Visa & Social Security
Helpful hints regarding visas and obtaining a Social Security number. Lots of helpful employee and benefit information can be found on the Human Resources page of this Carnegie Institution for Science link. For visa information, visit Travel.State.Gov, which is a service of the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Banking at Suntrust, 5000 Connecticut Avenue, is convenient and provides certain benefits for Carnegie employees.
Reminder from the Fiscal Office: J visa holders be aware that when planning on leaving the U.S. on business or vacation that your DS-2019 needs to have the Travel Validation section current by having Carnegie’s responsible official’s signature in place before departing. Otherwise, there may be problems when attempting to re-enter the U.S.
The following information was provided by former MESSENGER Fellow Paul Byrne, who detailed his recent experience. Thank you Paul!
Moving to America: An Irishman’s Experience
Moving to the United States to participate in the J-1 visa program can be a rewarding, if challenging, experience. If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve completed the first step in your visa application process - getting sponsorship from a research institution. But the process itself is long, and necessitates jumping through quite a few hoops. Once you’ve obtained your visa, you’re able to depart for the U.S., and once you arrive the fun really starts. Here, I’ve tried to outline my experiences in an accessible way, to pass on the few tips I’ve learned, and to help make the paths of successive postdocs coming to the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism a little easier.
A Brief Note on Visas
Before we begin, here’s a quick overview of visas. By worldwide agreement, a visa isn’t an authorization to enter a country, only permission to travel to a given country and seek permission to enter. Admission is decided by an immigration officer at the port of entry. In the U.S., there are two primary types of visa: an immigrant visa, enabling someone to settle in America for an indefinite period of time, and a non-immigrant visa, whereby the visit is temporary and for a specific reason, e.g. work, study, or research. There are over 20 non-immigrant visa types, and some of those have subcategories.
The J-visa, or Exchange Visitor Program, has 14 subcategories, ranging from au pairs to research scholars (the category relevant here). J-1s are issued for a specific length of time that corresponds to the duration of sponsorship, and often require applicants to return to their home country for a minimum of two years after completing their first program. This requirement can be waived by consular personnel (and often is for research scholars), but the exact mechanisms by which J-1 visas can be extended, and/or by which a non-immigrant visitor can change their visa type, are horribly complex, so I invite you to research them yourself, and report back.
Getting Your J-1 Visa
The Application Rigamarole
There is a linear, though somewhat awkward, procedure for obtaining a J-1 visa. The best source of information for visas of all types is the travel section on the U.S. Department of State’s website (travel.state.gov), where you’ll find far more information than I include here. (I disclaim all liability if what I’ve written below turns out to be pure nonsense.) But in principle, it goes like this:
a.) A prospective postdoc is offered a position, and is asked to provide key biographical data to a relevant department/office/individual;
b.) The postdoc then receives a sponsorship form, outlining the position, the institution with which they will work, their salary, dates for their program, etc. This form is called the DS-2019;
c.) The next step is to complete the Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application, termed the DS-160. This form serves as the basis for one’s application, and includes some of the information contained in their DS-2019;
d.) Upon submission of the DS-160, the applicant rings a number through which they arrange for a visit in person to their local U.S. embassy or consular office. This visit is mandatory, and the prospective postdoc must bring a number of specific items with them; and
e.) Finally, at the embassy, the applicant goes through a series of steps in order to fulfill the requirements of the application process, and then, assuming they are approved for a visa by a consular official, they receive their visa a short time later.
In reality, it can be a little more complex. For example, the speed at which the DS-2019 form arrives is largely a function of how quickly you provide the preliminary biographical information, and how prompt the receiving office processes and dispatches the DS-2019. In my experience, the process at DTM is fast and efficient, but some of my friends, hired by prominent universities, waited between four and six months for their DS-2019s. This can pose a serious problem, especially if the work one is to perform in the U.S. is time-sensitive.
Getting Your J-1 Visa
Filling out the DS-160 isn’t terribly hard, but it is time-consuming. It’s done entirely online, through the Consular Electronic Application Center website. The State Department’s website provides a link to the CEAC, as well as a fairly comprehensive FAQ on the DS-160 itself. You’ll need your passport, your DS-2019, and some supplementary information in order to complete the form online. Expect to be asked personal biographical information, the nature of your proposed work in the U.S., family details, the last five or so trips taken to the U.S. (if applicable), and whether or not you intend to commit moral turpitude while in the United States (my personal favorite). One of the final pages asks you to upload a picture for your visa, which must meet a strict set of criteria. I know of one person whose first upload attempt was accepted, and three for whom it was not, but if you run into difficulty with this step, you’ll have the opportunity to bring a photo with you to the embassy, so don’t worry.
