One of my favourite personal finance bloggers, Trent at the Simple Dollar, wrote a post today called “Twenty Things Everyone Should Know About Living Freely And Frugally In America”. While some of his advice is spot on, there are a lot of thing he doesn’t include – and for good reason, as he’s never had to navigate the legal minefield that comes with being nonresident in the US. So, I’ve written this followup post pointing out some of the things you really need to know if you’re planning to come to the US on a nonimmigrant visa (which is most people who come to work or study, at least initially). The first five are personal finance related, and the last five are culture related.
1) If you’re coming to the US on a nonimmigrant visa (eg. student visa) you are technically not eligible for credit.
Obtaining credit (and a whole host of other things, such as life insurance) in the US requires you to be a ‘US Resident’. Tax residence has different criteria than legal residence (see below for more), but in general, if you’re on a student visa in the US you are technically resident in your home country and therefore can’t get credit. Even opening a bank account can sometimes be difficult.
That said, credit card companies are so hungry for business that they have no interest in checking your status, and i have NEVER heard of someone being deported for breaking this law. If you plan to stay in the US after your degree, even for only one year, you will have a much easier time renting a house, getting a cellphone plan, and buying and insuring a car if you have a credit history.
2) No matter your visa class, after 5 years of being in the US on a nonimmigrant visa you are resident for tax purposes.
This law has a lot of implications. One good one is that for the first five years, you don’t have to pay into Social Security or Medicare (after all, you’re probably not going to retire here), so your tax bill is reduced.
But it also has a lot of tricky loopholes for people who complete a four year degree and then wish to use their year of work authorization. For example, you’re not eligible to complete a W-9 (a form that makes you exempt from withholding, if you’re self employed or working as a contractor). Instead, the law says nonresidents who work as contractors must have taxes witheld at the 30% tax rate! So be prepared.
3) If you’re here on a H1 work visa and you quit your job or get fired without having a visa transfer lined up, you (and anyone you’ve sponsored) are out of status at the instant your job ends.
It is INCREDIBLY important to know this and be prepared for it. Although the immigration officials won’t turn up on the doorstep of your workplace to escort you out of the country then and there, you will have to take the next flight out if you want to have the best chance of getting a new visa. This means you should appoint a friend or relative to take care of your affairs, and have money available to do so, just in case this happens to you. (I’ll write more about this in a separate post).
Good news for students – you have 60 days from the end of your schooling (or OPT) to put your affairs in order and leave the country or change status.
4) Be VERY, VERY cautious when filing your taxes.
If you want to apply for residence (a green card) or citizenship, one thing that will be carefully scrutinized is your tax return! So make sure you file every year, file on time, and keep copies of your tax documents for every year you have spent in the US.
Also, be aware that some tax credits and tax breaks don’t apply to nonresidents. Tax software programs don’t always ask you if you’re a US resident or not. If in doubt, err on the side of paying more tax – it’s better to do that than to have your application for residence denied. It’s best to use a specialized software program for nonresidents (such as Cintax), or see someone who has experience in preparing tax returns for visa holders.
5) Most of the financial resources available aren’t written with you in mind.
Before you follow anyone’s financial advice, check it against the requirements of your particular visa status. The fact is that a number of opportunities and strategies available to citizens and residents aren’t available for nonresidents. If you’re on a student or work visa, it’s illegal for you to earn income anywhere that isn’t your school or the employer sponsoring your visa. Even taking cans for recycling and receiving payment can be a violation of the conditions of your visa. If in doubt, please speak to an immigration lawyer – they will have the best and most accurate information
6) There is no one American culture.
The USA was founded on the principle that all people could come here and freely live according to their beliefs. South Asians and Chinese and Arabs and Filipinos and other nonwhite immigrants have come to America for centuries, speaking their languages and maintaining their traditions. They are just as ‘American’ as cowboys and Amish and Mormons and people who celebrate Christmas. You don’t have to conform to the dominant ‘American’ culture – or even speak English – in order to be an American.
7) But, don’t shy away from opportunities to speak English, learn about typically American values and traditions, and interact with people from a variety of cultures.
English is the business language of the US, just as French is the business language of North Africa and Spanish is the business language of South America. If you want to interact with people outside your community, in work, at the store or in your neighborhood – and I’m sure you will – English is the language you’ll be using. And it will help you understand your neighbors (and pass the citizenship test) if you learn about American history, core values (for example, freedom of speech) and local traditions (like Thanksgiving and Hallowe’en).
8 ) Use the Internet to find resources and community groups from your place of origin – they will be very important for your comfort and health.
In most of the places you’ll probably end up living, you’ll find a community of people from your country or region of origin, who will have the advice and support you’ll need to navigate US society – not to mention tips on how to find your favorite foods, drinks, movies and hobbies. You might be surprised at the people you find working together! Often, differences and tensions that are profound ‘back home’ – Bosnian/Croat/Serb, Christian/Muslim/Hindu – seem a lot less important when you just want to speak your native language and reminisce about the weather.
9) Seek out support services that have been developed for people like you.
Whatever your reason for coming, someone in the US has thought of it and developed a support service. If you’re a refugee or brand new immigrant, you can find nonprofit organizations running classes on how to navigate US society – choosing a bread at the grocery store, opening a bank account, getting a drivers’ license, etc. If you’re at school, there’ll be at least one international student support person (try the person who signs your I-20!) who will help you overcome ‘culture shock’ and get used to the US school system. If you’re working, try HR. Again, the Internet will help you find these resources.
10) Whether you like it or not, your actions reflect on your entire community, country and/or region.
If you’re visibly identifiable as “not from here”, or if you speak with an accent, people will see you as a representative of your culture, country of origin, and/or religion. That’s a normal human tendency. Remember that in your interactions with others and your actions.