Interested in moving to the USA? Here’s what you need to know:
United States: Quick Facts
- The fourth largest country in the world, the United States of America (USA) has a population of about ~332 million.
- Tthe world’s largest economy, accounting for ~22% of global GDP ($16.2 trillion).
- One of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, with a long history of immigration.
- Unofficially known as the world’s only remaining superpower (accounting for 39% of total military expenditures), the USA has a major influence on global politics and culture.
- Currency: US Dollar (USD).
- Spoken languages: primarily English, though there are many speakers representing all major tongues. Spanish is also spoken extensively.
- Major religions: 78.4% Christian, 16.1% atheist/agnostic, 1.7% Jewish.
- Major races: White (72.4%), Black American (12.6%), Asian (4.8%).
- Largest cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia.
Why move to the USA
- Diversity is what ultimately makes the USA interesting. For better or worse, there is great variation between states and cities – and within them. There is truly something for everyone here – you may just have to put in the time to find it.
- The USA is a melting pot of races and cultures. Just about every language is spoken here, and newcomers may find familiar communities. At the same time, there is an emphasis on integration – within a couple of generations, immigrant families tend to refer to themselves as distinctly American (and proud).
- It’s a beautiful country, with rich biodiversity and a commitment to conservation (there are almost 60 National Parks).
- Whether you like it or not, America is a heaven for consumers. In short, everything is available – for a good price. It’s a culture of convenience.
- Relative to other popular expat countries, the USA is affordable. Food is plentiful and cheap, especially in or near major agricultural areas (e.g. California). Consumer goods and services are priced competitively. Outside of a few cities, it doesn’t cost much to own a car (or even a house). Of course, it’s still more expensive here than in most countries – and the income gap is widening (more on this later).
- Americans are, for the most part, friendly and welcoming people. Many will go out of their way to help and get to know you.
- There is a strong entrepreneurial, risk-taking culture. Americans are good at business, and tend to be supportive and encouraging of anyone who wants to go down that path. Failure is not fatal – instead, it is considered an opportunity to learn and try again.
- The colleges and universities are world-class, and are reason enough to move here.
Reasons Not to move to the USA
Note: these are common expat complaints, and may not apply to you.
- Intense work culture: there are only 10 public holidays a year, no minimum on vacation days, and highly variable maternity/leave policies. Americans work some of the longest hours in the world (second only to South Koreans), and work/life balance can be a challenge. For many Americans, work defines life.
- Obtaining residency and citizenship typically takes over 10 years (see below), and work visas are limited (and in many ways, limiting).
- For expats with families, standards of primary and secondary education are highly varied, and largely depend on residential area. Private schools in desirable metropolitan areas are expensive (with long waiting lists), while public schools are hit-and-miss.
- Public transport systems in most U.S. cities are sub-standard (or non-existent), making it difficult to get around with a car. Many cities are actually suburban sprawls, with everything located far apart (downtown areas are usually less attractive, with deteriorating infrastructure). This can be hard to get used to for newcomers.
- The American culture may not be for everyone (although it certainly is being exported worldwide). Rampant consumerism, obsession with celebrities, the endless pursuit of money and status – it’s all here. Take it or leave it, as they say!
Getting a Visa and Finding Work
Common visas issued to people relocating to the United States:
- J-1: with private sector or corporate sponsorship (a confirmed job offer), trainees and temporary workers can apply for the J-1 (their spouses and dependents, for the J-2). This is the typical visa choice for visiting au pairs, scholars, students, specialists, and educators. Period of stay varies (~18 months), and there is usually a yearly cap on income. After their stay period, J-1 holders typically have to leave the country within 30 days and accumulate two years of stay in their home country prior to reapplying for any USA dual-intent visa.
- H-1B: a visa issued for professional-level workers (requires a Bachelor’s degree). Usually (but not always) offered to those working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields. Valid for three years (can be extended to six). Applications are typically due at the beginning of April of each year for H-1B status starting in October. There is an annual cap of 65,000 on new H-1B visas, with an additional 20,000 set aside for those who have a Master’s degree (or higher) from a U.S. university. While on an H-1B, you may apply for a green card (it’s a dual intent visa).
- H-1B1: same as H-1B, but only for Singapore nationals (annual cap of 5,400) and Chilean nationals (annual cap of 1,400).
