Thierry's Shack

Partir vivre à l'étranger, en Californie.

    Ceci est l'expérience personnelle d'une famille candidate à l'expatriation aux Etats-Unis d'Amérique, dans le cadre d'une mission professionnelle temporaire.

    De mon côté, je me suis toujours tenu prêt à l'éventualité d'une opportunité de départ. Je me suis renseigné sur le mode de vie - et de pensée - des nationaux du pays d'accueil. Je suis habitué à voyager aux U.S.A. et j'aime ça. Ainsi, je ne me suis pas vu débarquer totalement ignorant. J'admets que j'ai connu parfois le cafard le soir en me disant: mais qu'est-ce que je fais là”.”

    Ce qui va suivre est rédigé en Anglais. Je pense que cela mettra dans l'ambiance” les candidats à l'expatriation. Je tiens à préciser que ce document ne présente pas la seule façon d'aborder un départ à l'étranger. Cela a été ma propre expérience. Chacun vivra la sienne différemment. Chaque compagnie a ses propres règles sur la mobilité de son personnel. Ce document s'adresse aussi à ceux qui veulent tenter leur chance par eux-même.

    En vous souhaitant bonne lecture, bon courage, ou bon rêve,

    Thierry de Villeneuve (e-mail to
    San Diego, Californie

    This is the personal experience of a family going overseas on a short term business assignment (expat”).

    On my side, I did prepare myself for what concerns dealing with the national way of life” before moving in. I'm used to travel in the US and I like that. So I'm not that of a rookie, even if in the evening I sometime felt what is called here: the butterflies in the stomach”.

    What is related here has been my experience. This does not mean all expatriations will follow the same development. Each company has it's own standard operating rules for what concerns employee mobility. Also, ones may want to try the adventure by their own.

    One thing I'd like to tell the candidates, if you let me do so: is to very well budget their expatriation project. Get everything certain and approved by their company before going anywhere further.


    This data are provided as is. Companies and Agencies are cited here as illustration to the story. There is no binding whatsoever between the author of this document and these Companies or Agencies. Any inaccuracy will be promptly corrected upon notification.



My suggestions for a road map of things to do and check.

It is a good point to set up a “preview trip”, 3 to 6 month in advance. Even if it costs you, the benefits will surpass the burden. There, you should be doing the following:

  • Start cruising for a place where to live. Mind that the US laws forbid you from settling any agreement tying you with a renter or a seller before you obtain your visa. Just “look” and do not sigh any paper, ever!
  • Select a bank and a branch near the place you expect to settle.
    • Meet with a representative,
    • Get his contact numbers,
    • Take account-opening applications and start filling them with a clerk.
      You won't be able to open an account as you don't have a visa but
      you can get everything ready to be mailed when you have your visa.
    • Apply for the on-line banking option. You'll be able to check on the
      Internet your account's balance (Wells-Fargo, BOA, AMEX).
  • Test-drive the cars you may like to get. Check their price. Again: don't sign nor commit to any thing. Don't fill-up any credit checking application. You don't have your visa yet. If the INS knows about you attempting to apply for credit this can be a cause of exclusion.
  • Enjoy your last days of quietness. Visit the neighborhood.

Obtaining your visa

Note: These guidelines may no longer be accurate because of reinforced security measures instated since the horrific September 11 events.

