Editor’s note: This is part two of a series about foreign fellows moving to NCI. Other parts can be found under the “Frederick from Overseas” query. The opinions in this article are held by individual fellows and employees and do not necessarily represent the views of the National Institutes of Health, NCI, NCI at Frederick, or the Poster staff. Mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations does not imply endorsement by the U.S. government. All fellows were granted anonymity.
Moving to a new place can be difficult, especially for young scientists coming to the U.S. for fellowships. There are the usual challenges of long-distance travel, adjusting to a new locale, and—in some cases—becoming proficient in another language. On top of that, there’s the added pressure to settle in and begin working as soon as possible.
To help incoming and recently arrived fellows, current NCI at Frederick fellows and staff have offered the following advice.
Finances, Banking, Social Security Card, and Credit
As with any move, expenses can quickly accumulate when you relocate to the U.S. Create a budget in advance and use a currency converter to understand the extent of your funds in U.S. dollars. One fellow recommended having extra money saved and set aside for regular expenses, like groceries and gasoline, in case your initial budget is too small.
Know that you can’t open a permanent account at a major U.S. bank until you receive your Social Security number. However, you can immediately open permanent savings and checking accounts with the NIH Federal Credit Union through its Fellows Advantage Program. This is a useful option if you need to begin banking right away. However, the credit union doesn’t operate a branch in Frederick, so if you want to open an account, you’ll have to visit Building 10 at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda or apply using the credit union’s website.
You can also apply for a credit card through the Fellows Advantage Program without a Social Security number. This allows you to build your U.S. credit score, which lenders and landlords will check when you apply for leases and loans later. But you should still apply for a Social Security number as soon as you can, as you’re required to have one.
You should consider several factors before setting up an account at any financial institution in the U.S. Ensure that there is at least one local branch and nearby ATMs. Investigate whether the bank charges a fee for checking or savings accounts—or whether those accounts require a minimum balance. Find out whether there are other fees, such as for when you transfer money between accounts or accidentally write a check for more money than you have in your account. Ask about interest rates—for both savings accounts and credit cards—and restrictions, like whether there is a limit on the number of checks you can write every month.
It’s also crucial that you learn whether the bank isn’t able to offer certain services or types of accounts to non-U.S. citizens. Some fellows recommended banking with CapitalOne, Discover, or Bank of America after obtaining a Social Security number. In many cases, these institutions can provide credit cards and accounts to incoming fellows who aren’t U.S. citizens.
Nymeo Federal Credit Union, a smaller financial institution in the Washington, D.C., area, will also allow you to join and open an account if you have a form of U.S. identification, your home country passport, or an Alien Registration Card. There is a branch in Building 1520 at Fort Detrick, near the NCI at Frederick campus.
Housing and Apartments
Finding housing is one of the biggest challenges when relocating to the U.S., but there are ways to prepare. First, realize that many landlords require you to pay a security deposit—usually equal to a few months’ rent—to complete a lease, so you should budget at least $2,500 for this before coming to Frederick.
Arranging a lease can be hard if you don’t yet have a Social Security number or credit history. Certain landlords may be reluctant to sign agreements with you because these circumstances make it difficult for them to assess your financial stability. Past fellows overcame this situation by asking their principal investigator or coworkers to help them contact and meet with landlords. If one of your coworkers is willing to do this, it can take some of the pressure off of you, and the presence of your colleague may show the landlord that you are a dependable tenant with a stable income.
One fellow recommended finding suitable housing but not searching for “the perfect home.” He said it’s better to rent a smaller house or apartment for a few months, build a credit score, then move to larger or better housing later in the year.
Another fellow said that you should look at the housing and apartment listings on the NCI at Frederick staff website in addition to popular real estate websites. Some listings are posted by current employees or local landlords who understand your situation, which increases your chances of finding housing. If you can’t access the site without your PIV card, ask a coworker to look for you.
You may also want to evaluate the crime rate and safety of the neighborhoods where you’re searching for housing. It’s helpful to drive or walk through the area to look around, but sometimes that isn’t practical. You can always ask a coworker to do it for you, or you can use the crime rate maps on many real estate websites. Frederick County also maintains an online Crime Mapper that displays the locations of recent crimes and known sex offenders.
If you need more time to search for housing but can’t afford to continue staying in hotels, ask your coworkers or the Frederick Diversity Committee for advice.
