[A]lright! You’re there or on the way. You may or may not be through the entire visa process yet, and you may or may not be able to work. What you will need is a place to stay, transportation, a phone, and probably Internet service, among other things.
My experience only relates to Sydney, Australia, but I’m hoping even if you aren’t moving or are new to Sydney, some of the things I discovered will help prepare you no matter where your expat adventure takes you.
Tips for Expats in Sydney, Australia
- Money—I found the best way to exchange money was at the local ATM. My U.S. checkcard has an international transaction fee of only 1%, so even with that and foreign transaction fees, I fared well when I made a purchase or withdrew cash. (Plus the exchange rate from USD to AUD works in the favor of the American expat.) Be sure you check the fees for foreign transactions and ATM withdrawals for your credit and debit cards before using them abroad.
- Transportation—Sydney has excellent public transportation. You might not even need a car, which will be a relief if you’re not used to driving on the left. Trains and buses are everywhere, and very reliable.
- Your new home and climate control—I visited Sydney in the winter the first time I went, so I had no idea that fully-ducted air conditioning is still a luxury there. It didn’t occur to me to ask about air con, as they call it; I assumed apartments had heating and cooling systems across the board, like they do in most of the southeasten U.S. Boy was I wrong. Sydney is only just beginning to offer fully-ducted cooling and heating regularly in new construction. Keep your eyes peeled when you’re home hunting, be it an apartment or home. Sydney gets very hot in summer and cold enough in winter to need air con or heat. Be sure to ask whether the space has air conditioning, a wall-mounted recirculating air con unit, window units, or nothing. And check that the bathroom has an exhaust fan, as some do not, so things can get very steamy and moldy. If a potential space has no air con or at least a wall unit, unless you can take major heat in summer (80-110 degrees Fahrenheit), keep looking. If a place has a wall-mounted air con unit, find out if it heats as well. If not, be prepared to buy (and pay electric bills for a space heater or two)—in winter, it can get as cold as 45-60 degrees (Fahrenheit) INSIDE.
- Your new home and appliances/amenities—Again, there are a lot of old buildings, that even with renovation, lack the space and piping to support the appliances we practically all have in the U.S. You’ll have a hard time finding a dishwasher in older places. Common pay-per-load washing machines are sometimes available in apartment blocks. Dryers are extremely rare. Australia still hangs most of its clothes on the line, which is great when you’re off and it’s a warm, sunny day. It sucks when it’s winter and damp and it takes three days for your clothes to dry unless you put them in front of your space heaters inside. Again, ask questions, think carefully. If you’re an American, you’d be surprised how aggravated you can get when you suddenly don’t have all the appliances you’re so used to.
- Internet service—Here we go. I’m going to keep this short. First, it usually takes about two weeks to get your Internet hooked up, and service is still sold by the gig (around $50 AUD for 10 gigs)—unlimited Internet is practically unheard of. Not kidding. Second, I suggest you avoid a contract because if you bail or go back to your home country, you will be liable for the entire contract. Third, I had the worst customer service experience of my life with Dodo so I strongly urge you do not use them. Netspace has been fantastic in terms of service and reliability.
- Skype!!! If you’re not using Skype, a Web-based, voice-over-IP application for international calls, you’re missing out on one of life’s few free pleasures. Get your people back home (who have Internet-connected computers) set up on Skype before you move, if possible. As soon as you get your Internet hooked up (you’ll probably need more than 5 gigs if you surf the ‘Net a lot as well) throw a Web cam on your PC, download Skype, and start talking and or Webcamming with your friends and family back home, 100% free. You can also use Skype on an iPhone (it uses data or wif-fi, not voice call minutes) or the iPod Touch through a wi-fi connection, but you need the iPhone ear buds for both (you must have a mic and earphones). Skype cordless handsets are also available, and they’re great. You put a Skype phone router on your modem and Skype calls ring through to the handset, whether your computer is on or off. Skype is the reason why I am married to an Australian today. Communication between the U.S. and Australia would not have been possible without Skype. It’s just too expensive.
- Mobile phones—Be careful of those two-year contracts! You will pay handsomely if you terminate early, and for international calls as well. I suggest prepaid phones through T-Mobile or Vodafone. You can top up credit at at most gas (er, petrol) stations, newsstands, and the grocery store. Calling the U.S. or other countries is very cost-effective on a prepaid credit, and there is no surprise at bill time. There is no contract, it’s all paid up front, and it is a bargain.
- Medicare—Depending on your visa, you may be able to apply for Medicare, which provides you with full, government-sponsored medical coverage (not including dental). If you’re eligible, go for it! Get details and forms at http://www.medicareaustralia.gov.au/.
- Tax file number—You need a tax file number to be able to work. Visit the Australian Taxation Office site to apply for one online. Note: the online system is linked with DIAC records, so if you don’t have the correct visa, you will not be able to apply.
- Driver’s license—You can probably use an International Driving Permit issued from your home country initially (try to get that before you go). Visit Registration and Licences for details.