so the second one must be right. Which gets us to the second advice: learn your numbers, because they will ask for them. 18 inches may seem an arbitrary number to you, used to metrics and multiples of 5 and 10, but to an American that’s a foot and a half, a perfectly reasonable number.

Once you pass your test (and not before), you can buy your car. The experience of buying a car in America is amusing (if slightly stressful). You should read up on it online (there are tons of articles on the “car buying experience”.) This one is equally stressful to Americans and immigrants, so you don’t need any extra help aside from the advice to read up.

The next thing, though, is getting insurance for your car, and here things get tricky again. Insurance companies are terrible about immigrants, and quotes can vary all over the place. The reason is that they sometimes accept your driving experience outside the country as equivalent to local driving experience (in which case the quote goes down), or they won’t (in which case it goes up).

You should go to a series of different insurance companies and fill out their forms simultaneously, to see who gives you the lowest quote. You should also think about getting really good coverage, since your risk of causing an accident is probably highest in the first few months, until you get used to the different driving style.

[Note: American car insurance is typically limited, unlike the ones I was used to. There is a coverage limit, and if you exceed that, you have to pay for the excess.]

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