Moving to the US for Aussies: Chapters 1&2

Chapter 1: Surviving the first 30 days

Pre-Flight Check List

Just as your pilot runs through a check list before heading down the runway, you too must create a check list to ensure that when you arrive at your destination, you will have a smooth landing.

Below are some items that should be on your personal check list.

  • Budget
  • Insurance:  Health/Travel/Property
  • Accommodation Plan
  • Communication Plan (phone, internet and emergency)
  • Local Credit and Bank Accounts
  • Foreign Exchange
  • Employment Plan (if seeking work)
  • —————————- New York Bucket List
  • —————————- your professional “Hit List”
  • —————————- items to take
  • —————————- items to leave behind
  • Passport
  • Plane Ticket
  • Membership to the Australian Community

You individual lists are going to vary, but simply making a list is an important step before leaving Australia.  Knowing also what to leave behind, is almost as important as what to bring.

A good rule of thumb is that if it needs an 240 to 110 AC adapter, you should probably leave it behind.  Unlike Australia, most consumer electrical goods are cheap in the US – and they are built to natively run on 110 volts!

Tim Tams, Vegemite and Bundaberg Rum

Any well prepared Aussie will have planned ahead and packed a few “necessities” before leaving home.  The usual suspects are either coated in Cadbury chocolate or are items that have never graced the shelves of an American supermarket.

Australians have been bringing these items – everything from foodstuffs to cleaning products – into the US and through US Customs for decades.  It may be your first trip to the US, but Customs have already seen it all.

Fortunately, you have planned ahead and three dozen packets of Tim Tams and a 1 litre bottle of Bundy is well under the US Customs limits.  This is the perfect opportunity to get onto the Something to Declare line, which always seems considerably shorter that the Nothing to Declare line (queue).

Do not be surprised by a pithy comment from the Agent: “You Aussies and your Tim Tams”, or a simple roll of the eyes before they stamp your card, smile, and then wave you through without incident.

If you purchase Duty Free liquor or any liquid that exceeds the 100ml restriction for Domestic carry on, be sure to transfer it to your checked bag as soon as you land in the US.  Thousands of Aussies have had their bottle of Bundy, or Perfume, confiscated by TSA Agents for exceeding the 100ml restriction for Domestic Flights!

The Carousel Moment.

For those who are arriving in the US with a fresh work visa or Legal Permanent Resident (LPR) status, in all probability you have not had a chance to fully process your decision to move to the US.

For the most part, you may have been completely focused on the logistics of how to get there, where to stay, what to take, what to leave behind and where to store it if you do.

You may have been tirelessly searching the Internet looking for medium term accommodation, checking its affordability, and hopefully you have found a location to live that is a relatively short commute to, if not in the City itself.

If you are starting a new job, you may be excited about taking your career to the next level and competing with the best and brightest in your field from around the World – and then it hits you.

Standing at the airport carousel of your final destination, waiting for your second bag to arrive, all at once a wave of anxiety washes over you and you find yourself suddenly asking the question “What was I thinking?”

As the realization sinks in that you are now past the point of no return,  for the first time you start to see the forest for the trees:  The Big Picture starts to come into focus.

After the anxiety abates and the cold sweat warms to mild perspiration,  you pick up your bags and then head into your first adventure:  The Airport terminal.

Running the (Airport) Gauntlet

No matter what city you land in, be it LA or NYC, you are going to have to deal with transportation to your hotel or that “sunny” apartment you found on the Internet.

Given many Australians have just spent 20+ hours travelling, are tired and simply want to get to their hotel or apartment, this makes them especially vulnerable to Airport scams, especially related to transportation.

Transportation comes in many forms, bus, train or taxi, but the scourge of many Airports are the private, and sometimes unlicensed/uninsured drivers commonly referred to as Gypsy Cabs.

Uber/Lyft notwithstanding, there is usually a Spruiker who is lying in wait at the Arrivals gate aggressively asking new arrivers if they need transportation.  If you fall victim to their seemingly bargain offer to take you to your destination, you are quickly pawned off to a driver who whisks you away, and a short time later find yourself victim of a scam.

Your best strategy is to avoid eye contact, and with your headset on make a bee-line directly to the Ground Transportation sign where you will find a bus or cab that will reliably take you to your destination.