Finally, be vigilant for scams. Some people pose as landlords and fraudulently advertise houses and apartments to steal money. Never pay to tour a house, and don’t pay for an apartment or house until the day you and the landlord or home seller sign the lease or mortgage—they shouldn’t ask for any money besides a security deposit or good faith deposit before then.
Licenses, Cars, and Transportation
You need a car to live in Frederick and successfully work at NCI at Frederick. The public transportation system is scant compared to larger cities, and your ability to work in the lab, shop for necessities, and be active in the community will be greatly limited if you don’t have a vehicle.
You should obtain your Maryland driver’s license soon after you arrive. This can be a complicated process, but you can make it simpler by obtaining a license and an International Driving Permit in your home country before you come to the U.S.
Make sure your license and permit are not expired. Once you arrive in Frederick, you can visit the local office of the Motor Vehicle Administration to obtain a Maryland license. You will need to provide documents that verify your identity (such as your passport and I-94 form), Social Security number, and residency in Maryland (such as utility bills with your name and address on them, a leasing agreement, etc.). You may also have to take a driving test and a drug and alcohol education class.
One fellow recommended buying a used car because new cars are expensive and some vehicle dealerships are reluctant to sell to newly arrived residents from foreign countries. However, he also said that some used car sellers may try to hide defects or raise the price, so you should thoroughly examine a vehicle before buying it—or better yet, have the vehicle evaluated by an independent, certified mechanic. If your knowledge of vehicular maintenance is limited, ask a friend who is more familiar with the subject to accompany you. You should also check Kelley Blue Book to learn the car’s approximate value before you negotiate the final price with the seller.
If you don’t have enough money to buy a vehicle outright, you will need to get a car loan. Many banks won’t give you one until you have your Social Security number, or if they do, it will be at a high interest rate. Several fellows recommended that you instead use the NIH Federal Credit Union’s Fellows Advantage Program, which will grant you a loan at a more favorable rate.
You may need to use the local TransIT bus system until you can buy a vehicle. One fellow suggested that you take a copy of the TransIT booklet and brochures (available on every bus and in some local grocery stores), which contain information about routes and pick-up and drop-off times. For more information, the TransIT website contains a map and bus schedule, as well as links to the RouteShout 2.0 Android and iOS app that provides real-time bus updates.
Relocating to the U.S. with family can be hard, and the uniqueness of every family’s situation makes finding a definitive solution challenging. One fellow from Asia said it’s important to discuss the move with your family and create a personal plan months in advance.
In his case, he and his wife agreed that he would travel to the U.S. to find an apartment, buy a car, and begin his fellowship. Meanwhile, she would remain in their home country for a few months to finish working at her job and wait for him to prepare their new home. They agreed that she would come to the U.S. before winter to acclimate to the colder weather on a new continent.
Another fellow realized the transition would be difficult for her young daughter, so the fellow left her in the care of relatives in her home country until she could find an apartment, car, and preschool in Frederick. Although it was hard for them to be separated, the fellow said it made her daughter’s eventual transition much easier: After her daughter arrived, the fellow took a week of vacation to spend time with her and help her overcome the jet lag, then began taking her to the preschool and returned to work.
The fellow added that, in her case, it was helpful to have time to find a good preschool before her daughter arrived. If she had brought her daughter with her, she feels that they would have been rushed to find a school, a car, and housing at the same time.
Some fellows have faced a delay of a few months between accepting a job offer at NCI and being able to move to the U.S., but they’ve used this to their children’s advantage. For instance, the aforementioned fellow enrolled her daughter in an international school so she could be in a multicultural environment and learn English while she waited to move.
Start planning months before you leave your home country. Look at apartment listings in Frederick, search the locations of grocery stores and schools, and think about transportation, even though you’re not yet ready to move or make any purchases. Doing so will teach you about the locale and help you understand what to expect.
Several fellows recommended relying on your coworkers, your principal investigator, and other fellows as you transition to life in the U.S. It’s important to build connections and make friends who can help you.
One fellow said that you should tell your supervisor if you’re having problems at work or in life after you arrive. Open communication will allow them to help you as best they can. You can also use the Employee Assistance Program for counseling and general wellness.
Another fellow added that you should be honest about your needs and career goals so your supervisor can support you. NCI at Frederick staff offered similar advice.
“Seek out collaborators, mentors, advocates to help you along your path, and don’t be afraid of it,” said Laura Hooper, Ph.D., Frederick fellows coordinator.
And, importantly, be courageous and tell someone when you’re struggling. NCI at Frederick is happy you’re here, wants to see you succeed, and will be glad to help you.