Moving to the US

I thought I’d put together a few notes on moving from the UK to the USA.  I’ve had a couple of people ask about the process, so hopefully it’s somewhat useful.  It also pretty much tells the story of what I did with my life for the whole of August and September.  Moving is a lot of work!!

This is very much a set of notes on what happened to me, rather than general advice of any kind.  Things may have changed, and everyone’s situation is slightly different.  I found the British expats forum to be an excellent place to get specific advice.


I came in on an H1-B Visa.  I think that’s the most common for foreign software developers at the moment, but there are others (I love the sound of “Alien of Extraordinary Ability” – but you have to be as extraordinary as Alex Martelli!).  A few random notes on these:

  • This year, there was an annual quota of 65000 H1-Bs.  The quota began on 1st April, and being on this year’s quota, I couldn’t start work until 1st October.  In past years, the quota was sometimes used up within days, which was pretty silly; the last couple of years, it has lasted way longer (there are still 15000 left right now, in early December).  I kept an eye on the number at while I was applying.  I think I was lucky with the timing of Realtime Worlds’ demise – still some visas left, but 1st October wasn’t too far away.
  • The rest of my family are on H4 “dependent” visas, which in particular means my wife can’t work here.  As it happens, she has her hands pretty full right now, so that wasn’t an issue for us.
  • Simply applying for the visa, never mind providing relocation support, has a cost to an employer, both $$ and the extra complication.  Some of the places I wanted to apply didn’t bother considering foreign applicants.
  • Things that tripped me up and caused delays in the visa application process: needing to renew my passport so it was valid past the end of the visa period, needing to provide academic transcripts from my degree (CU usually take a leisurely 28 days to provide these!!), and needing to get visa photographs taken that were almost like passport photos, but subtly different.  There was also a fair bit of paperwork to do; some of it was O(N^2) in the size of the family, which hit me hard!!
  • The first step of the application process was Dreamworks submitting a “petition” on my behalf.  Once that was granted we had to go the US embassy in London to actually apply for the visa.  The “appointment time” seemed to be less of an appointment, and more of a first-come, first-served queue, so I wish we’d arrived earlier.
  • Overall timings went something like this: 2 weeks for LCA, 3 weeks for petition, 1 week to get appointment in London, 1 week to get visa, 1 week to book flights.  Plus a few extra weeks caused by me (sorting out passport, degree transcripts, and photos).  So it’s not exactly quick.

Salary negotiation and cost of living

I found the US employers I applied to far more direct about salary negotiation than I’ve been used to in the UK.  In some ways, it sounds a bit unfair that salary could be based on negotiation ability as much as, say, past experience or technical performance at interview.  But I didn’t find it too bad, even though the idea of a negotiation is slightly intimidating to me.  Overall, I prefer a conversation about salary to a take-it-or-leave-it offer.

As a quick aside, I highly recommend reading “Getting to YES”.  It’s a fascinating book in its own right with its tales of international diplomatic incidents.  But mostly, it’s highly practical and it’s reassuring to see that being a good negotiator isn’t just about extreme force of personality.  Wikipedia has a brief summary of the core material.

For example, there’s the idea of separating interest from position.  Your position is what you’re asking for.  Your interest is what you really want – the motivation behind your position.  There are plenty of cheesy examples to illustrate the idea, but the principle is important and can always be used, albeit more subtly much of the time.  Specifically, I made a point of mentally separating the salary I was asking for (the position) from what I really care about: the life my family and I are going to be able to lead on this salary.  So doing thorough research on the cost of living over here was really important.  If I hadn’t done this, I would have massively undersold myself and potentially ended up struggling to get by.  Going the other way, I’ve seen candidates in the past insisting on Bay-Area type salaries when applying to Realtime Worlds.  There really wasn’t any way we could proceed with the hiring process in these cases.

I also checked with some American friends what typical salaries would be for the area and my experience.  When that independently aligned with my cost of living calculations, I felt pretty confident with what I was asking for.  Armed with this information, I wouldn’t even call it a negotiation.  One company offered what I asked, and Dreamworks actually offered more.  But if there had been any negotiation, I was confident that I could justify $x.  There wouldn’t have been any arbitrary who-blinks-first haggling that is probably what I actually fear most when I hear the word “negotiation”.  Want to pay me much less than $x?  Ok, show me where my figures are wrong.  Did I completely over-estimate the average rent in your area?  Did I mis-understand the tax system?  And if we hadn’t reached agreement, I would have felt confident that walking away was actually the right thing to do.

Computing cost of living changes for a move within the UK is generally quite straightforward, as many of the costs stay the same or thereabouts.  I found looking at the US to require a substantial amount of effort, and I still find costs of things bizarre and surprising.  Petrol is cheap.  Our home electricity/gas bill seems to be about 1/4 of what it was back home.  But then mobile phones seem like a rip-off.  And food feels extortionate.