In New York, Yellow Cab drivers have a flat fee from the airport to Manhattan.  It can be the most expensive form of transportation, but you are assured that you and your luggage arrive safely at your destination.  The most cost effective transportation in NYC is the Airtrain and Subway.

If you do take a private shuttle bus, beware of the risks of losing your luggage by the diver inadvertently (or deliberately) giving your luggage to someone else if there are multiple stops.  Always keep an eye on your luggage and be sure to have insurance in a worst case scenario.

Bonus points if you can tell the cab driver more than the street number of your hotel, but between which avenues it is located.  New York is a grid so navigation is much easier by saying “10th Street between 1st and A”  than “275 E 10th Street”.

The Tipping Point

One area where Australians seem to struggle when they arrive in the US is in the area of tipping or gratuity.  Unlike Australia, in New York the minimum wage is only $11-$12 per hour, therefore workers often rely on tips to supplement their income.

Whether it is the Taxi driver who also assists you with your bags, the hotel worker who carries your bags to your room, or the server who smiles as they place your well earned beverage on the hotel bar, the amount you tip can be a challenge for newly arrived Australians to the US.

Before you leave Australia, ask your bank (or banks) if they have any US $1 bills that they can sell you.  Arming yourself with at least 20 x $1 bills before you leave Australia should be enough to tip your way to your destination.

Sure there are ATMs at any US airport, but it is somewhat challenging to hand over a US $20 bill and ask for change if you are attempting to tip someone $2 for helping you with your bags!

Taxis and Hotels

As a guide, taxi drivers are tipped either 15%, 20% or 25% based on the service you receive.  NYC taxis have a feature on their touch screens where it will calculate the tip for you.  When it comes time to pay, you just select the amount you want to tip.

If someone is helping with your bags at your hotel the tip is usually $1 per bag, or $2 per bag if you are staying in a luxury hotel.   Hotel maids are usually tipped $2 to $5 per day which you can leave in the room at the end of your stay.

Many hotels have a Concierge, and if you have a special request, say for organizing theatre tickets or a table at a restaurant, you would also tip an amount commensurate with the difficulty of the request.  A simple request such as making a dinner reservation is $5, however if they get you tickets to Hamilton, the sky may be the limit!

If a Doorman hails a cab, or assists you in and out of a cab, they are usually tipped $1-$2 depending on the service.

Food and Alcohol

Restaurant servers are tipped in the 15%-20% range, though 20% is more the norm in New York.  If there are six or more of you in your party, restaurants usually add a gratuity to the check, so ask first if it does not list it on the menu.

Be sure to check your bill when it arrives as some restaurants automatically add a tip to every check.  You can be sure that your server is not going to alert you to the fact that you just double tipped!

Sitting at the bar, the tip is $1 per drink.  However if the drinks are $15+ each, $2 per drink may be more appropriate.  If you are paying cash for drinks in NYC, there is no sales tax.  However, if you order food or use a credit card, tax will be added to the check.

This will at least will eliminate any tipping faux pas at your hotel, and ensure that during the course of your stay, service will always be accompanied with a smile.

Once you have your own place, then a new set of dynamics apply!

Deliveries

If you arrive home exhausted and decide to order “Take Out” rather than attempting to cook in your (often small) kitchen, even though the restaurant advertises free delivery, you still have to tip the person who brings your food to your door.

The tip amount is usually in the $3 – $5 range, but if the person just rode twenty blocks on a bicycle in rain or snow, you might want to consider adding a few extra dollars for a weather surcharge.

Where tipping becomes a fine art is deciding on the tip to give to  the people delivering your new furniture. 

If your building has the convenience of an elevator, compared to carrying a sofa up five flights of stairs, you have to make a judgement call on how much more to tip than $10 per person.

Doorman Buildings

If you are among those who are living in a Doorman building, you will understand the convenience of having your deliveries signed for, and your dry cleaning delivered safely to your apartment.

Like all services in New York, it comes at a price.

Depending on the level of service you receive, the door always being held open for you, taxi doors being opened for you, in addition to signing for deliveries etc., you may be looking at tipping $100 to $200 per doorman when Christmas rolls around each year.

As a guideline as to how much you should tip at the end of the year, if you were to tip $1 each time they provided a service throughout the year, what would be the total?

You can also ask other residents with whom you may be friendly, how much they tip each year.

Do not be surprised if a list appears in your foyer showing how much each apartment tipped during the Holidays.  It is not in every case, but some buildings allow posting the numbers!

