A guest post by Antonio – Startup Life 1/2013 intern from Kanjoya.
So you have gone past the impossible, applied to a cool San Francisco startup, passed like a champ through one interview after another, and got your visa without breaking a sweat. Or maybe it was hell. Or you are just thinking about doing. Anyway, you have no idea on what to really expect once you land there, maybe in a few days!! Now I passed through all that and I’ve been here only for a few weeks, but let’s see if this can be any help for you.
Right before (or after!) jumping into the plane your first concern might be “where the hell do I sleep until I get an apartment?” For this, the general answer is: airbnb. In this web page you can find people that will let you crash in their sofa/use their spare room or entire apartment for a neat price, and if you are lucky you can even get a deal with the place owner to get a better price, depending on the time you are there. If you are in a real hurry and don’t have time to fiddle with the page, a hostel is another good option for a short time. I stayed at a cool one which was very easy to reach from the airport, since you just take the BART commuter train and for $8.20 you arrive directly to Powell station. From there, it’s just a few meters away. Of course other hostels are available in the city, but this one is a good place to try.
How much time should I stay in airbnb/hostel? Well, as much as necessary to get an apartment, and let me tell you this straight: it’s not easy!! For help on that, there’s a great post in this same blog that you should read right now, not only for links to where to search but also for information on where to live. Also remember that the prices have skyrocketed in the last year and will likely continue that trend, so don’t be surprised if you have to pay around $1000 or more for a room in a shared apartment, depending on how far it is from downtown of course. Learning to use craiglist to narrow searches by neighbourhood can be quite handy too, and you can also find furniture and other stuff in craiglist. If you need help or a van to carry furniture bought there to your new place, maybe someone from taskrabbit can help.
At this point it’s time to call SEVIS and let them know of your address. They threaten to kick you out of the country if you haven’t called them before 20 days have passed since the start of your visa, but the good news is that you can register any address temporarily (like a hoste/airbnb for example) and then call again to amend that address once you have moved to a more fixed place.
Depending on where you live and where you work, you might have to use a lot of public transportation. The basic choices are BART, a kind of train that connects places in the Bay Area, then municipal railway (commonly called MUNI), buses and taxis. Now if you have to take MUNI to work every day then a monthly pass could be worth it, but what I recommend is to get a clipper card, which you just charge with money and then use it in all the public transports when needed, quite handy!! BART costs varies per distance, where MUNIs and Buses are $2. Also taxis are a must sometimes (at night when coming back from the pub for example) and of course prices are per distance too, but they are much cheaper than in Finland (expect to pay $10 on average for inside-city trips). Remember to give them a tip, $2 is considered standard
Another tip: When people say San Francisco is defined by its neighborhoods, they don’t exaggerate a tiny bit: you can be in a high-class block and just one street away it’s full of people living in the streets. Try to avoid conflictive zones at night, especially when going alone. This includes at least the Tenderloin which is right in the center, so watch out. It would be handy to have it marked in your map while you are getting to know the place.
Alright so you are already kinda settled, know how to reach your office, all rolling, right? Wroooong!! Now you need a bank account to get paid and an US sim card so you can start socializing. Here you have to ask you some questions: do I have an unlocked phone I want to use, or I want to buy a new phone? I want a data plan? Do I have an iPhone (more on this later). No matter what your answers are, the two main carriers are AT&T (more expensive) and T-Mobile (crappy network). I can’t recommend on all possible scenarios, but if you want unlimited texts/calls and data, this is a T-Mobile reseller cheaper than T-Mobile itself. The trick? The “unlimited” data is throttled at a slower speed at some point, so if you plan on streaming stuff it will become quite slow at some point during the month. AT&T has neat prepaid plans and better coverage, but it’s more expensive and they don’t offer prepaid plans for iPhone users (although apparently the sim card works anyway, so if you manage to get one by, say, talking to the manager, you are all set).
Banking for profit and peace of mind
Did I mention that you need an US bank to get your payroll? And also because every time you get money in an ATM with your foreigner card you might be incurring into some quite disgusting fees, so let’s get rid of those, shall we?
Now most banks here in the US are quite crappy in their offerings, and they don’t adhere to IBAN standards. To transfer money from your home account to the one you open here, you have to do a wire transfer with SWIFT codes and all, which will take anytime from 2 to 5 days or so to arrive, and will cost around 25 euros. Some banks have foreign partners with whom they can arrange transfer at a reduced fee, so that’s something to take into account, if you happen to have an account in one of those. Another thing to take into account if that they charge you if you use their cards in other bank’s ATMs, so choose one that is well represented. From a quick view around the city, Well’s Fargo, Bank of America and Chase are the ones with more offices around.
Another thing you have to do to get your payroll is to get an US Social Security ID, but to get that you need to wait 10 days after your entry to the US, and at least 2-3 days after your SEVIS registration, but that’s done so check google maps for the closest Social Security office and get that set! They usually open at 9:00 so to avoid queuing go early.
People around and places to be found
Home, office, phone, bank, are we ready!?!? YES!! LET’S MINGLE AROUND!!! Time to use your spare time and socialize!! But where to go? This is a big place and after the obvious touristic places you want to find great bars, pubs, restaurants, activities, shopping, and people to enjoy those with!
Good news are that you have a good start by being part of Startup Life, not only because of the other people in your batch with whom you can go to all the new places, but also because of the awesome alumni from previous years. Most likely you can talk with some that are in Finland before coming here (ask them for tips!) but once you are here you can meet those that stayed some more time and are still rocking around!! Other than the awesome Startup Lifers, flatmates and workmates, it’s quite trendy to go to meetups here, you can check some and meet like-minded people.
If the rent is super-expensive, you’ll be glad to know that shopping is in generally cheaper and there’s a wider offering than in Finland. I just went to a men-clothes-only Macy’s (a Stockmann-like department store) and got two Levi’s jeans for around $80 (60 euros, I got two for less than the price of one in Finland). Food in the store, especially fresh stuff like vegetables and meat is usually cheaper too. I haven’t found good fish shops yet thought, but that might just be me. Electronics, well, this is cheap on that too. For eating or drinking out, remember tipping. It’s customary to give anywhere from 10 to 20% in restaurants. No need to tip in places where you order from the counter, like Subway and such, except in bars, where $1 tip for a beer is a standard.
If you like to stay fit, just living in one of the hills is enough, because going back home from work walking up California street is killing me… just kidding! Or half-kidding anyway. There are plenty of normal, activity focused, and martial arts gyms around, so there’s surely something for you on this. For a standard gym there are even 24h/7 days a week ones, check out for example this one. It costs around $40 a month.
Bits and bytes
All in all, the US in general and San Francisco in particular are quite a change of mentality from other places, especially if you compare to some of the higher living quality places of Europe like Finland. As you might know, the US is not famous for its universal health-care or public education, on the contrary. So if in Finland is common to have some sort of mid to high education, here someone with a Bachelor’s degree is already a rockstar compared to the country’s average education level, and someone with a Master’s is a… well, you get the idea.
Other things that we might take for granted are still science fiction here, like paying by card everywhere, having a chip in our card and punching our card number and that’s it, or simply not freezing inside home because it’s properly insulated from the outside, are just things that popped to my mind now, but there’s so many of these “WTF” moments that I can’t really mention those here.