The most common questions about moving to the United States, answered

Moving to the US soon? Or are you a new American resident looking for help with the transition? Either way, we're here to help you with some of the top sources of confusion.

Xe Consumer North America

May 25, 2021 9 min read

Family in the airport for a move to the United States

The United States is the top destination for international moves. How popular is it? Each year, over 1 million people move to the US from countries such as Mexico, China, and Canada, though just about every country in the world is represented in the people who move to the United States.

Whether you’re in the early stages of planning a move to the United States or you’ve already touched down in the USA, there’s a lot that you’ll need to take care of throughout the process, and we know that it can be overwhelming.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be exploring many facets of the process of a move to the United States—before, during, and after. Today, we’re going to start with the most common questions that people have about moving to the United States. If you’re interested in learning more after you read this article, head on over to the Moving Overseas podcast for in-depth discussions on these topics and interviews with people who’ve made the move to the US.

1. How do I get a Social Security number (SSN)?

This is likely near the top of your to-do list. Without a Social Security number, it will be very difficult for you to open a bank account, purchase a home, purchase or lease a car, apply for government benefits, or obtain private insurance—all things that you’ll want to take care of ASAP.

You can apply for a Social Security number and card in your home country when you apply for your visa, or you can apply in person once you reach the United States. You will need the following:

  • Proof of identity and work-authorized immigration status

  • Proof of age (with a birth certificate or other document)

  • A completed Application for a Social Security Card (you can complete one ahead of time or do it at the Social Security office)

2. Can I get a bank account when I arrive in the US? How do I do that?

Opening a bank account is another item that should be near the top of your list of priorities. Having a way to manage your money (and send money back home) will bring you peace of mind and make it

The most important thing to note is that you’ll need to show two forms of identification. This may vary depending on which bank you choose, but they’ll generally include the following:

  • US driver’s license or other government-issued ID

  • Birth certificate

  • Social Security card

  • Passport

You will also need to provide proof of residency (a utility bill can do this) and may need to provide an initial deposit, depending on the bank. 

Looking for more information? Check out our guide to opening a bank account in the United States.

You may also opt for the online banking option, which would allow you to open an account before you arrive in the US. Check out our guide to the top online banks in the United States here.

3. How do I get a new phone contract?

Setting up a US phone number is another item at the top of your to-do list.  Before you head out, if you’re planning on bringing your old phone, you may want to check Will My Phone Work? to see if you can just add a US sim card to your phone, or if you’ll need a new phone.

As you compare cell phone plans, it may not be a bad idea to set up a prepaid plan as a starter phone plan while you figure out which plan would be the best for you. As an added bonus, prepaid plans often don’t require a credit score (more on that below).

In the meantime, you may want to have some apps to use as backup in case you run into unexpected trouble or delays in getting your phone plan. Check out our guide to the best apps for expats, which includes apps like Skype and Whatsapp for easy international communication.

4. What are the vaccination requirements for kids going to schools in the US?

That depends on which state you’re moving to. All 50 states in the US do require immunizations for children enrolling in public schools, but each state has its own legislation.

You will need to provide an immunization record, but the details of this record will depend on which state you’re moving to. All 50 states have their own legislation on which vaccines are mandatory for public school enrollment, and some states may also offer exemptions for religious or medical reasons.

Make sure to check your state’s health department website for information about which immunizations your kids would need for school.

5. When can my kids start school in the US?

In the United States, children typically start school in kindergarten at the age of 5 or 6, with the school year beginning in August or September. At the elementary and secondary level, you will need to be within the school’s district to register your children in a particular public school, so if you have your eye on a certain school for your children, that will be something to keep in mind during your property search.

Though it may vary by state and by school, you’ll typically need to provide the following:

  • Your address

  • Identification for your child (such as a birth certificate)

  • Proof of legal guardianship

  • Your child’s health exam records

  • Previous school records

  • Immunization records (as mentioned above)

Though schools typically prefer new students to start at the beginning of a term (such as a quarter or semester), you won’t be required to wait for one before enrolling your child in school.

