I love when other expats share a lot about their visa journey and experience in America. Rebecca is an Aussie expat who settled down in one of my favorite U.S. cities – San Francisco. Read on and learn about her K1 visa process, what she loves about living here and her tips about finding Aussie food in America.
Where are you from originally?
I’m originally from Sydney, but I left in 2006 to travel, work and live my life abroad. I loved home, my family and friends, but I sought adventure, new experiences and a change of scenery. I had caught the travel bug after doing a semester abroad a few years ago, so I’d already tasted life abroad and knew it was for me.
How long have you been living in the U.S. and what do you do?
I have lived in the US since 2007, primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’ve also spent some time living in two other US cities — Washington DC and Chicago. I adore San Francisco, and it felt like home the first time I set eyes on the city. I’m really lucky to be able to call it my home.
I’m a writer and social media advisor, and have worked in government communications for a good number of years. Now I’ve taken the leap in to the world of freelance to provide me with the freedom and flexibility to work from anywhere in the world. Currently, I’m back visiting family back in Australia to celebrate the significant birthdays of my parents.
Why did you decide to move to America and how did you make it happen?
I met an American when I was living and working in Galway on the west coast of Ireland. We travelled and worked in numerous countries around the world, but we started to run out of places where we could both live and work. So we decided to return to his native SF for the lifestyle, climate, sports and multitude of opportunities available to us there. Once we’d decided to live there, we started work on the visa preparations immediately. We had a few periods where we were unable to be in the same country due to immigration issues, but eventually I was approved to enter the US with a 90-day K1 visa. We married a few weeks later and I altered my status with USCIS by successfully applying for permanent residency.
Please tell us a little bit about the process of obtaining your visa and/or greencard?
At the time we applied for a K1 Fiance Visa (2008), the whole process was a rather stressful year-long journey. I’ve heard stories about it taking much longer for some other people, so you never really have an idea of the end date until you’re approved. I did all the paperwork myself and only used an immigration lawyer to look over the final documents for my permanent residency application to ensure I’d done it correctly.
There’s multiple steps in filing paperwork and that surprised me. Initially, I thought that it the path to immigration was just a handful of questions, a few passport-sized photos and ‘voila!’. Nothing could be further from the truth! It’s a very involved process and requires an exceptional amount of time, money and patience. It’s background checks, getting fingerprinted with each stage of paperwork filed, interviews, medical tests, x-rays, more interviews, etc. Each step of the application process takes tens of hours in preparation prior to actually submitting it. It’s important you give yourself enough time — that’s really important.
I am generally a person who operates in ‘ordered chaos’, but I had to become a fastidious, meticulous version of myself to ensure I filed before the deadlines and had all of the supporting documentation attached to the applications. With every application I submitted, I ‘tabbed’ the jumble of paper into logical order with plastic flags to make it easy for those at USCIS processing my application to find the supporting documents. I also did the same for the other two copies I kept. This was the most practical means of keeping me organised – I recommend it!
What was the most difficult part of your immigration?
The waiting. Not knowing if my application would be approved before my (already set!) wedding date, and the difficulty in finding anything out. The whole process is hard, but it was an opportunity for me to develop skills and improve my patience!
What do you enjoy most about living in America?
I love living in the US because it’s where I want to be. I find that I am more aware, more open to new experiences, and I live my life with a sense of wonder when I’m overseas. Even on a bad day, I’ll still be able to find one thing that is done/said/performed differently from my original home in Sydney that makes me take note and appreciate it.
I have made life-long friends living here — with those from abroad as well as with Americans — and have already been afforded so many different opportunities that would simply not have been possible working in my old cubicle in Sydney. The country and its inhabitants are incredibly diverse, and after having lived there for seven years, I’ve a far greater understanding of them culturally than I did before I lived here.
Have you found a good source to buy Australian food in America (online or in-store)?
