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Moving to the U.S. from Europe

A Tale of Moving Internationally during a Pandemic

July 18, 2022

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Table of Contents

We will discuss what we went through to get a job and move (from Switzerland) to the US. This is our personal experience and is not exhaustive. We had the chance of applying for a job with a cap-exempt employer (more on that later) and the means to make our relocation easier.

Our goal was to get an H-1B visa.

What is an H1-B visa?

The H-1B program applies to employers seeking to hire nonimmigrant aliens as workers in specialty occupations or as fashion models of distinguished merit and ability. A specialty occupation is one that requires the application of a body of highly specialized knowledge and the attainment of at least a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent. [1]

There are many more non-immigrant visas available for temporary workers. There are also visas for students and exchange visitors, and for permanent workers (or immigrants). You can find this information on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website.


TLDR;


Getting a Job Offer

The first step was to apply for career-aligned interesting jobs in the US. We wanted to get non-European work and life experience, and the US is a world of opportunities. Clotilde’s career goals were to get a tenure-track assistant professor position in her field of research.

The first thing to note is that it is difficult to find work in the US as a non-citizen. Like many countries, the US protects its workforce. The rule of thumb is that you will have better chances if the job sector you are targeting lacks qualified US job seekers.

The second thing is that the H-1B process is well regulated and only allows 85,000 H-1B visa issues each year (it is “capped”). Luckily for us, certain institutions like public universities are considered “cap-exempt”. It means that they can hire as many H-1B as they want on any given year. It does not count towards the yearly limit.

Once we got and negotiated our offer, we signed the contract and the employer (sponsor) starts the process. Universities are used to hiring international scholars, H-1B or otherwise.


The H-1B Program Process

For cap-exempt H-1Bs, the process is fairly quick as it can be done any time of the year. Non-exempt registrations must be submitted at certain times of the year, and go through a lottery. For selected applications, employers (sponsors) will need to file the H-1B petition.

LCA and H-1B Petition 🦫

Sponsors must file a Labor Condition Application (LCA), and receive back a certified one. The LCA is mainly there to ensure proper wages and working conditions from the employer with regard to their employees.

The LCA does not take long to be approved or rejected, usually around 7 days. It can be resubmitted if rejected after addressing problems. [2]

Once the LCA approved and certified, sponsors will have to gather the required documents and fill form I-129 to file the H-1B petition with the USCIS.

If the petition is approved, employers will receive Form I-797 from the USCIS. This is an important paper that your future employer will forward to you by priority mail. You will use it to get your visa and enter the US the first time, and it can be used later for other procedures with USCIS. [3]

US Embassy and Visa 🏢

As soon as your employer gives you your receipt number (even if form I-797 is not yet there), you can request an appointment at a US embassy or consulate.

You will have to first submit an Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application (DS-160) for the principal visa holder (H-1B) and separate ones for all dependents (including your spouse). Note that your DS-160 is linked to a specific US embassy or consulate. If for one reason or another, you make an appointment to another station, you will need to redo the application(s).

You can then make your appointment with the nearest US embassy or consulate. For countries that do not have a US diplomatic presence, that means traveling to another country. There is a fee to be paid when making the appointment, per application. The amount is country-dependent but we have paid around $190 per application. [4]

Closely follow the instructions of the US embassy or consulate regarding what documents to bring (e.g., your passport, identity pictures, or your I-797 form) and the protocols to access the facilities. Bring a working credit card or enough cash, as additional fees might be in order. We had reciprocity fees of approximately $270 to pay on-site to get your visas.

For us, once we left our passports with the embassy in Brussels, it took five days to process them. Clotilde was issued her H-1B visa and Alex got an H-4 visa (as spouse). The H-4 visa does not grant work authorization but allows the spouse to stay in the US with the principal visa holder.

h-4 visa
This is my H-4 spouse visa, stuck in my passport.
For brevity, I left out most hurdles to get our visa. Check them out here.

We were living in Switzerland when we got our I-797 form, so we filled the DS-160 at the US embassy in Bern. Unfortunately, the embassies had just reopened post-COVID and the first available appointment was three months later. We had already resigned from our jobs in Switzerland to have a clean-cut fiscal year, so we were quite annoyed. We moved back to Belgium, in the meantime, staying with our families.