6. How does the healthcare system work? What insurance will I need?

This is perhaps one of the biggest questions and most complicated topics for newer US residents. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people who’ve lived in the US for years or even for people who were born in the US to still struggle with navigating the healthcare and health insurance minefield.

Keep your eyes out for a blog post in the coming weeks where we’ll go into full detail about the US healthcare system and American health insurance.

The most important thing to know is that unlike many other countries, the United States does not have a public, national healthcare system. This means that you’ll need to insure your healthcare yourself.

While health insurance typically is not mandatory, having health insurance will allow you access to private healthcare facilities, and greatly reduce the cost of your medical bills. You may be able to obtain group health insurance coverage through your employer, or you can purchase your own health insurance coverage.

7. What should I do about my bank account back home? Should I close it, or leave it open?

This will depend on what your plans are for the future. Is there a chance that you could move back to your former home country? Are you planning on visiting anytime? Do you still have friends or family back home?

If you plan on returning to your former country one day or utilizing that country’s currency, you may want to keep your old account open. It will give you an easy way to send money back home, you can avoid foreign transaction fees if you want to make a purchase in that country’s currency, and you can keep your existing line of credit and pay any outstanding fees and debts from that country.

8. How much will I pay in taxes? How does the tax system work?

This is another complicated question, and much like vaccinations, it is something that will depend on which state that you’re moving to.

In a future blog post, we will go into further detail about understanding the US tax system. To begin with, you’ll want to understand which taxes you could be responsible for:

  • Payroll tax - Also known as income taxes, these are imposed at the federal level and the state level on your income earned (though some states have no income tax). The amount you will be required to pay will depend on your taxable income and which bracket you fall under.

  • Property tax - These are imposed at the local level on the realty you own, based on its fair market value. The tax rules and rates vary on a state by state basis.

  • Sales tax - These are imposed on retail purchases by most states, though 5 states have no sales tax.

To begin with, you should start by researching your state’s tax authority to understand the tax requirements in the state you’ll be living in.

9. Can I buy or lease a car easily when I arrive?

You can, but it may be a little tricky. First, you’ll want to make sure that you can legally drive in the United States. While some foreign drivers’ licenses are recognized in the US, you may need to get an American driver’s licenses as your first step.

Financing can also be difficult. If you can afford to pay cash, financing won’t be an issue. If you need to work with a lender, be mindful that they will have different requirements for credit history (more on that below). Look into expat-specific financing companies

You will also need proof of insurance to purchase a car (and drive). Unlike health insurance, auto insurance is mandatory (unless you’re moving to New Hampshire—but it’s still important to have). Look into your state’s specific requirements for. auto insurance. If you work with an expat-focused financing company, they will likely also be able to help you find affordable auto insurance.

10. How do I build a credit score in the United States?

We’ve been talking about credit and credit scores all throughout this article. How do you build yours as an expat in the United States?

A credit score is an algorithmic measurement of how likely you are to default on credit payments. The more regularly you borrow and pay back, better (and higher) your score will be. Having a better credit score will help you to save money on future payments.

The best way to build a credit score is by reliably making regular payments. Some ways in which you can do so are by:

  • Securing your SSN

  • Opening a bank account

  • Leasing a car

  • Getting a phone contract

  • Getting a credit card (and using it regularly)

Try looking for flexible banks and credit unions to work with in your early months in the United States and start building your credit score.

Interested in learning more about moving to the United States?

We hope this first installment in our series about moving to the United States has been helpful for you. Stay tuned for future blog posts—we’ll be delving deeper into the above topics and more in the coming weeks.

As you prepare for your move, we encourage you to follow along with Louise Rook’s Moving Overseas podcast. As someone who has made the move to the United States herself, she and other American expats will share their advice and experiences each week on topics from US healthcare to coping with the transition of an international move.