We love to hear from real people about their immigration journeys—and we know you do, too.
This summer, we interviewed dozens of immigrants and international students to learn about their unique paths to North America. One of the questions we asked was:
“What information or advice would have helped you before immigrating?”
Although we promised not to use real names, we are happy to share their answers with you.
Please enjoy these excellent pieces of advice from real people who now live in New York City:
Start English courses before arriving in the U.S.
Almost every immigrant we interviewed recommended learning English as soon as possible—before you leave home. Do not wait until you arrive in the United States. It will make it harder for you to find housing, look for jobs, and connect with others.
Make a timeline, and stay organized.
“I’d say make a timeline. [Organize] the things that you need to do: ‘By this time, I should probably have figured out a place to stay.’ Or: ‘By this time, I should have done this—A, B, C.’ […] And then always know what you want to do six months ahead, and make sure that you’re planning for that right now. Because nothing happens at the last minute, and everyone has planned well ahead. So should you.”
Start applying for jobs sooner and be proactive.
One immigrant recommended looking for jobs before you leave home. You should start building your professional networks in advance, so that you can rely on them once you arrive in the U.S. If you start after you arrive, you might have to accept a “survival job” that is not compatible with the work you were doing back home, your educational background, or the salary you were hoping to earn in the United States.
Start working hard early, so you will form good habits.
“It’s more about having focus and being at your best in anything you do. Because you definitely use that. […] Whatever I am doing now will definitely help me in the next 5-10 years. So, that’s advice I can make to anyone who wants to come here. Because it’s a lot of hard work. [But] you’re not going to come here overnight and just be hardworking. You have to start it from wherever you are.”
Learn about services and programs that can help you settle.
“I didn’t think of using Google to search online about immigration services before I came here. It just didn’t appear to me, because there was a lot to do before you travel.”
Job Search Advice
Specialization is important.
“Based on what I’ve been observing, I think the U.S. job market is really about specialism all the time. […] I think, for me, if I had maybe that insight before moving here, I would’ve tried to specialize specifically in one particular thing, instead of taking projects here and there, which is not building any one special, strong skill.”
Speak up for yourself and promote your skills.
“If you work for many hours, and if you don’t really let other people know what you’re doing, and how it benefits other staff in the company, then people might not understand the whole thing that you’re working for. […] Because of the language limitation, as immigrants, we’re probably not able to defend ourselves fully, and that’s definitely one source of frustration. But [if] you really can go into the facts and then talk about things logically to convince others, I think that’s really, really useful.”
Networking is essential.
Join LinkedIn. Introduce yourself to people in your field. Show people your résumé. In America, that’s one of the primary ways that people get jobs—not through job ads, or through your skills, but through other people. It’s the best way to hear about job openings, be referred for positions, and secure job interviews.
Obtain certifications that can make you a more competitive job candidate.
“Get some certificate or license. It’s not necessary for every job, but sometimes they post a requirement that is a specific license or certificate that is required.”
There are diverse workplace cultures—so find the right one.
One immigrant said that his first boss made him work too many hours—and he thought that was just the way things were in the U.S. He was shocked when his next job was much more relaxed! While some workplaces do expect staff to work long hours, and some bosses are strict, workplace culture is different in every company. This means you have the freedom to find a work environment that makes you feel comfortable and happy. Even in a “survival job,” it is important to work with people you respect and trust. Additionally, it’s important to know your rights.
Read the newspaper.
Even if you already have good speaking skills, this will help you improve your grammatical English. Plus, it keeps you informed and gives you topics to discuss with friends, colleagues, and clients.
Socialize by learning about the culture.
Knowing about history, politics, and current events makes you feel more committed to your community. It also helps you get more involved socially; people bond when they realize that they have shared interests.
Ask people to do things for you, without owing them anything in return.
“As an immigrant, I would think I probably didn’t have anything to exchange for [people’s time], but I found out that a lot of companies have programs for their staff to donate time to immigrants. They just simply want to give you their advice. I think it’s probably human nature, part of human nature that people want to share a little bit of themselves and feel good about helping others a little bit, so use that as a resource.”
Expect friendliness from people, even at work.
“Everybody has been very nice, and they’ve been talking to me, just making small talk. That, we don’t do in our country. You don’t talk that much to your boss. And my boss has been taking me out to lunch and just talking to me about personal things. So that’s surprising.”
You can be yourself.
“I think the most important one is be confident about your choice, that you choose to be here, or to be anywhere in the U.S.”
Get housing that is close to school.
“I realized that even though it might be more expensive to live a little closer to the university, it’s so much better and so much easier, because you don’t have to spend so much time on the subway. It affects your mood, the less time you spend in the subway, and I feel like I would’ve been a lot more productive if I had lived closer to my school.”
Learn to use the technology that will make your life easier.
Specifically, the immigrants we interviewed suggested using Google Maps, LinkedIn, MeetUp, Twitter, and Instagram.
Set clear goals about what you want to accomplish.
“It’s a big decision, coming here, so make sure that you have concrete reasons for why you want to come to the program that you have chosen. […] You need to be clear with yourself what things you want to do. You sit down and make your solid timeline. Because we have a little time. And time is irretrievable.”
Be realistic with your expectations.
Many immigrants became familiar with the United States through the movies—but they want you to know that real life is not like what you see on TV. You are not going to own a giant apartment and be constantly shopping and going out. Real life is harder and much more expensive. But setting realistic expectations will help you navigate and enjoy every step of your journey.
Prepare to budget.
On a similar note to the advice provided above, the international students we spoke to wanted to let you know that you will not be able to live like students do on TV. You will need to learn to budget, especially if you move to a big city like New York City. International students have restricted working options while they are in school, so your spending money might be more limited than some of your peers. It helps to make friends with individuals who have similar financial situations to yours, so nobody feels left out.