I’m a long time Torontonian who has just recently moved to the Bay Area and if you are reading this, I am guessing you are about to make the same move too. You probably thought that there’s a huge list of things you can do to make your transition painless, and you are right there is.
Is this the list? Not by a long shot, but I think I do have a decent number of tips that could make your life easier
Before your trip
Read up on the Subject:
- Ian Chan’s guide to SF (2010)
- Ken Struy’s guide (2011?)
- This guide (2012) – which builds on top of the previous posts
I did not go on this route, so I can’t help you here sorry! In mid 2012, my company’s immigration lawyer cautioned that the number of TN visa rejection has increased and it is looking like a riskier alternative. Meanwhile, my H1B application was midway already and so we decided to postpone my start date until my H1B came into effect, since that is the safest option.
If you missed the quota or cannot wait for the H1B and you are a Canadian citizen, refer to Ian Chan’s guide that I linked above.
(disclaimer: not an immigration lawyer, this is just from my personal experience and each cases can be hugely different. Take everything I say with a grain of salt)
You will need:
- diploma or degree (if you have not graduated yet, get a letter from your registrar confirming you will graduate)
- a passport
- your professional resume (that shows that you are going to be employed by a US company)
- official final transcript (showing your degree has been conferred) – unofficial uncompleted is fine too for application, but at some point down the line you do need to provide the complete one
Scan all of the above and have it somewhere handy, I would put all those documents on my Dropbox.
If your company promised to sponsor you for H1B and by early April their lawyers have not contacted you yet, someone somewhere is making a BIG mistake. The paralegal assigned to me mistyped my email address and I only got request for all the documentations in early May. Luckily, it was just in time for them to submit my application before the quota for the year was reached (quite literally, 3-4 days after my application was submitted they hit the quota). However, you may not be so lucky.
(Every year, the US government allows only 65,000 highly skilled foreign workers to enter under the H1B visa. They stop accepting applications once they have received 65,000 applications and you would have to wait until the next year before you can apply. If you missed the quota, ask your company to bring you in with a TN visa.)
I repeat, if your company told you they are sponsoring you for H1B visa and by early April no one is badgering you for all the above docs and you are pretty sure there is no way they will have them, start spamming people until they acknowledge that they either:
a) have all the documents they need to submit your H1B application already, no need to worry on your part, or
b) need those, now.
Even after they have it, be sure to make backup scans etc. If you have not graduated by the time they submit the application that is fine since they can start submitting with a letter from your registrar confirming your eligibility for graduation. However, down the line they would need to see a diploma, so scan and dropbox your diploma as soon as you get it. Request an official academic transcript showing that a degree has been conferred as well just in case – for University of Toronto the transcript database should be updated one week after the convocation ceremony though you might to double check this.
Banking and Finance
If you have a significant amount of time before you are slated to go to America, you should get an American Express credit card. Why? If you have never worked and lived in the United States before, you will have zero credit history in the States. Your Canadian credit history does not transfer, so you might encounter a lot of difficulty getting loans, lines of credit, credit cards, etc.
American Express however has a program called Global Card Transfer where for select cards (important: not all cards are eligible), if you have been a cardholder for at least 1 year you can transfer all your credit history with American Express Canada to American Express USA. That potentially means that by just waiting a few months you can get your Canadian credit history with AMEX transferred in. This should make it easier to get an American Express credit card for American usage, from which it would be easier to reconstruct your credit history.
You also need a valid American SSN to do the Global Card Transfer (talk to an AMEX representative to double check) so this might have to wait until your work visa starts.
Check out RBC Access USA. Now repeat after me: unlimited instant cross-border funds transfer. You want it.
If you are not a client of RBC, go open an account and ask them to make you an account with RBC USA. This will give you an American personal chequebook and American debit card before you even leave Canada. Do this at least a month before you leave since sending the debit card and chequebook to you will take about 2 weeks at least.
Now, there is no RBC branch in California at all so if you are moving into the Bay Area like me things aren’t going to be so simple, but it is better than nothing. You cannot withdraw cash from an ATM without incurring additional charges but you can use the RBC debit card like a normal debit card so you do not have to carry lots of cash with you.
