The bureaucratic hoops for initiating the visa entry process from the UK are not numerous but they take time. Even though I had married a US citizen a year earlier, it took seven months to fulfil all the requirements.
Visa applications from the US end are usually quicker
If you are married to, or are marrying a US citizen, consider making the transatlantic move first and get an immigration lawyer to assist with the paperwork once in the country. It seems that they can help process applications very much more efficiently and quickly.
If you apply for a visa from the UK, the first step is for your spouse to file an immigrant visa petition, Form I-130, with the US embassy in London. Cost $185. This form requires a number of supporting pieces of documentation, such as a marriage certificate.
Then there's a second form G-325A, Biographic Information to complete. It requires the same information as above another four times. Send in to the embassy: USCIS I-130 (or I-360), American Embassy, PO Box 2444, London W1A 5WT.
Then wait and wait some more. The embassy generally starts processing applications at least a month and a half after you send in the application.
An income stream is mandatory
Once your spouse's petition is granted, another set of forms arrives in the post for you to complete.
In this second part of the process your spouse must show that they are able to support you without claiming benefits when you are in the US. If, like my wife, your spouse has been in the UK for a while and has no US income stream, you have a problem: moving to the US will stop any UK income stream unless your partner works for a US company and gets transferred back.
Unless you both have access to large amounts of liquid assets that can be easily moved across the Atlantic to be used as support, your spouse will have to go back to the US and earn the 125% of the poverty level defined for the size of your family, before you can follow.
When your spouse eventually signs to say they can support you to enter the country, they are also agreeing to pay back to the government any benefits that you may claim for the next 10 years, or as long as you are not a US citizen. Therefore, claiming unemployment if you lose your job is not an option because you are only borrowing the money. You will end up paying it back if you claim as a permanent resident.
Once the second set of forms has been returned and processed, after four-six weeks you will get appointments for any jabs that are not up to date (measles, rubella etc) performed by a doctor designated by the immigration service and for a formal interview at the embassy. My interview was little more than a cashiering transaction. I handed over the paperwork to the official, sat until called, and then they swapped money for the for the visa. It costs US$380.
Patience is required
You have to learn a lot of patience with the system as it only has two speeds, slow and slower. The embassy's staff seems to be highly skilled at giving the minimum information in the fastest time to steam roller you off the phone. Even planning a call in advance doesn’t seem to get you anywhere.
Once I had jumped the hurdles got into the country, I was given permission to work immediately. The immigration official at the airport stamped my passport with my permanent resident number and status, which you might think is enough to get you going. Not on your life - to become a functioning member of society you need a Social Security Number (SSN).
Don't delay getting your social security number
On arriving in the US, get to your nearest Social Security office as soon as possible as it will take at least a month to get your number. You need to rely on your spouse before your SSN is allocated as they have to handle issues such as renting apartments because they have a number. Without the number you cannot get a driver’s test, a bank account, or a job.
Apply for as many jobs as possible
Once the paperwork is sorted, your job search should start in earnest. My big problem was that I arrived after the tech sector gravy boat had left San Francisco. The employers who were hiring were in the driver’s seat and could pick and choose from a pool of extremely highly qualified people.
It is wise to apply for anything and everything that you are remotely qualified for. In nine months I had five interviews. This may not seem a good average but I heard that the majority of people in the area had been out of work from 12 to 24 months with no end in sight and only had one interview in that time.
I think the reasons for my more encouraging statistics were sheer persistence in pushing out job applications and having a set of skills that are generic to all companies - project management, customer support and, a big plus for me, the desktop, network and server infrastructure support. Companies always need infrastructure people to keep it ticking over, even in times of extreme hardship.
Make finding your job a 9-5 operation. It gives you motivation to get moving everyday and builds momentum: the more applications, the more chance of finding something. Don’t be proud - take whatever you need to survive. I worked in retail over Christmas and took some pretty lowly paid tech jobs through an agency.