Once your DS-160 is ready to go, review your answers and submit it. After submission, the CEAC system will generate a “receipt of submission” page that includes a barcode: you must print and keep a copy of this barcode (though you don’t have to print the entire application; I did, but in the end I didn’t need to refer to it). Next there’s another hoop: you must also pay the SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) fee. The cost of this fee varies, and in April 2011 was €140 (about US$200). You can pay online immediately (they provide a link: https://www.fmjfee.com/i901fee), and you will get a receipt that you can print out. You will also receive proof of payment in the mail, but almost certainly not until after your embassy appointment. Therefore, since you must prove you paid the SEVIS fee, ensure you bring the print-out of this receipt, together with your DS-160 barcode, to your embassy appointment.
Getting Your J-1 Visa
Showing Up In Person
Ok, what now? You must ring for your embassy appointment. The relevant number may be different for every country, but I found mine by trawling through the Irish U.S. Embassy’s website. You’ll find yours among the full list of U.S. embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions on one of the Department of State’s websites (a full list is here: http://www.usembassy.gov). The Irish website lists two numbers, and yours may too, but beware: They’re likely to be very expensive. One option was to ring a number that costs €2.50 (about US$3.50) per minute; the other was to call a number for a flat rate (€16, or about US$22.50). I called the latter number and kept the helpful operator on the line for longer than six and a half minutes; I would encourage you to do the same, to feel like you’re getting your money’s worth.
The purpose of this call is to arrange an appointment at your local embassy/consulate, and depending on availability of places and/or cancellations, you could get an appointment within four days (in one instance of which I know; I waited 19 days). The operator will outline the purpose of the appointment, will list each item you need to bring with you, and will then arrange a date and time that suits you.
On the day of your appointment, you will need to bring several items to complete your application. I don’t know if or how these requirements differ between the Irish embassy and other countries, so again, check your country’s U.S. embassy ahead of your appointment. In my case, I was required to bring:
i.) A photo that matched the requirements described in the DS-160, as my dreadful effort in a darkened room was surprisingly rejected;
ii.) My valid passport;
iii.) My DS-2019 form;
iv.) Proof of payment of the SEVIS fee;
v.) My DS-160 confirmation sheet;
vi.) A 6” x 9.5” stamped, self-addressed envelope in which my passport would be returned by courier, stamped to the value of €5.50 (about US$7.70) (I think those dimensions, though unusually specific, are arbitrary; the envelope just has to be big enough to accommodate your passport); and
vii.) A bank draft or postal order (only) to the value of €105 (about US$150) for the visa application processing fee (note that this fee is non-refundable, so if your application is rejected and you are forced to apply again, you’ll have to pay again).
I should note here that the Irish embassy’s website also lists extra material in support of your application, including financial proof of your ability to sustain yourself once in the U.S., and evidence of your intent to return to your home country at the end of your visa program. I submitted my offer letter, bank statements, and a hopeful yet innocent look on my face, but none of this material was required by the embassy staff for my application, nor of anyone else I know applying for a J-1 as a postdoctoral fellow.
The appointment time you’ll be given corresponds, at least in the Dublin embassy, to the time the staff open the main gates. Regardless of the embassy’s location, however, you can expect to surrender your personal effects (e.g. a bag, phone, etc.) to a small locker (you’ll get it all back in the end), pass through security, and enter the processing part of the building.
Once inside, take a ticket from the dispenser, and wait to be called. From this point, there are several stages. When you are first called, you will submit all your application material, during which the staff member with whom you deal will ensure you’ve brought everything. You will then likely return to the waiting area until you’re called again, this time to provide your fingerprints (digitally, much like when passing through immigration at an airport).
Finally, you will be called to speak directly with a consular official, who will ask you a series of questions. They can range enormously, as can the time this part takes. I was asked what I would be doing in the U.S., where I would be doing it, and what I intended to do upon returning to Ireland (my answer of “looking for more work in the U.S.” didn’t seem to deter him). After about ninety seconds my interview was over, and I was free to leave.