Maintenance Staff/Superintendent

Chances are that at a minimum there will be a building Superintendent or Super.  Their responsibilities include taking out the trash (garbage) and recycling, as well as ensuring that the building common areas are clean and neat.

If your heat and/or hot water is out, they are usually the first to call.

It is always important to say Hi, and be civil to your building maintenance staff because you never know when you might need assistance in your apartment.

If say you need to borrow a tool, or your toilet suddenly stops flushing, the speed at which your problem is resolved is based on two variables;

1)    Your level of personal relationship, and

2)    How much you tipped them in the past

As a guide, even though it may be their job, if they do help with an issue around your apartment, $10 here or $20 there is going to ensure that anytime there is a problem, you are going to be prioritized over the person who never tips, or never bothers to say hello or ask about their family.

This can also be a best practice if you have a Doorman building, given that if you tip your maintenance staff throughout the year, you do not need to tip around Christmas.

Health and Beauty

The guide for tipping if you decide to head off for a haircut or a new style, is to tip 15% to 20% of the bill.

Similarly, if a day at the spa sounds like a great way to shake off any residual jetlag, you can add another 15% for great service.

Nail salons can be a challenge for those astute shopping who find a  bargain.  For example a mani-pedi can cost as little as $20 (if you pay cash), or as much as $55 or more at an upmarket salon.  Should you tip the same for both services?  Feedback is that $5 to $10 is the range, the higher of the two if they throw in a free back rub!

Haircuts are similar.  Women can expect to pay around $50 for a haircut, or as much as $800 if you have your bangs trimmed by Orlando Pita, the owner of Orlo in NYC.

Expect to tip a minimum of 15%, however, if you are lucky enough to be sitting next to Madonna or Gwynneth Paltrow at Orlo, why not make it an even $1,000?  You now look like a millionaire, so why not tip like one!

Chapter 2: The Four “W”s of Survival in NYC

Australian Special Forces are regularly dropped off in a remote part of Australia as part of their survival training.  In these situations the mantra is the four “W”s:  Water, Weather, Widow Makers and Wigglies.

In a way, survival in New York can be equated to these same four  “W”s.

Water

There is a saying; “Spending money like water”, and in NYC failing to ration your water has brought unstuck many expats.  Going out and spending $20 for breakfast, $15 for lunch, a few Flat Whites during the day, throw in cocktails with dinner and you are going to burn through $1,500 to $2,500 per month – before you pay rent.

At this rate of burn, and facing the prospect of a three to six month window to find work, many Australians simply run out of money before they see any positive cash flow into their bank account.

It will be covered in a later chapter in detail, but many finding work is not as easy as many Australians believe, so be very careful with your money and ration wisely!

Weather   

At some point you may find yourself settled into your new apartment, and you feel somewhat secure with the knowledge that you have a roof over your head.  But like the weather, your situation can change very quickly.

There are many unforeseen challenges that could arise at any minute in the US, the most devastating are those that effect your Health, your Finances and your Liberty (HFL).  You cannot plan for every scenario, but failing to have basic health insurance in a country that charges $10,000 to $30,000 for an Appendectomy, this is one risk you first need to retire.

This book is a great start to understanding some of the challenges you may not have known exist, but always seek advice from a professional when it comes to matters that effect your HFL.

Widow Makers

Your would not pitch your tent under the dead branch of a tree, or on the precipice of a cliff, so don’t take any unnecessary chances that effect your HFL.

It is sometimes the simple oversights that can have an Australian’s dream of living in the US dashed.  One common one is overstaying a visa.

The most devastating consequence of a visa overstay is that it will most certainly lead to a ban from entering the US, and ergo the denial of an E-3 Visa.

If your visa expires on January 1st, this means you have until 11:59PM on December 31st to be outside the US.  If you mistakenly booked a flight that leaves on January 1st, you will have no problems leaving the country, but you can be sure that next time you try and enter the US, you will be detained at US Immigration and you will find yourself on the next flight back to your last point of departure.  Hopefully that was Australia.

The Australian Community’s website contains a number of articles including:

Top 10 Expat Mistakes

What NOT to Post on Social Media and

Top 10 Questions asked by Australian Expats

All of these posts  serve as a guide to avoiding “Widowmakers” that can cut your stay in the US short, or worse.

