Moving to the US from China can be a daunting experience.
Before you’ve even set foot on a plane, there’s a seemingly endless list of visas to choose from and a million things to sort out. Then, after you arrive, you need to navigate all the cultural differences and unusual quirks of life in the US.
Luckily, we’ve created the ultimate guide to coming to the US from China, from picking out the visa you need to making friends when you arrive in your new city.
We’ve got you covered so that you can focus on the stuff that matters, like saying goodbye to friends and family, packing your personal possessions and planning that weekend trip to Mount Rushmore or the Grand Canyon after you arrive.
Step 1: Get your visa
Even if you’re only coming to the US from China for a short period of time, you’ll need to work out which visa you need and apply for it online ahead of time.
If you’ve ever searched for “US visas” online, you may have been faced with a long list full of confusing letters and numbers, with information on everything from trade-negotiator visas to visas for famous movie stars.
Luckily, the visa system is actually a lot simpler than it looks. When coming to the US from China, you’re most likely to need one of four main visa types: tourist or business visas, student visas, employer-sponsored visas and exchange visas. We’ve broken them down for you here.
Tourist or business visitor (B visa):
If you’re coming to the US for a relatively short time, either to travel as a tourist or for business purposes, you’ll need to apply for either a B1 or a B2 visa. These visas allow you to stay in the United States for up to 90 days for leisure purposes and / or business meetings, as long as you don’t plan to work for a US company or study on an accredited programme while you’re here.
If your circumstances change once you’re in the US, you will need to get in touch with US Citizenship and Immigration Services (or USCIS, for short) as soon as possible. Luckily, it’s quite common to switch from a tourist visa to a student or employee visa while in the United States, but it’s important to leave enough time for your new visa to be granted before your existing one expires.
Sponsored employee (E visa):
This type of visa is for immigrants who have been given a permanent or semi-permanent job offer in the USA. In order to get hold of an E category visa, your new employee will need to ‘sponsor’ your visa by providing documents such as your new employment contract and filling in a petition on the UCSIS website.
In some cases, they will also have to prove that they had to hire a foreign worker as they couldn’t find a US citizen to fill the role. You can find more information about this visa category and how your new employer can apply for one here.
Academic (F visa) or vocational (M visa) student:
If you’re coming to the US from China to complete an academic or vocation study programme, you’ll need to get either an F-category or an M-category visa. In order to apply, you’ll need to provide proof of admission and the start day of your course – a document known as an I-20 - and pay a one-time administration fee (known as a SEVIS fee) of $350.
You should apply for your student visa as soon as possible in order to leave time for unexpected delays so you don’t end up missing any of your first semester. Once you receive your visa, you’ll be allowed to enter the US up to 30 days before the start of your course.
Exchange visitor (J visa):
If you’re coming to the US from China as part of an academic, cultural or work-related exchange programme, the J visa will probably be the visa for you. This type of visa is valid for people coming to the US to work as an au pair, an intern or trainee, or simply as part of an exchange semester as a student or academic at a US college.
If you’d like to learn more about the fifteen types of exchange programme eligible for the J1 visa, check out the US State Department’s fact sheet here.
Still confused about which visa you need? Then head to the official UCSIS website and check out the ‘Visa Wizard’ tool to find the right visa for you and kickstart the application process.
How to apply for your US visa from China
When applying for a US visa from China, you’ll need to fill in the application form for the relevant visa online via the USCIS website, pay the appropriate visa fee and attend an interview at your local US Embassy. You will also need to produce a passport that is valid for at least six more months at the time of travel, and provide at least one passport-style photograph alongside your application.
For many immigrant visas, you will also need to complete a medical examination and provide evidence that you are in good health.
On 1 June 2020, US President Donald Trump signed a declaration barring some types of Chinese academics from entering the United States via a J-1 or F-1 visa. This is limited to graduate-level students and researchers who have conducted research on behalf of the Chinese government.
As of 2016, Chinese citizens who want to come to the US on a B-category visa also have to register their information via the Electronic Visa Update System (EVUS), which checks law enforcement records to see if the visa applicant has a criminal record or not.
If you think your situation is complicated for any reason, it may be worth contacting an immigration attorney to discuss your case in more detail and / or assist you with your application.
Step 2: Get a bank account
If you’re planning to moving to the US from China for an extended period, then it’s definitely worth getting a US bank account to ensure easy and reliable access to money while in the states. This may sound like a long and daunting process, but it doesn’t have to be.
