Working in the US

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Your Guide on Jobs and Finding Work in the US

Working in the USA can be a pretty different experience from working in other countries. Make sure you understand the American business culture, the expectations, and the rewards with our in-depth guide to working in the USA.

You will get the feel for what the US job market is once you start looking for a job in the United States. And while the process itself can be dire regardless of where and what you are looking for, the country offers quite a lot of prospects for potential workers. From careers in big corporations to possibilities of setting up your own business and working as a self-employed entrepreneur, this guide recommends you the best places to look for them.

Our guide also discusses the job environment in the US. The working days are long, and the working culture tends to be competitive. This system is dictated by the laws as there are relatively few workers’ rights with no federal entitlement to holidays or job security.

However, all the disadvantages of the social security system are usually outweighed by the high average salaries. Our guide aims to help you decide whether it is all worth it.

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How to Get a Job in the US

The US government provides several helpful resources for people interested in getting a job in the country. They outline job profiles, list alternative designations for a particular occupation, and describe the educational and professional background necessary to start working in this field.

For example, the Occupational Outlook Handbook, published and updated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is one of the go-to websites for your research. You can browse by industry/sector (e.g. healthcare), or go through their A to Z index of occupations (e.g. P for pharmacist) to find the sort of work you’re interested in. The tab “How to Become One” (e.g. a pharmacist) on each individual profile gives you a brief summary of expected degrees, as well as professional licenses and certifications.

Professional Certifications and Occupational Licenses

While you might have the necessary licenses and certifications to work in your field at home, it doesn’t mean that you will be allowed to practice in the same field in the USA. That is due to the fact that not all the required paperwork is recognized in the country.

To make sure you will be able to do your preferred line of work, check out this certification finder and the list of licensed occupations in the USA. Determine your industry, profession, and the state you are moving to. Then contact the appropriate association and inquire about the next steps you should take that would guarantee your documents meet all the legal requirements.

Keep in mind that rules vary from state to state. That means that this could be the deciding factor when it comes to choosing which state will become your new home.

If you have already arrived in the United States and you wish to advance in your professional knowledge, contact the appropriate association and see if you can sign up for a course.

What are the Job Opportunities in the US?

The job profiles in the Occupational Outlook Handbook cite the median annual pay for this occupation across the USA. Median salary means that 50% of people in this field earn more than this sum, and the rest earns less.

The site, too, briefly summarize the nationwide job prospects for the following ten years. You can access more in-depth information on general employment trends and statistics if you browse the Occupational Outlook Quarterly and the Monthly Labor Review.

For employment on the individual state level, My Next Move is a highly recommended resource. If you browse their career section by industry, they also offer summary descriptions for specific jobs (e.g. graphic designer). On the job overview site, the field called “job outlook” is of particular importance. Click the button “Check My State” to see which states have above-average, or below-average work opportunities for your chosen profession. “Local Salary Info” then gives more insight into annual pay from state to state.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics regularly publishes local area unemployment statistics, where you can find the current unemployment rates from Alabama to Wyoming. The government Department of Labor also has a lengthy list of regional and local workforce services (e.g. for Georgia). The link to the respective state department of labor (e.g. the Georgia Department of Labor) is of particular interest. This type of site has more regional labor market information, as well as career advice on looking for work in that state.

How to Look for a Job in the US

When you’ve finished checking out employment opportunities in specific areas, you can finally start with the job search as such.

Of course, scouring online job banks and newspaper ads remains a perfectly valid way of job hunting. Popular job search engines for the US labor market include:

If you can get hold of the print editions of big US newspapers and magazines, their classifieds section might advertise some vacancies that aren’t available on their website (and vice versa). You should make sure to have a look at these papers:

  • Wall Street Journal 
  • The New York Times
  • The Los Angeles Times
  • The Washington Post
  • The Chicago Sun Times
  • The Chicago Tribune

Business Networking Tips

Plenty of jobs are either not openly advertised, or they go to candidates who have already established contacts within the company. Therefore, networking is key, but how can you go about it from abroad? If you can’t go on business trips to the US or visit conferences and trade fairs in the United States, there are still some other possibilities.

  • Watch the event calendar of your nearest US Embassy or Consulateand attend business-related events there.
  • Join the American Chamber of Commercein your home country and meet representatives from US companies at their events.
  • Go to local trade fairs or job fairs which may also have a fair share of the US or multi-national companies in attendance.
  • Try networking online. In addition to US-centric industry blogs, traditional career networking sites like LinkedIn, or social media, there are other websites that specialize in online mentoring and personal career advice. Pivotplanet and Evisors are two good examples of this trend.