There’s something about comfort foods from home that helps me stem the tide of homesickness. But luckily for us in the US, not everything has to be posted in care packages shipped in from home. A number of US stores carry Aussie foods. I buy my Vegemite, Tim Tams and Twinings Tea from Cost Plus World Market; strawberry-flavoured licorice from Walgreens; and Milo from numerous vendors in SF Chinatown. For specialist Australian goods, my friends do runs down to Aussie Products in San Jose for supplies such as Vita-Weets, chicken salt, Barbeque Shapes and Pavlova Magic Eggs. If you can’t make it to their storefront, you can purchase your comfort foods online at AussieProducts.com. Some Safeways now carry Tim Tams packaged under the Pepperidge Farm brand.
What are the biggest differences between every day life in Australia and America?
There’s plenty of differences, but just as many similarities. Essentially, they’re both western English-speaking countries with similar lifestyles but what I love are the little things, like getting to know the local newsreaders and weathermen, understanding the regional humour and barracking for the local teams.
Being that I write for a living, I’ve encountered some interesting differences in terms of vocabulary and phrases between Australia and the US. But one of the funniest things I’ve found is not being understood by automated systems on telephones — they just can’t seem to handle my accent and they even struggle with my best valleygirl-imitation American accent! Also, I’ve never been able to go through a drive-through and actually receive what I ordered. It makes for an interesting game of ‘What’s in the bag?’.
Please share your best advice for Living, Working and Traveling in the US. Anything in particular for other Aussies?
My best advice for those going through the visa process is just be organised and be patient. Make it easy for USCIS to locate your documents in the obscenely large pile of paper you have submitted to them.
The housing market is incredibly competitive and expensive in SF right now, so if you’re househunting, come prepared with your paperwork and checkbook (and yes! Americans still use checks!). Have a letter from your employer stating that you are employed by them (and if possible, include a salary/package amount), a letter of reference from an old landlord/personal contact, and a bank statement. If you don’t have a credit score yet, just add this to a quick cover letter indicating that you’ve not been in the US for long enough to have one yet. You have to be ready to say yes on the spot and be prepared to throw money down to secure it.
Americans seem to love Australia and talking about Australia to Australians, so enjoy the barrage of questions when they find out where you’re from. I love talking about my favourite parts of Australia: the colours, the sights, the sounds, and it often helps address the homesickness that is part and parcel of living life abroad. So enjoy being a little bit of a novelty — it’s all part of the experience!
You’re blogging at TheRebeccaProject.com.
Tell us a little bit about it.
I started blogging at TheRebeccaProject.com back in 2009 as a way to do something when I was unable to work until my Green Card came through (which took about 8 months after I filed the Permanent Resident paperwork). I’ve always loved writing, so The Rebecca Project became a dedicated space to explore and document this strange new life as a permanent expat trying to find my feet in a new country.
What has been your most popular post so far?
Funnily enough, the most popular one has nothing to do with the expat experience! It was actually a post about a house on an island in Iceland.
But my most popular post about life abroad in the US is The Emotional Rollercoaster of Expat Life – Leaving Home:
In this post, I chart the emotional rollercoaster of emotions a new expat will feel in succession and how to make sense of the overwhelming feelings. Leaving home is not easy emotionally, and I think it’s really important to understand this and just be kind to yourself as you prepare to move overseas.
Can you recommend any book or website to other expats before they move to the U.S.?
I respond to stories and understanding other people’s experiences, so the best advice I received was from other bloggers who were in similar positions. Many of the original ones I used to follow have been closed down once they returned home or life just interrupted, but a few remain. One of my favourites is a Aussie writer based in Germany, Liv Hambrett, who weaves magic with her words and gets to sample Kaffee und Kuchen on a daily basis. I also ended up playing Netball at the San Francisco Stars Netball Club with another Aussie expat blogger, Sarah.
I researched my destination when we decided to move to the Bay Area. I joined groups on Meet Up, signed up to play netball and set about lining up opportunities to meet people and make friends, and I found that this made my introduction to life in the US easier and more enjoyable. One of the most memorable moments was spending Anzac Day in an Irish Pub with a bunch of Aussies playing 2-up in the Bar with American dollar bills.
Thanks for having me, Dan!