How to emigrate to the US. PART 2: Things that don’t require an SSN: Banks, renting, and utilities

This is a continuation of HOW TO EMIGRATE TO THE US (FROM CANADA WITH AN ENGINEERING DEGREE).  This post will assume you have already obtained your TN visa.  I’ll talk about the challenges obtained with settling in.  Getting an SSN takes 2-4 weeks; 4 weeks if you have a name so long that it won’t fit in form (THANKS PARENTS.).

  • Things that don’t require an SSN
    • Opening a bank account
    • Renting a place
    • Opening a utilities account
      • Electricity
      • Internet
  • Things that require an SSN
    • Getting paid
    • Health / Vision insurance
    • Drivers licence
    • Car licence plate
    • Credit card

Opening a bank account

Like most accounts that don’t require an SSN, you need 2 pieces of ID.  I brought my passport and drivers licence and opened an account over lunch.  I was late back to work because it took about an hour longer to process due to my ‘resident-alien’ status.  I opened an account at Chase (which many people recommended I avoid) because it was the closest bank.  I’ve already started looking at savings and retirement funds, but I might be jumping the gun because I should probably pay off my debt first.

Renting a place

Renting a place also does not require a SSN, just 2 forms of ID.  They do a background screen, which may potentially take longer because they pull up your records from other countries.  I looked at a total of about 15 different apartments.  Despite everyone thinking Detroit is dirt cheap, rent in desirable neighbourhoods is still considerably high.  Here is a list of different neighbourhoods I had considered living in:

  • Troy: $675-$1100/mo.  The nice apartments were 1BR, 700sqft, newly renovated, carpet floors, new appliances and hella expensive.  The cheaper places were literally walking distance from work.  It was a decent place, but I wanted a place with wooden floors.
  • Madison Heights  (1BR apartments in low, low, and highrise apartments) $700-800.  My co-workers advised against living in Madison heights because they think it isn’t a nice neighbourhood.  I honestly can’t really tell the difference.  There are a few Chinese and Vietnamese stores located on John R Road.
  • Royal Oak is supposedly the happening place in Detroit.  They have a walkable downtown area with nice sidewalks and streetlamps.  Most young professionals are moving into that area, and thus it was really hard to find a vacant apartment.  Most places had 2-3 month waiting lists.  I had found a craiglist ad to roomate with 2 other engineers in a 3 bedroom 1 bathroom house for $500.  I probably would have stayed here if the house owner didn’t have a cat.
  • Southfield. $500-600 for 1BR.  This was the pricepoint that I was trying to aim for, but Southfield is considered one of the rougher neighbourhoods in Detroit.  Most of the locals recommend living north of 8 Mile Road.
    • Fun fact:  8 Mile Road has a TON of strip clubs on it. I drove on it at night, and only the streetlights on the South side light up.
  • Ferndale is supposedly the ‘hipster area’ of Detroit.  I walked around the area yesterday, and I like it.
    • Fun fact:  Ferndale was the first city in Michigan to have an openly gay Mayor.
  • Downtown (Eastern Market). $700-$900.  I had considered getting a studio apartment in the same building as Fiona.  The building had recently been purchased by a Canadian real estate company and was undergoing renovation.  I thought the place was really nice, but the commute was a bit long (22 minutes without traffic).  During rush hour, it would be 30-40 minutes.
  • Clawson.  This is the place I decided to live in.  It’s only a 5 minute drive to work, a 10 minute drive to Royal Oak, and is considered one of the nicer neighbourhoods in Metro Detroit.  At $750, I’m renting a ‘houselet’ – a 1 bedroom house.  It’s more akin to a 1 bedroom townhouse.  I don’t believe anything like this in Toronto exists.

In the end, I learned what I really was looking for in an apartment.  It doesn’t have to be large; I was OK with a 480sqft studio apartment.  However, I wanted wood floors because they are easy to clean and won’t flare up my allergies.  A nice bathtub was a MUST.  New kitchen appliances were optional.  I would prefer a 2nd floor apartment (I feel safer there?), but will compromise with a first floor.  I wanted my commute to be less than 20 mins.  I wanted all this for under $800/mo.

