Let me start by emphasising that I love living in the USA and in particular, living here in the state of Illinois, and I am grateful (so grateful) to be here. It is a privilege and a joy, the overall experience has been as thrilling and fun as I knew it would be; exploring new lands, experiencing a new culture, making new friends, moving to the USA has been exactly the adventure that I always dreamed it would be.
After deciding to move to the USA and looking into the options, we quickly realised that my other half was eligible for a “specialist worker visa” whereas I (a ten-a-penny freelance marketeer) would have a much slower visa journey. We agreed that he would hold the working visa, it would give me a great opportunity to concentrate on my health whilst we tried for a baby, and after three years if all went well, we said, we would apply for Green Cards and go from there. In the meantime, I would start a new life as “a dependent”.
Yes, if I could go do it all again, I would in a heartbeat. It was the best decision at the time.
I wish I had been better prepared for some of what was to come as a dependent (especially a childless dependent) as it would have saved a lot of uncertainty, stress and anxiety for us both.
Here are 5 things I would go back and tell myself that would have helped make our journey even more amazing…
1. Clarify the three H’s: holidays, healthcare and help setting up
HOLIDAYS – by British standards American companies offer a shockingly small holiday allowance and it is expected that your sick days and bank holidays come out of that allowance. Often the days are accrued throughout the year so if you harbour dreams of week long trips away camping in the USA national parks or a fortnight sunning yourselves in the nearby Caribbean, think again. If your contract says 20 days, in America this might actually mean significantly less in reality once you factor in what it excludes and how you accrue it. Remember that the only four day weekend in the USA is Thanksgiving, there is no Boxing Day or long Easter weekend, no extra Monday off when The Queen does something of note. American companies are not even obliged to give you Christmas Day, although obviously most do. To confuse matters further, many British companies operating in the USA allow their employees to take British bank holidays. As a dependent, it’s important to clarify holidays to the nth degree, it’ll give you a sense of how much time you will spend on your own.
HEALTHCARE – an obvious one but do look over this with a fine tooth comb especially if you have even a hint of a condition that requires medication or treatment. Drugs in the USA cost up to 300% more than they cost the NHS in the UK, so even if your company offers a good policy with a comfortable premium, you could still be spending a lot beyond that. If you have a preexisting condition you will probably do better under a PPO style policy because it gives you the freedom of choice to find a specialist (vs what is called an HMO which means you have to make all decisions through a GP). Find out who the insurer is (for example Blue Cross, Forbes, Kaiser, United etc) and research into the specialists near your intended location who are “in network” for that insurer. For example if you have endometriosis but the nearest endometriosis specialist is a two hour drive away from your new proposed location, you might want to rethink a few decisions. (Access to good healthcare could also be on point 4)
HELP – what help are the company giving you as a family to move? Shipping costs are obvious but remember that your lack of credit (see point 2) is the real kicker along with the initial wait for a social security number (up to three months) which will affect everything from being able to rent an apartment to getting a mobile phone to car insurance to healthcare. Consider requesting a mobile phone, a hire car, assistance with getting a six month lease on an apartment as well as an interim healthcare policy.
2. You are nothing, you are no one
I’ve said it before and I will say it again, when you move to the USA you will have ZERO CREDIT RATING and when you are a dependent, you continue to have NO CREDIT RATING until you get a social security number.
In short, if you are here on an H4 visa, you are effectively transformed into a 1950’s housewife. The only thing you have the legal right to do is breathe, breed, drive a car and shop on your husband credit card. No SSN, no credit = no car, no bank account, no credit card, no phone contract, no job, no nothing.
This can make daily life anything from mildly inconvenient (having to carry a passport as identification) to embarrassing (being shouted at by various government officials) to totally infuriating (a service provider refusing to help you because you aren’t the account holder).
Beyond the logistics, I hadn’t realised that relying on your husband for literally everything official (not just income) can wear on your ego. Every time I come through USA immigration and they ask me “What do you do in America?” and I answer “I am a wife” I feel every feminist cell in my body quiver with disappointed rage. That and when the folks back home assume I am on one long, jolly holiday and make tongue-in-cheek comments about how lucky I am to be a “kept woman”. This was amusing to begin with, got wearing very quickly and five years later is now (thankfully) water off a ducks back.
