The following lessons were learned during our move from Toronto, ON to Denver, CO in August 2011 and in the time since. Some of the details may be state-specific or may have changed. I welcome your feedback or suggestions for additional information.
- To get a US credit card prior to having a US social security number or US credit history, you have a two options. First, you may be able to obtain one through the US affiliate of your Canadian bank (e.g. RBC Bank) using your Canadian credit history. Second, if you have been an American Express card holder in Canada for more than one year and have an address in the US, you can contact Global Card Transfers to obtain a US card based on your Canadian Amex history. http://www.americanexpress.com/global-card-transfers/
- You cannot enter the US and activate your H1-B visa (and the H-4 visitor visas of any family members) more than 10 days prior to the start date of your visa. If you cross the border earlier as a visitor you will have to leave and reenter to activate the H1-B visa (and those of family members). Technically your children should not attend public school on a tourist visa and should wait until their H-4 visa is active. However I have been told that most Colorado school boards are not in the practice of seeking proof of residency from their students and I suspect this is true elsewhere also, as evidenced by recent debates in the U.S. over whether to provide in-state college tuition rates to students who have completed high school in the state but are in the state illegally.
- To import a vehicle at the border, you will need two letters – one from the Canadian headquarters of the manufacturer attesting that the vehicle does not have any outstanding recalls, and a second from the US headquarters of the manufacturer attesting that the vehicle fully or partially meets US specifications. Not all Canadian vehicles can be imported into the US – apparently some Minis, for example, do not meet US crash safety standards.
- To have a moving company move your belongings across the border, you will need to give the moving company a copy of your US work visa but most likely will also have to cross the border yourself and provide proof of successful entry to your moving company before your belongings will be permitted to cross. In our case we faxed our documents as soon as we crossed the border at Port Huron, Ontario.
- To obtain a social security number, you will need to have proof of employment. A spouse on an H-4 visitor visa will be unable to obtain a social security number (but will want to obtain proof of being rejected in writing in order to apply for a driver’s license).
- To open a cell phone account with a major national carrier, you will need a social security number (or may be allowed to make a significant deposit to prepay the account). US cell phone carriers offer North American calling plans that are much more reasonably priced than those of Canadian cell phone carriers. If you have another option for calling Canada (landline, Skype, Google Voice) you could just add these plans only for the days when you plan to be back in Canada to avoid roaming and long distance charges and then cancel them again when you return to the United States.
- To obtain a driver’s license, you will need to have a social security number as well as proof that you have already started working in the state (not just an offer letter or work visa or ID) or written proof that you are not eligible to obtain a social security number (e.g. spouse of visa holder). Your driver’s license expiration date will be the expiration date of your work visa. In Colorado non-US citizens cannot renew their driver’s license online but instead must do so in person.
- To obtain car insurance, you will need to have a social security number, proof of US address, and US driver’s license but do not need US vehicle registration (insurance comes first). I had no issue getting insurance from Progressive and having my years of driving experience recognized without them obtaining a copy of my Canadian driving record. Unlike in Canada car insurance seems to be issued in six-month increments rather than yearly.
- To register a vehicle, you will need to have a valid US driver’s license, valid car insurance and a state emissions test. I made the mistake of trying to get our vehicle registered before obtaining insurance, but was quickly able to rectify the situation using the insurance broker next door to the motor vehicle office. In Colorado, the place where you get your driver’s license has no relation to the places where you complete the emission test or register your vehicle.
- Once you have a U.S. driver’s license, in many U.S. states including Colorado your name will be added to the database used to choose candidates for jury duty. However non-U.S. citizens are forbidden from serving on a jury (doing so would be a felony and could cause a mistrial) so if you are selected it is up to you to notify the jury office that you are disqualified from serving as a juror and provide your alien or visa number.
- To claim a dependent on a US tax return that does not have a social security number, each dependent will have to apply for an International Tax Identification Number (ITIN). The application requirements to obtain an ITIN have been tightened and notarized copies of your passport are no longer acceptable. Instead you must submit the original passport or obtain a certified copy in person at a Canadian passport office. Surprisingly there is no charge to obtain a certified copy and the turnaround time for us was less than one week.
- U.S. green card holders (permanent residents) can make campaign contributions in U.S. elections but to vote in a U.S. election you must be a U.S. citizen.
