Land of opportunity
As an immigrant who has integrated well into 21st century America, many friends ask me about living here, usually as part of their own quest or aspiration to immigrate to the USA. To help future friends and colleagues get the right info, rather than relying on them asking the right questions (and me, remembering all the details) every time, I’ve decided to put it all down in writing. Here goes…
Where to live
When moving to the US, pretty much everyone sets their eye on either New York or Los Angeles. Other prime targets are Boston, San Francisco, Florida, Washington DC and Las Vegas. These are the most populous and well-known cities in the country, and therefore sound to many like “the” place to be. One thing to remember is that the high demand leads to a major competition for resources. Residents compete for every job, every parking spot, every house, every lane on the street, etc. Businesses compete for every customer and every dollar. The result is a dog-eat-dog society and the proverbial “rat race”. This is even worse for new immigrants, who have to deal with learning a new culture, geography and language. Truth be told that while costs are higher in the more popular cities, wages are higher too. However, in the big cities, the delta between the costs and income is smaller, leading to an overall lower quality of life.
In other words, I strongly recommend against taking up residence in those cities and focus your attention on the lesser known and less populous regions. Texas, for example, is a great target to consider. It has plenty of work, open spaces, decent prices, and the only downside is the heat (which can actually be an attraction for Israeli and Indian immigrants, who might be used to the heat). Another great option is North Carolina, which also offers plenty of opportunities but without so much competition. Other than those two, the US has over 40 other excellent states with thousands of cities that, despite not being ‘the big apple’, still offer every possible modern convenience. Even if you have to wait a couple of years for Justin Bieber to sing in your city, isn’t getting a nicer house and spending less time in traffic worth it? I think so, and this is why I picked Seattle.
Housing in America
America is a big country, and so generally speaking, land is abundant and cheap for most of the country. The exceptions to this are the high-demand cities New York and San Francisco. Like anywhere else, residence is cheaper the farther you go from the city center, but still, the primary form of residence in the US is in houses (as opposed to apartments). Apartments do exist, but most Americans live in houses, many of which are over 200 square meters (2150 square feet). The costs vary in different regions, but the general average is that in major cities and their suburbs, you can rent a small apartment for around $1000 a month, and a sizeable house for around $2500. As you go farther away and into the “middle” (states like Montana, Wyoming, Utah etc), prices drop significantly, and a similar house would cost only around $1500. Then again, in good old San Francisco, you can expect to pay upwards of $6,000 for the same exact thing. Another common form of residence is the “town-house”, which is a small-footprint house that goes upwards. This format allows sizeable houses to be built in areas that are in high demand, like major cities. The cost is typically a little less than a regular house, and these places typically have a tiny yard, or no yard at all.
The residence rental market is highly developed in America, with millions of families who live as renters throughout their entire life. To cater to this market, house owners use management companies to manage their property. These companies collect the process the rent and taxes, maintains the property, and basically isolate the owner from the tenants…for a fee that’s around 10% of the monthly rent. Also, there are many real estate companies who build housing complexes that they rent out individually. Such companies have an office for the complex-manager and his team, who do all the management and maintenance. All this leads to a very streamlined experience for the renter, which makes it easy and convenient to live as renter for many years.
For those who prefer to buy a residence, things are trickier. Unless you have the cash in hand, getting a mortgage in the US requires a “credit rating”, which new immigrants don’t have (it takes time to build…more about that later), as well as a down payment of at least 10% (preferably 20%) of the house’s cost. Another challenge with buying a house in the US is that when getting a mortgage, the mortgage company will examine your finances very thoroughly (to protect themselves from fraudulent buyers who can’t really afford what they are buying). This can come back to bite you, as you will have to explain in detail not only your income, but also the money you have for the down-payment. If you got that as a gift from your parents overseas, you’ll need to get some tedious paperwork to prove that.
Being a home owner carries the advantage that you can get a tax-refund on the interest you might pay for your mortgage, but the disadvantage of having to pay homeowners tax (usually around 0.1% of the houses’ cost per month), homeowners insurance (typically around $1000 a year), and of course, whatever maintenance expenses show-up along the way. Another thing to keep in mind about houses is that maintaining one is a lot different than maintaining an apartment, and there’s no single and simple way to learn how-to. For example, how to deal with a woodpecker that has decided to hammer the wall on the other side of your bed, or what to do if your gutters get clogged up (they do every year or so) or how to continue living when you have a power outage for 6 days (not uncommon in many parts of the country). My advice for any new immigrant is to NOT rush into buying a house. Instead, I recommend living at least a year in a rental apartment or house, which will give you a chance to learn more about how this country works, as well as traffic patterns which might steer your house selection and may not be obvious at first.
