Step 1: Get your SSN done first…. But wait 10 business days after you get your visa
Your Social Security Number (SSN) is the most important piece of identification you need if you study or work in the United States. After you get your visa, obtaining a SSN is the next critical step towards living a legal, tax-paying existence. The US government uses it to identify you, the taxes you need to pay, and the credit rating you will need to build (more on that in Step 3).
But there is a caveat to how soon you should apply for it. I applied right after I got my TN visa (literally right after, as I drove my car straight from the US-Canada border to the Social Security office). At the office, they told me to expect a longer delay as I was not yet in the system (since I just got my visa), and my application would have to be sent to the main Social Security office before they would issue my Social Security card.
I ended up waiting about 6 weeks before I got my Social Security number. This included at least 3 weeks of calls to the Social Security office (a lot of waiting), in-person visits (even more waiting, and a lot more painful), and complications in getting paid by the company I work for (most painful of all).
A friend of mine on the other hand, went in after about 2 weeks. This was presumably enough time to get her visa information in the system. The week after, she was mailed her Social Security card with no issues.
Lesson: Paying a visit to your Social Security office should be the first thing you do two weeks after getting your visa.
Step 2: Create a bank account ASAP at a regional bank
This may seem like a pretty obvious primary task to do. But look closer. The key word here is regional.
I first opened a bank account at an internationally renowned bank (one of the 25 largest banks in the world). My wife and I believed that having an account at a bank that was both in Canada and the USA would make for:
- Cheaper transactions since we assumed money transfers would be cheaper,
- Smoother bank interactions as tellers and other bank staff would have a greater knowledge and understanding of international money transfers and laws for non-residents/non-citizens.
Now, I opened the account just prior to a Patriots Act ruling coming into effect (this becomes more important a few lines down). For the most part, opening the account was no issue. I was starting to get a warm and fuzzy feeling about the bank and my account.
Well, in the long run, things didn't turn out quite as planned.
- First, when I went in to create a Canadian Dollar check from my US Dollar account, the tellers were unclear as to how to handle this situation. It would take several different tellers, managers etc., along with several calls to a ‘main’ HSBC office to get this resolved.
- Second, my wife tried to open a joint account with my existing account. This led to several bank visits as each time, we were told that it was still in the process. It wasn’t until the fourth visit (4th time lucky?) after about a month, that we found out some very frustrating news:
- My wife had applied for an account after the Patriots Act ruling. Apparently, she needed to be in the country for at least 6 months before she could open an account (even if it was a joint account). We were told that because of this, she would need to wait at least 5 months more before she could open her own bank account.
This was hugely frustrating. We had waited a whole month for an answer, only to be told that we would not be able to go ahead with the joint account. However, we did glean one interesting tidbit. The teller did mention that rules were stricter with International Banks. We decided to test that theory out.
The next day, we walked into one of the regional banks. We told them our situation and about what had happened at the International Bank. The local bank teller took copies of our visas, passports and drivers licenses, and within 30 minutes, my wife and I were able to open a joint account.
Needless to say, we’re still with the regional bank. Now, the service hasn’t always been perfect, but the tellers are always polite, friendly and willing to go the extra mile. And, my wife and I now have a joint account.
Lesson: Banking at a regional bank can be a lot more convenient than an international bank.
Step 3: Establish credit….. Immediately
The great Catch-22 situation for all newcomers. You can't get a credit card because you don't have enough of a credit rating. But you can't build a credit rating unless you have a credit card.
There is a way out of this loop. And it comes from completing Step 2. You can sign up for a prepaid credit card. That way you can build your credit bit by bit. You just have to make sure you have a debit bank account attached to the credit card (and make sure that you have enough in your bank account to guarantee the amount on your prepaid credit card. )
Lesson: Getting a prepaid credit card is a great way to start building credit.
Additional suggestions for Canadians: To open up additional lines of credit, pay a visit to a department store like Macy's or JCPenneys. You may be able to open up a store credit card by using your Canadian Social Insurance Number for your credit. And eventually, the stores will match it to your American Social Security Number. At least that's what happened to me. I was able to build additional lines of credit that way.
These three tips should help get you started on establishing your identity and credit in the United States. Once you get these going, you can then focus on the more fun aspects of being in the good ol’ US of A (and there’s definitely a lot of that).