How to move a workshop to the USA

05-05-2017

I've moved to the USA with my wife. Because we are both nerds we have a lot of stuff for our various hobbies. Getting Visas, shipping all our gear and making sure the whole immigration process goes smoothly is quite an undertaking. I figure I'd write a little about how we managed it and give some tips for these considering similar ventures.

mayflower

Firstly, the visa situation is a bit tricky at the moment. My wife has an H1-B visa, which entitles me to an H4 visa. But there is a problem wih the H4 visa in that I'm basically not allowed to make any money, except for passive income such as from rental income, patents, royalties etc. I think this is because the USA has a - shall we say - outmoded view on marriage. Now, it is possible to get work authorisation if your spouse on the H1-B gets to a certain point in the green-card process, but this very law is on of the ones that President Tantrum wants to overturn. In the technology fields, the H1-B has been abused by some companies so you can understand why the government might want to reverse what Obama put in place. For now though, I might be able to get in under the wire. American visa rules are complicated and many. I suspect these coming to the UK also have a similar problem.

If you manage to qualify for a visa you need to fill in lots of forms, which culminates in a visit to the nearest embassy. For me, that means getting up early and visiting the American Embassy in London. The queue was quite large and forms really early on. With all my paperwork, I'm standing in a queue and it's still dark, still cold. A few people have brought their laptops with them and they are told they can't take them into the embassy with them. Apparently though, the local Starbucks across the road will hold onto your laptop for you. No idea if they charge for this service at all. Best bet, don't take anything but the paperwork. The final process is quite easy and involves handing over some documents and answering a couple of questions. Your passport is then taken away, and sent back in the post with the visa attached (that is, if you'd already payed online to have it sent back).

boxes

Moving equipment between countries is expensive! Just north of £1200 gets you 10 tea chest sized boxes airfreighted. The boxes are cardboard and not exactly protected in anyway. If, like me, you are visiting the States a lot you can take extra things with you as part of your allowance on the flight. It's worth investing in a scale to weigh your bags so you don't go over the limit. This is about 23kg for a normal person or, if you are considered special by the airline, closer to 35kg. It usually costs near £100 for each extra bag, depending on the airline. I've used proper flight cases with all the foam to transport hard-disks, routers and similar equipment. One thing I did find interesting is that Lithium Ion batteries can only be carried on your carry-on luggage (although ones that are small enough can go checked), but Lead Acid batteries are also acceptable, so long as they are sealed and under a certain watt/hour rating. Check with the various airlines but there is quite a lot you can carry with you on a plane.

Sea shipments are another way to transport a large amount of goods. When it comes to the USA however, customs people can get a bit twitchy. The USA in general, does not like things that have been near farms, fresh food, dirt or anything that can basically harbour pests and such. Dangerous chemicals is another thing they don't like, so my wife's jewellery making equipment was sized down somewhat. If there is anything in the shipment that a customs officer might be suspicious of, the shipment is taken apart, probably damaged too. They'll also charge you for the privilege so don't put anything in a container that might cause concern. Generally, the shipping company will offer good advice. Such a company will liaise with local removals people who come to your home, wrap everything in brown paper and then place it in a series of cardboard boxes. Later, a chap in a massive lorry carrying a container, attempts to navigate a tiny London street in an effort to find your house. When he eventually does, the packers fill the container, seal it and then it's off on a ship. It'll likely be around a month before we see it again. In the image, note the parking suspension! This is another thing you need to pay the council for, in advance, to get enough space for such a big lorry!

containers

Because of this gap, planning what to take with you on the plane becomes quite important. Do you pack things to cook with? Do you need bedding or any kind of furniture? How many clothes do you need? Essentially you need to plan to survive for the length of time it takes for your stuff to arrive.

Not having the internet these days is almost unacceptable! But of course, there will be a point where you need to pack your router and cancel your connection. In the USA, I decided to go with ting who seem the most sensible of the mobile providers. This gives me reasonable access to data over the 4G. Coupled with the local coffee-shop, I can still get to the basic services I need to survive out here. Keeping your UK SIM is very important though, especially if you have accounts on things like Signal, Telegram, WhatsApp, Snapchat and all the other services that are linked to your mobile (or cell phone as they are called over here). Having access to Eduroam has been a real godsend! I'm not sure what I'd do without it.

Speaking of which, there has been a lot of conversation about handing over laptops, social media accounts and all the rest. The Register and the EFF have a lot of good guidance on what to do if you are taking data overseas. As someone who is white, has an English sounding name and comes from the UK, I haven't had to deal with any of that. Nevertheless, it pays to be prepared and one day, who knows? They might come for me! As a non-citizen I basically have no rights so the best thing is to comply and just don't take anythig over. I wiped my laptop and just kept some PDFs I wanted to read on it. I used passwords I don't use anywhere else, so I can hand them over with no fear of anything else being compromised. I wiped my iPhone and just kept WhatsApp with my wife's number on it. I also wrote a series of scripts to remove my tweets from twitter (note that services that say they remove tweets only remove the first 3900 or so. You need to write a script that uses your session cookie to delete them all). Two of my hard-disks I sent in the post via UPS. They arrived in a reasonable time and appear un-harmed. I've yet to fire them up though.

bunny

In a nutshell, put everything on a server in a friendly jurisdiction and copy it back when you need it. Don't take anything across the border you don't need to.

When you do cross the border, the agents there will ask questions. They change each time. Things like "what does your wife do?", "When was the last time you were here?" - stuff like that. One thing that often occurs is they take your fingerprints with a small scanner (sometimes the entire set, sometimes just four fingers on the right hand). A photo is also taken. After you pick up your bags from the carousel, customs folks might ask you some more questions. I was quizzed on my flight case as they thought it might contain professional equipment, but a quick 'no, its all personal stuff' was enough.

If you have money, moving to the USA can be made a lot easier. If you don't the best bet is to not have any stuff and just move over with a couple of bags. There are times when I get envious of folks who can survive with very little. That said, America does seem to care about your credit rating and whether or not you are a financially competent person. The most difficult part is essentially being a non-citizen with no social security number and no bank account or similar. Effectively, I don't exist and therefore have little agency. The best way to get around this is to get a Credit Union account, or be added to my wife's account. This way, I can begin to pay for things which counts as some status in the US.

Early days yet, but many more nerdy things in the pipeline as the move progresses!