The Complete Guide to Moving to the US and Getting your Dream Job in Tech
For designers and engineers who want a tech career in the US.
5 years ago, I made a decision that changed my life. I said goodbye to my friends and family. I broke up with my girlfriend. I left my hometown in Quebec, Canada, and moved to San Francisco, California.
It was difficult at the time, but looking back, it’s the best decision I have made in my career. Since then, I met incredible people, built great products, and made good money along the way.
If you’re considering doing the same, this is the article for you. Below, I break down the entire process of moving to the US, getting a job, and getting a work visa. In conclusion, I also share a few thoughts on living in the US.
This text focuses mainly on tech and Silicon Valley because it’s what I know. However, it may also apply to other careers and moving to the US in general.
Why move to the US?
Before anything, ask yourself: Why would I want to move to the US?
Here are my top reasons.
Check out these maps:
The map on the left is San Francisco. The one on the right is the Bay Area, otherwise known as Silicon Valley, which is 40 miles south of San Francisco.
As you can see, in Silicon Valley, 5 of the top 6 biggest companies in the world are within a 10 miles drive from each other (3 of them being headquarters). There is also Stanford, which recently overtook Harvard as the 2nd best university in the world, after MIT.
It’s easier to find a job in Silicon Valley than in your home country.
Every year, I give a talk to design students about moving to the US. Most of them tell me they’re afraid to move because they worry they won’t get a job. They don’t believe me when I tell them it’s easier to find a job in the Bay Area than their hometown.
The US market is booming. There is a shortage of engineers and designers.
Google and the other big tech companies have a reputation for having a high hiring bar. The truth is that it’s never been easier to join them. Google, Facebook, and Apple have each been hiring about 10,000 new employees per year — most of them in the Bay Area.
The week I started at Google, I was among 800 new hires. Two weeks later, there was another 800 coming in. If that many people can get in, you probably can too.
Beyond the big companies, there are also thousands of startups desperate to hire talent. On Angel List alone, you can find 2,300 tech companies hiring in the Bay Area. How many tech companies are hiring in your city?
Silicon Valley is one of the few places in the world where the top talent congregates and where innovation happens. It’s where self-driving cars and brain-computer interfaces are built. If you want to work on the most interesting projects, this is where you’ll have the best odds.
Let’s be frank. We all need to make a living. Work is about money. If I’m going to spend most of my life in front of a screen, it better be worth it.
When I finished school, I was told one of the best advice of my career:
“If you want to make money, go where the money is.”
In tech, the US has the highest wages in the world, and Silicon Valley has the highest wages in the US. The average salary for software engineers is $126,000. Interns in the Bay Area make twice the salary of the average American.
In Canada, making 6 figures out of school is unheard of. Students don’t believe me when I tell them they should negotiate that for their first job in the US. I tell them to check Glassdoor and the job offerings on Angel List and see for themselves.
The US is also where you have the best odds of becoming a millionaire overnight. It’s one of the few places in the world where it’s common for tech companies to offer stock options to employees. This means if your company gets acquired or goes public, you get paid.
In 2019 alone, there will be 6 billion-dollar IPO in San Francisco. Thousands of new millionaires will be flooding the city. Most of them are in their 20s and 30s. If you’re strategic about which company you join, you could get an exit like this in your career.
Two-hundred years ago, California was famous for its gold rush. It attracted people from all over the world with promises of riches. Today, the tech boom is the gold rush 2.0.
But what about the rent?
To be fair, one major downside to living in the Bay Area is the high cost of the rent. In the past decade, a mix of strict construction laws and high immigration has made it one of the most expensive places to live in the world.
In San Francisco, a 1-bedroom apartment is $3500 per month. This much money could probably get you a nice house with a swimming pool anywhere else in the world.
This is why people should negotiate 6 figures for their first job in the Bay Area. If you don’t, you won’t feel like you are making that much money.
For example, Montreal has the same quality of life as San Francisco but has half the cost of living. That means, if you move from Montreal, you should at least double your salary to make it worth your while. The good news is that, if you negotiate correctly, you can easily do so. The cost of everything else (food, hobbies, transportation, etc) is way more reasonable.
In other words, if you double your wage, at the end of the month, you’ll have a lot more money in the bank.
Other cities to consider
This article focuses on Silicon Valley because it is what I know best. However, if you don’t want to pay this much rent, there are other great places in the US to consider.
For example, Seattle is the home of Microsoft and Amazon. It has similar employment opportunities but half the cost of rent. Also, taxes are much lower over there. Austin and New York are great options too.