We received an email one month later telling us that the process could be done through mail now (subject to eligibility) and that our appointment was canceled. Going through the website, we quickly noticed that we were not eligible because we did not live in Switzerland anymore. Worst, we could not even go in-person.

We had to file another set of DS-160s for the US embassy in Brussels, and pay the fees again there (the Swiss fees were not refundable or transferable). The waiting period for an appointment was, once more, three months. We applied for fast-tracked processing, explaining the circumstances, and it got accepted.

We finally had our visa interview, just in time for us to fly to the US. Phew!


International Relocation

While our visa process was ongoing, we thought about our apartment. We needed to find someone to take over our lease, and figure out what to do with our stuff.

We figured that it would be easier to hire a specialized moving company that could take care of packing/unpacking, transport, storage, and administrative formalities with the US Customs, and offer damage coverage.

After contacting several companies, it was Pélichet in Geneva that was the most responsive and professional. They sent someone at our place to estimate total volume and weight. Those elements determine price. We thus decided to sell our furniture (most of it was second-hand anyway) as it was not worth transporting overseas.

Once a quote was agreed upon, we needed to inventory everything that would travel by boat, and estimate its worth, for the insurance coverage. The insurance company (through Pélichet) did then invoice us a one-time premium.

Note that many things cannot travel by boat such as batteries, ink cartridges, gas cylinders, flammable or explosive items, cash, and, of course everything legally prohibited (drugs, cigarettes, etc.). Other things are regulated such as art, knives, or alcohol. Finally, things bought in the last six months (considered “new”) can be taxed in the US.

At the same time, we hired a realtor to find someone to take over our lease. Unfortunately for us, the housing competition greatly increased in the two years spent in Morges, and we had a hard time finding new renters in December. Fortunately, the realtor worked out for us.

Two days before the end of the lease agreement, Pélichet sent their team to pack our stuff. The next day, we hired a professional company to do the “end-of-lease” cleaning (it’s a mandatory thing, and it needs to be done properly). We then packed everything left (including our luggage for the plane) in the car and left for Belgium.

rental car trunk
Our rental car was seriously packed on the way back. In this picture, we were only halfway through.

Relocation Checklist

Here’s a summary of things to do before leaving for the US:

  • Sell everything that you won’t take with you (think minimalist)
  • Keep an up-to-date inventory of your belongings (value, number of items, receipts, pictures or video)
  • Pack necessary things separately (travel documents, valuables, electronics, minimal wardrobe), i.e., things you will take with you on the plane
  • Pack a separate box of essentials (“camping set”) for the first few weeks (we did not do that but we should have, in retrospect) and ask someone to send it by plane once you know where you will stay
  • Hire an international relocation company, or pack all your things and use a shipping service
  • Fill customs forms
  • Terminate or find someone to take over your lease
  • Get your rental deposit back
  • Terminate all your contracts (phone, internet, utilities, transportation, insurances, and other subscriptions)
  • Pay remaining invoices and update your details with companies (if you change address or phone numbers) in case a follow-up is needed later
  • Consolidate financial assets (bank accounts, cards, pension, cash, investments) and have a travel-friendly debit/credit card, e.g., Revolut
  • Get an international driving license or the required forms to convert your license in the destination country
  • Notify the administration that you are leaving the country
  • Get short-term travel and health insurance, e.g., SafetyWing

Traveling to the US

It’s time to book the flight and board the plane! Make sure you pack all your valuables and electronics in your carry-on (batteries are not allowed in checked luggage). Bring your I-797 approval notice, your passport with the visa, and any other required travel documents (such as your COVID vaccination status).

Book your flight as early as possible to get the best possible rate. If you have a stop in the US, plan for enough transit time. You will switch from an international to a domestic flight, which means that immigration will happen at that stop. Immigration can be super quick, but it can also take time. Don’t dismiss buses or trains, as they could make your itinerary cheaper. Flights are expensive in the US.

At the immigration counter, the officer will ask to check your documents and ask routine questions. You might end up sitting for a more in-depth interview but in general this is straightforward. You can present yourself at the counter with your spouse and dependents.

Note that the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are the ultimate line of entry to the US. They can block you from entering the US even if all your required documents check out.[5]


Getting Settled

Once in the US, there are a few things that need immediate attention: getting a permanent address and getting your social security card. Other things are also important. We’ll review them here.

