Your First U.S. Job: Prepare for Success

Starting a new job can be equal parts exciting and intimidating; starting a new job in a new country is even more so. However, with a bit of research and preparation, an attitude of enthusiasm, and a willingness to learn, it will be easy to make a positive first impression—not just on your supervisor, but also on coworkers and clients. By focusing in the beginning on the important details of your new professional endeavor—whether those details involve the informal culture of your work place, or administrative tasks like completing legal and financial documents necessary for employment—you can move quickly to mastering the essential tasks of your new job.

One of the most obvious paths to success on your first day at a new job is to ensure you’re on time! Map out your route to work and leave early enough for unexpected delays; consider traffic, public transportation options and costs, and employee parking. Ask whomever your contact is at work (possibly the person with whom you interviewed, possibly a Human Resources (HR) representative) if there’s anything special you need to know about gaining entry to the building: for example, is there a keypad at the door for which you need to know the code? Find out with whom you should check in when you arrive, as well as what is appropriate to wear at your workplace.

In your first week or so, introduce yourself to your colleagues and find someone friendly to ask about any “unwritten rules” at your job. Most professional environments and organizations have their own particular culture, and making an effort to join in that culture will likely help you feel comfortable at work. Some workplaces relax their dress code on Fridays; some have rules about using communal items in the breakroom (for instance, when to refill the coffee pot, or an unspoken policy against heating strong-smelling food in the microwave oven); some have a tradition of regular social events after work. There may also be more official policies you need to understand, such as a policy about social media use—some workers have been terminated from their jobs because of offensive or controversial public social media posts.

If you haven’t already written your resume—a summary of your work experience and basic personal details—start one now. (You’ll probably need one for any future job in the U.S. for which you apply.) You can find many free guides and examples for writing resumes online, and if you are a student, your university likely has a career office on campus that offers resume help. It can be hard to remember all the details of every job or assignment, but by always updating your resume with your current duties, responsibilities, big projects, awards, and promotions, you’ll always be ready to apply for professional opportunities as you discover them.

For internationals working in the U.S. as part- or full-time employees of businesses or other organizations, it’s important to understand your rights and responsibilities, especially as they pertain to the type of visa or work permit you hold. For answers to questions, first check with your HR representative or office manager, who can tell you about your general benefits and workplace protections guaranteed by law. You can also find information about employment law and regulations at the U.S. Department of Labor, as well as at each state’s labor agency. International students may find great resources for support with employment through on-campus organizations or offices, and for expert advice about individual situations, it’s best to seek the advice of an immigration attorney.

In addition to having a sense of the general rights and benefits available to workers in the U.S., it’s also essential that, as an international working here, you understand the requirements and limitations of the type of visa you hold. One common type of work visa is the Temporary Work Visa, a category which includes H1-B visas, for those in specialty occupations who hold a higher education degree; H-2A and H2-B visas, for seasonal work for citizens from designated nations, and visas for performing artists and athletes (O,P). Another common category of visa is the Exchange Visitor Visa (J), used by visiting professors, teachers, students, au pairs, and government visitors who apply through a designated exchange program. (Both the Temporary Work Visa and Exchange Visitor Visa should have been arranged prior to your arrival in the U.S., at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate where you lived.) Finally, many internationals come to the U.S. on a Student Visa (F,M), which offer several options for permitted employment. Students with M-1 visas (for vocational training programs) must finish their studies in order to pursue practical training, but F-1 students have the opportunity to work while enrolled in their academic program. F-1 students must maintain full-time student status without working during their first academic year, but then they may enjoy three employment options: Curricular Practical Training (CPT), Optional Practical Training (OPT), and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Optional Practical Training Extension (OPT). CPT, coordinated through your university, allows a student to seek employment related to—and part of—their academic program while they are still students, which can include paid employment as well as paid and unpaid internships. OPT, authorized by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), allows a student to work in their field of study, for up to 12 months after their academic program is complete. Finally, the STEM OPT extension, also authorized by USCIS, allows students who have earned an approved STEM degree to apply for up to a 24-month extension of their original OPT. Consult your school’s international student office, or the USCIS website for more information about employment requirements and options specific to your particular visa.

Armed with the knowledge and resources necessary to ensure your job situation is aligned properly with your visa status, you can begin work confident that your only remaining task is to learn the details of the job and enjoy the pride that comes with earning a paycheck. When you begin receiving your paycheck, you will notice several deductions from your pay. Each month, your employer will withhold money from your earnings for federal taxes, state taxes (depending on the state in which you are working—some states have no income tax), health insurance (if your plan is provided through your employer), Social Security, Medicare, and possibly retirement savings plans. Social Security and Medicare are programs offered by the U.S government to provide income and medical care to people who cannot work due to disability, or who do not work because they have retired due to age. It can be difficult to live off Social Security benefits alone, and most employers in the U.S. do not offer pensions, which are retirement plans fully-funded by an employer. As a result, most residents of the U.S. save money for retirement through other plans. One common retirement plan is a 401(k), offered by your employer, in which a set amount of an employee’s pay is withheld, tax-deferred, and invested; the employer sometimes contributes money to the employee’s 401(k), as well. The employee pays taxes on that saved money when he or she begins withdrawing money from the plan upon retirement from working. Another effective option for a retirement plan is known as a traditional Individual Retirement Account, more commonly called an IRA, which is very similar to a 401(k) plan, except that an IRA plan can be started by an individual, while a 401(k) must be started by an employer. Another variation of an IRA plan is called a Roth IRA, in which contributions to the plan come from income that has already been taxed; however, withdrawals from a Roth IRA in retirement are not taxed. All three of these retirement plans have limitations on how much money you can contribute each year, as well as rules about withdrawing money, so consider the details of each type of plan and choose one that fits your personal situation best. If you think there is a chance you will be living in the U.S. long-term, it would be wise to start saving early!