Starting out in California for Dummies (aka: Australians)

July 21, 2013

So, you’ve moved from Australia to California? Great for you! Got no idea what you’re doing? Me either! But, here’s some tips I’ve picked up along the way…

I’m going to start out this article on a bad note just to get it out of the way, then we’ll move onto the more informational aspects. So… without further ado…

Don’t fly United

Unless you really have to (they’re the only ones who do a direct SYD -> SFO router, for example). Half of their fleet is over 15 years old (747-400), with nothing good going for them, but lots of bad:

  • Hang-from-the-ceiling TVs that you can’t change the channel on, or see from most of the seats, with crappy lowest-common-denominator movies
  • Next to no leg room in Economy (But you can pay $200+ for an extra 3 inches… Woo-hoo! /sarcasm)
  • Crappy food. No seriously - it’s rubbery, tiny, stale, cold, boring, bland, etc, etc.
  • (Some) Bad flight attendants. But also some great ones. It’s a lucky dip!
  • Horrible website / checkin system. As a web developer, I can’t help be critical, but c’mon! The website wouldn’t have been acceptable in the 90’s, why is it still so crap now in 2013!?
  • Expensive! The direct flight from SYD -> SFO can be almost as expensive as a return flight to Europe :(

Get your Social Security with your Visa

If you are getting a Non-Immigrant Work Visa, apply for Social Security at the US Consulate at the same time. Apparently it will take an extra 3 weeks to arrive once you’re in the US, but at least you don’t have to wait 10 days once arriving to actually apply for one. (You’ll need an application for a SS number to get paid, to open bank accounts, etc, etc. Think of it as the AU TFN (Tax File Number) == US SS (Social Security)).

Figure out where to shop

You need groceries, and clothes, and plug adapters, and a new SIM card… But from where!?

AU Store US Store
Coles / Woolworths / IGA SafeWay
Dick Smith Electronics / JB Hi-Fi (sans DVDs) Best Buy
Tandy / Dick Smith Electronics RadioShack
Telstra / Optus / etc AT&T / T-Mobile / Verizone / Sprint

Figure out how to shop

Talking to the service staff

They’re all insanely polite and super helpful. You got a question? They’ll bend over backwards to answer it, and do anything they can to get you what you want.

On the flip side - there are a lot of good, charismatic salespeople, who could sell ice to an eskimo! However, I’ve noticed (so far) that if you simply say “No”, they will leave you alone (unlike Aussie salespeople who harass you until you submit. Or kick them in the balls.)

Tax & Tips are never included

There is no unified tax system like the GST, and as such the tax rates vary between different categories, and again between different states. This tax is also not included in any ticketed price. Keep in mind around a 20% markup, and you’ll always be pleasantly surprised at the till (I haven’t seen anything that is over 20% tax yet).

Tips are also not included, except at some restaurants who automatically add it to their bill (but I hear you can cross it out and not leave a tip if you like). From what I hear, 10% is standard to a minimum of $1. For example, I was happy to leave a$1 tip for a $5 beer.

Rewards Programs

Holy crap. Every single store has its own rewards program. And they’re all actually useful. And free.

For example, SafeWay have their “Club Card” prices that they show predominantly on most products, providing up to a 15% discount! Just swipe it at the checkout to receive the lower price.

Best Buy have a Credit Card you can sign up for to get 5% off in-store purchases.

Mobile phones / plans are different

That is to say; some are different… You see, at some point in the past, Verizone and Sprint decided that they’d stick with a GSM style network where the functions a SIM provides are built into the phone. This means that if you want to use either of these networks, you must purchase one of their phones, and henceforth you can’t change networks with that phone (aka: fail). So, make sure you pick a network which provides SIMs.

You can then decide if you’re going to go with a post-paid plan, or with a month-by-month pre-paid option.

If you’re in US for less than 24 months, then don’t even bother looking at the plans.

Finally, if you choose a month-by-month option with BYO device, make sure your device supports that network (for example, T-Mobile, and AT&T use special frequencies in the CDMA spectrum that not all phones support).

Bonus: T-Mobile offer a first-timer signup to get unlimited talk, text, and data (5GB worth at 4G LTE speeds, then shaped to 3G speeds) at just $30 for 30 days. In comparison, AT&T offer unlimited talk & text + 2GB data at$60 for 30 days. I only stumbled upon the T-Mobile offer after I’d already decided to sign up for their regular $50/30d option, so your mileage may vary.

The accents

At some point, you will have trouble understanding people - not everyone has a Hollywood style accent (which tend to be more neutral). Just be polite, ask them to repeat what they said, then take a second to digest it.

You’ll also confuse the shit out of people with your accent - Australians have a tendency to run words into each other, not to mention the completely different pronunciation of some words. Keep in mind to talk slightly slower and concentrate on pronouncing your words individually. Be patient when you are (continuously) asked to repeat what you just said.

You’ll also not know the local name for some things: Kettle? Hot Pot. Rexona? Degree.


Yes, there is fast food everywhere. Yes, it looks disgusting. Yes, it is cheap (way, way cheaper than in Australia - at least half the cost in some cases)!

Fresh & healthy food is also everywhere. With all the obesity whinging on TV, I was surprised how easy it was to find fruit & veg stores / fresh product in the Supermarkets / etc. The prices are slightly cheaper than in Australia,

TV ads

They’re freaking hypnotic! Advertisers in Australia could learn a LOT from ads in the states.

And the Prescription Drug ads are… Scary Beautiful. Just like that Lazy Boy song: These people are beautiful and happy and seem to have amazing lives… Then the disclaimers start, going for the majority of the ad (over 30s in some cases)! I don’t know whether to be amazed by the happy family, or scared of potential anal bleeding and death.!?

Measurement Units

Learn how to quickly convert between miles -> kilometers, and ounces -> grams. Then, how many ounces in a pound, how many feet in a mile, etc, etc. After a bit it’ll become intuitive to guestimate measurements in the Imperial System.

Traffic / Pedestrian rules

I’m not sure if this is a San Francisco / Bay Area local thing or not, but there are some quirks about pedestrians using the roads:

  • Cars can turn even at red lights - so don’t ever think it’s safe to cross!
  • Not all crossing are made equal
  • Some require a button press, and you must wait for the white stick figure (instead of the red hand) to cross
  • Some require a button press, but cars must immediately stop for you (and there’s no stick figure / hand, you just walk across)
  • Some are marked Zebra crossings where Pedestrians have right of way
  • Some are un-marked crossings which look more like the raised crossings we have in Australia, but without any markings
  • Some are at large traffic intersections. To get to the button to cross the main road, you must first cross infront of the right-turn slip lane, which is unmarked, but some drivers seem to give right of way to the pedestrian. This one is probably the scariest, because unless the car has completely stopped to let you walk across, it’s generally a busy intersection with fast flowing traffic which spells potential running over.
  • The legal Blood Alcohol level here is 0.08 (up 3% from Australia’s 0.05) - so people can be a lot more drunk and still legally drive!

And so much more…

That’s all I’ve learned in the 3 days I’ve been living in Mountain View, California, so I’m certain there is a lot of stuff I’ve yet to learn.

If you’ve got any additions or corrections, I want to hear it in the comments :)

Jess Telford

Jess Telford
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