Phone Number 📱

Want to avoid paying excessive phone fees? It’s probably a good idea to quickly get a US phone number.

In the US, they have two options: post and pre-paid. The former requires a social security number, often bundles many extras, and is more expensive. As the name suggests, you pay at the end of the month. The latter is much less expensive and features calls, texts, and data. You just have to pay in advance.

I wanted cheap (hence prepaid), reliable, eSIM compatibility, and instant activation. I found MintMobile. It checked all the boxes. It uses T-Mobile’s network. And after checkout, I had my phone number even before boarding my flight. As soon as I landed in the US, I could use my new phone number with unlimited calls, texts, and data. They have a mobile app and everything was straightforward to setup.

Housing 🏡

The very first thing you will need is a permanent address and proof that you live there. Typical proofs of address are utility bills (incl. internet), employer certified letter, driving license, and less frequently the rent agreement or insurance contract.

Airbnb can be an attractive first week/month option, but to open a bank account you will need a proof of permanent address.

We looked online for apartment complexes and contacted them through email before even arriving in the US. Getting the apartment was then fairly easy: everything was done through email and web forms (including signing). We had to show proof of identity, sufficient income, electric utility account number, and renters insurance.

Getting renters insurance from abroad?

I had heard good things about Lemonade insurance. I downloaded the app and configured a renters insurance contract for the address provided. I added Clotilde as primary and me as spouse, checked the required fields and coverage and, voilà! The insurance contract could be downloaded and sent to the owners.

For the electric utility account number, the utility company for most of the West Coast is Pacific Power. I could not access their website properly from Europe. I used a VPN routing through US servers as a workaround (thank you Proton!) Once I had my online account, I had to call them (I used Skype Credit) to get the account number.

I had to pay an application fee of about $50 per person to the apartment complex, and a one-month rent deposit. I did everything with my European debit card, which involved an additional processing fee (standard for card payments in the US). Overall the process was very smooth.

On the start day of the contract, I showed up at the property, where I received a stack of additional documents to read and sign. It included the move-in inspection, which I did by myself. I was very thorough (and even took pictures of every small issue) and they came by later to fix a few things.

Home internet and utility bill

As soon as I had my apartment address, before moving in, I showed up at the internet provider store (Xfinity in Corvallis) and got a subscription.

Pros: It was very easy to get a subscription and I got out of the shop with all the equipment (box, cables). Our internet connection is fairly reliable since then.

Cons: In Corvallis, home internet is very expensive compared to what I was used to in Switzerland for unlimited fiber.

The bonus? I got a bill as soon as the next week, which I could use as proof of permanent address. Make sure that the contract has either both names or the name of the H-4 visa spouse.

Social Security 🇺🇸

Make a call to the closest Social Security office and get an appointment.

As an H1-B visa holder, you will need a social security number for everything: your employer, bank, or health insurance. As an authorized worker, you automatically have to participate in US social security.

Make sure to bring the necessary proofs to your appointment, everything is listed on the Social Security Administration website. You will need a mailing address to receive the card with your number. Be sure to follow up with them if you don’t receive your card within two weeks. (Yes, mail can get lost.)

As soon as you get your social security card, swiftly inform your employer and other companies that require it. They usually have specific forms to fill.

After receiving the social security number (SSN), we communicated it to banks, but for a reason that is still unknown, it did not go through. What solved it was to create a my Social Security account, logging in with ID.me or login.gov (the creation of which involved an identity check with a real person). Once that was done, the SSN worked as expected. Update Nov 15, 2023: Still not working as expected.

As an H-4 spouse, you are not eligible for an SSN. You will need an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) for tax purposes, but you can only get one while filing your taxes (which happens early the next year).

Health Insurance 🏥

There are so many horror stories about crazy health bills. Don’t tempt it! Get you and your dependents on health insurance. Generally, in particular if you are on an H1-B visa, your employer will pay most of it.

Criteria for choosing plans include:

In addition to basic health coverage, you will most probably also have the choice of a dental and vision plan, plus different coverage options in case of accident or disability. For the vision and dental, follow the advice listed above. For disability, it may depend upon your family situation. Short-term disability coverage can be used post-partum, for example.

Your health insurance might not start at the same time as your work contract (it might kick in only the next month), so don’t forget to extend your travel insurance accordingly.

