(Quick Disclaimer: I am NOT a lawyer and this blog post does not constitute legal advice. If you have questions about your visa or ability to work in the United States, consult an immigration attorney!)
Congratulations! Your spouse works for a multinational company or organization and just got a job transfer to New York or maybe Los Angeles, or another major American city. You are excited about the prospect of spending a year or maybe more in a foreign country.
However, there’s one little problem….
While this is a great career opportunity for your better-half, it might not be so great for your career. Maybe, if you are very lucky, your company will allow you to stay on and work remotely, but with the time difference between the US and Europe, that might not work out so well. Chances are you are going to have to take a long leave or quit your job.
But there’s some good news: You can work legally in the United States!
You’re lucky! A great perk offered by multinational corporations is the opportunity to transfer to different countries, and spouses can also work in the US with an “L-2” spousal visa. (If your spouse works for an international organization, such as the UN, you might be eligible for the G-4 dependent visa.) Even though many other visas that allow foreigners to work have been eliminated, this category has not been effected.
Of course, you might not feel so fortunate. Being able to work here, doesn’t mean you will actually find a job. You might be asking yourself, “Why didn’t I take that semester in London to work on my English?”
Even if you are highly skilled, you will be competing with native speakers — many of whom have connections you don’t. You are going to have to learn to navigate a new system and to do it in a foreign tongue.
As a private English teacher, I’ve worked with many people who are here accompanying their spouses. Adjusting to life here is always easier for the working partner. Your spouse meets colleagues at work and can begin to develop a social network. Your longest conversations are with the doorman! Your spouse makes deals. You make dinner. If you have kids, you are now the one in charge of finding a school or a daycare center or a nanny. You are the one picking up the children and dropping them off, even if that wasn’t your job before. Not only are you picking up the kids, but you’re also picking up the dry cleaning, and anything else that isn’t delivered to your door. As for the stuff that is delivered, you are the one on the phone when they get your order wrong. You used to have an assistant, but now you are your spouse’s assistant.
This isn’t what you got your degree for!
Like most of my students, you are probably eager to work. However, you can’t start working right away. In addition to the L-2 or dependent G-4 visa, you’ll need an “Employment Authorization Document”or EAD which you’ll have to apply for separately.
Here’s a tip: Your spouse’s company may be able to help you navigate the paperwork, but it’s a good idea to check in with them to make sure they are handling both the visa application and the EAD application.
It takes about three months to get the EAD. You can look for a job before you get the card, but you cannot start working before you get the card. You also cannot do volunteer work or take an internship without your permission to work.
Here’s another tip: Most companies will not hire you until you have your card. Some unscrupulous companies might tell you that a social security number authorizes you to work. It doesn’t! Your EAD card is not the same as your social security card! You will need both an EAD and a social security number to work.
There is something you can do while you wait: Start studying English! A class with other students can be a good opportunity to meet people in a similar situation to yours, but I’d recommend finding a private teacher. A local teacher (like me) can help you navigate your new city, prepare your resume, practice job interview questions, and most importantly — work with you at your own pace and around your schedule. Whether you want to meet several times a week for intensive classes, or just an hour or so to practice for a job interview and polish your resume, a private teacher (like me) can meet these needs. Private lessons can be surprisingly affordable, and there is no faster way to learn a language than working one to one with a skilled native speaker.
Of course it might take you a long time to find a job or even to feel ready to interview in English. Some of my students cope better with this waiting period than others. It’s easier for the ones with kids. They can really take the time to get to know their children, to involve themselves in their kids’ school activities, even to meet other parents.
Taking classes in something other than English can also help. Cooking classes, yoga, dance, even pottery workshops can be great ways to practice English and meet new people. Who knows? Your future employer might be the guy on the spinning cycle next to yours.
Some of my students have become volunteers. There are several reasons to volunteer that aren’t entirely altruistic. Many corporations are actively involved in “giving back” to their communities. They will be impressed that this is how you have chosen to spend your time. You can write about your volunteer experiences on your resume and even discuss job-relevant experiences in interviews. Not all volunteer jobs are “hands on” experiences like giving out food at a soup kitchen. Many organizations rely on volunteers to work in their offices, to donate their skills and time in areas like fundraising, marketing, even website design. They might need you as an educator, or a translator. Non-profit and charitable organizations that rely on volunteers usually have a board of directors. The people on the board, and even other volunteers, may be well-connected members of the community, so there is a networking advantage as well. It’s not uncommon for outstanding volunteers to be offered paid positions, and even if your volunteer service doesn’t land you a job in the United States, you can still list your accomplishments on your resume, and use your supervisor as a local reference.
As frustrating as it is to come to New York and watch your spouse’s career take off like a rocket ship, while you feel that gap in your resume grow like tumor, the truth is you have been given a gift and an opportunity.
You not only have the chance to perfect your English — a practical skill that you will be able to use for the rest of your life — but you have a chance to do stuff you never had time to do when you were busy building your career. You have time to “smell the roses” as we say here. You can try looking for a job in a different field or profession. You can take a class in something you always wanted to learn, but never had time to study. You can hone your photography skills and become an Instagram legend if you want to! Start an online consulting business. Write a blog, a vlog, or even a novel! In short you can do something that is wildly and definitively American: You can reinvent yourself.
(Marion gives lessons locally in New York. As a native New Yorker, she can help you navigate the culture as well as the language of this strange land. She also offers lessons online if your schedule is too busy or if you live far away.)