The complete guide to moving to the USA

Absolutely everything you need to know

Updated: Aug 6, 2016

The Hollywood sign. The White House. The Statue of Liberty. Everything about America is iconic, so why wouldn’t you think about moving to The Land of the Free and Home of the Brave? Whether you’re looking to eat hotdogs in Central Park or perfect your inline skating along Venice Beach, there’s a city and lifestyle for everyone.

You’ll not have to learn a new language, though the mix of cultures makes for an eclectic international scene.

If you’re unsure where to begin, our guide has more detail than Mount Rushmore.

Getting through customs

Have a valid passport

It goes without saying really, but make sure your passport is in date – and isn't going to run out anytime soon. If you’re worried your passport is due to run out, don’t leave it until the last minute, head over to the Australian Government Passport Authority for all the details you’ll need about renewing – or applying for – a passport.

TIP: Have at least six months validity on your passport before you travel – and ideally before you make any travel arrangements – as US Immigration can be very strict with dates.

Organise a visa

The visa system in the USA generally states that you must be sponsored to live there. This could be through a relative who is already a permanent resident, or a US citizen, or through an employer. This means it’s pretty difficult to get a visa without already having a job lined up, or a family member to help you out. The initial application, or petition, has to go through the USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service) and there is a lot of paperwork to go through. If this gets approved, the application will then be forwarded on to the National Visa Center (NVC). Fees start at AUD $281 and you’ll need to schedule a Consular Interview in either Sydney, Melbourne or Perth.

Thankfully though, as an Australian citizen, you should be able to travel through on an e3 visa – provided you already have a job offer. You also need good academic credentials, such as a degree, and you need to be filling a position that qualifies under the visa rules. Unfortunately, while there is no definitive list of what these are, a good guide can be found here:

This is one of the most straightforward visas and is valid for two years, which can then be renewed. Plus, a lot of the process needs to be done by your employer. This doesn’t mean you can sit back and relax though. They’ll need to fill out a Labour Condition Application and then you’ll need to make an appointment at the US Consulate in Sydney, Melbourne or Perth. You must take your passport and offer of employment letter.

TIP: Do not sell your house or property, resign from your job, or make any non-refundable travel arrangements before you have been approved for – and received – your visa.

Permanent citizen

Being a permanent citizen in the USA grants you an awful lot of privileges you wouldn’t necessarily have the right to in other countries. In addition to the basic rights of having somewhere to live and the ability to work, you’re entitled to buy property, attend public school and if you’re applicable, receive Social Security benefit and Medicare. You’ll be issued a photographic “green card” proving your status.

TIP: It’s a legal requirement that if you’re over 18, you must carry proof of your residency status at all times.

Quarantine for pets

If you love your morning walks with your four-legged friend and couldn't bare to start the day in the US-of-A without such a stroll, you’ll be pleased to know the regulations for importing pets are quite straightforward.

As Australia is a rabies-free country, your cat or dog will not have to be vaccinated against it prior to arriving. However, individual state regulations apply here, so it’s best to check with the relevant local government department of the state you plan to move to. Each state will regulate what type of examination your pet will need once you’ve landed and if it’s subject to any quarantine. To be on the safe side, make sure all your pet’s vaccinations and health-checks are up to date. Bring a copy of the vaccination records or a signed letter from your usual vet in Australia.

Both cats and dogs are required to look healthy – don’t worry, they do understand a 16-hour flight isn't exactly going to make your pooch look bright eyed and bushy tailed.

TIP: Get in touch with King & Wilson to arrange secure pet transportation, documentation and quarantine advice.

Money, money, money


American dollars. $. That’s easy. They’re not the same as Australian dollars though, so you will have to exchange your cash before moving. Notes start at $1 and unlike in Australia where the notes are different colours depending on the denomination, all notes are green in the USA. This does not make it helpful when you first move. So to avoid handing over your life savings for a coffee and donut, check what you’re handing over.

TIP: Download a conversion app to calculate how much the cost of living stacks up compared to Australia.


Opening a bank account in the USA is pretty straightforward IF you have your green card or other proof of residency. This is one of the reasons it really is so important to have your visa sorted before you arrive.

Opening a bank account is easy, and can be done at any branch of any bank. You’ll need your passport, employment pass and a deposit to open the account with. Deposits vary, so check before you go.