3. Starting and managing an American home is a full time job
Cleaning, fixing and furnishing a larger-than-British-average home here also inevitably involves managing a seasonal team of landscapers, plumbers, cleaners, snow ploughers, pool maintenance as well as filling your cupboards with Costco sized pallets of shopping, learning to use larger (and less efficient) appliances, (sump pumps, cess pits, dry wall, shingles, it’s a whole new language) even just getting your head around the different units of measurement (they are still resolutely imperial here), plus tax returns, healthcare admin. If you are the dependent, bear in mind that you will probably find yourself in sole charge of understanding and arranging all elements of your new domestic life. And there are a lot of elements.
Do not underestimate how much hard work is involved. Fun too though, I’ve found my time as a home owner here both immensely stressful and rewarding.
4. As a woman with “no job” you are a prime target for hundreds of multi-level marketing schemes
I can’t count the number of times I have thought I have made a new friend, only for them to pitch me some “work from home” scheme.
This makes me angry and sad. Angry because as a dependent I can’t say “yes” anyway, but mainly sad because I feel like I’ve wasted my time getting to know someone who, even if I politely refuse to become their minion, will likely spend the rest of our relationship trying to sell me cleaning products, jewellery, tupperware, cooking equipment, skin cream, kids shoes, eyelashes, fat busting pills etc etc etc…
These affiliate schemes are all perfectly legit and rife amoungst the American stay-at-home community. There are far more schemes here than in the UK. Tread carefully and patiently with new friends.
5. The further away you are from a city, the harder it is for an Expat (especially a dependent) to adjust
Even if you insist that you “live in the sticks” in the UK, chances are you are still less than an hour drive away from a decent sized supermarket or a nice pub or a library or some form of life. Access to food, entertainment and places where you can “connect” with other like minded humans are key to a happy life.
The further away from a city you are in the USA, the harder it can be harder both to find the basics (food, good healthcare, a proper airport) and to make friends. In some respects, moving to a small town in the USA (ie anywhere not in a city or a suburb) is less like moving to the British countryside and more akin to moving to a remote Scottish island. Essentials can be hours apart (which in Illinois can mean a hours driving through feet of snow), communities can be friendly but tight (high school friendship groups are a tough nut to crack), and a town’s leisure activities might centre around those organised by the church or the golf club. Nothing wrong with any of that, it’s just it all adds up to a bigger culture shock for a Brit than moving to a city.
But this is an especially relevant point for dependents, and especially childless dependents without access to a school network. Your spouse will be in their workplace everyday, enjoying general chit chat with a variety of like minded individuals, clients, employees etc. You, on the other hand, will have to go out and actively find those people yourself. The further outside a city you are, the harder it can be to get “beyond the accent” and make real friends with Americans who often er between being wildly Anglophilic (they will love your accent and gush about Princess Kate) or curtly Anglophobic (they will ask you about Muslims and call you a communist). Even living close to a city there was a point within our first year where I realised that I was being invited out by some friends so that I could effectively be the entertainment for the evening. Cities mean networks of new arrivals, well travelled and more open minds. A good way to see how tight knit or welcoming your intended location is, see if they have a “Newcomers Group” or any suitable groups on MeetUp.com.
I am so glad I insisted we move close to the city of Chicago when we first moved. Although we have since moved to the ‘burbs, the first years of our move were made infinitely more enjoyable for me because we lived somewhere I could easily travel around, shop at a variety of places and meet like-minded people whilst exploring our surroundings.
Making a few Expat friends is also a key consideration for dependents. I hadn’t realised how important it would be to me to have someone to talk to who a) doesn’t just want to listen to your accent b) understands what you are going through and c) can advise you and help you find your feet. That’s also why I started this website!
What about you? What do you wish you’d known about life as a dependent before you moved to the USA? What advice would you give to someone else considering the move?