  • Try planning to get your visa not very far from the date you'll be leaving France. You may obtain your visa for the same period of time of your expat assignment. When it will expire, you will able to leave the US territory but not come back. If you have to plan a trip back to France to prepare for your return, you may have trouble coming back on a tourist visa.
  • For the French citizens, once you've obtain all your INS document authorizing you to apply for your visa, you will have to go to the US embassy in Paris. There, you will have hindsight of what is organization “à la US”. It means that you will have to read the posted signs, do what they say, do not cut the lines, do not believe that “you are someone with a case different from the others and need dedicated attention of all the clerks of the embassy”, obey to what is told you to do, and most of all: do not grumble, moan, yell, ... complain against “administration” as any Frenchman. Forget about it when you enter there. This will get you right on the with good attitude to drop fit well in your new country of leaving.
  • Arrive the day before at the embassy to obtain the morning opening hours.
  • If you are wise, that day before, go the “Bureau de Poste” near the embassy and purchase the postal money order(s) that will be asked you to complete your visa application. It is not to pay for the visa but to pay to apply for a visa. If you have one missing document in your application and have to come back one more time at the embassy, you will have to pay this fee again. Do not discuss, moan or complain again about it. Do what is asked you. The money order will be paid with CASH. La Poste accepts checks only from its customers. You will not pay your money order with a credit card, ATM card or a personal check. It is easy to understand, as this transaction is a money transfer with immediate compensation.
  • Don't show up at the embassy without your money order (one per visa applicant, i.e.: 2 adults and 2 kids = 4 money orders).
  • If you can get your money order in advance, be early at “La Poste” our you will be waiting in line with plenty of people complaining, moaning, swearing AND trying to cut the line in front of you. This an absolute NO-NO in the US, better burn their flag than cut in a line! (Just joking). You will hear some people swearing and yelling much louder when they realize they really can't pay with a check or credit card even though they blatantly knew about it but preferred to ignore it. Have a cheerful thought for these “La Poste” employees that have to endure this every day!
  • Get prepared with about 110 French Francs (or Euro equivalent past January 1st 2002) in 10 Francs coins to purchase a prepaid Chronopost envelop at a vending machine inside the Embassy. You will remit this envelop at the cashier's desk so that the Embassy can ship you your passports when they are ready. Plan on what address you will have your passport shipped.
  • Visa application charges can be paid with credit card.
  • So, to recap the whole process:
    • Have enough cash to purchase as much postal money orders as you have visas to claim;
    • Have eleven 10 Francs coins (plus a couple of extras if some of your coins are counterfeited and are rejected by the vending machine). Check the price of a prepaid Chronopost envelop in case rates have increased since the time of writing;
    • Come early at the embassy, otherwise you'll be packed in a noisy crowd;
    • Have all your documents ready. You'll be charged a non-reimbursable fee for entering the embassy. If you have one single document missing you will have to exit the embassy and repay to enter again. There are some embassy security agents filtering out people at the gate and making sure you have everything, saving your the hassle of having to come back again.
    • Leave at your hotel, in your car our at home any cellphone, calculator, laptop, pager, portable data assistants, Mont-Blanc pens or else metal objects that you might carry with you. You will have to leave them at the gate of the embassy and walk through a metal detector portal. I remember once that the metal detector triggered on the tiny metal strips that is embedded in the new French bank notes as a protection against counterfeiting. I had so much cash to pay for my family visas that the wad of bills made the metal detector buzz!
    • Keep in mind that the US embassy of Paris receives applicants from not only France. The crowd is very international.
  • One thing to remember: Be Prepared and Be Early.

Before leaving home country: 1 year to 6 month in advance

  • Open an American Express account in your home country. A US AMEX credit card is provided the next day to those already having an international AMEX account, to my honest knowledge. Note: hat I write here is a personal statement and does not oblige AMEX on anything). The others will have to wait to get enough “credit history” to qualify for a credit card. Credit History is obtained when you start paying something by credit. To obtain a loan from a bank you need credit history (see what's funny in the story). Leasing a car is a good way to obtain quickly credit history. Now, some banks (like Wells-Fargo) have an ATM card that is linked with a MasterCard debit account. No credit history is required to have a debit card.

    It is very wise to plan buying something - anything you can - by credit. Six month of bill payment will get you enough credit history to get a credit card.

    U.S. has little faith in personal checks. They can only be used to pay your utility bills our your errands at the grocery store. They are never accepted “out of state”. Only a “major credit card” will save you from carrying vast amount of cash.

3 month in advance

  • Check with “Impots” (in France) to get prepared for your accounts clearances. You will have to pay all your taxes up to the day you'll leave.
  • Check with insurance companies for upgrade plans, closure, and transfer “power of attorney” to a close relative.
  • Shop for an international mover.
  • Start evaluating the family assets for the mover's insurance. It's a long, tedious but very important process. Later, you'll be able to use these documents to ask for a quote for homeowner insurance or tenant insurance. Once you move in your new house or apartment, you have to get insurance. If you rent, your landlord has insurance but it won't cover your belongings nor protect you from lawsuits against you.