Take your green card, passport, proof of address, your social security number and a deposit to any local branch. If you’ve moved to a huge city, such as New York, you may find a range of international financial institutions in addition to American banks. Check with your Australian bank to see if they have a network in America and if they can assist you in opening an account. Shop around for the best deal for you, which may sound like you’re buying a new flatscreen TV, but in the USA, banks may have charges for certain services or require you to deposit a certain amount each month. Some banks even have a fee for the maintaining of your account. Having said that, banking in the USA is very competitive with a number of banks offering introductory deals – be aware how long these special offers last, as you don’t want to be surprised when there’s a huge increase in your fees.

TIP: Make sure you register for a Social Security number at the same time as applying for your visa so that you can get things up and running when you arrive in the USA.

Credit unions are another way of banking while in the USA. It’s basically a member-owned cooperative. Your employer may have a credit union you can join, or depending on the state you’re living in, you may be able to join one without their permission. They usually offer the same services as banks, but may often have extra savings-based options.

TIP: Your credit rating is really important in the United States. Keep your credit rating strong by paying bills on time, and keep your credit card balances low by paying at least the minimum amount each month.

Social Security number

You’ll need a Social Security number to pay your taxes in the United States. And luckily, you don’t necessarily have to wait until you land to apply. You can apply for it at the same time as you’re applying for your visa. Don’t worry if you forget to do this in advance, though. It can be done once you land, however you’ll need to wait around two weeks, so that all your legal documentation can be uploaded to the Homeland Security database. You can make an appointment at any Social Security office, and best of all, you don’t need to pay. It will take around another two weeks for your number to be sent to you, printed on a card.


There are a number of taxes you’ll have to pay when you move to the USA. If you have a green card, then you’ll be taxed in the same way as a US citizen. Sales tax is a little like GST in Australia and is placed on retail goods. Most states have this tax and it can vary between 1-10%, currently with California having the highest tax at 7.5%. Not everything that’s sold is subject to tax, for example food bought in supermarkets is tax free, whilst restaurant meals are often taxed. You’ll find many US price lists have an annoying habit of not displaying the grossed up total inclusive of state sales tax, instead displaying the tax-exempt price, leaving you with a nasty taste in your mouth once the cash register has done its thing.

Property tax on housing or office space is also variable by state and enforced locally. If you have relative free reign over where you’ll be moving to, this might be something to consider if you’re looking at buying property in America.

Income tax is paid by most workers and is taken directly from your pay so you won’t have to worry about setting money aside each month, or budgeting for tax. However, you’ll need to annually complete a Form 1040, telling the authorities exactly how much you have earned and how much tax you’ve paid. This may result in a credit – or debit – if you’ve paid the wrong amount.

Social Security, and if you’re eligible, Medicare taxes will also be deducted from your paycheck.

TIP: Make sure you keep all your paychecks – at least until you’ve filled in your Form 1040 and confirmed the tax amount you’ve paid. If there are any issues, at least you’ll have your payslips to fall back on.


Medical care in the USA is some of the most advanced in the world, and it’s also amongst the most expensive in the world. Government initiatives such as Medicare are only available for the over 65s, disabled or very poor. It’s vital you take out medical insurance – all medical care, even emergencies, has to be paid for. Either by you or your insurer. Nor is insurance cheap, unfortunately. It might be advisable to speak to your current insurance provider to see what it would cost to cover you for a year living in the USA. Whilst this won’t be cheap, it still might still work out to be more cost effective than taking out insurance when you land. Plus it gives you 12 months to shop around for the best policy for you and your family, rather than panic-buying something out of fear one of your kids catches a cold.

Some companies will offer to split the cost of health insurance with you, and for as long as you stay working for them, they’ll contribute towards the cost of the insurance for your family. If you leave or get fired, you might be given the option to keep the policy, but fully-fund it yourself.

TIP: Always keep proof of your insurance with you – you don’t want to be given a huge medical bill if you have to make an unexpected trip to a Doctor or hospital.

Setting up a home

East or West

Most Australians opt for either the East Coast or California. The two couldn’t be more different. In some respects California has an Australian feel, with life being centred outdoors, lots of water sports, physical activities and a dry temperate climate. The East Coast has older institutions, is more industrial and has more of an obvious ‘business’ feel to it. The financial Hub of New York is still a massive pull, but with cities like Philadelphia, Boston and Washington DC hot on its heels, there are plenty of options along the east side of the States.

