Starting a new life in California in weird times
February 19, 2021 2:12 PM   Subscribe

I’m moving to LA from the UK in April. I’m pretty excited but also aware that there are going to be lots of new and difficult aspects to get my head around, with a layer of Covid to make things extra interesting. I’ve done as much reading as I can but if anyone could give me first-hand tips on the following I would be very grateful.

- Navigating the US healthcare system as a non-citizen
- Potential bureaucratic pitfalls to avoid when setting up finances etc
- Things that surprised you moving to California/LA from the UK
- Anything else that springs to mind, as broad or as specific as you wish

Recommendations for any guides/blogs/previous MeFi posts also great (I did search but may have missed something).

Thank you all!
posted by rrose selavy to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
A lot of the finance/health will depend on what visa you are going on and/or if you are on a citizenship path. For example, are you moving for a job, or are you/will you be married to a US citizen, or other situation?

Visa Journey is a great resource, you've already got your visa but there is still lots of info on finances, moving and what to expect.

Healthcare - if you will not be covered by a job or partner's healthcare, then you probably want to take out long-term insurance (different to visitor/holiday insurance).

UK Yankee
is more for USians in the UK, but there is a 'Repatriation' board which has some helpful threads for you too.

Overall, my main advice would be, even if you've visited before, be ready for culture shock. It's even harder because a lot of things will feel familiar on the surface with the same language, but over time things will sneak up on you.
posted by atlantica at 2:54 PM on February 19, 2021

New expats learn the most, most quickly from old expats who've made the same move, in my experience as a long-term traveler. A brief google found me several British Expat Groups in LA, but you might also try exploring ex-pat groups in America, generally, as well as exploring whether the British Embassy or Consulate provides advice on getting settled in America.
posted by Violet Blue at 2:55 PM on February 19, 2021

I can't answer all your questions but a lot depends on how you're immigrating. You don't indicate your residency status, so in general you're going to need a SSN to do a lot of financial stuff. That should be job #1. After that it should be straightforward to set up bank accounts, etc. Don't expect to get a credit card as US credit scores are independent of your credit history elsewhere. You'll need to find a bank that will do a card for new residents or get a secured credit card like I did where you have to put down a deposit the size of your credit limit (like $500).

As far as healthcare goes, you need health insurance. If you have it through work, great, get signed up ASAP. If you get it through a spouse/partner, get signed up ASAP. Otherwise you'll have to sign up via the Affordable Care Act - Once that's done your insurance company will have a list of local doctors you can work with. There are usually big medical centers of providers with GPs and specialists.

Figure out how you're going to move any savings from the UK if you need to do that as sometimes there are limits on money moving transactions. And if you leave money in the UK or have retirement savings there, you may be subject to reporting this to the US IRS if their value exceeds $10K usd. Luckily you have a year to figure out tax reporting, but it's never too early to start worrying about the joy of taxes.

I don't know what else to say about LA - don't bother carrying an umbrella around I guess. Best of luck!
posted by GuyZero at 2:58 PM on February 19, 2021

UK in LA here.

1. Will you have health insurance, e.g. is it a benefit your employer provides? Do you know if it's an HMO or a PPO? A HMO is a bit like the NHS (but really bad and expensive and frustrating), in that your GP (or more usually "PCP") acts as a gatekeeper to more specialized care, and you generally stick to your "network" of providers (in the same way you don't go to Bupa hospitals in the UK if you're an NHS patient). Since you'll be in CA it's quite likely your insurer will be Kaiser, which is an HMO and basically a miniature members-only NHS. If you're given a choice, and you want things to be as similar as possible to the UK, Kaiser is the right choice. A PPO is much more flexible and generally seen as "better", but also requires you to do a lot more of the navigating yourself, since you can mostly just make an appointment with any doctor you want as long as they take your insurance. If you have a PPO you can (and probably should) get a GP/"family doctor" anyway.

2. Not sure if you mean "banking" or "investments" or "taxes". Banking is different but pretty straightforward. If you imagine UK banking in something like 1986 you'll have a pretty good idea. Lots of cheques, cash and physical trips to the bank. You should get a credit card as soon as they'll give you one and use it more than never. This is important for building up your credit score, which is in great part a function of how long you've had access to credit.

Investments are a big topic. But very roughly a US IRA is the same thing as a UK ISA (i.e. a tax-sheltered vehicle for cash and stocks and other assets). A US 401k is the same thing as a UK ISA but your employer sometimes pays into it. The big difference between the UK IRA and the US equvialents is that, with a few exceptions, it's difficult/expensive to withdraw the money in US equivalents before retirement, since they are explicitly retirement accounts.

