Pre-arrival

Newcomers Guide to Huntsville_2008

Pre-arrival
You should take the I-797, copy of the H-1B petition and your passport to the United States Embassy or consulate post with jurisdiction over your home. There, you will present the information to a visa issuance officer, who will ask you to fill out a preliminary application for the visa.

Once you have acquired your H-1B visa, which will be stamped in your passport, you are eligible to request admission at a U.S. Port of Entry. Be sure that you have in your possession your I-797 (which the visa issuance officer will return to you) and your passport when you travel. When you arrive in the United States, your documents will be examined and processed by a staff member of the Department of Homeland Security at the port of entry, your I-797 form and passport will be returned to you along with an I-94 card (Arrival/Departure Record). These documents are extremely important since they legitimize your presence in the United States, and you should keep them in a safe place. Canadian citizens do not need visas to enter the United States. They enter by presenting the I-797 form, copy of the H-1B petition, and a valid passport at the port of entry to the United States.

Arrival
You will find that arriving by air is the easiest way to get to Huntsville. Although international airlines do not fly directly to Huntsville, the city (airport code HSV) has frequent domestic service from larger international airports nearby. Airlines that fly into Huntsville are American, Delta, Continental, Northwest, U.S. Airways, and United. The first thing you should do the next business day after your arrival is to contact your hosting department.

Registration in the International Student and Scholar Office

Shortly after your arrival, you must bring your passport and visa documents to the International Student and Scholar Office. This should be done no later than your first date of hire and before you apply for your Social Security Card.

Health Care
In general health care in the U.S. is very expensive. Each individual is responsible for paying his or her own costs In the U.S., individuals and their families are responsible for their own health care costs, unlike many countries where the government pays health care costs for citizens and, sometimes, for visitors. For the international Exchange Visitor, purchasing health insurance for the duration of the visit is the only way to protect against the high cost of unexpected medical emergencies.

In the U.S., certain kinds of non-emergency elective health care, such as eye care and dentistry, frequently are not covered by insurance and may be quite expensive. To the extent possible, the Exchange Visitor should take care of those needs before leaving home or bring additional funds to cover these expenses.

Climate and Weather
As Huntsville is located in the southern part of the United States, the climate here is generally quite mild with just a few months of colder weather and a few months of hot, humid weather. In the winter months (December-February) the temperatures range from highs of about 52oF (11oC) to lows of about 30oF (-1.9oC) and the summer months from the highs of 92oF (33oC) to lows of about 65oF (18.5oC). Be prepared though, we do have extremes in both seasons!

Money
It is advisable to have around US$2,000.00 in cash and traveler's checks to help you get settled during the first few days here in Huntsville. It also is advisable to bring a major credit card with you in case of emergencies. Both Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted in the U.S.

You will find it almost essential to have a checking account in the U.S. Most shoppers here use automatic debit cards, checks or credit cards for many purchases and usually carry only enough cash for daily activities.

Coins (cents) denominations are: penny=1 cent; nickel=5 cents; dime=10 cents; half-dollar=50 cents; one dollar=100 cents=$1. Paper currency (dollars) denominations are $1, $2 (seldom used), $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100. Denominations above $100 are no longer printed, but some of the larger denominations still remain in the hands of private citizens. All currency in general circulation is the same size and color, which can be confusing at first.

Housing
Most apartments have, at minimum, a kitchen, living room, bath, and one, two, or three bedrooms. Kitchens usually contain a sink, refrigerator, and stove. Most apartment complexes have central laundry facilities which charge a nominal fee for use by its tenants. Unfurnished apartments have the kitchen basic appliances but no other furniture. Most traditional commercial apartments are unfurnished but it is possible to find furnished apartments. Used furniture may be purchased from several civic and charitable organizations at reasonable prices. New furniture may be rented from several local agencies, which specialize in furniture rental.

Prices for apartments vary depending on location and amenities. Rent for an unfurnished one-bedroom apartment in this area starts around $400 per month and goes up depending on the number of bedrooms, location, etc. Though you pay rent on a month-to-month basis, you will find that most apartments require you to sign a six-month to one-year lease which is a contract binding you to pay the rent for your apartment the length of time specified. When you sign a lease, you should be prepared to pay the rent for the time indicated in the contract or find someone to "sublet" or take over the lease when you leave. Check with the apartment company though because some apartments do not permit subleasing.

Water often is the one utility that is included the rent price. Other utilities, such as electricity and gas, often are not included in the rent fee, and payments must be made directly to the respective companies. To obtain telephone service, you must contact the telephone company directly. There is a basic monthly fee that permits unlimited local calls. Long distance calls are charged by the minute.

Transportation
Huntsville has local public transportation in the form of city bus and taxis. Because taxis are expensive and bus service is limited in some areas and often not available at night, most people who do not live close to campus find it useful to own an automobile.

If you plan to own or operate an automobile while in the U.S., you will be required to hold a driver's license and to obtain automobile insurance in order to operate the vehicle in Huntsville. After you have found a place to live and have settled in, and receive your social security card, you can take the licensing exam and obtain a license. Automobile insurance must be purchased in order to register a car in Huntsville. You can choose from a number of insurance agencies and costs vary depending on the type of car to be insured, the age and driving experience of the drivers, and the amount of insurance purchased.

Taxes
Depending upon your activities and your tax and visa history, you may or may not be required to pay taxes. There are four major categories of taxes: federal tax on income; state tax on income; city and/or county tax on real or personal property; and FICA or Social Security tax - a federal retirement fund contribution based on income. There are other taxes, which relate directly to owning or operating a business, or buying or selling real property (houses, land, etc.)

In the U.S. our system is to pay taxes for a full year and then file a report with the federal and state Internal Revenue Service to document the amount paid and any exemptions, treaties, or other exclusions that may provide for a refund of taxes paid. Sometimes this annual tax report may show that you paid less taxes throughout the year than the government requires and you may owe taxes to the federal or state government. The International Student and Scholar Office provides tax assistance and resources for F and J visa holders starting in early March each year.

Tax treaties between the U.S. and other countries exempt some students, researchers and professors from paying U.S. state and federal income taxes. Each treaty has its own restrictions and provisions. The national tax authority in your country or the U.S. embassy or consulate can provide current information on tax treaties. The Payroll Office at the University of Alabama in Huntsville will determine if you are eligible to claim exemption from income tax withholding based on a treaty. You should meet with the Payroll Office staff if you have questions regarding your eligibility for a tax treaty.

Schools
If you plan to enroll your child/children in school, be sure to bring their immunization records. Public school attendance for grades one through twelve (beginning at age six) is available free. Public schools in the U.S. are those supported by taxes paid to the government. These schools are open to all children residing within the school district. The public school that your child attends is determined by where you live.

Private schools operated by either secular or religious organizations usually charge tuition and may or may not have admission requirements. Attendance at these schools generally does not depend upon your place of residence.

Time
The U.S. is divided into six time zones. When it is 12 noon Eastern Standard (the East Coast) it is 11:00 a.m. Central, 10:00 a.m. Mountain, 9:00 a.m. Pacific Standard (the West Coast), 8:00 a.m. in the state of Alaska, and 7:00 a.m. in the state of Hawaii. During the summer almost the entire country goes on Daylight Saving Time. All clocks are moved ahead one hour in order to extend the number of daylight hours in the evening.