Banking 🏦

Want to get paid? You’ll need a US bank account. Want to open a bank account? You’ll need a proof of permanent address. We had good luck with Chase. They have offices in Corvallis, they are used to foreigners, and they have been helpful and patient in explaining everything to us.

For the principal visa holder (H1-B) a certified letter from your employer, listing your exact address should be sufficient. For the dependent spouse, you’ll need a utility bill. Even if you open a joint account, the bank may require proof of address for both account holders. What worked for us was the internet utility bill that I got in my name. Other utilities can take a while to send the first bill

You don’t need your SSN to open a bank account, but you will need it to get a credit card. As soon as you have it, meet with your bank advisor and get one (and only one) free credit card. You don’t need more. Pay most things with your debit card, and only pay with your credit card to use its coverage (if any), for example renting a car or buying expensive goods.

The bank will need to know your fiscal situation. As an H1-B visa holder, you will need to fill Form W-9 to communicate your SSN to your banks. For a joint account, one form suffices. Foreign banks might also require proof of address (but their definition of what counts as proof of address can differ) in addition to Form W-9.

For H-4 visa holders, you will get your ITIN after filing your first tax report. Communicate it as soon as possible to your financial institutions.

Driving License 🚙

A driving license in the US usually serves as identity proof, and can be used to verify your age in certain locations. Until you have your driving license, you should keep your passport (or a copy of it) with you.

My experience with driving licenses is limited to Oregon, but all states operate similarly. Your driving license is a state license, and if you move, you will have to get a new one for your new state of residence.

Similarly to Belgium, the first thing to do is pass a knowledge test. In Oregon, the driving manual is available online. Schedule an appointment with your local Driver & Motor Vehicle (DMV) Services, read the manual once or twice, then (successfully) pass the knowledge test.

The second step is the driving test. You can either do it with the DMV if you have your own vehicle (for free), or find a DMV Certified private company (for a fee). I did not have a car so I took the paid option. If you know how to drive, pay attention to road signs, and exaggerate any checks.

After successfully completing the drive test, make one last appointment to the DMV. Bring the required documents (proof of address, proof of identity), answer the DMV officer’s questions, and let them take your picture. You will receive a temporary driver license on-site, and the real one will come by mail.

Can I drive with my non-US license?

The Corvallis DMV office told me that I could use my Swiss license in the meanwhile. I drove a Zipcar with it (Zipcar accepted the license in the app). An international driving license (i.e., one written in English) is fine as well. States do not all have the same rules, and not all driving foreign licenses are accepted.

I believe there is a deadline for switching/getting your Oregon driving license, but I think that it is loosely enforced. (Don’t quote me on that!) It probably becomes more of an issue the moment you get your own car.

Check the state’s Department of Transportation (DOT) website, and, if uncertain, just give a call to your local DMV office.

Embassy Registration 📫

As a foreign national in the US, you should register with your Embassy or Consulate. Let them know that you are now a US resident.

By doing that you can leverage consular services (e.g., if you need to get a new passport), vote in your home country, get consular proof of residency for foreign banks, get retirement sorted out, and generally be kept informed of important news.

Find the consulate attached to your state of residence (for Oregon, the Belgium Consulate is the one in Los Angeles). Send them the required documents to register yourself and your dependents.

In our case, we needed proofs of residence. This is a paid service. After filling and sending the forms, I had to fill and mail a Money Order. We received the certified consular documents by mail soon after.

Settlers' Checklist

Here’s a summary of what to do when arriving in the US on H1-B/H-4 visas:

  • Get a US mobile phone number
  • Find an apartment to get a US permanent address
  • Get renters insurance
  • Register and setup required utilities (electricity, gas, water, internet)
  • Make an appointment to get your Social Security Number (SSN)
  • Get superior health coverage (basic, vision, dental, disability)
  • Open a bank account
  • Apply for a credit card and start building your credit score
  • Register with your Embassy or Consulate

References

  1. H-1B Program, Department of Labor
  2. LCA Online Filing via FLAG System
  3. Form I-797: Types and Functions
  4. DS-160: Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application
  5. Title 8: Aliens and Nationality, Chapter 12: Immigration and Nationality, Subchapter II: Immigration, Part II: Admission Qualifications for Aliens; Travel Control of Citizens and Aliens, §1182. Inadmissible aliens