In the United States, most people spend around 25% of their income on housing, so you need to be sure you’re happy with your choice of home. The main options are apartments, houses, duplexes or condominiums.

Have a think about the type of job you have and the lifestyle you lead. If you’re a young, party-loving couple, you’re not really going to want a sprawling four-bed house in the countryside. If you work ‘downtown’ in a major city, what is the commute going to be like – and will there be ample parking or maybe even public transport.

Popular destinations for Australians to relocate to are:

New York City

Live on the island of Manhattan (if you can afford it) for the ultimate in city living, try the hipster havens of Brooklyn and Williamsburg or opt for a commute from the leafy, family-friendly Westchester in New York State.

Los Angeles

LA has both the hills and the coast and most Australians will actually fine the cost of real estate both to rent and buy a pleasant surprise when compared to the crazy prices in Sydney and Melbourne. The Hollywood Hills are vast and form a dramatic backdrop to LA as its sprawls back from the Pacific Ocean. Not everyone who lives in the hills is a movie star and the amazing views offered back over LA may be within reach of many Aussies on professional salary grades. Other popular areas include the suburbs of Silver Lake, Los Felis, Redondo Beach and Santa Monica.

Commuting time is a major factor in LA, particularly if you’re working in the Downtown. The distances are vast so bear in mind if you have kids to drop off at school/Day Care or a long commute to work, you don’t want to spend half your day sat in traffic and on freeways, cursing under your breath and raising your blood pressure.

San Francisco and the Bay Area

Really up and coming over the last few years, it’s now a hub for financial services, tourism, education and technology. It's always been somewhat of a maverick US city. Its also a really family-friendly city – and there’s some of the best public transport, schools and universities in the country here. You’ve seen the cable cars. Just don’t think you are going to go swimming in the sea all year around. The waters off the coast of San Francisco make Melbourne’s icy Port Phillip Bay feel positively tropical in comparison.

To rent or buy?

Like in Australia, owning a home is far more common than renting, and it’s seen as part of the cultural character of the US. Apartments are often rented rather than bought. You don’t actually need a US bank account to buy a house in America, but obviously do make sure all your paperwork is filed and that your visa has been granted before you even think of buying property. If you do decide to buy, let a professional look after you, someone like a realtor or real estate agent. They’ll not only be able to house hunt to your needs (and budget) but they can help with the paperwork and you’ll have someone on your side legally to look after your interests.

If you’re looking to rent, your prospective landlord will ask you to fill out a rental application. This is basically to prove that you can afford the place and have enough money to pay the rent each month. You might be asked for your Social Security number and /or proof of employment. Most leases are for 12 months, and although you can secure shorter-term leases, you’ll find they’re more expensive. You’ll also be asked to pay a deposit, which is usually a month’s rent, which will be returned to you when you leave, provided everything is in order.

TIP: Check with your landlord whether utilities are included as part of your rent. If they’re not, find out how much they will cost before signing a lease.

If you decide to buy, most people will need to have a mortgage. And unlike in Australia, the interest you pay on your mortgage can de deducted from your income tax. This is another good reason to file all your tax-related paperwork until you’ve submitted your tax return each year. Be aware, each state also imposes property tax on the value of your new home. As with most things financial in the USA, it will vary state by state.


If you’re renting, the cost of water will be included in your rent. In terms of electricity and gas, however, this is something you’ll need to arrange yourself. Your landlord or building manager will be able to tell you who supplies it, and will no doubt be able to let you know where you need to register. The cost of electricity is surprisingly affordable compared to some other Western Countries. It’s not common for individual apartments to have their own laundry facilities, and you’ll often find the building has a laundry room with washers and dryers.

TIP: Keep a collection of coins near your laundry products, so you’re not fishing around for change to tackle a mountain of laundry.

Essentials: mobiles and Internet

The first thing you’ll need to keep in mind when using a mobile, or cell phone, in America, is that you pay for incoming calls as well as outgoing. Yes, that’s right, you have to pay for someone calling you. Given the size of the country, it’s not surprising that phone signal and quality can vary – though improvements are being made all the time.

