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Things Australians need to know about moving to America

New York at Night

Who can move to the United States?

There are a number of avenues to living in the USA, but only one of them – the most difficult – allows you to live and work in the country permanently. This is the Green Card, or permanent residency, which can only be obtained via four very specific criteria: 1. Family Sponsored Green Card; 2. Employment Based Green Card; 3. Green Card Lottery; and 4. Political Asylum.

The drawbacks of the Green Card system are that it is very complicated; it requires that a number of conditions are met and it can take a very long time for an applicant to be approved. You may want to go this route if you are a close relative of a US citizen or permanent resident; e.g. you are a husband or wife, child under the age of 21 or parent of a citizen or Green Card holder. This is by far the easiest path to a Green Card, as close relatives are given top priority; however, not a lot of people are going to meet this criteria! But if you do decide to pursue a Green Card, you can find out more about the application process here.

The H1B Visa

The H1B is the primary visa used by professionals all over the world who want to work and live in the USA. It has a number of conditions, with the main requirement being that you must find a suitable H1B job and be sponsored by a US company: i.e. the company applies for the H1B on your behalf. There are also specific occupations that are covered by the visa, including those in IT, Computing, Finance, Accounting, Banking, Marketing, Advertising, PR, Sales, Recruiting, Engineering, Teaching, Healthcare/Medical, Legal, Lawyers, Networking, Telecommunications, Business, Management and Hospitality. While this list seems fairly broad, the number of H1Bs given out every year is limited to 85,000, which is not a lot when you consider that the applications are open to people from all over the world. In fact, the US is so swamped by H1Bs during the application period, they now issue visas via a lottery. 

One of the advantages of the H1B is that it is a ‘dual-intent’ visa, which means it can be used as the basis for a Green Card application. The drawback is that the spouse of the visa holder is not permitted to work in the US, unless they hold an H1B in their own right.

The E3 Work Visa

Luckily, since 2005, Australians have had exclusive access to the E3 work visa; a special kind of visa that allows Australian professionals to work in the USA for a period of time and enjoy the benefits of permanent residency. The conditions of the E3 work visa are very similar to the H1B, in terms of needing to be sponsored by an employer and the kinds of occupations that are eligible; however, there are a couple of significant advantages to the former.

The main advantage of the E3 is that it can be renewed every two years indefinitely, as long as the recipient is still employed. The H1B, in contrast, is initially valid for three years, with the possibility of a three-year extension. The other big difference is that the spouse of the Australian on an E3 visa can also work while in the States. Note, ‘though, that unlike the H1B visa, the E3 is not a ‘dual-intent’ visa, which means it cannot be used as the basis for a Green Card application. The E3, however, is significantly cheaper than an H1B and also takes far less time to process.

Each year, the US opens up 10,500 E3 visas exclusively for Australian professionals. In 2018, however, the US Government suggested that the E3 be extended to Irish applicants, provoking an angry response from the Australian Government. Following weeks of lobbying by the Australian embassy in Washington, the proposal was amended to allow the Irish to apply for any unused quota of E3s in the subsequent fiscal year. As a result, Australians still have priority access to a large number of E3s every year.

Cost of Living

Let’s say you’re a successful recipient of an H3 visa and you’re getting ready to move to the US for an indefinite period of time. What kind of income do you need to live comfortably in the US? Well, depending on your destination, the cost of living in the US can vary dramatically. For example, San Francisco and New York are the top two most expensive cities in the US, with an average rent of US$3300 and US$2295 per month, respectively. Houston, for example, is much cheaper, with an average rent of US$1092 per month, and is, arguably, equally as cosmopolitan as the former two. Of course, where you end up is determined by the location of your employer, and it is probably worth talking through your housing options with them before taking the next step.

In general, fresh food and groceries are around the same price in the US as they are in Australia, but, again, this depends where you are living. Overall, things like clothes and shoes are cheaper in the US, as is technology and eating out. Alcohol, whether for home consumption or at a bar, is also cheaper in the US, except the cost of wine is on a par. Petrol is significantly cheaper, as is public transport. One thing to remember, ‘though, is that sales tax is added to consumer items when you pay the bill or at the checkout, so factor that into your sums. Sales tax also varies widely from state to state, with California having the highest at 7.25% and Colorado the lowest at 2.9%.