Taxes are an absolute nightmare, but the way in which they are a nightmare is different for everyone. Your exact obligations depend on whether you are considered a "US Resident Person", which is a tax status that is correlated with your immigration status, but not the same thing. If you have a green card and some other visas you're a resident for tax purposes. If you have some other visas you are not a "US resident", but you may have to file taxes anyway. If you have to file, the simplest possible version is the the following: your employer pays you a salary. They "withhold" some fraction of that. The fraction has a default value but you can adjust it up and down. And then the following year you "file taxes", which is an insane process where you collect some forms and transcribe that information to a bunch of other forms in order to figure out the answer to a question the government already knows the answer to (i.e. how much you should actually have withheld). Then if they think you did the calculation correctly they refund you the difference if you withheld too much, or you send them a cheque (!) if you withheld too little.

If you are self-employed, have investments or own real estate then it gets more complicated. And you have to do everything twice: once for the federal government and once for the state. Americans will tell you figuring out taxes is not that bad. This is Stockholm Syndrome. It's completely insane.

One last money thing: if you are eligible for a Social Security Number (which you should be if your visa gives you the right to work) then you must get one. You'll probably need it in order to open a bank account, so expect to do this in the first few days. It's been a while, but when I got mine it required a physical appearance at a "Social Security Administration" building.

3. Surprises about moving to Los Angeles: the calamitous heat. The dirt and dust. The price of food. And it wasn't a surprise, but the reality of car-centric living is very different even to the rural UK, because the climate and streets here is such that you can't really walk to get somewhere more than a mile away, even if you want to. People do a lot of recreational walking (i.e. walking in a circle, possibly up a hill, and returning to their car) to deal with this fact. On the bright side, nature is very close by, and you're in a true world city, so there's lots to do.
posted by caek at 3:29 PM on February 19, 2021 [6 favorites]

Do you drive? It will make your life much easier in LA, though depending on where you live you can do quite a bit without a car.

You may not need an umbrella very often, but you'll definitely need sunglasses. Even when it's cloudy, the glare can be enough that you'll want a pair. And moisturizer with sunscreen.

June Gloom is a SoCal phenomenon; it'll be hot and dry in the valley and cool, damp, and fogged in at the beach. I always have a sweater or two in the car, just in case.

Know a bit about earthquake preparedness - Earthquake Country has a lot of information and resources. Earthquakes are happening all the time, but they're generally small; many earthquakes will feel like someone has bumped your chair, or as if a large truck drove by.
posted by mogget at 3:36 PM on February 19, 2021 [4 favorites]

Otherwise you'll have to sign up via the Affordable Care Act -

California does have an ACA marketplace, but please don't use, that site is not the official ACA site for California, it is an "independent marketplace" that is neither a licensed insurance agent nor an insurance broker. The site is designed to look like a real health care site, but it is run by MediaAlpha, a marketing company that makes money by selling your personal information.

The official ACA marketplace for California is called "Covered California". It is at and is run by the California Department of Health Care Services.
posted by RichardP at 4:02 PM on February 19, 2021 [10 favorites]

Purchase a home air purifier before the end of July. Don't wait until the air gets smoky to do it, because they sell out quickly.
posted by vunder at 4:03 PM on February 19, 2021 [8 favorites]

Piggybacking on Vunder's comment - ensure that the air purifier(s) sufficiently cover the square footage of your living space. Also make sure you have at least 2-3 months of spare SMOKE-rated filters on hand.

If you'll have air conditioning, and are the person responsible for changing THAT filter, make sure you also have sufficient SMOKE-rated filters on hand. If you like to use - or think you might like to use - a fan, buy it before it gets hot. If you don't know if you'd use one, have one or two on hand just in case. (I sort of suspect that someone coming from the UK to LA is going to promptly melt once it gets hot, so also - make sure you have hot weather clothing by the time you need it, if it's not something you normally wear.)
posted by stormyteal at 4:14 PM on February 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

A random thing that newcomers sometimes don't know about LA is that it almost always gets quite cool at night, which can be a big contrast to the daytime temp. Depending on your location in the city (which is vast) a 30-degree swing between daytime and nighttime temp is entirely customary, and the difference can be much greater. So while it's absolutely true that almost none of us own proper coats, you should always have a hoodie or light jacket at hand if you're setting out during the day but not coming home until night.

(There will, however, be a handful of utterly miserable hot days each year when it doesn't cool down; these are positively satanic.)
posted by BlahLaLa at 5:23 PM on February 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

Oh, you should also watch the documentary about the late and much-mourned LA food writer/critic Jonathan Gold. His ethos was that you can't be a real Angeleno without engaging with the *entire* city. That means walking away from Santa Monica/Beverly Hills/Silver Lake/Insert Your Favorite Neighborhood Here, and exploring parts of town where people with different cultures than you live.