Earning and working in America.
Salaries are usually listed yearly in America, and before-tax, so it’s not always easy to understand what kind of money you’ll be ending up with. Also, many places pay salaries twice a month instead of once (this can affect your cash-flow, positively or negatively). The taxes you pay on your income vary by state, county and city, so some areas have very low rates (as in, just Federal income tax) like Washington and Alaska while others have much higher rates, like California and Oregon. In addition, most state have a ‘sales’ tax (comparable to the V.A.T that many countries have), which can be up to 9.45%. This is still low compared to countries like Israel, which charge almost 20%, but then again, some states like Alaska and Oregon has none at all.
As you probably know, America requires all citizens to file an annual tax report. This means that citizens can elect to not pay income tax during the year, and just pay the total sum annually. This also means that a significant number of residents get a tax refund after they file, and many others have to pay additional sums at that time. The American IRS also requires everyone to report about assets held outside the US, so immigrants who have houses or large bank accounts overseas are required to report, and sometimes pay taxes on that money.
The world-famous American “capitalism” has made the US great in many ways, but it also means that the law is frequently on the side of the business, and not the employee. If you come from a European or otherwise socialist country, the realities of this might seem harsh. For example, in many states, you can get fired from your job for ANY reason…or for no reason at all, and most states you’re not entitled to a notification period or for severance pay. Likewise, an employer has very little requirements related to employee benefits (for example, an employer doesn’t have to give you paid time off, or even sick-days). Then again, if you open up your own business and hire employees, the same laws will protect you as an employer, and help you screw your employees and make more money. Hopefully, you will choose not to exploit them too much. The US is world-famous for have better work-life balance than many countries, though it pails compares to some European and south-American countries. Things are actually pretty bad for people in the retail industry. While corporate employees often get as much as 7 weeks of paid vacation and a 40 hour work-week, retailers often work 10+ hours days and 7-day workweeks, with little options other than be patient until they move up the ranks or get some other corporate desk-job. From watching TV, you might get the impression that Americans are very laced-up, square and strict in the workplace, but that’s not always true. There are many friendships established at work, and it’s not unusual for someone to mutter a “fuck” or “shit” at work, even in meetings or presentations. Still, there are many places with harsher conduct code or policies where you would have to call others “Sir” and “Ma’am” and wear a suit-and-tie all the time.
In America, materials are cheap, and man-power is expensive. This means that the stuff you buy is affordable (TVs, computers, food and other stuff), but getting work done by human beings is very expensive. For example, a plumber or carpenter often charges upwards of $100 per hour. If you come from a country where getting an interior car-wash is simple and common, you’d be surprised to find it can costs hundreds of dollars in the US. This is also why medical services and education cost huge amounts of money here.
If you’re curious about routine expenses and costs, here are some general examples. Keep in mind that they vary from area to area (for example, heating is hardly needed in California, but is a major thing in Alaska, obviously).
- Internet. Typically $50-90, depending on speed and service type (DSL, Cable, Dish, fiber etc)
- Cellphone. Typically $30-50 per line, depending on smaller to larger providers
- Home phone. Typically $30 a month. Can be cheaper if bundled with internet and cable TV.
- Alarm system. Typically $20 per month
- Trash. Typically $30 per month
- Electricity. Typically $80-100 a month, depending on season and regional climate.
- Gas. Not used anywhere. Can reach $300 in harsh winters if used for heating
- Water. Between $70 to $160. Higher end is for those with yards or gardens that need watering.
- Sewer. Usually separate than water, around $65 per month
- Cable TV. Starts around $20 and can reach over $100 for a wide range of channels. Can be cheaper if bundled with internet and phone.
- Gardening. Depends on your area, usually around $80-100 a month. Can reach hundreds for large homes.
- House cleaning. Typically 70-90$ per visit.
- Baby Sitting. Typically $12 per hour.
Other regular costs are day-care for young kids and private-school for older kids (many prefer that, as its higher quality education than public schools). This is typically $1300-1800 per month, which can be very hard if you have more than one kid. Public schools (free) are from age 6, and in some places, from age 5. Many parents who want child care as early as a few months old have to figure out a way to pay for it.