As most people know, America’s health system is very different to Australia’s, and private health insurance is pretty much an essential. This can be quite expensive; however, since 2015, employers with more than 50 employees are required to provide health insurance and pay a minimum percentage of the premium. In 2018, the average amount paid by an employer was 82% of a single person’s premium, and 71% of a family’s premium. Many employers with less than 50 employees also offer company-provided health insurance. If your sponsoring employer falls into the small business category, it is crucial to discuss your health insurance options with them before you take on the role.

Getting Around

If you intend to purchase a car, or rent one for doing some sight-seeing, you’ll need a valid driver’s licence from Australia and, in some US states, an International Driving Permit (IDP) that has been issued in Australia. This means that you must find out the requirements for the state that you are moving to before you travel, as IDPs are not issued in the US to foreign visitors. If you are planning to stay in the US for a while, you might want to apply for a US driver’s licence. The requirements for this vary from state to state, so you should probably research your eligibility before you leave Australia. 

While there are many similarities between the road rules in the USA and Australia, there are also some striking differences, with the most obvious being driving on the right and overtaking on the left. This can take a bit of adjustment for Australians, but it shouldn’t take a confident driver long to get used to it.

Another difference is that right hand turns are permitted on the red light, unless otherwise indicated by signs; however, New York City is an exception to this rule. It’s always a good idea to check the road rules of the state you happen to be in, as they can vary. This applies to speed limits most of all, which can change dramatically once you cross state lines. Luckily, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has produced a really handy map showing the different limits on rural interstate highways across the US. Note that, like Australia, it is illegal to use your phone while driving and you must wear a seatbelt. It is also illegal to drive under the influence of alcohol, with the Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) limit set at 0.08 for all states.

If you’ve opted for one of the large cities in the US, most are serviced by a public transport system, so you may not need to buy a car at all. Keep in mind, however, that public transport in the US has a pretty bad reputation. Los Angeles, for example, is renowned for its urban sprawl and lack of buses or trains, making it difficult to get around without a car. New York, on the other hand, has a fairly good public transport system, particularly the subway, and San Francisco has an excellent network of buses and the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to travel from SF to Oakland, Berkeley, etc. Notably, public transport in the US is usually quite a bit cheaper than in Australia.

Dining & Drinking

The USA is one of the largest and most ethnically diverse nations on earth, with people coming from all over the world to take part in the American Dream. This has had a big impact on the food culture, along with the significant influence of the African-American and Hispanic communities. For this reason, in larger cities you’ll find a wide selection of cuisines to choose from, with particular cities reflecting their specific immigrant histories. New York, for example, has a recognisable cuisine deeply influenced by the Eastern European Jews who migrated during and after WW2; and San Francisco has some of the best Mexican food you’ll find outside Mexico. Generally, it’s slightly less easy to find ethnically diverse food in the smaller towns, but there’s usually a local diner for simple American fare and no shortage of fast food outlets.

When dining out, remember that sales tax will be added to your bill and don’t forget to tip. As you probably know, tipping your waiter is pretty much compulsory in the States (it’s not, but if you don’t tip, your friendly waiter will fast become very unfriendly). If you want to have a drink with your meal, there are some states and restaurants that are licensed for BYO but it’s not as widespread as in Australia, so check when you book.

In the US, the drinking age is 21 and, if you’re under 30 or look young for your age, you must carry photo ID with you if you want to enter a bar or drink at a restaurant. Americans love their bars, so if you are over 21, you’ll find bars of all kinds in all the major cities, and at least one or two in smaller towns. Again, bars often reflect the ethnic makeup of the neighbourhoods in which they’re in, so you can look forward to fantastic Margaritas in Hispanic areas and delicious Hurricanes in New Orleans, for just two examples. Craft breweries have also sprung up across the States since the early 1990s, with over 6000 operating in 2018, and many more in the planning. Clearly, if craft beer’s your thing, you won’t be stuck for choice.

For more information about living and working in America, the US Government has produced a comprehensive guide that covers everything from Social Security and taxation, to education and how the state and federal governments work. You can download a copy of the guide here.

Have you been approved for a visa to work in the USA? Are you now facing the daunting task of relocating? Let Chess Moving make the process less stressful with our specialist international moving service. 

As part of the Harmony Relocation Network, the largest removalist network in the world, Chess Moving can provide you with accurate quotes and information about relocating to more than 1500 destinations around the world. Give us a call on 13 14 69 or visit the website for more information.


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