Moving household possessions

We sent a few things (essential baby equipment!) by air, and everything else by sea.  The sea freight still isn’t here after 9 weeks, although it’s very close now.  Given the cost of shipping it, we did a pretty thorough sort through our possessions, so packing up our stuff was the most time-consuming part of the entire move by far.

Shipping companies send someone round to your house, supposedly to estimate the volume of your possessions.  I was naively expecting them to bring a tape measure, come up with an accurate estimate and feed it into a published set of price-per-volume rates.  But they’re really a salesman.  They feed you a lot of BS, and while they do look at your stuff, I think they’re also there to size you up and figure out how much they can rip you off.  They do not have a published price list per volume.

So we a got a couple of them in and played them off against one another to get about 20% off what they first asked.  I would then say they did a great job at the collection end, but the delivery end has been poor.  I’ve detected an attitude of “well do you want your stuff back or not?” 🙂

Medical care

The US medical system was a huge concern for me when I started thinking about the move.  It’s still early days, but I feel a bit better about it now; at least, much of the fear of the unknown has gone.  There’s lots of new and confusing terminology to learn – we had to pick from a choice of 4 insurance plans, based on a big table of data full of words I’d never heard of … HMO, PPO, copay, deductible, out-of-pocket maximum … and various ominous-sounding phrases like “pays 70% of reasonable and customary expenses”, which leave you with absolutely no idea how much medical care is going to cost you.  Thankfully, the internet makes it possible to reach some kind of understanding.

On the good side, it seems as though there’s a much wider choice of levels of care, depending on how much you want to pay, and all the jobs I considered came with a decent level of care at a reasonable cost.  The service is generally considered more efficient and higher quality than public ones.  These are all the obvious benefits of a privatised system.

There still appear to be some major problems with the system.  The idea that some people can’t afford decent care is disgusting, as are the set of horror stories about people going to the nearest doctor in an emergency and being made to choose (if they can) between serious medical problems and financially crippling bills.  And there’s the whole pre-existing condition thing.  They have at least been working on these issues with recent legislation, I believe – but it feels as though the incentives can never be made to align perfectly with patient interest in a private system.

Anyway, I’ve wandered completely off topic.  In the end we went with a plan (one of the HMOs) that seemed simplest financially, and perhaps closest to what we’re used to back home.  It essentially boils down to a price list, so you can see exactly what each treatment costs (this is what they call ‘copay’) – none of that 70% stuff.  We’ll need longer to see how happy we are with it, but so far the results are encouraging: it seems lightning fast to get an appointment, no queuing when we go, more outside-work-hours options, and all the appointments have been cheap ($20) so far, including seeing some more specialised doctors.

Getting credit

One of the odd things about the USA is they have their own credit rating system and couldn’t give two monkeys about the rest of your life to date.  So we went from the maximum possible credit score to the minimum, overnight.  Supposedly, we have to work our way up from easier types of credit (store cards/car loans) to higher types (credit cards/mortgages), and people say this could take a few years.  In practice, it’s not been quite that simple:

  • I was actually denied a store card – they only allowed a tax return as proof of income, and I haven’t filed one yet.  I’ve not bothered to apply for any others given that I was only applying for one in an attempt to get some credit history, and I found being denied a store card pretty insulting.
  • We took out a small car loan, even though we could afford to purchase outright.  They didn’t seem to care much about our low credit score – it’s just a good excuse for them to slap on a punitive interest rate.  Given that we can simply pay the bulk of it off immediately, I’m not too bothered.
  • A couple of companies (mobile phone, electricity) simply asked for a few hundred dollars deposit up front.  We’ll get these back in a year.  This seems fairer to me than being denied or charged a ridiculous interest rate.
  • Getting a credit card, on decent terms albeit with a lowish limit, was straightforward.  I’m not sure if that’s normal – we got it through our bank, Wells Fargo, who, incidentally, deserve a mention for being outstanding.  They have an international application process so we were able to set up the account, wire money in and get our debit cards before we set foot in the US.  That process was pleasantly personal, with a single point of contact throughout who we could email as well as call.

Easier than expected

That’s about all I can think of.  Through all the complexity, and the apparent magnitude of moving internationally with 4 young children, it’s actually not been that big a deal overall.  One of the wonderful things about modern life is that you can do all these incredible things – like fly around the globe in a metal tube – fly – while your possessions share the cost of an ocean voyage with goodness knows how many thousands of unrelated items, and you don’t need to know the first thing about any of this, because teams of specialists do it for you.

I just have to get used to the funny keyboard layout and spelling “colour” differently in my code 🙂

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2 Responses to Moving to the US

  1. stephen lavelle says:

    >I just have to get used to the funny keyboard layout and spelling “colour” differently in my code 🙂

    You should have negotiated a UK keyboard, you fool!

  2. Athena Peters says:

    Surprisingly your tale is very similar to our tale of moving to the UK (credit changes included). Glad to hear you guys have successfully found a new place and are checking out this side of the pond! Hope all your ladies are doing well.

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