Look for jobs online
For jobs in the US, the main sites to look at are: www.monster.com and www.careerbuilder.com. Job fairs are held either for a particular locality or for a certain industry sector. A number of global technical staffing agencies may be able to help with finding a job before moving from the UK to the US. Examples are Teksystems, Robert Half and Adecco.
I found my current job as a senior technical support specialist with Informed Decisions Corp in Alameda through a non-profit web community site that started in the Bay Area of California called www.craigslist.com.
IT skills transfer seamlessly
Once in a post, you will find that IT skills and knowledge fit right in where you left off. Companies and institutions follow the same standards as the rest of the world.
Software development methodologies follow global standards; the products that are used are also globally recognised, so certification for example as an MCSE in the UK will be recognised here. Your transition will be helped by Microsoft's omnipresence if you are a .Net developer, Microsoft certified DBA or administrator, or by the increased interest in opensource products across the world. CISCO certifications and any kind of security certification will also be sought after.
Similar skills are prized
You can pretty much guarantee that any set of skills that are in demand in the UK will transfer and be highly prized in the US too. In a real economic downturn a wide set of skills helps. I was able to use support skills to keep small offices ticking over and to help with limited focus projects in large companies such as desktop updates and replacement projects.
It seems that software developers and people who were highly qualified in specialist areas, such as technical writing or account management, did have a real problem in the recession because product development and customer growth were scaled back considerably. No-one had the confidence to buy a new product or go in for extensive upgrade programs.
Outsourcing is becoming an every greater issue for IT employees. A considerable amount of application development is being moved from the US to India. US call centres are also being moved there and even some research and development functions, which is a huge deviation from past patterns.
In this environment, the way to make yourself more marketable is to focus on skills to provide consulting, project management and professional services. Customers generally require someone based locally for these. If you are in a position to drive the strategy of what is being developed by being the link to the customer, you are in a far safer position.
Management philosophies are similar
The command and control structure within US companies, and management philosophies pretty much follow the same lines as in the UK. The departmental structures are well defined and the hierarchy of management is something you will recognise, probably straight out of an MBA text book. As far as the working environment and peoples’ attitudes to work are concerned, you should be very comfortable with the transition.
Remember tax duties back home
Moving the focus back to the UK, you must remember to deal with the Inland Revenue. If you move here as a permanent resident the situation is easy: file any tax returns when asked. Along with these, file paperwork to say that you are now domiciled in the US and not earning any income from UK assets.
Building a credit history takes time
You have no credit history in the US even if you have savings or have owned a house in the UK and had very good credit there. This can work to your advantage if your credit is less than brilliant in the UK as you have a clean slate in the US.
It takes time and patience to build a credit history. You can help the process by getting joint credit cards with your spouse and a joint auto loan. Employment also really helps to start getting credit card offers coming in. They won't initially be the best of terms but you need at least four revolving accounts of good standing to start to build a good credit score.
Other financial activities over here, such as setting up a bank account, car insurance, etc is much the same as in the UK.
US life has its downsides:
- Health care: extremely expensive.
- Cell phones: you pay for airtime. That means when someone calls you, you are paying. So when a plan says you have 300 minutes a month for a flat monthly fee, be sure that is enough to cover all your incoming calls as well as outgoing, otherwise you’ll pay a lot.
- Over reliance on vehicles: it is difficult if not down right dangerous to walk anywhere as pavements are at a minimum.
- Huge pick-up trucks and SUVs: you just can’t see round them.
- Speeding fines. They really are a deterrent over here, which I can certainly attest to personally as having been fined $400 for two indiscretions in the space of a week.
US is a good option overall
Nevertheless, if you are looking to move abroad from the UK, the US is a great place to consider as a first option. The language being the same is a real plus. The culture and work ethic are very similar, except for the lack of adequate vacation time. Forget your usual 20 to 25 days; it is likely you will only get 12. Public holidays are few also, so if you relish your vacation time, be prepared to use a lot of unpaid leave.
You will find that UK people get treated with a vast amount of respect over here and your opinion will take a lot of weight just based, it sometimes seems, on your accent alone.