Sable Card offers fee-free, easy to setup bank accounts that you can open in minutes the second you get your visa. Just grab your Chinese passport and US visa, send us your contact details, download the app and you’re done! It’s as easy as that.
Even if you’re not planning on working in the US, transferring money from your Chinese bank account to your Sable account through tools such as TransferWise can ensure you get the best possible exchange rate and avoid costly fees for purchases and withdrawals. Check out our quick guide to funding your Sable account with TransferWise to see just how easy it is.
What’s more, if you’re on a tight budget, you can keep track of your finances effortlessly with our Sable Card app, seeing how much you’ve spent, and how much you have left in your account – all in just a few taps.
Step 3: Find accommodation
The kind of accommodation you need in the States will depend on a number of factors, such as whether you’re a student or an employee, and how long you’re planning to stay.
When moving to the US from China as an international student, your college will usually provide accommodation on campus for at least your first year of study. Your college website will offer more information on the cost of accommodation and the process for applying, and if you have any questions, your student liaison office will be on-hand to help.
If you’re coming to the US as an employee with a full-time job, you will likely need to find your own accommodation, but your new employer may be able to offer some assistance or advice.
If you know what city or town you’ll be living in, you can search for flats via websites such as Zumper or ApartmentList. Many of these sites allow you to specify your budget, preferred neighbourhood, ideal commute time to work or college, whether you need a furnished or unfurnished place, and more.
Without any US credit history, it can be tricky to lease an apartment, but there are a few ways around this. You can offer to pay a larger deposit or a few months’ rent in advance, get a friend or family member in the US to vouch for you, or team up with a few other people to find an apartment together.
There’s also the option of subletting a room in someone else’s apartment, or finding a room on AirBnB for a month or so until you get yourself set up.
Step 4: Get a US phone contract
Once you’ve got your US bank account and address sorted, you’ll want to get set up with a US phone number as soon as possible so you can access mobile data and make phone calls while out and about.
Most mobile network providers ask for Social Security Number (SSN) or US credit score as a prerequisite for getting a long-term phone contract, so if you don’t have those things yet, it’s best to use your own handset (or buy a new one) and look for a SIM-only, pre-paid or pay as you go plan.
Pay as you go plans can be extremely cheap, but you’ll need to keep topping up your phone with credit and may end up spending more than you want to. With a pre-paid plan, you’ll know exactly how much you’re spending each month and how many texts, calls, and MB or GB of data you’re entitled to for your monthly spend.
So, which provider should you choose?
There are four major network providers in the US: AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint. According to a recent comparison, Verizon offers the best mobile coverage of the four, with around 91% coverage across the whole of the United States. If you’re moving to a big city like New York or Chicago, you probably don’t have to worry so much about coverage, but if you’ll be in rural Montana, for instance, it’s worth checking which network provider covers your area.
According to tech review blog Tom’s Guide, Verizon’s 15GB pre-paid phone plan currently offers the best value on the market for $45 per month, while T-Mobile’s ‘Metro’ pre-paid plan is a close second, with 10GB per month for $40.
For international students, campusSIMs is a brilliant and affordable option that doesn’t require an SSN. At the moment, they’re offering contracts from $15 a month – check out their website to find out more about how to get set up.
Step 5: Sort out your health insurance
If you’re coming to the United States as a student or a worker, you’ll need to take out health insurance to ensure you can have access to medical and dental care while in the country.
If you already have a long-term job lined up in the United States, your employer may provide you with insurance as part of a group health plan at work. If you are student or don’t have workplace insurance, you may qualify to apply for private insurance through a scheme known as the ‘marketplace’, which you can find more information about here.
Step 6: Get settled in
As with anyone moving to a new country, you may suffer from a little bit of culture shock after coming to the US from China. In this brilliant article in Business Insider, a Chinese student who moved to the US at the age of 19 gives a run-down of some of the biggest cultural differences that may surprise you, from the cost of dining out to the fact that many Americans don’t use a kettle to heat up their water.
The good news is that culture shock will pass with time, and is often accompanied by the sheer euphoria of being in an exciting new place full of new sights, sounds and experiences.
Most importantly though, it’s a good idea to try and find a good support network of friends that you can talk to about your experiences and spend your leisure time with. Outside of work and college, sites like meetup.com can be a great way to meet people through shared hobbies, or you may consider enrolling in a language or cooking class for fun where you can get to know other people in your neighbourhood.
We know moving to the US from China can seem like a lot of work, but trust us when we say that the cultural experiences you’ll have and the new social connections you’ll make will be worth it in the end.