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How to Make the Transition to the US a Smooth One

Matthew Pullen is an associate creative director at LA-based RPA and recently made the move from South Africa - he shares the lessons he learned from the move
Moving to the US to work in advertising (or similar) can be both daunting and liberating. Like any big change, it comes with a series of challenges, some more obvious than others. The visa process alone is an arduous time-suck that involves countless lines, background checks, evidence collection, letters of reference, reams of paperwork and a lot of patience. Any one of these can be challenging in themselves, but combining them with selling off your possessions and saying goodbye to your friends and family can be one of the most challenging things you do. Seeing your entire life reduced into a few bags and a file of important documents is both terrifying and exciting. It is all worth it considering the opportunity you are fortunate to have – to hopefully grow and excel in one of the most thriving economies in the world and to do some important, career-defining work. Moving is just half the challenge. The real challenge is setting up your new life.

Here are a few helpful tips that aim to help make the transition an easier one.

Social Security Number

If there’s one thing you need to do first, it’s this. Get a social security number. Everything formal that you do in the US relies on this. You cannot open a bank account unless you have a Social Security Number, which means you will be paid in cheques or cash until you do, with nowhere to deposit them either. It can be quite a painful process, but on the bright side it is a necessary one. Social security offices also seem to be an incredible education of the demographic landscape in your city. Every walk of life, no matter who they are, is reduced to a ticket number and subjected to the musical chairs experience. It’s a delightful people-watching experience.

Make a file, put all your important papers – like your visa, letter of employment, temporary address and anything that gives you legal right to be in the country – in it. If you don’t have a temporary address, use your work address. You don’t want to join that line just to find out you have to come back. Also, get there before it opens, and be first in line. If anything is missing from your stack of papers you at least have the rest of the day to sort it out.

Bank Account

You will have to wait until you receive your Social Security card to do this, which can take a few weeks, but if you ask nicely, you could return to the specific Social Security office a few days later and obtain the number once it has been internally processed. This will save you a few weeks that you would have had to wait for the card in the mail. 

Do your research before opening up a bank account. Depending on the month, different banks have great incentives that will either work for you in the short term or hurt you in the long term. Either way, you want to align yourself with a bank that also has the credit card you want to have in the future, so that the switching process and transfer process is faster when you eventually become eligible. Sometimes banks will also speed up these processes depending on the specific person’s money-managing ability.


Believe it or not, the country revolves around it. Although you have been gathering credit history your whole life, chances are if you aren’t from a specific country, your credit history isn’t recognised in the US. You need credit history to develop a good credit score which determines whether you are eligible for any type of loan or large purchase.

This includes: leasing an apartment and leasing a car. If you are from a country outside of Europe, this probably means you have to start from scratch. The quicker you start, the quicker you can develop your score, which will unlock worlds of ease in your life later on. The quickest way to do this is to open up a secure credit card with your bank.

A secure credit card functions exactly the same as a normal credit card but instead of the bank fronting the credit, you as the client do. What it does is prove to the bank that you are good at paying off your debt, without any risk to them. In most countries going into debt is avoided at all costs, but in the US you have to have debt to prove how good you are with it. As counter-logical as this sounds it really is one of the most efficient ways of generating a solid credit score. You do get the money you initially fronted back, once the card is upgraded to a normal credit card. So don’t think about it and you’ll get a pleasant surprise bonus in the future, for being good with debt. 

A free instant way to monitor your credit is through Credit Karma. The app has very useful tips about how to manage your credit to boost your score efficiently, like trying to spend less than 10% of your credit limit each month. Your credit score can take a hit in multiple ways. So be aware. Every time someone asks to run your credit, ask if it is a soft or hard inquiry. Soft inquiries don’t affect your score, while hard inquiries do. When trying to rent an apartment or open up some store credit cards, they will submit a hard inquiry against your credit. Because you have no credit history you will be deemed ineligible and your credit will take a hit for the hard inquiry. It’s strange to be penalised for not having a history, but it’s a reality.

Finding a place to stay

If you can, ask for corporate housing from your employer for at least a month. This will give you time to have the necessary accounts and paperwork to apply for a property lease. Every time you apply they will ‘run’ your credit, which is typically a hard inquiry, as well as being something you most likely will not have. Speak with the property renter or landlord and tell them your situation. At the very least, it will be a good way of finding out what kind of human they are, and if you would really want them to be your landlord in the first place. Come armed with as many reference letters as possible. These should be from your past landlords and your employers, speaking to your character and ability to pay on time. This could help avoid the credit check.