The main phone providers are:

Internet provision is really good in the USA, though most of it is still done through DSL rather than wireless or cable. A cable connection is usually far more expensive, but does come with the bonus of cable TV as well. Because competition is fierce, you’ll often find monthly offers or free set-up with your first year plan. Shop around to check download allowances, speed of connection in your area before you sign up.

How will you get around?

Public transport

The bad news is public transport isn’t great, sorry. Air travel is fantastic across country, but that doesn’t help getting you home from work every night. Taxis are everywhere are really the only reliable form of public transport there is. Not every major city has a suburban rail network, and buses can often be late – not helpful when you need to be delivering a major presentation at 8.30am. If you want to get out and about and explore nearby states or landmarks, things like the Greyhound network are great and can be very affordable. However for everyday life, most people tend to have a car.

Getting a US driving license

Again, this is something to think twice about, mainly due to the massive costs. You’ll need to pay for a certificate of entitlement, customs duties, taxes and insurance. Cars have a huge import tax, and that gets passed on to you if you decide to buy. Plus the car itself won't be cheap, you’re talking roughly twice the cost price. Then once you’re actually driving, you’ll need to think about the toll roads. ERP, or electronic road pricing is in force throughout the city. The toll cost fluctuates during the day, and there’s no set pricing as it depends on the amount of traffic on the roads. You’ll pay more at peak times of the day. Plus you’ll pay more the more you use your car. Free parking is practically non-existent in Singapore, even in public spaces like shopping centres.

Your Australian driving license is valid for up to 90 days after you land, depending on the state. After that, you’ll need to get an American one. Again you’ll need your Social Security number (or evidence you’ve applied for it), your birth certificate and also some passport-style photos. Now, in some states they may attempt to confiscate your Australian license, and the only way to stop this is to take a driving test. If you’re applying for your license for the first time, you’ll need to contact the state office. Details of these can be found here:

TIP: Make sure to check state regulation for when your Australian driving license runs out. Although you have up to 90 days to apply for an American driving license, this does vary by state. In California for example, you have to apply within 10 days of becoming a resident.

What will the kids do all day?

Pre-school and Day Care

Under 5s don’t legally need to be in education, but there are a number of options for your toddler while you’re setting up home or out at work. Pre-school and Day Care are the two main options. Neither is free, so do some research in to what facilities are available in your local area. Day Care tends to focus more on developing social interaction, while pre-school does this and looks at the educational side, too.

The cost of Day Care will greatly depend on a number of factors: how many hours a week they’re there, what state you’re living in – Manhattan is going to be seriously more expensive than Montana – and the type of childcare you’re looking for. The average cost is a staggering AUD$ 15,600 per year (or AUD$ 1,300 per month). The prices will drop by a couple of thousand dollars a year the closer your child gets to school age.

School options

All children are entitled to state, free education. While each individual state will have a rule on the legal age kids have to be in school, for most it’s 5-16 years of age. You’ll need to enrol your kids in a local school, and you can do this by visiting the district office – or have a look online before you more – to see the list of schools they could attend. As school places are given out based on where you live, your kids will always be educated close to home. This is a great way for them to make friends in the local neighbourhood.

You’ll need to provide an up-to-date vaccination record, plus a copy of their birth certificate. In some cases you might be asked to provide proof that you (and your child) lives in the same district as the school.

Although schooling itself is free, you might be asked to pay additional costs, such as books (most state schools do offer free books) supplies like stationary, and if applicable, uniform. After-school activities, such as sports teams may also carry a charge.

Students don’t follow a set national curriculum, so they are not working towards national exams, but to receive their High School Diploma. Each state has it’s own set of regulations, so again, check with the school district office where you’ll be living. For students wishing to attend university, or college as it’s often called in America, your child will need to sit an SAT. This is a university-based admissions exam, or set of exams which focus on key English and maths skills. They also take in to account things likes the GPA, or grade point average of your child in their subjects, where they rank next to their peers in the class, and also how challenging the subjects are they’ve chosen to take.

The education system can be quite confusing, but the University of Minnesota have created this handy guide to the US education system

There is also the option of private school, which will require a tuition fee to be paid. Private schools don’t have to follow government-led curriculum, so there is the argument that teachers are able to teach with more variety. And unlike state schools, places are not allocated geographically, although, as with private schools everywhere, competition for places is high.

