Living in the United States
The city of Huntsville, Alabama, is located in the southeastern portion of the United States. It boasts one of the strongest and fastest growing economies. The county’s population is estimated at 300,000. It has one of the highest per capita incomes in the Southeast. Huntsville's population truly reflects international cultures. Of the 160,000 city residents, more than 10 percent are natives of other countries. More than 100 languages and dialects are spoken here. You can more detailed information about Huntsville on the Huntsville Madison County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau website.
The US 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. That means that all clocks are moved ahead one hour to extend the number of daylight hours in the evening. Then, in the fall, they are moved back one hour.
Climate and Weather
As Huntsville is located in the southern part of the US, the climate 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 to February) the temperatures range from highs of about 52°F (11°C) to lows of about 30°F (-1.9°C), and the summer months from highs of about 92°F (33°C) to lows of about 65°F (18.5°C). Be prepared though – Huntsville does have extremes in both seasons!
It is advisable to have around US $2,000 in cash and traveler's checks to help you get settled 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 US.
You will find it almost essential to have a checking account in the US. Most shoppers here use automatic debit cards, checks, or credit cards for purchases and usually carry only enough cash for daily activities.
Coins (cents) denominations are as follows: 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.
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. Unfurnished apartments have basic appliances in the kitchen but no other furniture. Most traditional commercial apartments are unfurnished, but it is possible to find furnished apartments. Used furniture may be purchased at reasonable prices. New furniture may be rented from several local agencies.
Prices for apartments vary depending on location and amenities. Rent for an unfurnished one-bedroom apartment in the Huntsville 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 take over the lease or “sublet” your apartment when you leave. Check with the apartment company though, because some apartments do not permit you to sublet.
Water is usually the only utility included in the rent. Other utilities, such as electricity and gas, are often 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.
Huntsville has local public transportation in the form of city buses and taxis. However, 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 US, you will be required to have a driver’s license and automobile insurance. Automobile insurance must be purchased to register a car in Huntsville. You can choose from a number of insurance agencies and costs vary depending on the type of car, your age and driving experience, and the amount of insurance purchased.
All individuals who drive in the U.S. must have a valid Alabama state license or international license. J Exchange Visitors are eligible to use a valid license from their home state or country and are NOT required to have an Alabama driver’s license. H-1B and TN sponsored employees are allowed 30 days to continue to use a valid driver’s license from another state or country prior to obtaining an Alabama driver’s license.
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. The driver's license test center (Department of Motor Vehicles) is located at 1115-A Church Street, Huntsville, AL 35801.
You will need to bring the following:
- DS-2019, I-797 notice of approval for H-1B (H-1B and TN employees should also bring a copy of the UAH employment offer letter)
- I-94 card or electronic printout of I-94 number from https://i94.cbp.dhs.gov
- Social security card or social security non-eligibility letter (in the case of dependents)
- A second picture ID such as your UAH Charger Card or employee ID card
All applicants must pay $5 for the test and $23 for the ID card to be issued. Cash only! More information can be located on the Madison County License Department website.
Social Security Number
The Social Security Administration, a government agency, is responsible for issuing a social security number to US citizens, permanent residents, and others who are legally employed in the US. Only people who are eligible to work in the US are eligible to apply for a social security card since the purpose of a social security number is to track wages and payments made to the Social Security System. A social security card is required by the UAH payroll department for all employees.
New employees should take their offer letter from UAH’s Human Resources along with their passport, electronic I-94 number from https://i94.cbp.dhs.gov (if white card was not issued), and I-797 notice (H-1B) or DS-2019 (J-1) to the Social Security Administration located at 4970 Research Drive in Huntsville to apply for a social security card. Generally, it will take between 2 and 4 weeks to be processed and for the card to arrive. Once the card is issued, you must bring it to UAH’s Payroll Office and to your hiring department so they may update departmental forms/data.
The social security number has also become a standard ID number to track an individual’s credit history in the US. Please be aware that businesses will often ask you for your social security number, also referred to as an SSN, prior to opening an account. By law NO person is required to provide their social security number to initiate a business contract, but not providing it will make it more difficult for the business to assess your risk because they will not be able to access to your contractual/credit history. Many US citizens, in fear of identity theft, are now refusing to provide their social security number to businesses except in very limited circumstances.
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 for free. Public schools in the US 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 are operated by either secular or religious organizations and usually charge tuition. They may or may not have admission requirements. Attendance at these schools generally does not depend upon your place of residence.
