So I've been in the US for just over six weeks now, and I thought I'd
reflect on the trials and tribulations of bootstrapping oneself in a foreign
The Social Security Number is the primary key from hell
I already had a fair idea of the importance of obtaining a Social Security
Number (SSN). So much so, that after dumping our luggage at our temporary
accommodation, the Social Security Administration office was the first place
Michael and I went to, so we could lodge applications.
We subsequently learned from another Australian who was about two weeks
ahead of us, that you're apparently supposed to wait ten working days before
lodging the application, to allow your immigration records to percolate
through the bureaucracy that is the US Government. Our applications were duly
accepted without any mention of waiting a bit, but we were sent away with a
letter and a tracking number, saying that the SSA had to verify our
existence with Immigration (this is despite the fact that we're standing in
front of them with a passport with an I-94 stapled in it) and that it would
take up to four weeks.
So it's been six weeks, and still no sign of an SSN. Enquiries with the
office are met with the same response - waiting on information back from
Immigration. Apparently it can take up to three months.
It's a real shame you can't start the application process when your visa is
granted or something, as in order to apply, you need to quote your "alien
registration number" (I still chuckle at how the US Government refers to me
as an "alien" in all their paperwork), which is the number on your I-94,
which you only get when you enter the country.
So, whilst the SSN application remains pending, I cannot be paid, I cannot
have my health insurance paperwork lodged by my employer, and whilst I'll be
covered for health insurance retrospectively, I'm not technically covered
right now, if I were to require medical treatment.
Going back to how the SSN is the primary key of All Things...
Next step is to open a bank account. We chose Citibank, because I've been
told it's slightly easier to import money back into Australia with them.
Fortunately we were able to open an account sans SSN, but it's called an
"NRA account" (NRA standing for Non-resident Alien). We were told that we
were only eligible for an ATM card until I had an SSN, yet they mailed me
out a debit card about a week after we opened the account, and happily
ordered one for Sarah, and a cheque book when we asked after opening the
account. About the only thing it seems we can't do at the moment is
transfer money back to Australia. No big deal, it's all coming the other way
until I can get paid...
Driver's licence requires an SSN ideally, so that's out of the question for
the time being...
Electricity, telephone and cable were all able to be provisioned with an
SSN, although I think for credit-rating purposes, again, it is the primary
key. We had to pay a deposit for the electricity, which is fair enough. The
lady I spoke to on the phone when I got it connected said that they just
treated us aliens like teenagers straight out of home with no credit
history. I don't have a problem with that. It's just a shame that you can't
import your credit history.
Getting a cell phone account appears to be nigh on impossible with an SSN
though. It was a battle just to get a prepaid SIM card for Sarah's phone,
and this makes a great story of how much hoop-jumping is required. We walked
up to a Cingular stand in a shopping
mall to see what we could and couldn't do. I explained our situation (lack
of SSN, lack of credit history, etc etc) to the sales droid, and he assured
us it wasn't a problem to get a prepaid SIM card.
He proceeded to take about 30 minutes to organise the SIM card. I watched as
he entered a dummy SSN into the computer, and used his own driver's licence
number. He was clearly battling the computer system to be able to do it.
When we got home, and Sarah called up to try and put some credit on the
phone with our Australian Visa card, she was told they only accepted credit
cards with a US billing address. (So much for Visa being accepted
worldwide). So we headed off again to Safeway to purchase a prepaid
Mastercard. Funnily enough, when Sarah called up to activate that,
she was initially asked for an SSN, so we almost had a dependency loop that
we couldn't break, just to get a US cell phone. Fortunately they could cope
with no SSN, so she successfully ended up with a prepaid Mastercard, with a
US billing address, so she could put credit on her prepaid SIM.
From what I can work out, a lot of the places that do request the SSN seem
to using the last four digits as an authenticator, much like everyone just
uses name and date of birth back in Australia, so I'm guessing for these
organisations, I could probably just quote any old number that fit the
pattern and they'd be happy. Just so long as they don't go trying to run a
credit check against it...
Foreign credit cards
As I said earlier, a credit card with a non-US billing address is fine for
most face-to-face purchases, but an amazing array of mostly telephone
transactions will not accept them. Most notable was trying to add credit to
a calling card for making international telephone calls. Couldn't be done.
So it meant I had to forego any discounts or bonuses for topping up, and buy
a whole new calling card.
Car insurance and registration
I'm not sure how this is going to go yet. Our Prius is supposed to be
available around the 18th of January. I'm hoping I'll have my SSN by then,
otherwise we'll have to import a heap of money to pay for it. I'm sure you
can get insurance and own a car without an SSN, because you hear of people
who do driving holidays across the US, buying a car on one coast, driving it
cross-country, and then selling it. It might be more expensive, and I again,
you can't import your driving/insurance history, so you have to start off at
the bottom of the ladder again...
In summary, I think you need to have relatively deep pockets to bootstrap
yourself over here. You need to be able to function without getting paid for
up to two or three months, and you need to understand that credit-wise and
insurance-wise, you're going to be back at square-one again, irrespective of
how good you might have been in your home country.
The sooner you come to terms with these, and appreciate that you are
moving to a foreign country, the sooner you can get on with enjoying the