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Living in the United States as a newcomer
With so many laws and communities to navigate, it’s easy for newcomers to feel overwhelmed. Luckily, this nation of immigrants offers vast resources for its arrivals.
Immigration is a key element in any historical narrative of the US. After all, this is a nation created and shaped by immigrants from all corners of the globe. They’ve cultivated diverse communities underpinned by a core belief in freedom and the right to pursue individual happiness. Those who come to this country seek economic opportunities, greater freedoms, access to education and even the pursuit of an entirely new way of life.
However, fulfilling these lofty ambitions doesn’t come without a little struggle and sacrifice. Learning a few basics about life in the US will ensure that you’re swiftly able to navigate obstacles on your path to an American way of life.
Necessary documents, forms and formalities
Whether you’re here to study for a few semesters or preparing to join the workforce as a permanent resident, you’ll need several identifying documents.
Documents such as a passport and visa are your starting points. Permanent residents will possess a green card.
While you’re in the US, you’ll want to keep these documents readily accessible. They will be required when you begin searching for housing, attain a driver’s license and open a bank account.
Get a Social Security number
Permanent residents are required to obtain a Social Security number, which is a unique ID number that:
- Allows the government to keep track of any earnings and benefits available to those working and paying taxes in the US.
- Is an important part of applying for a bank account and even an apartment rental.
Although you’ll share your Social Security number on applications and employment forms, keep it private as much as possible. Identity theft — often obtained through theft of Social Security numbers — is a serious problem in the US.
How to obtain your Social Security card
You can request a Social Security number when applying for a permanent visa. The US Department of Homeland Security will share your information with the Social Security Administration, and the administration will then send you a Social Security card.
If applying outside of your visa application, you’ll need to visit your nearest Social Security office in person, where you’ll complete Form SS-5 — Application for a Social Security Card.
Apply for a driver’s license or state ID
Driver’s licenses are issued by the state you reside in. Each state has its own eligibility requirements, and the state agencies that grant the licenses go by different names. For instance, to get your license you might visit a local branch of the Department of Transportation, the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Department of Public Safety.
How to obtain your driver’s license or state ID
To apply a license or ID, visit your state’s official webpage or USA.gov to find out where you need to go. You’ll also want to confirm the ID criteria required by your state, including whether you need a Social Security card.
Note that if you plan to drive your own car while in the US, your state may require an International Driving Permit. The US does not issue these permits, so you’ll need to get one before you arrive.
Once you’ve met the ID criteria according to your state’s rules, visit your granting agency. You’ll need to take along your Social Security card and documents that prove:
- You are resident of your state.
- You are in the US legally.
- Your age and identity.
If you’re simply seeking an official identification card, this should be all the information you need.
If you’re interested in obtaining a driver’s license, you’ll continue the process by demonstrating that you know the state’s road rules. This requires a passing a written test. However, most state agencies allow you to download or pick up a rules handbook prior to your test.
After providing the paperwork, you’ll need to demonstrate that you know the state’s road rules by passing a written test. Most state agencies allow you to download or pick up a rules handbook prior to your test.
Once you’ve passed the written test, you’ll take a driving test out on the road before finally sitting for a vision test. If you wear glasses or contacts, make sure to take them with you.
After receiving a driver’s license, you can legally drive anywhere in the US.
Register for the Selective Service
If you’re a male citizen or immigrant between the ages of 18 and 2, you must register with the Selective Service. You can register at any US Post Office or online. The Selective Service System allows the US to maintain a list of males who could fight in the US Armed Forces, though being on the list does not mean that you’re automatically inducted into the military.
Once you’re here, you’ll want to establish a financial presence not only for your own convenience in paying bills and settling into life but also to establish a credit history — which you’ll find is an important part of applying for loans and credit cards.
Opening a personal bank account
Opening a personal bank or credit union account will ensure that your money is secure and accessible. Each financial institution has different policies, but all require several forms of ID and expect you to immediately deposit minimum funds into your account. Account fees vary among banks, so you’ll want to shop around to find an account that best suits your situation.
Once you visit the branch of your selected bank, you’ll provide them with proof of your name, date of birth and address. You may also need to provide proof of employment, though it’s not always necessary.
Having a driver’s license or state ID card will smooth the process of opening an account, but you can often use other documents as ID:
- Your green card.
- Your birth certificate
- A document that proves your legal address, such as a utility bill
- Your passport
Some banks will issue you a temporary debit card immediately, which you can use to make purchases and withdraw cash from ATMs. If you’re opening a checking account, you may also receive several “starter” checks to use until your printed checks arrive.
Building your credit
If you’re new to the US credit system, it will be difficult to be approved for a credit card without a credit history. An important part of your credit history is your credit score or credit rating. This is a score of your creditworthiness that lenders use to determine their risk in extending you credit.
One way to build your credit history is to apply for a secured credit card. With a secured credit card, you pay the credit card provider a set amount — for example $500 — and that amount becomes your credit limit. The deposit protects the lender should you default or fail to pay your balance.