How to do it?
Alright, now that we have covered why, let’s talk about how.
Important — Work Visa
As a foreigner, you need a visa to work in the US. This article covers the H1B, which requires either a Bachelor degree, or 12 years of experience, or a mix of both. If you don’t have a Bachelor degree, you might not be able to follow this method. Boot camps, CÉGEPs, and some private schools such as École 42 in Paris are not recognized for this visa. Make sure to research whether you meet the H1B qualifications before you follow this guide. Also, make sure you match the qualifying job list.
Here are the steps to work in the US.
- Prepare your resume
- Brush up your online presence
- Travel to the US
- Apply for jobs
- Interview, receive and accept an offer
- Apply for a work visa
- Move to the US
1. Prepare your resume
There are a ton of guides online about creating a good resume so I won’t repeat them. Keep it simple. Everything should fit within one page.
- Here is the resume I had when I got my first job in the US.
If English isn’t your main language, have your resume reviewed by a native speaker. You might think your English is good enough, but it’s not. There are subtleties in the language that will make your resume feel off.
For example, in French, a resume is called a Curriculum Vitæ. It’s a valid English term, but it’s usually reserved for academia. It feels pretentious on a resume.
Also, in the US, the GPA goes up to 4.0, while it goes up to 4.33 in other places like Canada and Hong Kong. If your GPA is above 4, mention the scale. Otherwise, recruiters may think you’re making up numbers.
Once I corrected those details, the reply rate on my applications went way up.
Finally, here’s one more detail that is extremely important to get right:
Make sure to have a visible US address on your resume. I’ll cover why this is essential in section 3.
2. Brush up your online presence
Make sure your LinkedIn is up to date. Clean up your Facebook, Instagram and Twitter account. Employers will stalk your online presence for red flags.
You should have a website to showcase your best projects. Because you’re in tech, you’ll be judged on its quality. It should look great and be easy to use.
Designers: your portfolio is the most important item when looking for a job. Here’s the portfolio I had when I first moved to the Bay Area. I haven’t updated it in years, but it still holds up.
My #1 tip for designers to get interviews: have a lot of great UI design.
The truth is that it is almost impossible to evaluate UX from a portfolio. Showing great UI and visual design is the best way to stand out and get interviews. Read the article below to understand why. 👇
The Biggest Mistake UX Designers Make In Their Portfolios
My controversial tip to get you more interviews.
3. Travel to the US
As I previously mentioned, it’s essential to be physically present in the city where you’re applying for jobs. I’ve seen a lot of people send resumes from their home country hoping they can secure a job before moving. This won’t happen.
Immigration is tough. All else being equal, a company will hire locals before foreigners. Being in the US shows you’re a real person. It shows that you’re serious and committed about moving. It’s also much better to interview in person than over video — particularly if English isn’t your native language.
The best way to do this is to take a month off and travel to the city where you want to work. Plan one week to send out resumes, two weeks for interviews, and an extra week to be safe.
When talking to the recruiter, clearly tell them: “I’m in the city to interview right now.” This will make a world of difference.
If you’re going for the H1B, I recommend traveling between January and March. You want to have a job offer by April 1st, which is when you can apply for the H1B.
Another reason to travel is to make sure you like the city. Remember, you’re about to leave everything behind to move there. Don’t blindly move to a city you know nothing about.
4. Job search
You‘re new in town. You probably have no contacts and no network. Employment websites are your best bet. Here are some good ones:
- Dice, Indeed, Jobspring, and Monster. These are your generic employment sites. They don’t know much about tech, but they are always good to try.
- Then you have the more tech-focused sites such as AngelList and Product Hunt. These are the most popular in Silicon Valley. They also have much better search filters.
- Hired has an interesting model where companies fight to hire you, instead of the opposite. They ask for your desired salary upfront (remember: 6 figures). Recruiters can’t even contact you unless they commit to paying you that much.
- I’m sure you can find a lot more options on Google.
Important: During this process, let your recruiter know you’re from a foreign country. Most recruiters will ask you, but if they don’t, make sure to tell them. I’ve known someone who signed a job offer before telling the company he needed a visa. When they figured it out, they went with another candidate. He had already passed on his other offers so he ended up having to start over from scratch. Don’t let this happen to you.
5. Interview, receive and accept an offer
This is the most stressful part of the process. Luckily, there’s a lot of content online to help you prepare.