Once you arrive in California, you should open a bank account with a local US bank just so you can withdraw cash from ATM without extra charges, as well as allowing you to get cashier’s cheques which will come in handy for apartment-hunting. Bank of America and Wells-Fargo both allows you to open accounts with them without an American Social Security Number (SSN).
Once your money is in RBC USA, transferring money from their Georgian branch to your local branch is domestic US bank to US bank transfer. You can also just write a cheque to yourself (remember that American chequebook RBC USA sent you?).
I recommend having at least USD $4000 free immediately in a local US bank. In terms of San Francisco apartment hunting, that should be enough at most places for security deposit + one month’s rent for mid 2012 housing market. Most apartments require cashier’s cheque for security deposit so it is better to put the money at a local bank, so you can run to a nearby branch and get one if you get lucky and score an apartment.
Apartment Hunting prepwork
If you are in San Francisco and you are looking for apartments, welcome to Hell.
First, read Kevin Rohling: My Fight Against Homelessness (2011). Now to break the bad news, things are worse now and the market is even more competitive now. However, the same principle applies: be quick, be prepared.
Before you leave Canada, obtain these documents, and then scan/dropbox/print them and create individual packages for them:
- prefilled General Renter Application Form
- Reference letter from previous landlords, the more the better
- Bank Statement(s) – the more money you have showing here the better
- your offer letter – signed by all parties if possible – must clearly show position, start date, and annual salary. Company letterhead strongly recommended.
- Credit report(s) – thorough landlords will ask from all 3 Major Credit Agencies, which is impossible for Canadians since Experian shut their Canadian credit reporting services. You can still obtain reports from Equifax and TransUnion though.
- scans of driver license, passport, and any other identity docs
If you have not done so already, memorize your Canadian SIN number as well. Some housing agencies prefer to run their own credit checks and they would probably ask for your Canadian SIN and/or passport number as well. (This of course increases your risk of identity thefts, but that’s a whole different story)
If you have friends in the area, ask if you can crash at their couch. That’s your best bet.
If you are like me and does not know anyone that intimately in the area, AirBnB might be your best. If you go down the AirBnB route make sure to book your places at least one month in advance.
If you can afford the time, I highly recommend coming here a week of or two earlier than your start date. That way you actually have time to get used to the areas, explore the neighbourhoods, and actually apartment-hunt.
Once you start your job you’ll be too busy to actively apartment hunt and you’re more likely to lose out to people who can househunt on both weekends and weekdays.
(anecdote: while I was apartment hunting, at most viewings the majority of viewers are significant others of guys who moved to SF to join a startup. All the viewers are ready to close the deal and sign the lease right then right there. If you are a team of two this is good. If you are a team of one and you work during the day you just lost.)
For TN1 you should be able to enter pretty much anytime. For H1B, the earliest you can enter under H1B is September 20th of each year. However, if you are a Canadian citizen there should be no problem with entering earlier for pleasure/tourism. It just means you have to re-enter the US border with a worker visa before you start work.
Quick primer for those living in the GTA:
BART – GO Transit
MUNI – TTC
Clipper card – like Presto card
SF is very walkable and public transit within the city is quite extensive. You can try your first week with a 7 day MUNI pass, if you use the public transit at least twice a day every day it will be worth it (prices as of August 2012).
You can get a Clipper card with 7 day MUNI pass installed on it for $27 at the SFO airport or at most MUNI/BART stations.
The very first thing you want to do once you arrived (apart from possibly getting a MUNI pass) is to get a phone number so that landlords can contact you. If you have an unlocked GSM phone, T-mobile has a prepaid monthly pay-as-you-go unlimited everything for $50 (way better than Rogers!). None of the prepaid plans require credit checks or deposits, which probably would appeal to you at this point in time. The other mobile networks also have their own prepaid plans that require no credit check, though I have not explored them.