Minimum Wage and Average Salary

On the federal level, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) regulate minimum wages, overtime pay, and child labor. The act covers most companies in the public as well as private employment sector, provided that they fulfill one of the following conditions:

  • The employer in question is a hospital, school, or government agency, or its workers are involved in interstate commerce between two or more US states.
  • The company has two or more employees, and it must have annual sales (or do business) of 500,000 USD or more.

Labor laws in your current place of residence may cover a wider range of working conditions or differ somewhat from FLSA requirements. Therefore, you might want to look into employment-related legislation on the state level as well. Contact the respective state labor office for further details.

What are the Wages and Salaries in the US?

According to federal legislation, the minimum wage per hour is 7.25 USD. If you work more than 40 hours per week in one and the same job, you have a right to overtime pay. This must be at least 150% of the federal minimum wage (i.e. currently about 10.88 USD).

Subminimum wages are permitted for some younger workers, employees who regularly receive tips from customers, and some people with disabilities. Moreover, the Fair Labor Standards Act exempts certain employees in administrative, professional, and similar “white collar” positions.

Other kinds of pay than the minimum hourly wage are not mentioned in the FLSA at all. This includes, for example, commissions and bonuses, hazard pay for strenuous or dangerous work, or severance pay when you are let go. These are up to the individual employer and the specific contract they offer to you.

The average and “good” wage depend on where you live and what you do. For example, while in Cleveland a decent wage constitutes about 30,000 USD per year, while in New York you would have to earn about 10,000 USD per month in order to live comfortably.

If you are an expat looking for a new job in the US, try to familiarize yourself with the salary expectations for your specific field of work. In this case, start your research by looking at the job profiles in the Occupational Outlook Handbook or on My Next Move.

Working Hours and Paid Leave in the US

While the Fair Labor Standards Act includes some regulations as to minimum pay, it defines neither full-time employment nor the standard work week. The Bureau of Labor Statistics assumes that a weekly schedule of 35 to 44 working hours (breaks not included) is normal. Again, much depends on your specific career and industry. Moreover, in middle management and executive positions, your actual work hours will probably deviate quite a lot from what your contract says, as US business culture is often fairly work-centric.

The US is also one of the few big players in the global economy which does not legally prescribe break time or minimum leave. Some state labor laws include requirements for official 30-minute to 60-minute lunch breaks, and unpaid breaks for nursing mothers always have to be provided.

No worker or employee has a statutory right to paid vacations either. They have to be negotiated in individual job contracts, or they are regulated by company policy. The average annual vacation time in the US is estimated to be 16 days of paid leave per year, federal public holidays included.

How much time you get off from work is once more dependent on your employer. There are plenty of companies who have far more generous policies with regards to annual leave. On the other hand, part-time employees, low-income workers, and people working for small businesses tend to have few paid vacations.


The most common self-employed professions in the US include:

  • Drivers
  • Developers
  • Tutors
  • Real Estate Agents
  • Graphic Designers
  • Writers
  • Photographers and Videographers

Once you have ensured that self-employment won’t interfere with your immigration status, you can think about the issues that come with setting up your own business. Firstly, you should consider what kind of entrepreneurship will be best for you.

  • Freelancing in the current field you’re in;
  • Buying an existing business or becoming a part of a bigger franchise;
  • Founding and developing your own company.

Advice for Small Business Owners

The US Small Business Administration offers valuable resources for everyone interested in becoming their own boss. The website gives you step-by-step information on coming up with a business plan. The SBA District Offices, as well as the Small Business Development Centers, found in many cities, can also serve as a starting point for advice and training.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a Business Owner

When you have begun to outline your business plan, it’s time to decide on a legal structure. The legal structure of your company decides, among other things, upon:

  • the number of people involved
  • their personal financial risk
  • making decisions in the management
  • allocating profits and losses
  • filing taxes

The most common legal business structures in the US are:

  • sole proprietorship, which is often used for small businesses with a single owner;
  • partnership, which applies to many businesses owned by two or more people;
  • limited liability company (LLC), which is ideal for keeping financial responsibilities low.

The corporation model is recommended for larger, more established businesses, while cooperatives are particularly common in certain industries, such as agriculture.

If you have little to no experience with business administration, you might seek professional help from your mentor or a lawyer to advise you on legal structures. Generally speaking, you should never underestimate the importance of sound legal advice.

A good lawyer does not only help you to find the best legal structure for your new enterprise. He or she also ensures that you are compliant with all relevant laws, for example, regarding online business for e-commerce, environmental regulations for manufacturing, or local labor laws with regard to your employees.

How to Set Up a Company in the US

Some businesses require special licenses and permits. For instance, if you want to open a shop for outdoor equipment, including hunting rifles, you have to obtain a federal license for selling firearms. Licenses and permits are issued by the federal government, as well as various state governments. To find out what kinds of permits you need, please use this handy online tool.