To build your creditworthiness, you’ll need to use the card responsibly, paying at least your minimum bill every month. This is important if you intend to take out a future loan to finance a car or a mortgage, both of which require a good credit rating.
Your credit rating also has important implications beyond loans and credit cards. Potential landlords, utility companies, insurance companies and cell phone carriers may look at it before extending you an offer for services.
Paying your taxes
If you work in the US, you’ll pay federal taxes, which are deducted from your paycheck by your employer. These taxes include income, Social Security and Medicare taxes.
You’ll need to file an annual income tax return with the Internal Revenue Service. If too much tax was deducted from your check, you’ll receive a refund from the IRS. Several states and cities, such as New York City, require you to pay state and local government income taxes as well.
Most retail transactions include an additional sales tax, which is paid at the point of purchase. If you purchase property, an annual state and local government tax is also likely.
Filing taxes can be daunting, even for lifelong Americans. To make the process easier, read information on the IRS website or seek the help of a tax professional.
Use an online money transfer service to have cash on hand when you arrive
While living in the US, several telephone numbers are useful to know:
|Call 911 for emergencies.||This number connects you to police, the fire department or an ambulance anywhere in the country.|
|Call 411 for directory assistance.||This number helps you locate public phone numbers and addresses for people and businesses in a specific area.|
|Call 511 for travel conditions.||This is the national number to learn about the conditions of commuter roads and public transit.|
Several US cities use the following numbers for local information:
|Call 211 for social service support.||Get recommendations for housing and general assistance.|
|Call 311 for local government services.||This number sources info on garbage collection and public housing, for example.|
The rich history of immigration and diversity in the US ensures a strong prevalence of languages other than English in day-to-day life, particularly in urban areas.
While the US does not have a national official language, English remains the primary language of business and government. Life can be easier for those who speak English, and free or low-cost English language courses are widely available in schools, community programs, churches and public libraries across the nation. To find these classes, start by researching your local government’s website.
Weights and measures
Unlike most of the world, the US does not widely use the metric system. Instead the nation relies on the Imperial system:
- Dimension measurements are expressed in inches, feet, yards and miles.
- Liquid measurements are expressed as ounces, cups, pints and gallons. (Although when you buy soda, you’ll find it sold in liters.)
- Weight is expressed in ounces, pounds and tons.
- Temperatures are measured in Fahrenheit degrees.
The US federal government recognizes 10 public holidays, including Christmas (December 25), Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday in November), New Year’s Day (January 1) and Independence Day (July 4). Federal offices and banks are closed during these holidays. However, retailers, restaurants and most other businesses are often open.
The US celebrates with great fervor such unofficial holidays as Valentine’s Day and Halloween. Sporting events such as the Super Bowl also receive widespread attention.
Some holidays reflect the diversity of our citizen’s origins. St. Patrick’s Day is widely acknowledged, especially in big cities. Similarly, Cinco de Mayo (May 5), a Mexican holiday, is marked as a celebration of Mexican–American culture.
People who live in the US worship within a wide spectrum of religions. No matter your faith, you’ll find a place of worship that suits you, especially in urban areas. Places of worship also often offer helpful resources to assist newcomers.
Transportation choices can swing wildly between abundant to scarce depending on which part of the US you live in. While having a car will be helpful in most cities:
- Most cities have public buses. Routes and hours of service can be inconsistent, depending on the size of the market.
- Larger cities often boast subways, ferries, streetcars, trains, buses and rental cars. Many US cities embrace a large pedestrian population and dedicated bike paths.
Neighboring cities can retain broader levels of public transportation service. If public transportation is important to you, compare communities before you move.
Staying safe and out of trouble
Though the United States is a safe country overall, crime exists everywhere. Use common sense to keep safe:
- Be alert to your surroundings, and stick to well-lit public places at night.
- Lock your car and residence, and don’t keep valuables in plain site.
- If you feel in danger, trust your instincts.
- Let someone know where you’re going, and travel with others when visiting unfamiliar places.
Natural disasters and other emergencies
The US boasts a strong communication infrastructure, so you’ll receive advance warnings of hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters.
Emergency officials deliver frequent updates on local TV or radio, and local news stations issue weather alerts via cell phone to help with your planning. A battery-powered radio is also very useful, especially in the event of a power outage.
The long arm of the law
Law enforcement officials serve the public. So if you are the victim of a crime, report it immediately.
If you are stopped by law enforcement, cooperate and keep your hands in plain sight. Provide any information the officer requests, and stay calm. If you’re in a car, stay seated unless an officer instructs otherwise. If you cannot speak English, inform the officer.
For further questions about life in the United States, you have many resources at your disposal:
|Local, state and federal government agencies||Post substantial information for new arrivals online. Remember that in the US, official government URLs will end in .gov.|
|Community organizations, agencies and churches||Often provide guidance and assistance. Call 211 or search for these resources online.|
|Public libraries||Are found in every US community and offer free access to books, newspapers, computers and the Internet. Feel free to ask librarians for guidance on community resources. They’re there to help.|
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