TIP: Spend some time sitting down with the kids and explain the school system to them before you leave to help alleviate any of the culture shock they might feel at a new school with a new style of education.

Work stuff

Arriving in the States with no job is a bold move, particularly as it may mean you end up arriving on a tourist visa and then having to leave the country to come back as a resident when you have a job. The authorities do frown on this though, so don’t rely on the fact you’ve been granted a tourist visa that you'll automatically get a residency. You need a job to have a visa, and to get your social security number and generally live in the US.

Job Hunting

If you want to start the search from home, there are a number of ways to find a job in the USA. Perhaps the most obvious is the Internet, websites such as,, and are a good place to start. You could also register with a recruitment agency or headhunter. They can look at your CV, job history and personality and find ideal matches. They’ll charge a fee though, so perhaps think about setting some money aside for this.

TIP: Hiring a recruitment agency to find you a job might be expensive initially, but they are experts. And they are already in the USA. Don’t be afraid to set up Skype interviews before you select an agent – after all you have to be comfortable with them as they’re acting as your representative.

Curriculum Vitae

Getting your CV and application USA ready may take a bit of work. Think of the application as a job pack – ideally it should have a cover letter, your CV and letters of recommendation or references all together. The American style of CV is focused on action – positive, descriptive language is key. Equally, it should be no more than one page long. Time, as they say, is money. And nowhere is this more true than America.

TIP: Really tighten up your CV and think about the language you’re using – is it selling you enough?

Follow-ups and Finalising

Don’t be polite. Once you’ve submitted a CV, wait a couple of days and then call. Or email. If someone says they’ll call or email by a certain time and they haven't, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone. Persistence really is rewarded here. If you’re already in the States and you’re invited for an interview, don’t be late. Or underprepared. Yes, two seemingly obvious statements, but Americans do not like having their time wasted.

Equally, it’s common in America to follow-up an interview with a letter of thanks, reaffirming your interest in the position and company. When you are offered your dream job, it’s not unusual to take part in a routine drug test.

If you’ve been offered a job while in Australia, double-check, or triple-check that there is no paperwork that needs signing by a deadline or any other job-dependent conditions you have to meet. You do not want your job falling through. Make sure you know the location of your office or place of work so that you can begin all the other ‘life’ things like looking for somewhere to live, schools etc. Equally, you’ll not be able to travel on an e3 visa if your job falls through.

TIP: onfirm your job is 100% guaranteed. Your visa – and emigration – depend on it.

Pack and close up shop

Book your flight

The earlier you can book your international flight the better price-wise. If you can travel outside the school holiday peak season, you’ll save money too. This usually means travelling around February to March, May to June, late July to mid-September, or mid-October to mid-December. The sooner that you can lock down your moving date the better so you can plan ahead and save. Check out this Australian Government education resource for school holiday dates.

Check out Skyscanner or Webjet, a couple of the handy air travel aggregators to help get you the best ticket prices possible. Especially if you are not fussy about which airline you fly with.

Cull the clutter

Packing up your life and starting a new one is a good chance to cleanse. Don’t stick everything you own into boxes and transport the lot to your new home. Take the time to cull! There are a few good reasons for this.

You may have been hanging on to old heirlooms from a previous life that don’t need to make the journey with you. If the planned move is unlikely to be forever, then look into storing a few old boxes with a friend or relative or utilising King & Wilson’s long term storage services. You can revisit your old university text books again one day when you resettle back home. Or if the move to Singapore might be indefinite, ask yourself whether you need eight boxes of old cassette tapes from the early '90s before you realised that CDs weren’t a passing fad…and while you’re there, how about that CD collection?

For more on minimalist packing check out this interesting perspective from

Tip: Leave any dodgy DVDs behind, as they’re also subject to strict customs rules – USD $4 per hour of screening to check they’re suitable viewing and are not pirated of pornographic in nature. Kids cartoons are usually exempt from this, meaning the little ones can settle in to their new environment with their favourite Disney characters.