If you work as an independent contractor in a sole proprietorship, make sure all your licenses and certificates are valid and up to date.

Then, take care of the financial planning.  Estimate your start-up costs (both one-time and ongoing expenses), find out how to prepare financial statements for accounting and taxation, and learn how to develop an accurate cash flow analysis. These tasks might be challenging if you are new to setting up a business, so reach out to a professional that will help you understand the nuances of your specific case.

When you calculate your initial budget, you might realize you will need to raise funds in order to start your new venture. One of your options then is equity funding. It means getting money in exchange for a share of the company. For this purpose, you must be prepared to market your business among your personal network. Some businesses, especially in IT, high tech, or e-commerce, also get access to venture capital to raise more equity funding.

Another choice can be getting a loan. Your chances of getting a loan are higher the lower the equity to debt ratio in your funding structure is. As little capital as possible should come from loans, while most of it is raised via investors. Furthermore, it is easier to apply for a loan if you can offer the lender (e.g. your bank) some collateral as security in case you won’t be able to repay the money.

In addition to traditional loans from banks and other financial service providers, some new businesses may also be eligible for government grants. This applies particularly to non-profit organizations and minority-owned companies.

Last but not least, you must know your new tax responsibilities. You will need a federal tax ID, as well as an Employer Identification Number if you want to hire another person. Your way of filing your taxes with the Internal Revenue Service is largely determined by your legal structure.

In general, you need to pay the following kinds of taxes:

  • US income tax
  • self-employment tax (i.e. contributions to US social security)
  • estimated tax
  • taxes for your employees (withholding tax on their income, social security contributions)
  • excise taxes (on the manufacture or sale of selected goods)

Read up on paying income tax as a self-employed person or small business owner on the IRS website and Small Business Administration business guide.

Business Culture

Generally speaking, you should beware of overgeneralizations concerning a country’s culture, especially if the country is as large and diverse as the United States. However, there are some traits that pop up in descriptions of US business culture again and again:

  • individualism
  • competitiveness
  • efficiency
  • informality
  • openness to innovation and change

These values influence etiquette and behavior in the workplace.

Meet and Greet

When you meet your future employers, co-workers, or business contacts for the first time, it is time for introductions. A firm handshake and friendly smile are appropriate in a corporate setting, regardless of the other person’s gender, age, or seniority in the company.

You should respect a “bubble” of personal space of two or three feet. However, while encroaching on other people’s space or casual touching, like hugs, is out of place in the office, maintaining eye contact while talking is a must. This applies even if it might not be respectful in some other cultures.

The lack of formality is also noticeable when it comes to names and titles. Calling everyone by their first name is standard in most American companies. Regarding your boss, you might want to err on the side of caution and initially address them with a title (Mister, Miss, Doctor, etc.). However, if they ask you to address them by their given name, don’t ignore such requests – it might be interpreted as distance or dislike.

If you aren’t officially introduced to everyone, it’s due to an oversight or a fairly casual atmosphere, rather than a lack of courtesy. Simply take a moment to stand up and introduce yourself with your full name and job position. If business cards are exchanged, people will do this very casually.

In case you need to introduce other people (e.g. during a meeting or business trip), note that a less important person is introduced to the more senior or higher-ranking one first, not the other way around. Don’t forget to add a few details about whomever you’re introducing, like job title, the area of responsibility, or some personal information, like where they are from.

Small Talk

Once you start making small talk, you should come across as personable, social, and positive. In the United States, it is considered good manners to “put on your happy face”. If someone asks you, “how are you?”, the expected answer is “fine, and how about you?” It’s mostly a rhetorical question and definitely not an invitation to discuss your problems in public.

Similarly, the suggestion “let’s do lunch some time” when saying goodbye is frequently an empty courtesy. If you’re planning on staying in touch, you should rather follow up and make specific arrangements.

Good small talk topics include hobbies and leisure, tips concerning local arts and entertainment, or dining and nightlife, and popular US sports teams. If you already know a little about someone’s personal life or family status, you can enquire after people’s spouse, partner, kids, or relatives.

Politics and religion should be kept out of the workplace, especially controversial issues, like abortion, capital punishment, or gun control. In general, social pleasantries keep things smooth among those working together, but they aren’t necessarily a sign of close friendship.

Communication Style

In general, the dominant style of communication in US business culture is friendly and to the point. “Yes”, “no”, and “maybe” normally mean just that; you don’t have to read a lot between the lines.

You are expected to express yourself politely, but clearly, and it is assumed that you will ask directly if there is something you don’t know or understand. Be prepared to be generous with your compliments, though, and to word criticism carefully.

On the one hand, you should get to the point soon and not talk around the issue. In meetings, for example, “getting down to business” is paramount. There’s normally a clear agenda and defined goals.