In general, healthcare in the US is very expensive. To stay in the hospital for one day in the US may cost more than $2,500 and a normal pregnancy could cost anywhere from $8,000 to $15,000. But unlike in many other countries, where the government pays for healthcare costs, individuals and their families in the US are responsible for their own healthcare costs. It also is a violation of immigration law for F1, F2, J1 and J2 students and dependents to accept public assistance, even for medical care.
For F or J students, a fee is assessed when you enroll for a semester to cover the cost of insurance for that semester. You are required to pay for this fee with their tuition. F or J students who have insurance questions or who would like to apply for a waiver must go to the Student Health Center, where they will advise you of your options.
For others, purchasing health insurance for the duration of the visit is the only way to protect against the high cost of unexpected medical emergencies. Without health insurance, many doctors would even refuse to treat you unless it was a life-threatening emergency. Maintaining health insurance helps you avoid worrying about unexpected medical costs while in the United States.
When you purchase health insurance, the premium you pay is combined with the premiums of others to form a pool of money. That money is then used to pay the medical bills of those participants who need health care. Your coverage remains valid only if you continue to pay your premium. Once you purchase insurance, the company will send you an insurance identification card. Keep this with you at all times and use it as your proof of insurance when you seek medical treatment.
Make sure to present your insurance card as proof of insurance each time you visit a doctor. With most insurance plans, after you receive treatment the doctor or hospital files a claim with the insurance company for you. The insurance company reviews this form, and if the treatment is covered, they will make payments to the hospital or doctor. The company will notify you of their decision on the claim and the doctor or hospital will send you a bill for the remaining expenses.
Most insurance companies do not cover 100% of the cost of treatments, which means you are responsible for paying what they do not. Make sure you fill out all forms from the doctor or insurance company carefully and completely. If you disagree with the decision of the company about payment of a claim, you have the right to file an appeal. Your insurance company can explain the appeal process.
In the US, certain kinds of non-emergency elective healthcare, such as eye care and dentistry, frequently are not covered by insurance and may be quite expensive. To the extent possible, you should take care of those needs before leaving home or bring additional funds to cover these expenses.
Health insurance for your family is just as important as is it for you! It is required that F1 or J1 students who have dependents with them in the US have sufficient financial resources to cover the insurance costs. Dependents of J1 students are required and dependents of F1 students are encouraged to purchase insurance through the UAH designated plan.
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). And there are other taxes that relate directly to owning or operating a business, buying or selling property, etc.
The US tax year starts on January 1st and ends December 31st each year. Our system is to pay taxes for a full year and then file a report by April 15th with the federal and state Internal Revenue Service documenting the amount paid and any exemptions, treaties, or other exclusions. Sometimes this report may show that you paid less taxes throughout the year than the government requires, meaning that you may owe taxes to the federal or state government. Sometimes it may show that you paid more taxes, meaning that you may get a refund.
ALL students in F and J status must file an 8843 form with the Internal Revenue Service for each tax year they are present in the US in a non-resident tax status. The 8843 form must be sent to the IRS by June 15th for each F-1/J-1 and F-2/J-2 dependent in the US. That means that a student present any time during the tax year must file an 8843 form.
UAH must also have an I-9 employment eligibility form and W-4 statement for you. The W-4 form helps UAH’s Payroll Office estimate the tax burden before any payment is made to an employee. Taxes are deducted each pay period throughout the year.
In addition, each time an F student obtains new on-campus employment, changes the end date listed on their I-20, starts working with OPT permission, or obtains a new visa status, a new I-9 employment eligibility form must be updated with the hiring department.
Tax treaties between the US and other countries exempt some students, researchers, and professors from paying US state and federal income taxes. Each treaty has its own restrictions and provisions. The national tax authority in your country or the US embassy or consulate can provide current information on tax treaties. The Payroll Office at UAH will determine if you are eligible to claim exemption from income tax withholding based on a treaty.
Students who have been authorized by immigration to work off-campus (CPT or OPT) and are non-residents for tax purposes are not required to pay social security and Medicare taxes. Often off-campus employers will deduct these taxes from a student’s paycheck unknowingly. Students can obtain guidance from the OIE about filing IRS forms 8316 & 843 to recover social security and Medicare taxes that were withheld incorrectly.
The OIE provides tax assistance and resources for F and J visa holders starting in early March of every year.
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