Fair warning, T-mobile’s coverage in San Francisco is pretty terrible (about the same as WIND mobile in outer parts of Toronto). If that is a dealbreaker or if you do not own an unlocked phone and need to get a new device, other carriers such as Verizon and Virgin also offer prepaid plans with CDMA phones that are not terribly priced.
You can also do what Ian did and sign up for a contract straight away, though without credit history or SSN the deposit might be quite hefty. You probably get a nicer phone though.
I opted for the unlimited everything for $50 with T-Mobile. At this point you will be making lots of phone calls to potential landlords and realtors. You do not need the unlimited text though that’s included. The unlimited data is nice in case your AirBnB place has no wifi and you need to tether. Unlimited or not, some sort of data plan would be necessary so you can use Google Maps app (or the iOS Maps app) to navigate the city. I would get lost and miss all my appointment and viewings without it
After obtaining phone number
You have a valid US phone number now? Good.
Then you should immediately sign up for a Google Voice number and link it to your new American number. That way you don’t have to change the numbers again, plus you get unlimited calls to Canada.
Local bank account
With an American phone number and a passport you can open a bank account at Wells Fargo or Bank of America. I opened one at Wells Fargo and ask them to mail the debit card to the branch itself so I can pick it up in person. Within 5 business days you should obtain a local debit card for ATM withdrawals. You can use either your local bank’s debit card of RBC USA’s debit card for normal debit transactions.
Gather a team
Once you start looking at the housing market you realize that this market is insane and living by yourself would be expensive. If you can afford it and you really need to live alone, go for it. There are lot of studios and 1 bedroom apartments in the range of $1600 (sketchy area) to $1900 (relatively less-sketchy area) to $2900 (nice area). You can go cheaper and still be in a safe area if you are willing to live farther from the city and commute more.
If you want to save more money and you are OK with living with other people but absolutely know no one in this area, think to yourself: are you the only new-to-the-city-for-job person in SF? Absolutely not. Find a way to get room mates, whether through friend of a friend, or through online forums. I picked up room mates through Reddit’s SFBayHousing subreddit. Please meet roomie candidate in person first and verify that you will not kill each other before committing to anything.
You’ll then notice that looking for 2 or 3 bedroom apartments is easier and much more affordable (though still ridiculously pricy). Make sure that all the people in your team have a dossier ready with credit checks, offer letters, paystubs, etc etc all ready to go. Create a team dossier that everyone carries with them if need to.
Start applying, start going to viewings (take no heed at the number of competitions you have), and if all goes well and the landlords like your dossier(s) then you may get an interview with the landlords. Yes, there are interviews, not all of the time but most of the time. A lot of people have trouble believing that you need to have an interview to pay for a place. What they may not realize is that your application is just one out of at least 30 others. If you were in the landlords’ shoes, how would you choose one out of 30-50 application? You meet the people who will live in your property first and gauge them out. Not all of the time though, in some parts of the Mission, landlords only look at your credit scores and there’s that. The same applies with large leasing companies, they just like your money.
Another option is to join a pre-existing team. Find a two person team looking for a third for example. Perhaps find a household who are recently short one room mate. This could be easier.
A note on neighbourhoods
Look at a Crime Heat Map of SF. Look at the reports. Hint: the ones pulsing with bright red is for the strong of heart.
Walk the neighbourhoods and decide for yourself what you like and do not like. If you need more guidance, there are plenty of SF Neghbourhood posts and comparisons out there. I’m too new to the city to offer a good advice on neighbourhoods I’m afraid.
How long will it take?
Most San Franciscans I talked to said it took them 1.5 to 2 months on average to land an apartment. I’m inclined to believe that this could very well be the norm in this city, considering the huge gap between supply and demand. However, if you are diligent about it and have a lot of luck on your side you should be able to find a place within 2 weeks – that’s roughly how long it took for me.
Let me know how these tips work out for you over coffee. Hit me up on Twitter (@jharjono), I’d love to meet some more Canadians here.
Special mega thanks to my predecessors and fellow U of T alums Ian Chan (@chanian) and Andrey Petrov (@shazow) who settled in the Bay Area before me and gave me tons of great advice about the moving process.