    Note: In the U.S. do never disclose the amount of the protection you subscribed with any of your insurance plans: You may be the victim of a scam or simply pay because you're the only one on the scene that has insurance and can pay. This is especially true for car accidents.

2 month in advance

  • Get the visas.
  • Plan your flight.
  • At the US Embassy, notarize a request letter (with your signature sample) for the opening of a checking account in the US.
  • Mail (FedEx, DHL, Chronopost, UPS.) the notarized request to the bank's branch and ask the account number and bank routing numbers to be faxed in return.
  • Provide your new account's data to your employer's payroll for the payment of whatever suitable.
  • Notice landlord of intention to leave (one month in that case in France).
  • Call airline for a preferred seating in the bulkheads (can be valuable to negotiate a business class upgrade).
  • Check with your dentist if some crowns are not to be replaced or whatsoever. This is way more expensive in the US.

1 month before leaving

  • Get from your employer's payroll a “certificate of income”.
  • Get from the “Impots” what has to be paid as income taxes.
  • Pay the taxes (yes All).
  • Start transferring funds to US account and check they have been transferred.
  • Double check with mover the dates he has scheduled to come pack your belongings. Request a steal maritime container and not wooden crates. I've met with friends having seen their crates smashed and soaked form harbor handling. Have special wooden boxes made if you have delicate equipment or collections to move, such as vinyl records, laserdiscs, or art pieces. Containers may suffer from heat.
  • Check at the City Hall (“mairie”) for permission to park the mover's semi trailer truck in the street, or with whoever might be concerned by an extra wide vehicle being parked at an unusual place.
  • Start advertising the sell of the appliances/assets you won't bring with you or store: cars, vacuum cleaners, etc. These items can't stand being stored without being operated for more than a few months.
  • Transfer checking accounts to a relative who will act in your behalf.
  • Figure out how to do online banking (Minitel/Internet) for your home accounts.
  • Transfer insurance records to a branch next to your relative's place.
  • Ask for a good tenant certificate
  • Ask for a good driver certificate (3 year) to the insurance company, in English with notarized translation.
  • Translate all certificates in English and go back to their originator for certification of authenticity.
  • Tell the City Hall about the move. Voter’s records will be transferred afterwards to the nearest home Embassy or Consulate of your destination country.
  • French men MUST take with them their military records. French Embassies/Consulates require proof of military status to be registered as expatriated citizens.
  • Check with physician for medicines to take with.
  • Start collecting what is not found in the US or what is expensive (medicines, prescription glasses).

2 weeks before

  • Check again with the mover that they will devote appropriate personnel to your move. You've got to be a pain for their b... .
  • Go sell the cars.
  • Check with employer's HR dept. about social security accounts transferred to the appropriate agencies (Caisse des Français de l'Etranger).
  • Get copies of the applications (never believe everybody will do what it's supposed to do).
  • Check for your new status and Id's.
  • Ask for an International drivers license (17FF at the “Prefecture”). This will allow you in the U.S. to drive (and purchase/lease) a car with only the “writen test” passed, saving you to wait for the behind-the-wheel test. On some places, in summer, it'll take you a month to get an appointment for the final test. You need to get going faster than that.

1 week before

  • Get rid of the kids, cats, dogs, gold fishes and whatever plants you have in house.
  • Get rid of the cars.
  • Take the week off (from SOP) to start packing.
  • Set aside what goes where so that movers don't loose time and you your important papers. “Honey, the passports are in the container!”
  • Save vital papers: INS, diplomas, birth certificates, and medicines.
  • Taxes should be paid from now.
  • Tell the phone, gas & electric company about leaving and pass relative's address.
  • Tell the post office about your move. Start forwarding mail.
  • Credentials should be given by that time to relatives to take care of home checking accounts.
  • Go kick some more butts. There are dozens who need so (I prefer to shut my mouth) because of not doing what they've swore they'll do.
  • Check with US hotel if reservation is Ok. Tell about late arrival and if a direct billing voucher has been received.
  • Check again the flights with the airline. Are seats still pre-assigned to you?
  • When the movers arrive, your time is totally devoted to them. Better be ready.
  • Movers come. Aie Aie Aie!