My entire time in the embassy was about three hours, an hour longer than the embassy website advised. Many people suggest bringing a book (electronic entertainment devices are not permitted), but I would caution against this: Your number will almost certainly be called out of sequence, and therefore with little warning, due to different people being processed at different times and rates around you. A book could serve to compromise your situational awareness; I found a nice security guard to talk to, who spent most of the time giving out about other people in the waiting area, which was far more interesting than a book and meant I could listen out for my number.
Complicated? It is, but ultimately, if all goes well, your passport will be couriered to your nominated address within about five working days (in my case, it took four). The visa itself is about the size of a passport page and is glued to the document. It contains a black-and-white version of the photo you provide, along with your DS-2019 form number, your visa program number (details specific to you and your institution respectively, as far as I know), and the dates of your program. You must always keep your DS-2019 (though not necessarily your DS-160 or its confirmation page) together with your passport, preferably in a safe place. You now have your J-1 visa, however, and are ready to actually move to the United States.
Another Brief Note on Visas
One last thing about your J-1 visa: The visa will include start and end dates, which correspond to the duration of your sponsorship as stated on your DS-2019. You’re entitled to enter the U.S. before your program starts, but no more than 30 days before. You’re also permitted to stay a further 30 days (the so-called “grace period”) after your official end date, for last-minute sightseeing, packing of personal possessions, etc.
One very last thing: if you’re coming from a country that participates in the Visa Waiver Program, and would normally have to fill out an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) form, you do not have to complete an ESTA application when traveling on your J-1 visa.
Arrival in the United States
Once you have your visa, you are free to book flights to the U.S. (You could book flights beforehand too, of course, depending on how quickly you want to arrive; all U.S.-bound airlines require a host of biographical information prior to letting you on a plane, but there is no penalty in filling that information in for the first time when you check in online.) One of the things you’ll have to decide at this stage is to which airport to fly. There are three options in the D.C. area: Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (IATA code: BWI), located about 48 km (30 miles) northeast of the city, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), situated within the District and along the Yellow and Blue Metro lines, and Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD), about 42 km (26 miles) west of D.C., the largest of the three.
The airport you end up flying to will probably be decided by your city of origin and your budget. Depending on your position at Carnegie, you may be able to claim relocation funds (to a maximum of $2,000) from the Institution: consult with your future advisor to see if this is the case before booking. If you can pack light, you’ll probably find the moving process fairly painless, but if you do need to ship a significant quantity of personal effects, there is a plethora of companies with whom you could dispatch your belongings (I chose to go with Seven Seas Worldwide.
Arrival in the United States
Landing at Ellis Island
After finally landing in the U.S., the first thing you’ll do is pass through Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which involves speaking to an immigration officer and handing over your passport (and visa), your DS-2019 form, and a completed I-94 form (which you will receive prior to boarding the aircraft). This latter document is an Arrival-Departure Record and is part of the method used by CBP to track the comings and goings of visitors to the U.S. Assuming all goes well, the officer will stamp your DS-2019 and staple the bottom stub of your I-94 form into your passport, completing the holy triumvirate of DS-2019, visa, and Arrival-Departure Record. You’ll need the I-94 form (together with the other documents) to obtain a Social Security Number (more on that shortly).
After clearing customs and immigration, and officially starting your exchange visitor program, your first consideration will probably be to find somewhere to live (though in the short-term it could be to eat something, especially if your opinion of airline food is like mine). Finding a place to live is an important issue, but deserves some thought. Depending on from where you’ve come, you might find the cost of accommodation in D.C. horribly expensive (for example, rent prices are about 24% higher in D.C. than Dublin, according to http://www.numbeo.com), so be prepared to pay a lot more for an apartment in the District, particularly proximal to DTM, than you might at home. It’s also a good idea to have at least a few nights’ accommodation pre-arranged, either with a friend/relative in the area, or in one of the local hotels.
Deciding Not to Live at the Train Station
Settling on where to live is a personal choice, but some obvious questions to ask include:
1.) How much do you want to pay?
2.) What kind of accommodation do you want — studio/efficiency (a small apartment in which the living and sleeping space is joined with the kitchen area), a one-bedroom apartment, or something larger?
3.) Do you want to live close to DTM, in downtown D.C., or somewhere in-between?
