Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Basic Essentials to Survive in the US as an Immigrant Spouse

We write…

If your petition was successful and you have safely arrived in the United States, your immigrant journey has only just commenced.

The petition process and waiting for its approval is a remarkable rite of passage on its own. But once you arrive in the US and start living life with your spouse, there’s more paperwork that would allow you to live with ease in your new city.

There are two ways that you need to fit in- one is culturally, but that calls for a separate blog entry. The second is making sure you have all the necessary documents to live, work and function well in society. In the US, these are basic essentials.

1. Social Security Number
       According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), you need a Social Security number to get a job or apply for government benefits, as well as do business with banks and credit or loan companies. The option to have the SSA issue you a Social Security number and card is included on the DS-260 Immigrant Visa and Alien Registration Application. The processing of the card is finalized in the sealed immigration visa packet that you provided to the Immigration Officers when you arrived in the US.

But if you didn’t apply for a Social Security number during the immigration process, you can apply for one at www.ssa.gov. They require proof of identification, so it’ll be important to have your birth certificate or immigration documents available when you apply at your closest SSA office.

We received Kira’s SSN card in less than two weeks of being in the US. We’re not sure if this is the actual processing time, but all things being equal, it should only take weeks instead of months.

The SSN would also enable you to get an identification at the DMV and to apply for a job. When a recruiter or HR calls you for a job opening and asks if you are legally able to work in the US, they will verify your answer if they hire you through an SSN verification service, such as e-verify.com.

   2. Green card

As a lawful immigrant and a spouse of a US citizen , you are entitled to a green card (also known as the Form I-551, Permanent Resident Card) as a conditional permanent resident or a permanent resident depending on how long you have been married to your spouse. This card establishes your “legal presence” in the US and permits you to get an ID or driver’s license, get a job, and, above all, remain in the US without complications.

When starting a job that you’ve been hired for, the green card is one of the documents that companies require you to present to them (for Form I-9) to prove legal eligibility to work in the US.

As you can see, the green card is one of the most important documents you must have while living in the US as an immigrant.

   3.   State ID/Driver’s License

Compared to the east coast states of New York and Philadelphia, California is not a public transportation friendly state. To go around in areas like the suburbs, one needs to drive a car and to drive a car, one needs to get a driver’s license from the Department of Motor Vehicles. 

There are two steps in getting a driver’s license: (1) pass the written exam (rules of the road, scenarios, etc.), and (2) pass the behind-the-wheel test (actual driving with a DMV tester). You will need to pay $33 for the exam/permit fee.

A driver’s license has proven to be very important in California because some job opportunities even require their applicants to have a driver’s license- mostly because the job description requires one to drive to complete business tasks or errands. In some cases it is to discreetly find out whether an applicant is legally present in the Unites States.

You can check the DMV site for the driver’s license requirements here.

The DMV does not only issue drivers’ licenses. It also issues state identification cards. This ID will come in handy when opening your bank account, getting membership card in stores, checking in for your doctor’s appointment, or when the cashier at the store needs to verify your identity if you pay with a credit card.

The fee for ID card processing at the DMV is around $28.

The requirements for a DMV ID can be found in this link.

   4. Health and dental insurance

As a spouse, your American husband or wife can add you to his or her employer-provided medical and dental insurance.

Based on our doctor’s bills, a doctor’s consultation can cost around $300-600, which could be reduced to $40-60 depending on your insurance provider. Make sure to read the fine print as some medical insurance providers do not include coverage of hereditary diseases as well as fertility issues. Furthermore, some doctor’s offices may be out of the network of doctors on your health plan, so it’s best to check ahead. Some health insurance plans also have deductibles of $1,500 (the amount out-of-pocket you must pay before benefits can be applied), so be ready for the most expensive amount of health care you have ever paid.

   5.  Secured Credit Cards

The financial reality of living in the US is that it costs much more than in other countries, and even between states, the cost of living can vary dramatically. If you live within your means, you can do fine on a cash basis, but for larger expenses such as car purchases, apartment rentals, and even cell phone plans, you typically don’t have enough cash at any given moment to cover that expense. You need credit.

In the Philippines, a credit card is considered a luxury, however here in the US, it’s a necessity. The catch-22 is that you need satisfactory credit history to get approved for a credit card or a loan, both of which are the primary means of consumers in the US to build credit. Fortunately, there are easy ways to build your credit, and as an immigrant, you don’t need to completely rely on your spouse to build credit.

A secured credit card is a common way to build individual credit history. Credit.com has links to the more popular secured credit card companies. Secured credit cards are for consumers who bad credit, or no credit. The way a secured credit card works is based upon cash collateral: you provide a security deposit of $100-200 and are then given a credit line when they issue you a card. You then need to use the card responsibly (use only a portion of your credit line and always pay it off on time) because your activity gets reported to the three major credit bureaus.

So why do you need good credit? Having excellent (not just good) credit means being eligible for higher credit limits and lower interest rates, which are important because they both contribute to stronger purchasing power.

Other than secured credit cards, another way to build credit is loans, or anything that requires monthly payments and gets reported to the credit bureaus. An account for utilities (gas, electricity, telephone) is another way.

The biggest caveat to credit stems from the fact that credit counseling agencies are prolific in the US, which means that it’s very easy to get carried away with a credit card.   

   6.  Friends and family

It is not easy to grow roots without family and friends. Being in a strange land can be very alienating if you are unable to establish and find people who share your interests and who can serve as your support system in reinforcing the values that you deem important.

Keeping in touch with your family and friends back home also keeps you grounded. It makes you remember your core, who you are, so that you do not get lost in the maze. But in case you do lose your way, remember that sometimes you need to make all the wrong turns to find your way back to your path under the sun.

Although the usual niceties are not absent in the American society, the change in environment can be overwhelming to deal with, especially with the glaring differences on standards. Family and friends are there to reassure you that even if circumstances look bleak and you are on the verge of just packing your bags because the American society just doesn’t work for you, you will figure things out in your own time. #

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