1 day before

  • Give the keys back to your landlord.
  • Take a one day to rest at the hotel and have a good lunch/diner (It can be the last one for long!)

D Day

  • Ask for a business class upgrade because you are tired and deserve it (it really works).
  • Relax in your business class leather seat and enjoy the flight. Things will sure get bumpy in the few days to come.
  • At the destination Airport, stay calm. All will be Going Ok. Show your passport and fresh new visa to Airport Customs and double check the Passport is stamped and you have your I-94 (white card) written with a sufficiently far enough expiration date, usually the date your visa expires. If not, you'll have to leave the US territory to get an extended one.
  • Get your rental car and head-up for your hotel or rented residence apartment. In the US, a corporate rental is a rental apartment with rented furniture. Normally this works great. These guys are very well organised. People move a lot.

D+1 day

  • Look in the White pages where the nearest SSA (Social Security Agency) is.
    In the U.S. everything is related to this piece of paper. Without it, you won't be able to get a drivers license, key to everything.
  • Apply for a SSN (Social Security Number). Bring your passport, I-94 card and all INS documents you may have with you.
  • If you spouse made the trip with you, she/he should apply for, event if she/his not allowed to work. It's easier this way. But all states do not have the same rule and some states now don't deliver SSN to non-working permanent residents.
  • Children do not need SSN, but a TIN. Go to an IRS agency (see further down).
  • Make all your application referenced to your work address if you don't have a permanent address. Don't give your hotel's address. Your papers will be lost. Address corrections afterwards are not that successful.
  • Do the same to get directions to local DMV agencies (in California):
  • Visit them and look for the less busiest agency. It has some importance. In summer the DMV agencies are very busy because the graduated teenagers go pass their drivers license for the summer vacation. You may wait several weeks before getting an appointment for your tests.
  • Inquire what you need as a matter of papers,... Get the driving rules manual (California pdf).
    Each state has different rules.
  • Go at your bank's branch and clear up leftover details for you accounts opening. Get your first checkbook. A good thing to know is to order checks with the serial number starting at 1000. Most stores will reject checks with low serial numbers. Figure out why they consider low numbered checks are most likely to be bounced! Check books are not free in the US. Later you'll be able to pay your utility bills through the Internet.
  • Check your account balance to see if you've got funds transferred as expected. Go kick some more b...s if not.
  • Ask for your ATM card.


  • Your SSN card should be in the mail.
  • Rush to the DMV and pass your written test. Be sure to come with your passport and your I-94 card. The INS must validate drivers license for foreigners. If they don't get all the papers they want your application will be trashed without any notification. You are told to wait for three month to be sure “it has not worked out” before to show up again at the DMV to revalidate your temporary license. You're not allowed to come back before three month! After a year, the temporary license is void and you have to start a new application all over again.
  • Rush to the bank to complete your records (mailing address, SSN).
  • Call American Express and apply for the transfer of your international account.
  • Go check for cars. You won't be able to buy one because you don't have your driver’s license yet. You can buy a car but it won't be insured. Driving without proof of insurance is illegal in most of the US states (nearly all).
  • Go look for a place to live.


  • Go to the DMV and take your driving test.
  • Tell the bank about your new driver's license number, they like that.
  • Go to AAA (say Triple A), the Automobile Club, and get a subscription form (you can get good car insurance rates at AAA if you bring proof of your French “good driver” records - last 3 years without accident). All AAA agencies may not accept your records, though. AAA gives you roadside assistance, even if you have a flat in your garage. AAA also gives you good rebates (10%) in nearly all hotels, etc.
  • Open an account at a local Internet Service Provider and start browsing for local and international news, from home.
  • Call the bank to activate online banking. An easy way to keep track of in and outs on your account.