4.) What neighborhood amenities are important to you, such as a nearby Metro station (this is a good map of the Metro network: http://www.wmata.com/rail/maps/map.cfm), a supermarket, or access to D.C.’s Rock Creek Park?
5.) What apartment amenities are important to you? Do you want to have a washer/dryer in your apartment, or must the apartment block feature an indoor pool?
There is a myriad of websites with which you can start to address these questions and ultimately find somewhere to live, including apartmentguide.com, craigslist.com, 4wallsindc.com, and apartments.com (I found the last site particularly useful). Realistically, your final choice of apartment will reflect a compromise of all of these questions. The first, how much you’ll want to pay, is perhaps the most important, and is at least partly a function of how much your take-home pay will be each month. The tax system in the U.S. defies my understanding (here’s the Internal Revenue Service [IRS] website, and if you feel like tackling it yourself, then more power to you), but you can expect to pay between approximately 28% and 35% of your gross monthly pay in federal and district taxes, and in healthcare insurance premiums (obtaining and keeping personal healthcare coverage is one of the requirements for maintaining a J-1 visa status).
So depending on your salary/stipend, your decision on where to live, and the type of accommodation you select, a guide for the cost of rent is somewhere between $1,500 and $1,800 per month. Also keep in mind location: While the public transport system in D.C. (more on that below) is very good, you might not want to spend an hour commuting each way if you can find somewhere to live closer to DTM. Connecticut Avenue, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, runs quite close to the Department, and is host to many apartment blocks and residences, so is a good place to look.
Here’s something extra to consider that I wasn’t aware of before moving from Ireland: certain parts of the U.S. have “rent control” programs that are designed to moderate how much a property management company or individual landlord can charge for a given residence (specifically, how much a property owner can increase that residence’s rent: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/rent_control). A key feature of rent control is that the utility costs associated with an apartment are often contained in the rent, including gas, electricity, water, and refuse collection. Thus what may seem a significant expense could ultimately prove to be better value that what you could pay in your home country. Rent prices that include utilities are very common in the District, though are not ubiquitous. You can expect to budget between $60 and $100 per month for electricity, particularly in the summer months when D.C. gets very hot, but consult with your prospective landlord to find out how much other utilities could cost.
When it comes to moving into your chosen apartment, ask what payments you’ll need to provide up front. Requirements vary from place to place, but it’s not uncommon to have to pay a security deposit (typically one month’s rent) in addition to your first monthly rent payment, while those apartment complexes that have amenities such as fitness centers, communal gardens, or pools, often levy an additional, though once-off, “amenities fee” on top of other payments. So before moving in, you may have to shell out up to $3,000. The good news is that many management companies waive some or all of the additional fees, depending on the time of year you move in, and the availability of apartments in their building, so it could well work out quite a bit cheaper.
Putting Yourself on the Grid
As you may have noticed by now, moving county can be a financially costly endeavor. Before you can establish a regular income stream, however, you’ll need a Social Security Number (SSN). Obtaining an SSN is fairly straightforward, but there are some caveats. First, you may need to wait ten working days from your date of entry before applying, as there is a latency between the time a consular official stamps your DS-2019 and the point at which the Social Security Administration (SSA) can process your application. (This ten-day waiting period may not apply to everyone, but it did to me.) Carnegie will also have to add you to a Department of Homeland Security database ahead of your first visit to a Social Security Office. There’s no incentive in waiting any longer, however: you can’t get paid until you provide Carnegie with your SSN (though in the interim you can fill in the many forms required to get your payroll established).
The nearest Office to DTM is located in the city center at 2100 M Street NW, just off New Hampshire Avenue NW. Open from 09.30 a.m. Monday to Friday, the procedure here is similar to the visa application process. Upon arrival, take a ticket and wait to be called, and then hand over your DS-2019, passport (with visa and I-94), and a completed SS-5 form (available here: http://www.ssa.gov/ssnumber/ss5.htm), which asks for the biographical information the SSA uses to process your application. There’s no interview as such, and assuming you’ve been added to the relevant databases in time, they should be able to accept your application straight away. The SSN itself (printed on a thin card under which no circumstances should you lose, apparently, which as I write I can’t find) then arrives at the address you provide within ten working days (mine took four). Here’s something else to keep in mind: the address you state on your SS-5 can’t easily be changed after you submit your application; if, like me, you apply before signing a lease and so use DTM as your postal address, you’ll have to contact the IRS, instead of the SSA, to amend your details thereafter.