For engineers: There are a lot of resources online on how to prepare and practice for coding interviews. Here’s a good one:
Tech Interview Pro
Learn the secrets to getting a software engineering job at a big tech company. Using our years of industry experience…
For designers: You’re in luck! I wrote a guide on how to interview at big tech companies. It covers everything from contacting recruiters to negotiating your salary. Have a read. 👇
How I Got a Design Job at Google
In the span of two months, I interviewed at Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google for design roles. Here’s everything you…
6. Apply for a work visa
By this point, you should have received and accepted a job offer. The next step is to apply for a work visa.
If you’re joining a big company, they should have a well-established immigration pipeline. Your recruiter should take care of everything.
If you’re joining a startup, your recruiter might not know how visa work. Careful, they might tell you they do even though they don’t. I’ve seen this happen a lot. This is why it’s important for you to understand how your visa works, and correct them if they do it wrong.
The standard visa is H1B.
The total cost is about $5000, which your employer should cover. You should NOT have to pay for this.
There’s a limit of 65,000 H1B given each year. Unfortunately, there are way more applications, so the government runs a blind lottery to decide who gets the visa. This means, even if you do everything right, there’s still a 50% chance you won’t get the visa.
The lottery is mostly luck based. If you have a Master or a Ph.D., you have better odds of getting the visa. If you’re from a country with fewer applicants, like Belgium or Switzerland, you also have better odds than if you’re from China or India. Read more about the lottery rules here.
The application process takes about a month. Your employer can pay a premium fee to speed it down to 2 weeks. Most tech companies pay the premium fee.
What if I don’t get the visa?
Though luck. If your employer is willing enough, there are some workarounds. For example, there are 10+ visa alternatives you can try. Here’s a good thread on the subject.
Canadians: go for the TN-1.
Thanks to NAFTA, the US has a special work visa for Canadians. It’s the TN-1, and it’s amazing. You can apply at any time. It has a 97% approval rate and it only cost $50 (plus the lawyer fees).
Your recruiter might not know about it, so make sure to tell them you want the TN and NOT the H1B. Clearly tell your recruiter: this visa has NO lottery. This can help with employers who would otherwise pass on foreigners because the H1b is too risky.
There’s a lot of information on the TN online which you should read up on. Here are a few personal tips.
- First, the TN is only awarded to candidates who match the qualifying job list. Designers and engineers are covered, but product managers and marketers aren’t.
- Second, you apply for the visa at the airport just before flying to the US. Careful — not every airport provides visas. For example, the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport in Montreal does, but the Jean-Lesage Airport in Quebec city doesn’t. Make sure you’re flying from the correct airport. You can phone call the airport to ask them if they provide visas.
- Get to the airport at least 4 hours before your flight because the application process can take some time. You’ll need some documents, which your immigration lawyer will provide. When crossing the customs, tell the officer you’re applying for a TN visa. They’ll take you to another room where you’ll do a visa interview. Careful, there are some trick questions. For example, don’t say you want to become a US citizen. Read more about these here.
- Finally, it’s harder to apply for a Green Card while on the TN. If you plan to become a US citizen, the usual process is TN > H1B > Green Card. This is great because you get 3+ years to try your luck at the H1B lottery.
7. Move to the US
The hardest part of moving to the US has nothing to do with your new job. It’s being away from your friends and family and having to build your social life all over again. Everyone who moves inevitably ends up having a depression within a few months.
To this effect, the worst thing you can do is live on your own. Instead, consider joining a community where many people live together. These are great because you immediately make dozens of friends upon moving. It will prevent the depression of being alone in a new country.
Working in the US
Here are a few more thoughts about working in the US.
1. Should I join a big company or a startup?
If you’re just out of school, I recommend joining a big company first.
Big companies know how to hire foreigners. They have experienced recruiters, immigration lawyers, a streamlined process, and they can easily afford the fees. You won’t need to worry about much.
Another reason to join a big company is they have a lot of experienced people you can learn from. This is the best way to get a mentor.
Startups, on the other hand, have smaller teams. They provide more responsibilities, which will make you grow faster. You’ll also get to learn new skills like marketing, PR, cash-flow, growth, etc. These might not be related to your job, but they will be incredibly valuable in your career.
Ultimately, I think it’s important to try both early in your career. People who stay at large companies for too long tend to get disconnected from reality. They tend to overspecialize and forget how it is to be scrappy. On the other hand, startups can be exhausting, and it’s nice to get a sense of how a big company works.
2. Language Barrier
“What if my English sucks?”