D+n, When moving into home:

  • Call Cable TV (and Internet), Gas and Electricity, local and long-distance phone companies. Do that the day or before getting in your new home unless you like moving in the dark.
  • Immediately call Long Distance Company and check for rates. Don't ever place a long distance call without having subscribed a long distance account with MCI, AT&T, Sprint, etc. Your local company may charge you a very high default rate.
  • Hundreds of other things to do.
  • Be prepared to pay 46% taxes on your allowance because at this point you have not declared any “claims” to the IRS. Fill in the W-4 form. and pass it to the IRS or to employer's payroll department.
  • Get a Tax Identification Number for your children at you local IRS bureau (W-7 form). Go they’re with a proof the children are really present on the US territory, such as school registration or a doctor's prescription. Getting there with them is better. Showing their passport won't be sufficient.
  • Call the French Embassy or Consulate you depend on and apply for registration papers. They;ll be mailed to you. Fill them in and return them. You will be prompted to check your application, once processed for errors or omissions. Make necessary corrections and mail it back. Soon you'll be receiving your “français de l'étranger” ID card. this ID card is requested at each French customs bureau where you will be validating sales tax reimbursment forms. Now that you are not living in France anymore, you can ask for “detaxe” invoice for each of your purchase made the same day at the same store for an amount higher than 1200 FF. But you must not forget to have the form stamped at the airport before checking in by a Customs agent. He/she will ask for your ID card. Additionally, it is extremely important that you get registered in case you loose you passport or need to have it renewed or extended. The embassy or the consulate will process your application at the counter the same day, ONLY if you're registered. otherwise it can take several weeks, the time to check your nationality records. Don't get angry at being registered one more time. Plenty of French people are not because it “bothers” them. It bothers them much more when they realize their passport has expired and they had to fly to France for an urgent business or family matter. I've seen cases like that, Also, you will be voting at referendum and presidential elections only if registered.

My advises once you're settled:

  • Lease at least one of your cars. This will give you credit history and you will quickly get a credit card.
  • Checks are accepted only in your town and to pay bills.
  • Don't get any speeding ticket (traffic violation). Your insurance company has access to your driving records. There is no such thing as the French CNIL in the US. You will pay the fine and see your car insurance premium sky-rocket. In france, we call that “malus”. You'll get “malus” only if you have an accident and the insurance company has to pay for you. In the US, your insurance company will raise your premium even of they haven't pay a single cent. Just because you've got a speeding ticket. This can be wavied if you go to “traffic school”, a place where your are taught how bad it is what you've done.
  • Get used to all prices being written “before sales tax”. Get used also to these luring “manufacturer rebates”. Price tag may be presented reduced by the amount of these hypothetical rebates. For instance you see this awesome computer advertised at $100. In fact, you will pay a much higher price at the register. These $100 is: Retail price, minus manufacturers rebate, minus special rebate if you're a “vet” (Army veteran, not a veterinarian), minus Special manager deal, minus what else. Total count: It's almost free, but when you present your credit card, you pay the full retail price plus sales tax (7 to 8% depending on where you're living). You'll get the discount if you purchase this mega deal between 06 and 06:05 am, Are Really an Army vet, grab the requested voucher (or coupon), mail it in, with the original of your bill that you must keep in a safe place for the warranty of the computer and all the peripherals you've purchased at the same time and that the promotional offer has not expired. Of course, no one is responsible of the loss of your documents and perhaps you'll get in the mail up to 6 month after a check that will be disguise as junk mail and you'll be tearing off without opening the envelope. Well, just beware what you read and pay.
  • There is no legal one-year warranty, as in France. Warranty, if there is any, is always taken care of by the manufacturer. Do not try to return it to the store.
  • But, most stores have a “30 days money-back guarantee”. You can return almost anything, even food, if you decide you don't want it. On some occasion they charge you for a restocking fee. There are hundreds of big screen TV's returned to the store the Monday after the Super Ball final, such as evening dresses after a Prom.
  • Pay your server a tip, or gratuity, when at the restaurant. Pay 15% of your bill before tax. Service is not included. In France, we are used to pay a 15% service charge, whatever we're satisfier of our waiter or not. Don't be cheap, this people work hard and deserve your tip. Good rule of thumb: multiply by two the tax charge. Sales tax is around 7.5%. So it makes it easy to compute mentally 15%: 2 x 7.5 = 15. Cool!
  • Never leave home for a trip with less than half your car's tank full. There are no gas stations on the freeways. You have to take an exit and go look for one.
  • Don't be scared of driving. Everything is so far from everywhere; your car is your only hope.
  • In case of confrontation with “road-rage” anger drivers, avoid “eye contact”. Do never-ever flash them with your high-beam lights. Do not accelerate nor slow down, let them go away and look for an easier prey. Keep always in mind that here in the U.S. firearms is a big industry. That “other guy” in the car might well be armed, legally or not (mostly not). He can very well wait for you at the next light and kill you. There was once this story in Los Angeles of new gang members initiation, shooting someone at random, on a “drive-by”, picking up randomly as victim, the first one that would be signaling the driver gang man apprentice that he was driving at night with no lights on. So the rule is posted everywhere: “drive defensively”. Also, “car jacking” is new form of violence. As cars are more and more difficult to steel because of sophisticated anti-theft devices, it is easier for arsons to steel your car once you’ve got in and started the engine with your key. They jump to open your door and menace you at gunpoint. Always lock yourself up in your car once you’ve got in. Check for being alone before getting into your car. And be ready to start your engine and leave as soon as you step into it. Do not tempt car-jackers.

