This set of articles are for Internationals who have recently relocated to California for a job. I am listing a few things which I wish I knew when I first arrived here for a full-time job. Short link to this page: http://bit.ly/fotb-ca)
- Hunting for apartment
Use craigslist.org, padmapper.com (this also provides average renting prices of the area) and housingmaps.com. Use crimereports.com to check the crime statistics of the area as well. Good apartments are booked really fast, sometimes, as quickly as the same day. Leases are usually a year long.
- Get SSN (Social Security Number)
By visiting the nearest SSA office. A waiting period of 10 days is recommended after entering the USA. It’s a single number which will uniquely identify you in the USA. Its needed for credit cards, bank accounts and pretty much everything else. Most banks at their discretion will open a bank account without an SSN though.
- First phone
USA has both CDMA and GSM networks. Phone numbers in the US are portable and that too for no fee. So, moving from one carrier to another is easy. The US has a weird contract phone system where people pay 200$ upfront and then buy a two-year contract to get a free phone locked to that carrier. If you are planning to go for a contract phone, go for either AT&T, which is GSM or Verizon, which is CDMA. They have the best coverage but they are expensive. T-Mobile, a GSM carrier and Sprint, a CDMA carrier, are less expensive but have limited coverage. If you go for a contract-less phone, you will pay more upfront but still much less over the two year period. In that case, go for either a good Nexus phone from Google Play or go for an unlocked iPhone from Walmart. And use that with an MVNO, mobile virtual network operators like Cricket wireless or StraightTalk. For the curious, a long list of MVNOs is available on Wikipedia.
- First Bank account
I would recommend getting a primary checking account at a big bank like Chase, BofA or WellsFargo. Checking account is also known as current account in some countries. Open a checking account and not a savings account. Most savings account practically offer 0% at big banks and you cannot withdraw money more than thrice a month from them. Also, don’t pay a maintenance fee for your account. Usually, the accounts have a no maintenance fee clause if you meet certain conditions. Clauses like your employer making a direct deposit or you maintain a minimum balance ~ 1000$ dollars. If there is no such clause just tell the banker you will walk away and they will most likely fix it for you on the spot. Do check if any promotions are going on nearby. Also, ask your friends for a referral. In most cases, their banks/Credit Unions are happy to give you and them a referral bonus for a new customer. Credit unions don’t have shareholders to distribute the profit (unlike banks). So, in some cases, they can offer better service but usually, their small sizes interfere in that.
- First credit card
Credit cards have better credit protection, in case they are stolen, and better rewards than Debit cards in the US. It takes time to build credit history and is useful for negotiating loans for big purchases like buying a home. So, even if you feel you don’t need one, just get one, use it and pay it in full before the due date. Say your card’s billing cycle started on Jan 1, then the billing cycle will end on Jan 31. Depending on the card, you will have time to make payment till Feb 15 or Feb 31. Don’t make the minimum payment, if you can just pay it fully. Credit card interest rates are ridiculous ~13%-17%. just pay in full. Don’t go for a secured credit card. Don’t go for a card with an annual fee. Preferably, go for a card which provides no foreign transaction fee, capital one cards are my favorite for that. Usually, big banks are reluctant to give credit cards to people with no credit history in the US. All transactions from credit cards as well as any mortgage/loans in the US contributes to an individual’s credit history. If no big bank is ready to give you a normal (not secured) no-fee card then go for credit unions. I got my first card from SFCU. Six months later, my credit history was sufficient to get a normal no-fee credit card from Bank of America for which they denied earlier. Also, to avoid getting junk credit card offers in your mailbox, opt out.
- Driving license
Your country’s driving license will work in California for only the first 10 days. I would recommend not to drive in California alone unless you are coming from a country which has similar traffic laws. Getting a driving license involves two steps – a written test, which is easy. Prepare for it by reading CA driving handbook and then book an appointment. The second step which is a driving test is more involved. Most of my friends failed at least once and in some cases twice. I would recommend looking for driving instructor on craigslist.
Continue to Part 2 (buying cars, car insurance, tax filings…)