Although the USA seems to be not so much different than The Netherlands, I’ve run into quite a few things that are really different for me. I have been exploring the best way to handle things out here. There are things that are very obvious for an American citizen, so they don’t tell you about it, but are a complete new discovery for me. Most likely this happens the other way around, too. I’ll try to give you an insight to the things I had to deal with and how I handled them.
The things I’ll cover in this post are phone/calling, should you use a card or pay cash, taxes on purchases, where to buy the things you need, the best way to fill up your car, how to buy a car, my fight against plastic bags and how to behave on the road.
This post will probably be a work in progress as long as I am in the States. The things I talk about here are likely subjected to change. This is my experience in 2017. Let me know if you’ve found things that are different now, or that I didn’t cover here.
I had a perfect working phone in the Netherlands. I wasn’t looking into buying a phone here in the US, but maybe it was a better way to go. I’m not an expert at all and only repeat what I’ve been told. This seems to be the problem; my phone is made for the European market and only works on one or two bandwidths, while here they run on six. So T-mobile and AT&T both have this wonderful image of where you should have coverage, and it’s supposed to be fine, but it’s not. I have very poor signal in places where it should be fine, and it keeps changing from being well connected to no connection at all.
Another thing that is different is the price of using a mobile phone. Back home I have a contract for €10 a month for unlimited texting, 150 minutes and 125 MB. The cheapest contract you find here is $30 for unlimited calls and texts, plus for each 250 MB more you’ll add $5. At this moment all are focussed on unlimited everything. For me, as a very small user, this is quite the challenge.
I found two options that would be a nice choice for me. One was offered by AT&T. For $2 you can call and text unlimited that day. So combine all the phone calls that you need to make and do them in one day. One little thing that makes this more complicated is that this also counts when you receive a text message or a phone call. So that was a “no” for me. A second option is T-mobile who offers a plan that will cost you $3 a month, you can’t do to much with it though. You can call for 30 minutes or send 30 texts, or a combination of the two. The nice thing about this one is that once you’ve run out, every additional minute or text will just cost 10 cents.
So I chose the T-mobile contract, I went to a local shop where I bought a SIM card for $10 and added another $10 to my account. The monthly $3 will be taken out of my account and there are several ways to top up your account. If you finish the 30 units before the end of your period, the amount you need to pay per action will also been taken out of that account. I have to say that T-mobile was really sneaky not to mention that you also pay for every phone call or message you receive. But still I think this is the cheapest way for me to go.
Credit Card vs. Cash
When is it best to pay with cash and when to use your credit or debit card? I’m still not really sure. But what I do know is that withdrawing money at an ATM can be quite a trick. First of all they make you pay a fee, and I think it depends on where you go how high the fee will be. I found this German blog where they did some research on different ATM’s, might be worthwhile to check it out (see below on listed websites).
But there was a little nasty trick the ATM pulled on me. It asked me if I wanted to withdraw “with” or “without conversion”. When I hit “without” the overly kind machine asked if I was absolutely sure. That made me doubt myself and I hit the “with conversion” button. It was a huge mistake! It charged me more than 20 euro’s extra over an amount of $400 I later went back to the same machine and got another $400 and took it “without conversion” and all of a sudden the exchange rate was a lot better when I checked my bank account.
When getting money from an ATM machine always choose the option “Without Conversion”.
As far as I can tell at this time the exchange rate of withdrawing money or paying with credit card is more or less the same. The rate fluctuates quite a bit and even two purchases and withdrawals at the same day don’t offer the exact same rate. I’m not sure if that has to do with the different shops or the bank.
I’ve also looked into the fee the ATM charges when you withdraw money. It was $6 at the TCF bank machine. I found out that banks form alliances here. I have a Maestro debit card and I found a ATM locator website for Maestro where it shows all the ATM’s in the area. It also shows what ATM is a surcharge free alliance of Maestro. So the next step is to see what that ATM charges me.
Even though I’ve been here for a few months, the taxes take me by surprise. In every shop or restaurant the prices are shown without tax. I’m on a tight budget so I usually make an estimation of what I have to pay at the checkout. This is hard to do with these crazy tax numbers. It’s different in each state and then they also are very creative on local rules. Food items can be free of tax, but other items in the shop are not. It’s getting me confused and even makes me wish for my crazy high Dutch taxes. There are some exceptions where taxes are included in the shown price. The one I’m aware of is gas prices. Tax is always included, so no surprises there when paying.
Since you can only fit so much into two suitcases I had to buy quite a few things here. The house I’ll be living in is furnished and has basic supplies for cooking. Even so I had to do quite a bit of shopping. Since I have to live out of my own pocket for the whole year I don’t have the luxury to buy things too expensively.
Lucky for me Michigan offered a big selection of second hand shops to choose from. Quality and pricing was different in every shop. I took the time to check out the different shops to find the things I needed. After a while I also discovered the Dollar Tree (like Action in NL), a shop that actually offers everything for $1 (excluding tax). You won’t find everything that you need there, but it’s actually a great place to start out.
Another economical source to get setup for living in the States is the Walmart, especially the Super Stores. They have almost everything that you might ever need and a lot more. Take at least two hours to walk all the aisles in the shop and explore what they have to offer.
My favorite shop from back home is also in the USA, the Aldi! You won’t be able to find the shop everywhere, but if it is close by, it’s great. The items they offer are completely different from back home, but the concept is the same. It’s a great shop to buy your basics from.
