For Visa Holders

Supermarkets

Most supermarkets have “Member reward cards”. Stores and pharmacies do, too. They’re free. Get them. The difference in prices can be huge.

A Costco membership is useful for bulk item purchase, but annual membership is $55. Items there are considerably cheaper than at the supermarket, but you must purchase in larger quantities. They sell household items and fresh food at excellent prices.

Cars and Driving

If you buy a car, you must get car insurance.

Generally speaking, if you are over 18 and do not become a resident of California, you may use your foreign driver license as long as it is valid in your home country. For authoritative information about foreign licenses, please refer to California Vehicle Code sections §12502 and §12505.

You may nevertheless wish to obtain a California driver license. One of its advantages is that it reduces the cost of car insurance. It also removes any question about the validity of your foreign license if you are stopped for a moving violation or are involved in an accident.

The State of California does not recognize an International Driving Permit as a valid drivers license. It is useful, however, in conjunction with your foreign driver license, if that license is not in English.

If you need to provide paperwork to the Department of Motor Vehicles, the DMV office located near the USC University Park campus is best, because they are familiar with foreign licenses. For the driving test itself, choose the DMV office nearest your home. Become familiar with the test route ahead of time.

No matter how good a driver you are, you might fail the driving test on your first try. Make sure you understand the evaluation criteria first. Useful videos are:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5M-Kcq2U6CI
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W3wLwbDXGtE

Consider getting AAA membership. It costs $40 a year, and they provide you with car breakdown support throughout the US.

Health Insurance

The university requires that you have health insurance. You may find details of required coverage and possible sources for it here: https://sait.usc.edu/ois/j1-scholars/scholar-resources/insurance.aspx.

One option that satisfies USC’s requirements is available from https://www.isoa.org. It is special insurance for students and can be applied for on-line. They also insure people on J1 and J2 visas. If you are here with a spouse, check how much it costs to insure each person individually, since sometimes a joint policy for two people can cost more than insuring those same two people with individual policies. Be sure to read the details of their terms very carefully. Some people have found that medical expenses that they believed would be covered were rejected, and that getting claims paid required a lot of paperwork.

Schools

If you are planning to send your kids to public school, make sure you rent a home or an apartment in an area served by a good school.

Renting an Apartment

When renting an apartment, you will often be asked to provide a deposit, to ensure you return the place in good condition. This deposit must be returned to you within 21 days of when you leave, after the cost for repairs of damage you caused are deducted. Such costs must be documented. The State of California has a website that lists the rights of landlords and tenants: http://www.dca.ca.gov/publications/landlordbook/index.shtml. Many other websites discuss tenants’ rights.

The City of Santa Monica has fairly strict rent control laws that many apartments in the city fall under. If you rent an apartment in Santa Monica, check the information about rent control on this site: http://www.smgov.net/departments/rentcontrol. Among other things, it may list the maximum allowable rent for your apartment.

You may also register the condition of your apartment with the Santa Monica board when you move in. This may save you trouble when you move out, if there’s a dispute between you and your landlord about any damage they claim you have caused.

Documents

If you have a J1 visa, get your DS2019 signed as soon as possible in the international office of your supporting institution. This is required before leaving the country, and may be required for social security.

Apply for a social security number (SSN). You will need the social security number in order to open a bank account and to avoid having to provide deposits for services, such as water and electricity. Internet service may be very difficult to get without a SSN.

Other Things to Consider

Open a bank account and apply for a credit card. Many of the on-line merchants require a credit card with a billing address in the US.

If you’re planning to be in the US for a longer time, consider subscribing to Amazon Prime. It provides free 2-day shipping on many items and has other benefits. It is very useful for buying household items relatively cheaply. The regular cost is $100 a year. Membership for an initial period is free, and the price is discounted 50% for students.

If you like the outdoors, consider buying an annual pass for the national parks. This costs $80 and allows free access to all national parks for the whole year, also for everyone else accompanying you in your car.

Get an American SIM card for your cell phone. Check on-line for plans. There are family plans that will cover all phones owned by members of your family.