10 Weeks Before Moving Day

Give yourself plenty of time to plan the logistics of packing. A good international removalist, like King & Wilson will be your best friend in this regard -- they won’t want you leaving this to the last minute either. A few things to think about 2-3 months out from the big day:

  • Put together a folder or box for all documents and receipts relevant to the move.
  • Start a conversation with an international shipping company such as King & Wilson to get an estimate.
  • Create a floor plan for your new home to get a sense of how many of your large sized furniture or appliances you may need to get rid of.
  • Your belongings will be arriving by sea, the transit times depend on which coast you are moving to. Shipping times to the West coast of the US, take approximately 4 weeks for a direct service from Australia. The East coast takes a lot longer, allow around 7 weeks. You may therefore need to pack some additional clothing, linen, towels and key crockery and key kitchen utensils in your flight luggage. You may also consider pre-arranging excess baggage as it is much cheaper to book in advance than turning up on departure day with more than your baggage allowance. King & Wilson offers a smaller air shipment service to cover off this need as well.

Tip: Start a conversation with international movers now rather than later

6 Weeks Before Moving Day

Now you are edging closer to the big move, you want to start ticking off what will and won’t make it on the journey. For example:

  • Take an inventory list of all items around your home that will need to come with you.
  • Start selling off large or redundant items via Gumtree or ebay that you don’t want to take with you.
  • Hold a garage sale or take advantage of any local market stalls or jumble sales. You won't need your electrical items as the USA power supply is 110 volts, rendering most Australian appliances unusable.
  • You will probably not want to ship your car to USA, so start the process of selling your vehicle on Carsales or a similar online classifieds service
  • Start to compile your paperwork: things like CV copies, letters of recommendation, health certificates, medication lists. Basically anything you might need to register for a service, or secure a house/job. Keeps these documents separate so they do not get packed, as you will need these as soon as you arrive into USA.
  • Begin getting any paperwork you need for bringing your pet, make any necessary vet appointments and have any vaccinations your animal needs.
  • Scan you passports and driver’s licence and upload to a secure cloud service, just for safe keeping in case they are lost.

4 Weeks Before Moving Day

With less than a month to the move, you need to start getting your hands dirty and actually packing a few things away, particularly items you are not using day to day:

  • Collect moving boxes and packing supplies. Or if you move your home with King & Wilson, simply use the international shipping cartons provided.
  • Start by packing things you don't use much currently like extra dining or kitchen utensils and seasonal clothing. Visit this resource from Energy Australia on the right way to pack when moving house or this interesting blog post on the subject by Frugal Mama.
  • Donate the things you don't need (or that you haven’t been able to sell off).
  • Think about consuming your pantry stocks and frozen goods as well as home cleaning products, shampoos and soaps.

Tip: Start by packing the things you do not use day to day

1-2 Weeks Before Moving Day

Eek! You are merely days away from the move now and need to be thinking about leaving behind a clean, empty home for a new inhabitant. You also need to think about tying up loose ends at home, the flight and what you need for your first days in the USA:

  • Confirm all your travel arrangements.
  • Finish packing your essentials. Its advisable to keep all medications in your hand carry luggage rather than in the shipment or checked-in luggage.
  • Clean and defrost your refrigerator 24 hours before you move, turn off all the pipes and make sure you didn't leave any appliances on.
  • Cancel the newspaper subscription, contact Australia Post to redirect your mail to your new address in the USA, disconnect your utilities like the electricity, gas and internet.
  • If you know your new address in America, you may wish to pre-arrange your utilities connection. A specialist international moving company like King & Wilson can arrange this for you.
  • Give away any houseplants and any food you’re not going to be able to eat. The US is just as strict about what you can import as Australia, and unfortunately your beloved potted fern isn’t one of them.
  • Say your goodbyes, provide your new contact details and travel itinerary to your family and friends.

Tip: Don’t forget to redirect the mail to your US address.

On Moving Day

You’ve made it to the big day. The job now is mainly to get out of the way of the professionals and focus on your breathing:

  • Let the professionals do their thing. A good removalist will take care of packing your belongings carefully and thoroughly.
  • A good international shipping mover will also cover off all the necessary shipping documentation to facilitate prompt customs clearance and quarantine inspection once your belongings arrive in the USA.
  • Get to the airport, put on those noise cancelling headphones and relax for 16 hours or so in anticipation of your new adventure!

There really is so much on offer in the USA, business and professional opportunities to engage with a huge consumer market, engaging cities and regional areas as well as iconic events. But we’ll let you discover that for yourself…