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International Postdoc Survival Guide - Signposts to Living in the United States
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Introduction Postdocing in the U.S. Going in With Your Eyes Open
Signposts to Living in the U.S. So, Nobody Will Give You a Credit Card? A Quick Guide to Visas (Public Version)
Beginner's Guide to Income Taxes for International Postdocs
Been There, Done That!

Adapted with permission from “A Guide for New Postdocs and Visitors,” an online resource of the Caltech Postdoctoral Scholars/Visitor Services Office

When choosing to work in the United States as an international postdoc, keep in mind that you will be challenged by many non-scientific obstacles that are cultural or personal in nature. What should you do to make your postdoctoral stay in the United States as productive and satisfying as possible? Signposts to Living in the United States will introduce you to practical tips that will help you understand more about working in the United States as a postdoc. This way, you will be able to minimize misunderstandings and avoid costly and burdensome problems.

Take advantage of the experiences of other international postdocs and learn how to circumvent problems by preparing for them before your arrival as a postdoc to the United States. The information below highlights the major areas that may be important to you during your arrival and transition to the United States. We hope that you will find the information to be useful and informative.

Before You Arrive

Here are some useful things to know and do prior to your arrival:

  • Request a formal appointment letter and contract from your institution or principal investigator. Read the terms and conditions of your appointment very carefully and keep in mind those terms applicable to you.
  • Bring copies of other important documents (medical, immunization records and prescriptions, school records, credit history, good driver certificate for car insurance) along with your immigration documents.
  • Sign up for the local postdoc association (if one is active at your institution) to learn more about social and other events for postdocs and families. Ask for copies of any graduate student guide, institutional newsletter or other publications, for even more information regarding life on campus and the local region.

Making Arrangements for Your Travel and Arrival

When offered a postdoctoral appointment, ask your principal investigator if relocation expenses will be reimbursed. If so, ask for specifics in writing. Some institutions maintain an office of travel services with information regarding area hotels, motels, car rentals and shuttle services, and may also have information regarding per diem rates, exchange rates and travel warnings. If your appointment includes reimbursement for relocation expenses, please verify with your faculty sponsor whether or not you must use a U.S. airline. Certain funding sources can only reimburse air travel when it is taken on a U.S. airline company.


Some institutions maintain a housing office where you can obtain information regarding housing availability and rent prices in the area. Along with the local rental listings, the housing office may also have web links to local newspapers and other resources. If your institution does not have a housing office, check the classified section of the local newspaper in your new community. Most newspapers make these classified apartment and housing ads available on line. Please note that most landlords and rental agencies require a security deposit and/or the first and last month’s rent.

Since the United States has a credit-based system in most aspects of everyday life, it is useful to bring a list of former landlords with their contact information. Although the prospective landlord may not check your rental history with them since they are abroad, he/she will feel reassured by the transparency of the prospective lessee behavior. Additionally, a co-signer or a vouching person (U.S. citizens) may also be requested.

Limited transitional housing may be available for incoming postdocs at some institutions. Sometimes these apartments are furnished and are close to campus. They are typically available on a short-term basis and on a first-come, first-served basis.

Health Insurance and Access to Care

Most Americans obtain health insurance coverage through their employers, as there is only limited coverage available for U.S. citizens through the government (Medicaid/Medicare). Be sure to ask your P.I. or host institution what your health benefits (if any) will be. Many employers require their employees to pay a portion of the total cost of health insurance through payroll deduction. Many provide access to health insurance for family members of the employee, but typically at full cost. Some employers provide a range of health insurance options, such as health maintenance organizations, preferred provider plans, and traditional indemnity. Sometimes prescription coverage, vision and dental care are treated separately. These plans may require additional payments at the time that health care services are provided. Most employers have a benefits summary available to explain these options in more detail.

If your institution will not pay for any of your health insurance, you may still be able to purchase coverage through a group plan at your institution. Check with the personnel or human resources office to confirm. If you cannot obtain group coverage through your institution, some membership associations may offer coverage. For example, the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students (NAGPS) offers group health insurance to its members. This coverage is available to postdocs who join NAGPS.

In the case of bona fide medical emergencies, U.S. law requires hospitals to provide emergency care regardless of citizenship status or health insurance coverage. Do not hesitate to obtain emergency services for you or your family if a crisis should occur.

Obtaining a Social Security Number

Postdocs will need to apply for a social security card in order to get paid for their work. Your social security number is used to keep a record of your earnings.  Before filling out an application, you may want to check-in at the personnel or human resources office at your institution. This may help to avoid a substantial delay in obtaining your social security card. The staff in these offices may be able to assist you in filling out an application for your social security number and provide directions to the local Social Security Office. Additional delays are now possible, since the Social Security Administration must receive data from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS, previously INS) when individuals first enter the United States. We recommend going to the Social Security office two weeks after your arrival to allow for information transfer. You should bring your passport, immigration documents and your appointment letter from your home institution to the Social Security office. It may take anywhere from three to six weeks to receive your social security number; however, you should ask the personnel office if your institution will still pay your salary while you are in the process of applying for a number.