Don’t worry. My English was terrible as well. To this day, I still have a terrible GSP accent. If you’re able to read this, and if you can watch a Netflix show without subtitle, you’ll be fine.
The US is a country of immigrants. This is particularly true in Silicon Valley, where 75% of the workforce is from another country. In other words, most of the people you’ll work with will speak a broken English just like yours. As long as you can communicate, people don’t care.
To that effect, working in the US is a great way to broaden your perspectives. In the past 5 years, I have had the pleasure to work with the brightest people from all around the world — China, India, Europe, Australia, South America, etc. I’ve learned as much about different cultures by living in San Francisco than I have from traveling the world.
“Does the US even has health care?”
The US has a private healthcare system. It requires health insurance which is generally tied to your job. The average citizen has it pretty bad. Thankfully, the tech industry offers some of the best health insurances out there.
If you’re from a country with universal health care, you will find that the American system is both more efficient in some ways, and less in others.
For example, the wait time to meet a doctor or a specialist is generally very short. Clinics and hospitals have great facilities and cutting edge technology.
However, the system is very complex. You will need to read a lot of paperwork, and you’ll need to learn a lot of new words such as HMO, PPO, etc.
Once in a while, you might get a surprise thousand dollar bill from the clinic in the mail, because your treatment wasn’t covered by your insurance. This sucks, but in the end, your salary should make up for it.
“Do you worry about getting shot?”
I get this question a lot when I speak to students. The short answer is no.
The US has gotten a bad reputation online. Fortunately, most of it isn’t true. The stereotypical right-wing, religious, pro-gun people tend to be concentrated in the middle of the country. States and cities on the coastlines, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York, have much more European values.
For example, if you look at the electoral map, you will see that states on the coastlines are mostly Democratic. They have more progressive values such as being LGBT friendly, drug-friendly, pro-immigration, pro-choice and pro-gun-control. Incidentally, these are the cities with the highest count of immigrants.
A note on Silicon Valley
The media has portrayed Silicon Valley as being somewhat of a club for white tech-bros. In my experience, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
I believe Silicon Valley is one of the open, progressive, and most inclusive places on earth. I argue people who say otherwise probably haven’t traveled or worked in many other countries. I can’t think of a single country or industry that has it better.
Google, Facebook, and Apple have public, transparent and accountable diversity programs. They openly share progress every year. I don’t know of many other companies in the world who go to that extent.
San Francisco has been at the forefront of the equality movement for decades. It was the birthplace of the peace & love culture in the 60s, which still shows today. It’s the most liberal and democratic leaning city in the US. It also has the largest LGBTQ community.
In fact, Silicon Valley is so left-leaning it’s a problem for conservatives because they feel shunned.
5. Work Culture
I believe the US has the best work culture in the world.
Over here, hierarchies are mostly flat — as opposed to Europe and Asia they are much more vertical. This means there are fewer managers and employees are closer to the CEO. They have more freedom and control over their projects.
For example, a friend from France was interning in San Francisco. One day, the CEO invited him for dinner and asked him what he thought about the company and how he would improve it. My friend was blown away because, in France, this is unheard of.
Companies tend to be much more transparent as well. It’s common to have weekly or monthly company-wide meetings. During these, management openly share critical information to employees — current performance, revenue, sale, etc. Employees are encouraged to ask challenging questions, and management answers them in real-time.
The major league of tech
Silicon Valley has a reputation for being casual. People wear hoodies and t-shirts. Offices have nap pods and slides. Make no mistake: this is the major league of tech.
With great wages and benefits come great responsibilities. You get a lot of freedom and impact, but there is an expectation of world-class performance.
Both have this notion of “A” players. These are people who combine technical depth, business savviness, and creativity. They understand where technology is going. They are hard-working, they take initiatives and they aren’t afraid to fail.
Get out of Loserville
The bar might be high, but don’t let this scare you. To this point, I love Quentin Tarantino’s quote about why he moved to Hollywood.
“If you run the 100-yard dash with people who aren’t as fast as you. You will win hands down.
However, if you run with people who are faster than you, you might come in last every single time.
But your time will be better.”
Similarly, Paul Graham has a great essay about how living in the right city inspires you to do better.
“Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.”
Sure, you’ll never be the best designer or engineer in town. However, being surrounded by talented and like-minded people will naturally raise your bar.
To be fair, the title is a bit brash. I don’t believe anywhere is Loserville. People should live wherever they want. You don’t need to be in the US to do great work. There are plenty of people building amazing tech all over the world.
Ultimately, if you care most about achieving your best time, every little bit counts, including where you live.