A major expense to most families is health insurance. News article sometime makes it seem like health in America is terrible, but the reality is that for most people, it’s actually very good. The health industry is huge and very rich, so for those who do have health insurance, things are usually very good. There are certain people who can’t get health insurance for various reasons, but those are a small minority. Health insurance pays for almost everything, even bariatric surgery and psychotherapy, and although there are situations where the insurance may refuse to cover something, this is also a fairly rare situation for most people. One thing to keep in mind is that the best health insurance is given to employees by their employer (some even give it for free) and those who are unemployed or self-employed may be in a tougher spot. Typically health insurance starts off at around $200 per month per person, and high-end plans can cost upwards of $600 per person. For low income families with many kids, even the low-end insurances can be a major burden, of course. Most people pay around $350 per person. All insurance plans have a deductible, just like a Car insurance has, and this means that healthcare does cost money above the monthly costs. Usually, the out-of-pocket is capped so that you don’t end up with huge debt, but the caps are typically a few thousands per year for a family. This means that if several medical events happen all at once, you might find yourself paying a lot.
Food is relatively cheap in America, especially with chains like Costco, Sam’s club and Cash-and-carry, which sell stuff in large boxes, suitable for long-term purchasing or large households. “outside” food, especially fast food is so cheap that it’s often even cheaper than cooking your own food (for the cost of veggies for a large soup, you can typically buy 5-7 meals at McDonalds, for example). Costo operates a prepared-food counter in each branch which sells food at incredible prices (for example, $10 gets you a huge pizza that can easily feed 6 people).
In some circles, Americans have a reputation for being unfriendly and cold, but that’s not very true. Some of them are, but that depends mostly on where they are rather than some ingrained cultural thing or genetic makeup of the population. If you choose to live in an area where there’s less competition for resources (as mentioned earlier, as farther from the high-demand cities of NY, LA etc), you would find that people are friendly, outgoing, caring and fun. Another reputation is that Americans’ are ‘square’, but that’s also not the case, and a lot of them are fun-loving and open. Another major factor in is how open YOU are to assimilating in your new environments. Being an immigrant is tough and scary to many, and a lot of people deal with it by retreating to what they know. Many immigrants socialize almost exclusively with their own race/culture, and spend most of their energy and time on replicating the environment they are used to (TV, movies, literature, food and other commodities of their home country). Many don’t bother learning English properly, not to mention refining their accent or exploring American culture, and all this often leads to poor assimilation and an increasing feeling of loneliness. My advice is to go against your instincts and do the opposite. Keep your food and a handful of close friends, but try to meet and develop relationship with the locals (not necessarily people from work) and explore the local culture as much as you can, from reading the news in English (not your native language) to getting used to watching TV and movies without subtitles.
Marriage and family
Immigration is often a huge blow to marriage. At first, everything is exciting and new, and people are overwhelmed by the abundance of material luxury. However, this rarely lasts more than a few months. Many immigrant families have only one working parent, with the other typically unable to work due to Visa limitations and/or language and culture barriers. The non-working parent often becomes a stay at home mom or dad, and that’s also fun at first. You get to spend time with the kids, rest more and build a nice home. However, usually within a year, this gets old and tensions start to build. Home-life becomes boring and repetitive, and the stay-at-homer often starts to feel lonely and depressed (the other parent being successful and happy at work only makes things worse), and oftentimes develops strong nostalgia for home (where everything was so ‘great’…). With that, the home parent starts to develop a desire to go back to the home country, which is rarely met positively by the working parent. This kind of situation often leads to a break up, or to artificial (and usually false) means of bolstering the marriage such as moving to different residence, or having more kids. Needless to say that this rarely works out. One way to prevent that is to make sure that both parents work, even if the work is only volunteer-based or part time (sometimes developing an art-form is a good substitute). Good emotional intelligence and open communications is also key to preventing tension and false pretense build-up.
Similar issues can develop with kids. Kids above the age of 6 typically have active social life, and aren’t happy about starting fresh. Often times, parents deal with that by presenting the move as temporary, which often puts the kids in a problematic place. They don’t want to bond to their environment, and instead, spend their time and energy waiting for the move back (sometimes pushing and nagging their parents to go already). This can also be detrimental to the success of the relocation, as well as to the marriage. My advice is to set clear and correct expectations, and don’t define the move as temporary unless you have a very specific return plan (many immigrants have a rough idea on the length of their stay, but later on find it very hard to actually start the move-back process, and end up staying much longer, and even forever).
This is pretty much it. I could probably write much more on the topic (and someday, I might expand this), but this is the basic stuff that should be kept in mind. Some of it is positive, and some not so much, but if I wasn’t clear – if you make the right choices, living in the US is a LOT of fun, and has a quality of life much higher than most countries in the world (even those who are higher on various ‘quality’ charts that papers like to print). If you do right by your family and actively work to take a full part of the country and the culture, you too can live like a king!