Special Note on Personal Safety

In the City that never sleeps you are often going to find yourself out enjoying New York’s amazing night life.  Whether it is a Broadway show, an Upper West Side restaurant or Lower East Side bar, you may feel safe, but the situation can change in an instant.

Crime may be down in NYC, but you are never completely safe.  You must always be situationally aware of your surroundings, especially late at night and on the Subway.

If you are out with a friend, never leave your wingman.  There are gangs that use a male or female as a ruse to gain entry into your apartment, so NEVER invite a stranger into your home.

Crossing a NYC street against a DON’T WALK sign is very dangerous, however it is common practice in NYC.  One might assume that traffic only flows in one direction on a NYC street, but locals know to look in the other direction for the delivery guy on a bicycle riding against the traffic before making their dash.

Before you can start behaving like a native New Yorker, you first need to understand all of the risks.  If New York decides to hand you a life lesson, you are not always able to simply dust yourself and walk away.

Wigglies

In Australian you know to first check your boots for spiders or other wigglies that may have decided overnight to make your R.M. Williams their new home, or checking that a Common Brown is not sunning itself on a cement block before heading to the Hills Hoist with a basket full of laundry.

To be literal, it is important to look down in New York as well. Whether it is stepping in the by product of an inconsiderate dog owner, or a visit to the ER after tripping on an uneven side walk, looking down can be just as important as looking forward.

Like their Aussie counterparts, New York Wigglies can also enter our lives via stealth.  These Wigglies can be “Consultants” who claim to help you find work – naturally for a fee, internet accommodation scams, or simply bad advice on social media sites that lead to financial hardship or legal issues.

New York is full of scammers, all who are keen to separate you from your money.  It is not always easy to tell, but if someone has a well rehearsed sales pitch that begins with “Pardon the interruption…” and finishes with …God bless”, chances are they are not “homeless” and they do this for a living.

These scams can be quite elaborate and ask for more than just a “nickel, dime or a penny”.

There are stories of someone who would dress up as a Nun during the St Genaro Festival on Mulberry Street to scam money from unsuspecting tourists.  Another was of a well dressed business man claiming his wallet was lost/stolen and needed $55 to get back to Connecticut.

The more sophisticated pan handlers target Amtrak trains awaiting departure and the pitch is that they need $100 to get back home as their was [Insert issue] with their ticket.

In these and similar scams, the person is playing on the heart strings of generous individuals, and Australians are amongst the most vulnerable.

Not being able to differentiate between a genuine plea for help and a convincing scam, does not mean that you are forced to either feel guilty, or fall victim.  The simple solution is to make an annual donation to a charity who assist New Yorkers in crisis.  The Bowery Mission, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army etc., all have programs to not only assist the homeless, but help families in crisis.

By financially supporting charities that directly assist New Yorker in crisis, you are armed with the knowledge that you have already made a donation of food, clothing or money the next time someone asks for money on the subway or on the street.

It does not completely make you immune to a plea for help, but the good news is that you still have a soul.  In a later Chapter we discuss When You know its time to leave the US, however, the day that you stop saying “There but for the Grace of God go I”, it might be time to book your return flight home.

The Emotional Cost of NYC

Aside from scammers who can be financially devastating, there are individuals who can emotionally bankrupt us as well.  Relationship advice is not the subject matter of this book, but being alone in a big city can lead to questionable relationship decisions.

Building a circle of Australian friends (not virtual) is important as they can quickly assist you in finding your moral compass.  Aussie friends as we all know can be brutal when it comes to offering personal advice, whereas Americans tend to be less direct for fear of hurting your feelings.

Rest assured, there are many New Yorkers who will want to take you in the wrong direction, so a quick check of your Aussie Compass should keep you on the right path!

A Positive First Step

Joining the Australian Community is a great first step for any Australian who is moving to the US.  Making social and professional connections with other Australians not only gives a sense of home, but you can also tap into the collective brains trust of thousands of other professional Australians who have most probably been in your situation at some stage.

On the social side of things, it is not uncommon for single members to attend our events and make new (real world) friends.

Our private social nework contains more than two dozen groups including Food and Coffee, Family Friendly, NYC Social and Sports are just a few groups to tap into the social side of our organization, and connect with professional Australians.

For more information you can go to www.aucommunity.org/join

Click here to read Chapter 3 The Hierarchy of Ex-Pat Needs