Cool things:

  • Halloween. It's an awesome occasion for kids to dress up the way they want (mostly what their parents wants them to). Be ready with 4 kilograms of assorted wrapped candies by your house door exactly when the sun goes by the horizon. Look as if you were scarred of all the little vampires, witches, Dracula’s and aliens of all sorts that come “trick or treating”. Give a couple of candies, not a handful or you'll run out of candies. Also, kids have to carry buckets of candies after a few blocks and it's heavy. Don't forget to turn of the watering of your front yard or someone may get wet our hurt. Those that do not want to be bothered: shut off all your lights and post a sign: “no candies”. have one adult follow on your children on their trip from house to house. Get a flashlight with you if you're running the street after your over-excited youngster. Watch for rose bushes, they hurt badly. Tell your kids to be polite and thank those who give them candies and to avoid knocking at the door of the houses with no lights on. When your kids come back for their hunt, filter out the candies they've got. Throw immediately away any non-or loosely wrapped candies. Check for visual aspects of candies, people tend to keep over years candy bags from the last years over. Candies don't last one year. If you're running out of candies, just give the candies your kid came back with. They will not eat that many candies. Or be sure they finally eat those you've purchased yourself and are sure of their edibility.
  • Christmas. The season starts the weekend after Thanksgiving. Usually people rush at general stores like Kmart, Wal-Mart, Target and purchase light strands by tens if not hundreds. Light strands are made for indoor and outdoor use. Indoor, the light strand is made for Christmas tree decoration. Usually you put one something like a thousand bulbs on your tree. Outdoor strands are the decorate the house! Every weekend until Christmas, people will compete with their neighbors for the contest of “the best lit house”. People get very creative and put light strands at every corner and edge of their house. Trees are covered. Bushes are lit by searchlights. Reindeers made of armature wires covered with light bulbs decorate even lawns. There are houses that can count 30,000 bulbs. I know, mine usually has 5,000 because I don’t climb on the roof to cover the roof edges with light bulbs. Pay attention of connecting all these electrical appliances to a ground fault protected breaker. Don’t put your house on fire with a faulty strand. Now, with the recent California energy crisis, Christmas won’t be as bright as it used to be, but who cares of crises!
  • Other US holidays: Beside 4th of July, other US holidays have no meaning for us. Usually I discover there was a US holiday because I'm the only one to show up at work. This pleases my colleagues because they can go out fishing or barbecueing while we, French people, stay at work to keep an eye on the business.

And ...

  • ... Don't worry, be happy.

    It will take you some few month before you find your marks in this new life. After one year, you'll start liking it and wish you can visit everything before transfering back to France. After three years, you will hope to stay a little longer because you didn't have the time to do everyhting. At five years, you'll take the decision of leaving or staying definitively.
  • One thing to remember: Do never ask an “expat” when he or she plans to return to his home country, and do not believe what he or she will say if you ever ask the dreaded question! We all never know when we're coming back!

Well, that'll be it for today, If I think of something new to add, I'll correct this page. Please also let me know about your experience and I'll post it here.

Thanks for reading so far.

Good luck and enjoy your time in America. There are plenty of nice people there (but stay away from the less-good ones!).

Copyright © 1997-2001, Thierry de Villeneuve ( All rights reserved. Can not be reprinted without written permission from the owner of the page.

Last edited: Sep 10, 2001