Filling your tank is so much cheaper than what I’m used to, but still you can save quite a bit of money if you know what to look out for. Usually a gas station offers a better price if there are more gas stations close by. When driving I usually keep my eyes open for the prices. There are usually so many stations around that you can scan the prices before you actually need to fill up.
Prices also vary per state. It’s good to know if you need to gas up before entering the next state or wait till you get there. I found GasBuddy.com to be a good source for gas prices. Around national holidays I noticed that the prices in town went up big time. A week later they dropped down to the price before, a staggering 12 cents difference to the gallon (3 cents per liter).
Many gas stations offer an option to pay at the pump where you use your debit or credit card to pay. I haven’t been able to get gas that way somehow. I don’t know what it is, but it doesn’t like my Dutch cards. Sometimes you need to add the pin code of your card, other times they want your zip code. If you do manage to use your credit card, be aware that selling organization can lock an amount on there, up to $250, and it can take up to a full month before it’s released again.
What I do nowadays is choose the option of paying inside. In cities this might mean that you need to go inside, leave cash or card with attendant, fill up your car and then go back inside to finish the transaction. In more rural area’s you usually can push a button on the pump, saying pay inside. You’ll fill up your car, go inside to pay, by card or cash, and you’re on your way.
Stores hand out so many plastic bags here and it’s such a natural thing for them to do, too. It’s nice to have a few bags for your trash, but what would I do with all the others? I usually bring my own shopping bag since I got used to doing so in the Netherlands. The person behind the register gets completely confused and then they put only three things in your bag because they are used to bags that might break. So I have to tell them to fill them up to the rim before giving me any plastic bags.
I have to get used to be explaining this over and over. Most stores are not ready yet for the change of bringing your own bags, Aldi being the exception.
In order to get myself to Voyagers I needed a car. I searched the internet quite a bit when I was still in the Netherlands. I couldn’t really find out what it would be like to buy a car in the USA. Most advice was to buy a new car, and this was usually information for expats. There were also some people looking at buying a car for traveling for a 6 week road trip.
I’ll try to break down what my process was for buying a car.
I am very lucky that I have family in the US who helped me out big time. I gave myself a budget of $2000 to get myself a car that was not amazing, but reliable enough to not break down after the first 500 miles. So besides having family helping me out, I also was very lucky that one among them has cars as sort of his hobby.
First we looked around on Craigslist to find a car. Anyone owning a car can sell it there. It’s hard to find out if you can trust the person selling the car. Eventually I ended up buying a van from a used car dealer. Someone inquired for me what cars were available for my price range. I was lucky the dealer had a car that they would lower the price on. Reitsma Auto Sales, thanks so much for doing that.
The price for the car was $2000, but then there was a bunch of more costs. I needed a license plate, get insurance, pay taxes, and pay fees. The total came to around $2400 (ex insurance), which was a lot more than I was expecting.
My family helped me with insurance, registration and the license plate. Since I don’t have any driving history in this country the insurance would be really high. My family had lot of driving history so we registered the car in their name and that saved me from a lot of hassle and extra costs.
Once we made the sale at the dealership we had to pay the full amount. I could then take the car without the permanent license plate. A document is put behind the windshield saying that the licence plate is on the way. Once the plate is ready you can go and pick it up and screw it onto the car. Later on, the registration will be sent to your address, so you need an address to send it to.
In my glove compartment I now have a document that proves the car is insured and a letter stating that I am allowed to drive the car since it’s not in my name.
Driving is different here too, obviously. The roads are a lot wider than what I’m used to. But they also have some different driving rules that are good to know. The one that is really different from what I’m used to, and I’m not even sure if this is nationwide, but you’re free to turn right even when the traffic light is red. You need to check if there is any oncoming traffic of course. There might be a sign at a traffic light that says you are not allowed to turn right on red, so don’t do it then of course. I like it a lot though because it saves quite some time at the traffic lights.
Pulling in or out of traffic can be quite a hassle when the roads are busy. Luckily there are many places where there is a middle lane in the road. You can use it to wait for traffic to clear to make your left or right turn. Or you can use it to speed up before pulling into the traffic. But be careful because opposing traffic also uses that lane.
Then there’s also the curious case of the 4-way stop crossings. When arriving at such a stop sign be very aware who’s there first. Everybody coming to the crossing has to stop, the first person to be there has also the right to leave first. No matter what direction they are going for. When pulling up at exactly the right time the person to the right goes first. I’ve had it that I was standing there waiting for things to happen, obviously slightly confused, when the other person standing there motioned me to go.
Phone solutions for travelers – https://toomanyadapters.com/buying-sim-card-usa/
German test on withdrawing money – https://www.deutscheskonto.org/en/withdrawing-usa/
Explanation on withdrawing money with or without conversion – http://thefamilywithoutborders.com/abroad-travel-credit-card-payment-exchange-2016-04-22/
Maestro ATM locator – http://www.maestrocard.com/gateway/where/where_atm.html
Gas prices per state – http://then.gasbuddy.com/GB_Price_List.aspx
Buy a car – https://www.craigslist.org/about/sites
USA traffic rules and regulations – http://www.dmv.org/travel/us-road-rules.php
Reitsma – http://www.reitsmaautosales.com/
Costs for buying used car – https://www.dmv.org/buy-sell/used-cars/used-car-taxes-fees.php
How the taxes work – http://blog.taxjar.com/states-grocery-items-tax-exempt/