Electricity and Internet

So far, I’ve opened 2 utilities accounts: electricity and internet.  Electricity is handled by DTE energy, one of Detroit’s biggest employers.  Internet is handled by COMCAST, apparently one of the USA’s most evil corporations.  I didn’t have an SSN number, so I had to drive to midtown Detroit to the DTE office to open an account.  Along the way, I saw this:

The sign says:  Shay's candy shack.  Not sketch at all!
The sign says: Shay’s candy shack. Not sketch at all!


It was surprisingly easy to open an account at Comcast.  However, it seems like they are really big and don’t communicate much between divisions.  I opened an account and scheduled for someone to come install the cable.  I had a second person call me and ask if anyone was still living there, because there was still and account associated with the address.  They also said that I could install the cable myself by picking it up from one of their stores.  Just as I was about to go pick up the modem, a third person called and told me that it was required that I get the cable installed.  I’m thankful I listen to the last person, because the cable guy took about 90 minutes and a lot of swearing to get my internet up and running.

I’m that much closer to being an American.  Just kidding.  I’m going to permanently be a resident alien.

Detroit is pretty nice when you look at it from Windsor.
Detroit is pretty nice when you look at it from Windsor.

How to emigrate to the US (from Canada with an Engineering degree)

I gather from the title, that this post will only be useful for a handful of people.  However, the people immediately surrounding me are mostly engineers, so instructions on how to get a job in the US might be useful.

Since Canada, the US and Mexico are under NAFTA, people with special skills can obtain TN (Trade NAFTA) visa to work in other countries.  Specifically, there is a list of degrees (which includes librarians) which will allow you to do this.  If you have that degree, and and offer of employment, you can walk up to the border and just apply.  Interestingly, if you were a licenced member of PEO (Professional Engineers of Ontario), but did not hold an engineering degree, you could apply for a TN visa.

UWaterloo has a large number of co-ops going to the US to work.  This is their list of items required to obtain a TN visa.  I’ve added some additional notes from the official TN NAFTA website as well.

Items required to apply for the TN-1 visa:

  1. You must have your degree (hard copy in your hand).   Read:  bring your diploma.
  2. Offer letter from your U.S.A employer listing the job title from the Approved Occupation List.  The letter is a letter from your prospective employer detailing items such as the professional capacity in which you will work in the United States, the purpose of your employment, the nature of the company, your length of stay, and your educational qualifications.
  3. Your Résumé.
  4. Completed application form and an I-94 card.
  5.  $50
  6. Proof of citizenship (passport)
  7. Your university transcripts.  My diploma just says “Bachelor of Applied Science”.  The boarder guard doesn’t know what this means, and would prefer “Bachelor of Applied Science in Materials Engineering”.  I emailed them my transcripts from my phone to clear things up.

I’ll be using this list myself, so this is probably going to be a working blog post.

Update:  2014/10/2

To get a offer letter from your USA employer, you may need to complete a drug screen.  Thus, prior to the drug screen you cannot get a TN visa.  I decided to go to a clinic close to work, and they say they take 24-48h to send the results to the employer.

How to rent an apartment in Waterloo

How to rent an apartment in Waterloo

I’m moving to Waterloo and plan to stay there for an entire 2 years!  This guide should pretty much be applicable to renting anywhere.

Step 1:  Find a place

I used the Waterloo renters website.  Its quite good as has a map and a format which would be easy for most renters to fill out.

Step 2:  Arrange and visit the place

Call the people.  I am amazed at how judgemental I am just by talking to someone on the phone.  I talked to this one lady with a really strong Chinese accent and immediately decided that this was not going to be the place for me.

So I called a few places and booked viewings all on the same day.  I made 5 viewings with 1 hour gaps in between, but in reality you probably only need 30 minutes between appointments.  You get a pretty good idea if you could live in the place after about 5 minutes of looking around.  I went to one house with a live-in landlord, basement suites and a shared kitchen.  It definitely was the best maintained, cleanest, and had the best furniture, but I really wouldn’t want to have to share a kitchen with another family.

I decided on Sunnydale Place.  It’s a 15 minute walk from UW campus (engineering/optometry side), has 3 person townhouses, and free parking.  Here are some pictures of my new unfurnished place.

One of these keys is to my new room! The other is to my heart <3
A walk in closet so big I could sublet it out to a small immigrant family
I have a living room! But a couch without a TV…?

Step 3:  Negotiate with landlord

You should talk to the landlord to see if you can get deals.  Our contract only has 1 parking spot, but they told us we could have 2 if we wanted.

