Roughly two-thirds of all postdocs at Berkeley Lab are foreign nationals:
- US citizens: 142 (31%);
- immigrants (permanent residents): 32 (7%);
- non-immigrants (foreign nationals): 289 (62%);
- total = 463.
With all the opportunities that a diverse, international workforce provide, there are, of course, obstacles to overcome before and after your start at Berkeley Lab. Therefore, we dedicate this section to the specific needs and questions that international researchers typically require and face when starting a postdoctoral position in the US in general and at the Lab in particular.
Before sharing some of our personal experiences, we have to stress that the information provided below is exactly that: a collection of personal experiences. That means that you cannot hold BLPA as such or anybody particular of the BLPA board liable for anything. We try as good as we can to describe general, frequently encountered cases and give typically useful directions. We don’t aim for more—but neither for less. So, if you feel that some section is very likely little helpful for the majority of postdocs, please, let us know. After all, we are scientists, and, as such, we, of course, strive to optimize everything—our science as well as our guidance of fellow postdocs.
Before coming to the US
Before you start your postdoc experience, you typically have to contact a US embassy in your country in order to get a visa that permits you the entry in the US in the first place. The most common visa category for postdocs is the so-called J-1 visa (or, “Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor (J-1) Status”). The first critical steps are to coordinate with your future employer (e.g., Berkeley Lab) and to send the employer (or, sponsor as they call it in the realm of the J-1 visa) a “DS-2019 request form”. Once the sponsor has the DS-2019 request form from you, the sponsor can get started on your DS-2019 form. That document is a key requirement for your visa interview at the embassy and, down the road, your central document to prove that you’re legally present in the US. Go here to read more about the DS-2019 and the J-1 visa category.
After arriving in the US
You cannot do anything without a Social Security Number (SSN). So, the first thing you should do is to go to the Social Security center in downtown Berkeley and apply for an SSN. But wait at least 5 days after your arrival so that customs have time to process your case.
The Social Security Number is very important, but also very “powerful”. So don’t share it with anyone, except for administrative reasons.
Banking in the US can be confusing. You will not be allowed to open a bank account before you have an address (it doesn’t have to be yours, though) and, sometimes, not before you have an SSN.
Bank accounts are usually free. But banks charge many fees (e.g., for wire transfer, or when you withdraw money from an ATM of a different bank).
If you want to transfer money overseas regularly, you might want to choose an international bank such as HSBC or Citibank, because local banks (Wells Fargo, Bank of America) charge tremendous fees. Using bitcoin is considered a valid option to dodge the fees.
As a foreigner, you will probably not have a “credit history”, for which reason it might be difficult for you to get a credit card. However, credit cards are truly essential in the US (to build a credit history, or simply to rent a car). Banks usually offer “Secured Credit Card”. Those are basically credit cards with limited amount that have a deposit as a collateral (it is silly, but there’s no way around it). If you already have an account with an international bank, things can be easier.
The housing in the Bay Area is extremely expensive. As of 2016, a single bedroom in downtown Berkeley is over $2000/month.
The best way to find a place is through Craigslist. If you’re seeking from abroad, do not send money without visiting the place first (you can get scammed even on seemingly reputable website such realtor.com)
A good option might be to do house-sharing before finding a more definitive single occupancy accommodation.
Taxes are quite complicated, but don’t worry: you will be offered assistance and workshops at the Lab. The most important basic thing to realize is that there are
- federal taxes (those that you pay to the US treasury) and
- state taxes (those that you pay to the state of California).
Tax returns have to be filed for the preceding year before mid April (typically around April 15, but it varies; in 2016, the due date for both federal and CA state tax was, for example, April 18). Usually, you don’t have to pay anything, because the lab is withholding the amount of taxes you are supposed to owe.
Some countries (e.g., France and Italy) have a “Tax Treaty” with the US, which can considerably reduce your federal tax burden here. However, if you make use of a treaty to reduce US taxes, this typically implies that you will have to pay federal taxes (or, the equivalent tax type) in your home country.
Berkeley Lab requires employees and postdocs to be covered by appropriate health insurance. Because there is a vast number of different health-care providers, it can be really difficult to navigate between all available options. To that end, UC Berkeley provides here several videos that might help you in better understanding US health insurance and related topics to decide what provider best matches your needs.
If you want to move to industry, the options are pretty limited, primarily because of the shortage of H1-B visa.
O1 visa might be a way around the H1-B visa shortage. The O1 visa aims at outstanding people in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics. There is no quota, and you can apply year round.
In order to become a permanent resident you have to apply for a Green Card. Unfortunately, Berkeley Lab will not sponsor your application for a Green Card unless you get a permanent position.
As a postdoc at the Lab, a portion of your salary is automatically deducted from your salary for a retirement plan.
The driver license (DL) is considered as the primary ID in California. And, it’s best to have it as soon as possible. Getting a license is fairly cheap (~$35 total) and simple. First, you need to go to the DMV (there’s one in Oakland, and another one in El Cerrito). There, you will have to pass a written test (have a look at the California Driver Handbook to get prepared for the test). The test is not exactly rocket science, but there are specific laws that you should know of. Don’t worry if your fail, because you can take the test three times in a row. After successfully passing the written test, you need to schedule a behind-the-wheel test and pass the test, which is easy if you already have a foreign driver license. The tricky part is that you need to bring a car. You can bring the car of a friend (sometimes they will require your friend to accompany you, sometimes sufficient insurance papers will do), a rental car, or you can go there with a driving school. The driver license will expire when your legal presence document (typically, the DS-2019) expires. Hence, the DL will have to be renewed regularly (usually, every year).