- E-3: similar to the H-1B, but issued only to Australian citizens. Has a much faster application process than the regular H-1B, and is renewable indefinitely (2 years at a time). Subject to an annual cap of 10,500 visas.
- L-1: issued to those being transferred by their existing employer to work in the U.S. (typically in a management or executive role). For those who qualify, this can be one of the smoothest ways to experience living in the States. Must have worked at current company (abroad) for at least one year to qualify.
- F-1: a visa issued to full-time students studying within the U.S. While F-1 holders are typically not allowed to work more than 20 hours a week (and only on-campus), it is possible to be granted 12 months for practical training (this can be done after graduation). Students in STEM fields can extend this internship period to 29 months.
- B-1: visa issued for temporary business visitors (sent by a foreign company). Issued for six months. While on a B-1, one can apply for a change to different immigration status.
- TN: a special visa issued only to Canadian or Mexican nationals who have secured a job in the U.S. that is on the NAFTA list of professions (Appendix 1603.D.1). The visa is issued at a U.S. port of entry. Typically, there is an interview at the border and applicants are asked to provide proof of employment (an offer letter) and their post-secondary diploma/transcript. Issued for 1-3 years. The TN is not a dual-intent visa – that is, TN holders may not apply for a U.S. green card without first switching to a dual-intent visa (such as the H-1B). While there is no annual cap on the number of TN visas issued, the visa may be revoked at any time at re-entry (TN visa holders must provide proof of continued employment when re-entering the U.S.).
These are only a few of the visa types (the full list is very long). Do your research ahead of time. Bottom line: chances are, you will need to secure a job offer beforehand (preferably, in an in-demand field).
Permanent Residency & Citizenship
- Permanent residency (getting a “green card”): while securing work sponsorship from a U.S. employer may be a long and tedious process, obtaining residency is a whole new challenge altogether. Bottom line: there is a long backlog, even for spouses and relatives of existing U.S. citizens and permanent residents (wait times are typically 5-15 years). Those applying from regular employment in the U.S. typically go for the EB-1 / EB-2 / EB-3 visa categories (the first two are for specialized workers and those with extensive experience and/or an advanced degree, while the latter is for skilled workers and professionals). No more than 7% of EB-2 or EB-3 visas in a given year can be issued to those born in a single country (there is a long backlog for Chinese, Indian, and Mexican applicants).
- Citizenship (naturalization): a permanent resident can apply for citizenship after 5 years of living in the U.S. (three years if married to a U.S. citizen). Applicants must pass a basic U.S. history and government test.
- There is a snarky web info-graphic (illustrated by Terry Colon) that illustrates the challenges immigrants face in the USA.
Starting a Business in the USA
Anyone with an SSN (Social Security Number), tax ID, and mailing address (can be a PO box) can legally start a business in America. However, you must obtain a valid work visa (such as an H-1B) to be able to work for your own company – e.g. actually do business. In short, it is not easy to actually operate your own business as a foreign entrepreneur.
The typical paths for immigrants wishing to start and run a U.S. business are:
- Co-found a business and obtain an H-1B to work for your own company (this is rare). To satisfy the requirements for obtaining an H-1B for your own company, you must own less than 50% of the company’s shares, be paid through regular (W-2) payroll methods and must report to someone else (or to a board of directors). This typically involves having at least one U.S. co-founder.
- Invest at least $500,000 in a new venture and obtain an EB-5 investor visa.
- Investors who are willing to dedicate at least $1,000,000 ($500,000 if in a high unemployment or rural area) towards a new (or existing troubled) enterprise may apply for the EB-5 visa. The visa grants conditional permanent residency for two years, after which there is an evaluation to ensure that the full amount has been invested and that the business shows promise of creating at least 10 U.S. jobs (or having already done so).
- Operate and run a business abroad, while maintaining a U.S. subsidiary of it.
- Non-immigrant entrepreneurs will find that it is much easier to remain a passive participant in a U.S. business (e.g. start it and/or remain a shareholder or supervisory directory) than to work for it and be financially compensated. One may enter the U.S. for this purpose through a Visa Waiver (90 day limit, typically for those attending business meetings), a B-1 (six month limit, business visitor visa), or H-1B (described above).
Links & Resources
- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services – official government website
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