- If you have a child while in the United States (as we did) that child will automatically become a U.S. Citizen (hence the term “anchor baby”!). If you need a passport for international travel you can immediately apply for their U.S. passport using their long-form birth certificate and parent’s identification. Unlike in Canada where there are only a few passport offices in major cities for in-person passport applications, you can apply for your passport at many U.S. Post Offices which have dedicated employees for this service. Very convenient!
- If you have a child while in the United States the process to obtain their Canadian passport is much more involved. First, you have to apply for Proof of Canadian Citizenship, a special document that will take the place of a Canadian birth certificate for the subsequent passport application. It is strongly recommended that you apply via a Canadian consulate/embassy in the U.S. since they can verify, copy and return your original documents rather than be without them for an extended period. The application is sent to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and processing time can be 6 months or more. When complete the certificate is sent back to the embassy/consulate for pickup. Only once you have this proof of citizenship can you apply for a Canadian passport. The benefits of doing so seem to be minimal while the child is young.
- Unless all of your financial institutions have a signed, original W-9 form from you on file, the IRS requires them to withhold a larger percentage of the proceeds of any sale/withdrawal. The W-9 requires a Social Security Number or ITIN and for a joint account both account holders must provide a W-9 form. See Wikipedia for a more detailed explanation of the W-9 form and all other IRS forms.
- If you have Canadian RRSP, RESP or TFSA accounts when you move to the US you do not have to close them but there are complications with keeping them open in terms of tax treatment, additional paperwork required by the IRS, etc.. The best approach will depend on your citizenship/residency status, likelihood of returning to Canada, etc. In our case we have kept our RRSP accounts open but closed our TFSA and RESP accounts during our second year in the US to help reduce these complexities. This is also one reason to use an accounting firm that specializes in Canada-US tax issues. The firm we use has posted some info online regarding RRSP considerations.
- It is possible to have both a Canadian and US iTunes account if you have a valid credit card in each country but you can only be logged into one of the two accounts at any time. To update your apps you will need to log into each account separately. While you could delete all apps from one country and re-download/purchase them in the other country, purchases are not transferable between accounts and not all applications are available in each country. If you are giving or receiving iTunes gift cards or app credits be careful of which country account you use!
- Costco memberships are valid in both Canada and the US and you can use the same membership card in either country regardless of where you currently live. If you are an Executive Member a key benefit of updating your address to your new country is to receive your year-end dividend check in that country’s currency.
- Amazon.com and Amazon.ca are completely independent websites and you will find significant differences in product selection, pricing and shipping options. The US site has much broader product selection and many more affiliate vendors and has offered Amazon Prime for a much longer time and with more generous benefits. As with iTunes it may be helpful to maintain accounts on both sites depending on whether you are buying for yourself or giving gifts to family in Canada.
- If you are a Canadian sports fan you will find a surprising amount of Canadian sports on cable TV in the US. In our Comcast package the NFL network shows a large number of CFL games including the Grey Cup and the NHL network picks up a variety of local and regional NHL games including Canadian teams. The NHL network also broadcast games from the World Junior Hockey Championships and the Memorial Cup.
- As Canadians in the US, we are asked lots of questions about Canada and the similarities/differences between the two countries. This NBC video from the 2010 Winter Olympics provides Americans with a nice overview of the relationship between the two countries. http://www.wimp.com/explainscanada/
- When comparing prices between Canada and the U.S. one of the most significant differences is in grocery items such as dairy and chicken that fall under supply management regulations in Canada. Our neighborhood King Soopers store regularly has store-brand milk on sale for $1.99 per gallon or at $2.19 when not on sale. At Costco you can always buy two gallons for $3.99. With sales taxes also being lower the savings on these staple items are substantial. For prescription drugs, the comparison is not as straightforward given that dosage, format, price and insurance coverage can vary significantly. However a 30-day supply of a number of high-volume generic drugs can be purchased at Wal-Mart and other retailers for $4 with no dispensing fee which is far below the equivalent cost in Canada.
- While many items are cheaper in the U.S., epipens and certain other prescription drugs are not. If you are paying out of pocket it can be much cheaper to purchase an epipen over the counter at a Canadian drug store than to buy it with a prescription in the U.S. from Kaiser Permanente, Target, Costco or your local pharmacy.