Always ask if the place is furnished!  Apparently I could have requested a queen size bed if I specifically asked for it.  Unfortunately I missed the boat and ended up with a single.

This is where the magic happens

Step 4:  Arrange deposits

Our landlord wanted the last months rent and key deposit immediately to secure our place.  He accepted email money transfer so this was relatively painless.  With our contract we were to submit a cheque post dated for our first month of rent as a minimum.  I will also need to give him a post dated cheque for every month thereafter until the end of the contract; in total 10 more cheques.  I don’t ever write cheques, so I’ll have to order them and give him the rest of them to him when I actually get to Waterloo.

Step 5:  Arrange utilities

The landlord provided us with a list of phone numbers that we could call.  Included on this list are:  electricity, hot water heater rental, landline phone, cable, and high speed internet.  We pay for hot water rental is $30 a month up front per person, and whatever we don’t use we will be refunded at the end of the year.

The landlord said that budgeting about $60 a month per person should cover all utilities except for water.  We also don’t have air conditioning, so that will probably save a lot on the electricity bill.

In our case we had a nice pamplet with all of the necessary phone numbers prepared for us.  Setting up the utltiles (electricity, hot water, natural gas) was a relatively easy 5 minute phone call.  Make sure you have a lot of cash available for the first bill, because the utilities companies each charged me an extra $150 deposit, and a $30 account set-up fee which will be tacked onto my first bill.

We didn’t bother with a landline or cable.  I hope I’m not regretting the lack of cable in the future…

Step 5.5:  Change Cellphone Number (?)

Many Waterloo students who go on co-op do not change their Toronto cell phone numbers to a Waterloo number.  I am on Rogers, which has Canada-wide roaming. This means I can use my data and voice plan anywhere in Canada without incurring  extra charges.  In comparison, long distance is extremely complicated, so I have prepared an example.

Consider the following example:  assume person T has a Toronto number, and person W has a Waterloo number.

Scenario 1:  Person T is in Toronto and and Person W is in Waterloo.  Person T calls person W.  This is considered long distance.

Scenario 2:  Person T and Person W are both in Waterloo.  Person T calls person W.  This is considered a local call and no long distance charges would be applied.

Scenario 3:  Person T and Person W are both in Waterloo.  Person W calls person T.  This is considered long distance because they are calling Toronto, which would be long distance.

In conclusion, to avoid receiving long distance charges, get a long distance package!  Yes, you may cause your Waterloo friends to incur charges when they call your Toronto number, but that isn’t your problem is it?  Alternatively, you could always text without fear.

Step 6:  The physical move

How the hell am I going to move 25 years of accumulated crap 1.5 hours away into a tiny room?  By minivan of course!

Putting the seats down in the minivan actually allows for a lot of space.  A quick tip for packing the van is:  make sure that you adjust the seat before you start packing the van.  I didn’t, so I was stuck on my mother’s ultra-back support seat settings the entire 90 minute drive.

We also considered a moving truck and making single move, but most companies charge a small base price, then a surcharge per kilometer.  After adding the price of gas, it generally isn’t worth renting to save the extra trips.  Save the rental trucks for big moves, like furniture.

Step 6.5:  The identity move

So now that I don’t live in downtown Toronto, there are certain things that can become a lot cheaper; namely car insurance.

I was originally using Cumis for car insurance, and had a yearly premium of $3600. I switched to TD Insurance Meloche Monnex, and am now paying a little over $1000  annually.  A quote from Cumis just factoring in just moving location and getting older dropped my insurance to $1900, still almost double what I am paying at TDMM.

Now there are a few factors leading up to my cheaper insurance:  I just turned 25 which puts me in a lower risk bracket; I’m moving from gridlocked downtown Toronto to open highway Waterloo, I just graduated from University of Toronto, and I’ve just started my P. Eng designation.  TDMM gave me really low rates JUST because of the P. Eng.  Even if you factor in the annual $220 fee for the P. Eng licence (which is also tax deductible), it’s still cheaper.  Get your EIT if you are a graduate just for these bonuses!

Another major bonus is that when I bundled home and auto insurance, I got a discount which basically made the home insurance free.  This lets me build home insurance history for free.  Horray!

Step 7:  Settling in

This step I haven’t completed yet!  I assume I’m going to have to find a place to buy groceries, or at least a place to get food cheaply.  Not to mention I have to clean the house and move furniture around.  To be continued…