While Canada and the US have very similar processes and do business on a regular basis, each nation's tax and banking system is vastly different. Additionally, Canadian credit history is meaningless to the US. Since the taxation items are extremely complicated, they are better left to a tax expert. For this article, I'll focus on the process of making sure you have access to money you already have and setting up banking in the US.
Before You Leave: Banks
The process of establishing yourself financially in the US starts before you move, beginning with who you bank with in Canada. If you know for sure you are going to move to the United States, make sure you're banking with one of the major 5 banks in Canada. The reason for this is that the larger the bank, the more likely they have an American financial equivalent or relationship. The reason why this is extremely important is those with equivalent relationships mean the transfer of funds or opening accounts are easier, and can even occur while you're still in Canada.
In my case, I bank (present-tense: I still have money in Canada) with TD Canada Trust, so that's what I will explain here (RBC also has a program). More than any other bank, they have major American ties due to the fact that they acquired a major bank in the Eastern US, which they've rebranded simply as TD Bank. TD has a very generous Cross Border Banking program, which allows you to apply for a US credit card and bank account using your Canadian credit history, whether you're still living in Canada or you've already moved to the States.
I cannot emphasize this enough: without programs like these, Canadians that move to the States have zero credit history and, thus, are unable to take advantage of certain benefits like a higher credit limit on a credit card (there are reports of those who are given $500 limits!). They are unable to get fair rates on items such as car loans or may even be rejected for legitimate loans (mortgages, for example, are notoriously most complicated to get). Basically, you're a brand new babe out in the woods.
Additionally, opening up a bank account can also be difficult without an immediate SSN. Through TD's Cross Border Banking, I had the option to open up a US bank account while still on Canadian soil. This is what I recommend … if you give yourself enough time.
However, I did not go this route for a few reasons. When my husband and I decided to move to the US, we didn't realize that opening up a new TD Bank US bank account can take up to 30 days depending on the location of your US residence. TD Bank doesn't have a west coast presence, and we were moving to Seattle. This meant applying over the phone was our only option, which meant weeks of back-and-forth document signing and mailing. Since we were in the middle of selling our house and were uncertain about how long we would have our address, it wasn't the best option for us.
This would not have been too much of an issue if I was moving to the east coast: I just had to go into a branch and they'd deal with it there. But if you have time for the back-and-forth, this is the way to go, especially if the job you're moving to the States for does not have a "relocation package."
The larger the company you move down for—in my case, my husband works for Amazon—the more benefits you get, including access to banks that are familiar with relocation clients from Canada. In cases like these, your association with a reputable corporation suggests you have an excellent reputation in Canada. As such, these banks give you the benefit of the doubt and are willing to open up accounts for you when you get to the States without an SSN or credit history.
In the end, my husband and I chose First Tech Federal mostly because we wanted to deal with an institution that made things super easy for our transition, and they are renowned for working with relocation hires in the tech sector.
A major reminder, though, is that while a lot of these banks could make concessions for you at the beginning, there are limits. They won't always give you the best rate you can get—something you have power to negotiate in Canada due to your healthy credit history—and we found this the case for our car loan. Our bank advised us to call them up after 9 months time when we've built sufficient strong US credit and we could possibly negotiate a much fairer rate.
Before You Leave: Cash & Transfers
Most Canadians will leave the majority of their money in Canada, but you will need access to it when moving. Before you leave for the States, you should also apply for a "borderless account," which is a Canadian-based US dollar account with your preferred financial institution. A borderless account allows you to take advantage of discounted exchange rates, so when you transfer money from Canada to the US, it's US dollar to US dollar—no surprises. You also receive US dollar checks (you have to request them, however).
Another benefit of opening a US TD Bank account along with the TD Canada Trust US Borderless plan is that you can transfer up to $25,000 per day at no extra cost. This is great if you're planning to purchase a home or car in the States.
In my case, I applied for a TD Canada Trust US Borderless Plan. This is different from a TD US Bank account—this is still a Canadian bank account in US dollars. Because I decided to bank with First Tech in the US, though, I am charged a $15 "foreign check" fee when depositing a US Borderless Plan check. Even though it's in USD, it's still a Canadian bank. If you don't mind waiting for the check to clear, $15 is still cheaper than most wiring fees, but I'd advise waiting until you have a giant deposit to make before writing a check.
Now, that you've set yourself up for USD exchanges and transfers, make sure you convert enough CAD to USD to so you can withdraw a significant amount of cash from your Canadian bank account for moving-related expenses. For example, if you need to apply for things like internet or cell phone service, many of these services require several hundred dollars as an upfront security deposit due to your lack of US credit history.
Don't worry, these deposits will be returned to you—usually after a year. Just make sure you have the cash at the ready, rather than waiting to transfer money from your Canadian account to the US. Some services will accept a deposit from your credit card, but if you are trying to use a US-based credit card and didn't apply for something like a TD one, your small credit limit may not accommodate these deposits.
When You Get There: SSN
Most Americans receive a Social Security number when they are born or during childhood when their parents apply for it, so citizens don't really think about not having one. But when you are new to the country on a work visa, you cannot apply for an SSN (which you'll have to do in person at your local social security office) until two weeks after you've landed on US soil. Plan for this.
(Do note that the I9 you fill out upon hire — usually within days of landing — does not require an SSN, but you will need to give your employer one as soon as you get it so you are in the tax and payroll pipeline.)
I contacted the Social Security office in Seattle about this waiting period, and they said I could potentially come in earlier than two weeks but that I'd have a "pending" application versus an "active" one. (The office claims it takes Homeland Security this much time to check your background security and then enter you into the federal database.)
The Social Security website actually has a very simple and thorough explanation of what to bring when you do finally apply for a non-citizen SSN. My biggest piece of advice for this is make sure you have everything and to show up to the social security office first thing in the morning—15-30 minutes before the office opens—to avoid long wait times.
Once you have actually applied at the office (you just wait, show your documents, get asked a few questions as to why you're applying and you're essentially set), it can take up to 2-3 weeks for your SSN card to show up. If you are feeling antsy and haven't received a card yet, it is possible to show up a week or two after you've applied in person to check to see if your number has been created but your card could still be in the mail.
My experience was unlike anything I heard before: my husband and I received our SSN cards one week in the mail after applying. This could be possibly due to the digitized way the US government is dealing with I-94s this year.
The moment you have an SSN, you can update all your accounts. In fact, it's a good idea write down all the places you need to update your SSN information—your employer, your bank, cell phone carrier and credit card carrier (so now you're officially building US credit vs not at all), to name a few—before you apply for the SSN so that you can simply check them off your list once your SSN number has arrived.
When You Get There: Paypal & iTunes
If you're like me, you often use Paypal to pay for services and products online. As part of relocating to the US, I discovered that I couldn't simply change my banks, credit cards and addresses in my Paypal account — I had to apply for a completely new Paypal account. This is a little troublesome if you don't have an alternate email address, but otherwise pretty straightforward.
Another service that will need to be updated is iTunes, especially if you are a web or tech worker who relies on the app store. Because Canadian and US iTunes accounts are different, make sure you update your credit card and address information in your account, otherwise you will be unable to make any proper purchases.
In the end, all of this boils down to making sure your current and future banks will be able to accommodate you. This experience was specifically related to my circumstances, but hopefully with all this advice, the transition for sending, receiving and working as a Canadian on US soil will be much smoother!
Legal Blah Blah
I hope it goes without saying, but please don't take anything I've posted here as anything other than my and Lea's own personal experiences. What worked for us is just that … what worked for us.
If you need expert advice, seek an expert.