You will receive your social security card in the mail. Banks, landlords and other businesses may sometimes ask for your social security number. Be sure to verify why the number is needed and use discretion when giving it out.

Opening utility accounts

When renting a place you are responsible for the utilities (e.g. electricity, water, gas, telephone). You need to call the local provider for each of these services and to open account services with them. They usually request some titles from their customers: a SSN, and often a proof of residency (sometimes requested in the form of a…utility bill!). This can be rather confusing when you first come to the United States but remember that usually your institution or your advisor can vouch for you to overcome these seemingly contradictory requests while you get a SSN and some credit history in the United States.


The U.S. federal government and many states collect a tax on U.S. income, which includes wages and scholarships. These taxes will be automatically deducted from your paycheck every month. Your institution should provide each employee an itemized statement of taxable income for the prior calendar year (i.e. W2, 1099, 1042S or 592B) around mid-February. At the end of each calendar year, every taxpayer in the United States must file an appropriate tax return form depending on his or her income source. This tax form is basically a worksheet reporting all income and calculating the appropriate taxes owned. The deadline for filing a tax form is April 15th each year for those who received an income in the United States during the prior year (January 1 - December 31).

Each non-immigrant visa type has certain tax consequences for international postdocs. Depending on your eligibility, a tax treaty between your country and the United States may provide an exception from paying U.S. federal taxes and payroll taxes for a limited amount of time. Everyone, however, must pay applicable state taxes. Please note that for some countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, and perhaps others, the tax treaty is valid only if your stay in the United States does not exceed exactly two years from your date of arrival. That is, if you stay one day beyond two years, you will be responsible for all past taxes. You may choose to waive the treaty benefits and pay the federal taxes if you know that you will be in the United States beyond two years. For your information, the tax treaties between countries are based on the international reciprocity rule: The United States will treat citizens from your country the same way your country treats U.S. citizens working in your home country. The payroll staff in your institution’s Office of Human Resources can explain your individual tax situation. However, they are not generally allowed to offer any tax advice. Some international offices though may organize tax seminars or even tax filing help during the first few months of the year, so we encourage you to find out what is the situation in your institution.

Links to information regarding international postdocs and taxes:

Obtaining a Driver’s License

In the United States, the laws governing drivers are handled by the individual states. In general, if you are employed here or become a resident, you will need to obtain a state driver’s license within a certain time period. If you are a visitor with a valid driver’s license from your home state or home country, you may be able drive in your new state of residence without getting a state driver license, as long as your home country’s license remains in effect and valid. In some states, you may be able to drive using your license from your home country if you have an International Driver’s Permit (IDP). You obtain the IDP from your home country. If you are an international postdoc or visitor at your institution, but are receiving your income directly from an outside source, the procedures for obtaining a driver license may be different.

You should contact the local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) for more details. Most telephone directories have these local, state and federal government listings published in the blue pages. Every state government has a website, and information about drivers’ licenses and other applicable state laws may be found on these web pages. Lastly, note that some insurance companies will require a state driver’s license sooner than the DMV/MVA in order to insure your vehicle.

In order to obtain a driver license, you will generally need to take both a written and driving test, along with passing a vision exam. Most states charge a fee and require various documents verifying your residence and identity, such as a passport.

Auto Insurance

Many states also require that you have liability insurance in order to drive a car in that state. There are many national insurance companies so compare their rates before choosing a policy. Securing liability and comprehensive insurance can be very expensive, especially if you have never driven before. First-time drivers can expect high insurance rates for the first 18 months they drive. After that period, if your driving record is good, you can expect your rates to drop somewhat. If you have driven overseas and have written proof of your good driving record, your insurance rates may decrease.

U.S. Culture

For selected information regarding U.S. culture, see USA101's commercial website. This website covers topics such as basic facts and statistics about the U.S. culture, national holidays, noteworthy places and people, and etiquette.

A pre-departure orientation is also available. Although targeted at Chinese students, it gives a lot of cultural information about life in the USA that will be of interest to not only postdocs from China but those coming from other countries.

The Metric System

You will notice that for everyday life, United States still uses the English measurement system. Here are some useful sites regarding metric and conversions:

Intuitive transport

Math connect

General Resources

Some of these websites are offered by for-profit commercial ventures. No endorsement is implied.

American Immigration Resources on the Internet

American Immigration Center