On the other hand, you need to avoid being considered as overly negative or rude in your conversations. Too much bluntness appears unprofessional, and so do big emotional displays in a public setting, especially if you voice negative feelings like disappointment or anger.

Workplace Dress Code

As a rule of thumb, be slightly overdressed rather than underdressed for your job interview, an initial meeting, or your first day at work. When you choose among conservative, smart casual, and casual clothing, always go for one of the first two options, depending on how traditional the company in question is. If your duties involve personal contact with customers or clients, more formal attire is often expected.

Once you know the environment better, you may dress down, if appropriate. Even American offices with a formal business culture often have “Casual Friday” when you are allowed to wear a more relaxed outfit. If you’re still not sure how to present yourself, your colleagues will be happy to help.

Social Security and Benefits

Everyone working in the USA needs a social security card, which shows their individual social security number. Social security in the US consists of retirement, survivors, and disability benefits. This way the government also supports impoverished families (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and provides health insurance to the elderly (Medicare), the poor (Medicaid), and children in need (State Children’s Health Insurance Program).

For most people working in the United States, social security benefits are funded through payroll taxes. A certain percentage is automatically deducted from their gross income. Once you reach retirement age, your benefits will be paid by the future generation of workers.

Funding and Credits

The federal payroll taxes for social security funding amount to 12.4% of your gross income (up to an income limit of 113,700 USD a year). If you are employed, your company has to pay half of this sum, i.e. 6.2%, for you. However, unlike this so-called FICA tax for employees, self-employed people have to pay SECA and contribute all of the 12.4% on their own.

Furthermore, both groups need to add a 2.9% levy to sponsor Medicare healthcare payments. Again, employees split this sum evenly with their employer. From 2013 onwards, high-income earners have to chip in with an additional Medicare payment. If you are a highly-paid expat with an individual income of more than 200,000 USD a year, another 0.9% of your annual earnings will go to the healthcare fund.

For every year you pay into US social security, you receive so-called credit points or credits. For all yearly earnings of 1,160 USD, you earn one credit, and you can collect up to four credit points per year. To become eligible for retirement benefits, you need to gather a minimum of 40 credits. Thus, you need to work at least 10 years, during which you earn more than 4,640 USD before taxes per year. To receive disability or survivors’ benefits, different credit requirements may apply.

Your Social Security History

Your record of contributions to US social security is tracked via your personal account. If you want to start working in the USA, you normally need a social security number (SSN). Expats applying for an employment permit from abroad can obtain their SSN together with their work visa. The Social Security Administration recommends that nonimmigrants wait ten days after their arrival in the US before filing their online application. If you come to the US first and then get a job later on, contact your local social security office and ask for help. You can even get a social security number for your baby if you give birth in the US.

To keep track of the relevant info yourself, you can create an SSA online account. It allows you to access your official social security statement. It records all your earnings and contributions, and it displays estimates of your government benefits at the official retirement age, at a younger age, and for a deferred pension, e.g. at age 70.

You can find more details on getting a Social Security Number for Noncitizens on the US Social Security Agency’s website.

How to Retire in the US

You can start withdrawing a US government pension at the age of 62, though it will be lower than the benefits you’d get at the official retirement age. The latter is currently being raised from 65 to 67. From 2027 onwards, senior citizens will not get full retirement benefits till their 67thbirthday. The average sum paid to a retired worker is about 1,400 USD.

Generally, you get only 40% of your average lifetime earnings from social security. Experts say that you need between 70% and 80% to live comfortably in your old age. Therefore, most people either make individual retirement arrangements (some of which are eligible for support from the government) or pay into a company pension fund provided by their employer.

These funds are regulated by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

The US Social Security Agreements

The US maintains international social security agreements with 28 countries. These agreements prevent workers from paying social taxes twice – in their home country and in the country they are living in.

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Maternity Leave

In 1993, the US government passed a law which allows you to take up to 12 weeks of maternity leave. During this period, your job is fully protected by law and you still have access to all the benefits your employer grants you. However, this leave does not have to be paid. Also, the law only protects mothers that work in companies that have 50 or more employees and work in the same business for at least 12 months (1,250 hours).

Because of how scarce the federal laws are, many states impose their own regulations when it comes to maternity leave. Some of the states have lowered regulations for the size of the company, only requiring businesses to have 10 employees for mothers to receive the benefits, other states allow longer absences.

States of New York, Rhode Island, California, New Jersey, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the District of Colombia all operate different types of programs that allow financial aid for some mothers. California also offers partially paid leave for fathers, while New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island offer paid family leave.

Many employers, however, might offer more generous assistance to new parents. Talk to your boss and Human Recourses staff to find out what the company policies are and whether you can get any financial aid.

InterNations GO!
by InterNations GO!
12 February 2019
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