Living in Washington, D.C.
Getting your visa, finding somewhere to live, and getting a Social Security Number are the three main milestones you’ll need to accomplish in the short-term. Longer-term, whether your move to the District is yet another in a long list of relocations, or it’s your first time away from home, it will inevitably take some time for you to find your feet. You’ll probably want to explore your neighborhood yourself, and find out where your local 7-eleven is, but the postdocs and staff at DTM are also an invaluable resource for finding out what life’s like in D.C. ⎯ so never hesitate to ask for an opinion on where’s good to eat, shop, or socialize.
There are many practical issues you’ll come up against, but I’ve found trial-and-error to be a reliable if awkward method for settling into D.C. life. The obvious things like buying food come first, but you’re spoiled for choice in the District. Depending on where you live (and/or whether you’re willing to take the Metro to go grocery shopping), you’ll have mainstream stores like Giant, Safeway, or Shoppers to choose from. Slightly better quality, though more expensive, options like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s also exist (and there’s a “farmer’s market”-like option walking distance from DTM called McGruders), there’s the international flavor of World Market, and there are convenience stores like 7-eleven and CVS/pharmacy on almost every street corner. Most of these chains offer loyalty programs.
A more expensive consideration in the short-term is the need to buy furniture: most apartments (though not all, so you have some choice) in D.C. come unfurnished. This means that while you’ll get kitchen appliances, and maybe a toilet roll holder, you get precious little else. Stores like Target (there’s one within the District), Marshall’s, TJ Maxx, and IKEA (the store at College Park, MD, is fairly close to the city, and can even be reached on foot) are obvious places to start. IKEA in particular has an excellent home delivery service, useful when you need a bed, sofa, and dining table and don’t drive (or couldn’t be bothered bringing your 18-wheeler with you). The city is full of other, smaller shops in which you can find other items to furnish your new apartment.
If you do have a car, then a parking space at or near your residence is important (details on parking permits for the D.C. area can be found here: http://dmv.dc.gov/serv/parking.shtm). If you don’t have a car but do hold a US-recognized license, the Zip Car service might be for you. One of the best things D.C. has going for it, though, is that unlike most U.S. cities, you don’t need a car to get around (which helps if you come from a similar-sized city, like Dublin); the public transport network is comprehensive, frequently serviced, and for the most part, reliable.
There are two main components to the Washington Metro Transit Authority: Metrorail and Metrobus. Metrorail consists of five (eventually six) lines that cross the city and extend into outlying suburbs, while the Metrobus network is even more comprehensive. You can pay in cash on both services, but a resident of the city should use a SmarTrip card, a prepaid product that you swipe upon entering and exiting the Metrorail system, or upon boarding a Metrobus. (You can even choose to load money onto your SmarTrip card directly from your paycheck.) There’s another bus service called the Circulator (http://www.dccirculator.com), which features very cheap, reliable, and fast transportation along five loops within the District. Finally, there’s a public bicycle scheme, particularly useful for short journeys or longer excursions (http://www.capitalbikeshare.com).
Telecommunications options in the city are excellent too. Depending on the services available in your building, you could find Comcast or RCN your proffered choices for home phone, TV, and broadband (both companies offer various combinations of these services in bundles). Though prices for these services vary considerably, they’re certainly on par with European prices. The four largest mobile telephone providers are (in order from biggest to smallest) Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. Again, they each offer an often mind-boggling array of choice, and you can opt for a simple it-makes-and-receives-calls phone, right through to a device that could probably run the International Space Station. There’s also the option to go with monthly billing (usually as part of a two-year contract) or a Pay-As-You-Go, no contract service.
They’re the basic, day-to-day requirements, and once you sort them out you’ll be better able to actually start living in D.C. The District has a deserved reputation of one of the most vibrant, exciting, multicultural, and active cities in America, and it doesn’t take long to see why. From cinemas and theaters to outdoor festivals and markets, from some of the most varied and expansive museums and monuments in the country (almost all free) to beautiful natural parks within and surrounding the city, and from lazy Sunday strolls along the canal in Georgetown or the Tidal Basin to the fast-paced (and often gridlocked) political heart of the United States, there is always something to do, see, or be part of in Washington D.C.
But don’t take my word for it. Go out and explore, and see for yourself!