Also, for a very Los Angeles experience, plan on attending a Dodgers game during the summer, when they have fireworks after the last out.
posted by BlahLaLa at 5:30 PM on February 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

LA has a desert climate. It's probably going to be a lot hotter, drier, and sunnier then you are used to. You'll want to have a reusable water bottle when you go out to keep hydrated and also proper sun protection: sunscreen, sun hat, polarized sunglasses.
People in LA tend to have a lot of hustle. You kind of have to, it's an expensive place to live and, as a big city, it attracts career-driven and ambitious folks. Work and career is a frequent topic of conversation.
"The industry" or "the biz" refers to the entertainment industry or a specific subsection of it.
Traffic can be truly maddening. Planning outings according to the traffic patterns when driving is necessary will improve your quality of life as will living close to your job (if applicable) or other places you visit often.
Sports are a big thing here, so traffic increases in relation to people catching a sporting events (in normal times).
People will love your accent. 🙂
posted by Goblin Barbarian at 5:52 PM on February 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

*Los Angeles is a mediterranean climate (assuming you are not moving to the Antelope Valley). The desert is further inland and can vary in temps/vegatation depending on the elevation (high/low).
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 7:59 PM on February 19, 2021 [4 favorites]

Welcome to the shakey side! It's summer the entire year here. Sunglasses, and earthquake preparedness, as mentioned above, are a MUST.

Where in LA will you be living? Some parts of the city have better public transportation and access to banking, etc, than others. There are many many different flavors to the ice cream cone that is Los Angeles. Try them all if you can!

I moved here in the year 2000 from elsewhere in the U.S., and experienced a fair amount of culture shock even from that.

Covid is rampant here (though numbers are going down), but the nice thing is that you can be outside pretty much any day of the year. I know people in the rest of the US have been suffering a brutal winter and haven't been able to get out and about as much.

Feel free to MeMail me when you arrive if you want more info/have questions come up. I'm not a UK expat but I do know some random stuff about living here over 21 odd years.
posted by Temeraria at 9:26 PM on February 19, 2021

Be prepared to buy disaster preparedness gear, we are probably gonna have a rough summer with wildfires. Also get a cool mist humidifier, to make it more comfortable when you run the air conditioner and air purifier all the time during the summer. Buy AAA insurance, they are the best if you plan on having a car.

The Wirecutter Reviews - The Top 10 Tools for Earthquake Preparedness
posted by yueliang at 10:59 PM on February 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

Based on my UK wife’s experience, expect people to go, “omg I love your accent, are you Australian?” because Americans think there are just two kinds of British people, super posh rich people and funny cab drivers.

Expect people to suggest you get on the road hours before you think you have to, to avoid L.A. traffic and give yourself time. “You should probably get going in the next hour. No, actually, you should go now”

Some British people are surprised at how openly us Californians start talking about our feelings. My wife felt like a Vulcan among humans.

Conversation starters may tend to be based on “isn’t everything awesome??” positivity, that threw my British friends in CA for a loop. They were more used to the UK’s negativity-based social bonding: “Traffic was a nightmare, it’s miserable out there today isn’t it? But still, you have to get on with it”

And also a British friend was blown away that the street signs really do look like they do in movies about L.A.

Another one made the mistake of thinking transport connections were as good as they are in the UK, and spent all day taking a bus and Amtrak to a national park that would have been better reached by car.

Welcome to our super weird country and have an awesome journey!
posted by johngoren at 7:24 AM on February 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

If you are interested in hiking and exploring the great outdoors, you have a LOT TO LEARN. And you really, really need to take it seriously. Every person I have known who's moved to the West Coast of the US from the UK or Europe has found themselves in at least one bad situation because they decided to just "go for a hike" and didn't know the basics of existing in a very large place with very different weather and very different animals who sometimes want to kill you. Like, "I needed to be rescued by park rangers and I could have died" kind of situations.

Before you go up to Big Bear, or on a nice hike in Anza-Borrego, or to any of the wonderful places you can get within an easy drive from LA, make sure you know about desert weather. Make sure you stay on VERY clearly marked paths unless you are very confident with a compass. (Note: there's lots of paths in parks here that are only marked by stone cairns, and there is an expectation that if you like to hike, you know how to do basic pathfinding with a compass, etc. You will encounter "trails" that you can easily learn about from visitor centers, yet which are poorly marked. People die doing this on a semi-regular basis.) If you're going up a mountain, carry snow chains, some spare food, blankets, and if it's winter, jackets—even if it's warm where you're starting from. Be aware that the weather changes rapidly as you go up in elevation.

Learn about rattlesnakes, bears, mountain lions, and wild turkeys (the last one is unlikely to kill you, but can humiliate and terrify you. I know that sounds silly).

(You'll also learn quickly that the Pacific Ocean is very, very cold. That one won't kill you. It just will be a different beach experience than you're used to.)

You may have no interest in the great outdoors, and if so that's fine! But living in LA there's a big exercise and outdoorsy culture among many people and you may well find yourself going places and doing things you never expected, and it's really really really different from the U.K. So just be careful and be aware. When you're in the city, it's easy to forget that you're half a world away, and in a very different natural environment.
posted by branca at 9:07 AM on February 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

Download the Waze app and learn how to use it. Refrain from trying the other apps; this is the best. Use it every time you're driving farther than a mile or two.
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:45 AM on February 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

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