When you go to a property, go with the intention of signing and be prepared to pay the deposit almost immediately. Depending on which city you are in, good property is hard to find, so when you do find it, chances are many others have too. So be willing to move quickly. If you manage to avoid the credit check, be prepared that your landlord might ask for additional deposit upfront. Another way to avoid this completely is to sublease. The pros to this approach are that you pay what is advertised, avoid the runaround, and you get to meet new people. Depending on your agreement, you can move after a month’s notice if things aren’t working out.


Find a good immigration attorney when you’ve settled. Even though your employer will have access to one, it’s a good idea to have a relationship with an attorney separate to that of your employer. It’s not disrespectful to your employer to have a personal attorney, with whom you can consult with. Most immigration attorneys will give advice at little to no charge, unless you are taking up a lot of time or decide to file something with them. If there are any difficult situations that might arise outside of work in the future, it’s a good idea to have the ability to consult an attorney separate from your place of work. It’s also nice to know you have a second opinion that is a phone-call away.


Try living without a car for a while. Who knows, you might not need one in the city that you live in. With ridesharing at your fingertips, and the push from most cities to use public transport, it seems silly not to take advantage of a car-free life. Every situation is different, so do the math and see what works for you. But remember, owning a car is only a small part of the story, parking it and maintaining it is where the real challenge can lie. And... traffic. If you are driving you can’t do anything about that. But do ask your employer if they subsidise public transport, or have any business accounts for ridesharing. It won’t hurt knowing you have a few extra rides in the pocket. 

Invest in relationships from the get go

You should do this on both a personal and professional level. You’ve left your support groups and sounding boards for a new life. Although you will always have friends and family, as well as your professional advocates at home, you need to put good people in your life that can positively affect your life and you theirs. The sooner you can build a network of good people around you, the quicker you can settle in and concentrate on what you came to do. You can learn something from everyone and anyone, but because you are able to start over again, you have the rare ability to curate relationships and put the right people in your life. 

Don’t be afraid to ask

From HR to your bosses to your colleagues, you have every right to ask for help and advice. You’ve just left everything behind for this new life and there’s little chance that you will just know everything, especially when it comes to the different structural and cultural systems at work and outside of work. Chances are there are a few other foreigners at your agency who have been through what you are going through and who could help you make good decisions.

Learn the structural hierarchy of your workplace

Do this as soon as you can. Titles and positions can carry different weight at different organisations. Find out who does what and how they fit within the internal hierarchy. When it’s crunch time you want to know who you can rely on and how you can overcome obstacles together in the most efficient manner. You’ve been hired to add value to your organisation, so find those who can add value to yours.

Choose your people

Foreigners who’ve been in similar positions to you, but pick on the brains and know-how of locals too. Not everyone is good for you. Now that you are restarting your life, you have the ability to shape how you position yourself.

Join things

Whether they are organised workshops, activities or clubs, one of the quickest ways to understand the culture of a place and meet like-minded people is to do after work things with other employees. Even if it’s a yoga class or book club, you will get to see people you work with for who they are.

Rather have the conversation

Yes it’s 2018 and an email or slack can save you time but rather than isolating yourself at your cube/office, go and speak to people. Chances are, they’ll be interested in you and you in them, and, who knows, it might spark an idea or two.

Collect everything important and keep it safe

All your important information should be kept far away from risk and backed up in the cloud. If anything gets lost, destroyed or stolen at least you can prove your status and identity. No one can steal the cloud – well, at least not yet.

Do your thing

You’ve been hired to add value, so focus on this. You’ve made it across the sea to the land of the free, on the back of some good work you’ve done at previous agencies in your career. Chances are the agency you’re heading to is nothing like the agency you’ve just been employed at, and even if it is, the support structures, communication hierarchy and general culture will differ in some or other way. But that shouldn’t hold you back from doing your thing. Work hard, be kind and keep on trying to grow. Remember you are there for a reason, and you have the skills to do what you need to do, and at any moment you have the power to define your worth.

Feel free to use the tips that apply to you most and prioritise them. This is written with absolute sincerity, speaking from experience through many of these challenges. I feel that in sharing my experiences, I hope to save time and pain for any newcomer. When times get tough (because they will), stick it out and remember it’s all worth it in the end.

Matthew Pullen is an associate creative director at LA-based RPA
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