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An Expat's Guide to Living in New York City

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Susanne Bloss
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“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere!”

Those were the words of Frank Sinatra’s Song “New York, New York”. After living in New York City for 4 years I can say: He was right!

If you make it happen to live in this world metropolis you can do anything in life! New York City is for dreamers that don’t fear its harsh reality. The city puts its magic spell on you but wants something in return: your resilience!

Why do people want to live in New York then? I think it’s the magic of the city that mesmerizes people.

I can say with absolute certainty that moving there will be worth it. But you must be prepared to give it your all. NYC is not for the faint of heart.

Here are a few things I wish I knew before moving to the Big Apple.

Getting to Know the City

The famous Instagram photo of the Brooklyn Bridge

It’s the most populous city in the USA. If you say New York City you are talking about 5 boroughs:

  • Manhattan
  • Brooklyn
  • Queens
  • Bronx
  • Staten Island

8,8 million people live in NYC and even more commute into Manhattan every day from the suburbs. Around 20 million people live in the metropolitan area of the Big Apple. Many global brands have their headquarters in New York City. Get to know the city quickly at a discounted price with this epic deal.

The best of the best from all over the world come to live and work here, so be ready that the competition to be inspiring and tough at the same time. 

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Cost of Living in NYC

Let’s be honest, New York City is very expensive. And it’s very easy and fun to spend money.

I would recommend saving up a decent amount of money before you move. You will feel more comfortable knowing you have some cushion.

Most New Yorkers live from paycheck to paycheck. Even the high earners, as with more money you will raise your standards and subsequently spend more. 

Public Transportation Costs

Getting around NYC though is relatively cheap. A subway ride is $2,75 no matter the distance and is definitely the best way to get around the city. You pay the same for the NYC Ferry which is a fun way to ride between Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan. You can enjoy Manhattan's skyline while commuting.

Uber and yellow cabs are a big part of transportation. But depending on the time it will get costly.

Food & Drinks

NYC is most magical when it gets dark

Your taste buds will love living in the city that never sleeps. You can find the best food in the world in a high end and a low-cost version.

Think about Chinatown, where you can find the best soup dumplings in a very casual setting without spending a fortune. Or the food trucks that offer the most authentic cuisine.

NYC is known for the best pizza in the US, and in some opinions, the world. Some slices are as cheap as 1$. And New Yorkers regularly fight over which is the best pizza spot in the city. 

As a rule, you can remember this: The better the view the higher the price.

If you are sitting on a rooftop terrace with a view over Manhattan, you will pay for that. Either your cocktail will be as much as a main course, or you will pay an entrance fee. Or even both.

This rule also applies to apartments, if it has a view, it will be expensive.

Sales Tax

Always remember that in NYC restaurants the sales tax and tip will be added in the end. Which always leads to shocker moments when it’s time to pay the bill.

This is common practice in the US, not just in New York, so keep that in mind if you plan to travel more of the country.

Tipping starts at 18% and most waiters and waitresses expect a minimum of 20%. Usually, they will have earned their tip. Their base salary is so low that tipping is very important to them.

In addition, an 8,87% sales tax will be added to your bill. Of course, you will pay that in any country, the difference to me is that it’s not automatically included in the price on the menu.

Remember that any shopping will not have the tax included either, it’s always applied in the end when you pay. And note that each state has a different sales tax.

Tipping

By the way, the tipping culture in America blew me away. Coming from Europe, specifically Germany, I couldn’t believe how much you must tip.

For every service people expect a tip.

The biggest shocker though came around Christmas, when we had to tip the staff in our building. The superintendent, the front desk staff, and the mail delivery guy all made it known that they expect a tip. And depending on the size of your building this might add up very quickly. Just think about $50 each for 20 employees, that’s $1000 to spend besides getting Christmas presents for your family and friends.

So be aware of that and consider when you look for an apartment.

Affording Your Costs

Generally, I know from experience that you can make it happen with the money you have available after your fixed costs. If you work in NYC, your salary will automatically be higher.

If you are a freelancer, you should consider that your income and the cost of living might have a mismatch. Your freelance income from Europe e.g., might not get you that far in NYC.

You could make it happen though, if you did your calculations in advance and stay flexible. Maybe it won’t be the small but tasty $5 Cappuccino at the hip coffee shop every day, but maybe every other day.

Where there is a will, there is a way.

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Finding an Apartment

Be prepared to throw all your expectations overboard when you start apartment hunting. When we searched for an apartment, I was shocked by how little you get for the money.

Many buildings are old and small. Rent is exuberant. In 2022 the average rent is $5000. Higher than ever before.

But if you are willing to live in one of the 4 boroughs, instead of Manhattan, you might find a deal. Yes, you will have a commute to Manhattan but you will probably have a very eclectic neighborhood to explore right outside of your doorstep.

Consider moving to Queens or Brooklyn. Also, Hoboken which is in New Jersey, can offer good deals. And you will enjoy a stunning view of the NYC skyline.

Rent Costs

That one time in a helicopter

Rent leases usually run for a whole year. Coming from Europe this was a strange thing for me. After one year, you need to renegotiate your rent.

If you don’t agree with your landlord, unfortunately your lease might not get extended. But from my experience landlords want you to stay as it is a hassle for them too, to find a new tenant.

It's important to be aware of your utility bills, as well. You pay a flat fee for water. Good for you, bad for the environment as people don’t care about their water usage.

Most apartments have gas ovens. Be aware that your electricity bill will be higher in the summer, as you will use the air-conditioner a lot. Coming from Europe, air-conditioning is not something I was used to at home. I try to switch it on, only when it gets really hot, but in July and August you barely can survive without it.

Choosing the Right New York City Neighborhood

Before you move into a neighborhood do your research. Every borough has its pockets of higher crime. Don’t get too worried about the stats though. The most touristic neighborhoods can have high crime on paper due to pickpocketing.

Ask other people if they like the neighborhood. Go to a coffee shop and ask the barista what he thinks about the community. Spend some time there. I think if you like your new neighborhood, it will make your new life a lot easier.

Also consider the subway stops that are near your apartment. Your commute time matters. There are several lines that run express trains. Which means they skip certain stations and makes the train a lot faster.

My Top Neighborhoods Recommendations

Neighborhoods I would move into which are cool and not exuberantly expensive:

  • Astoria or Long Island City in Queens.
  • Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, Lefferts Garden in Brooklyn.

But be aware in the Brooklyn neighborhoods there are pockets that are still a bit rough.

Also, I would consider living in the suburbs and commuting into Manhattan. Many expats with family live in Westchester County or Connecticut. There are express trains to the city from these places, as well.

Jersey City might also be a great option. Although you must be aware that the commute might be a bit longer.

Settling into New York City Life

Central Park calms down the NYC energy

New Yorkers are a very special kind of people. They can save your day or ruin it completely. If someone is in a bad mood, they might let you know. New Yorkers like to curse, especially in the rush hour.

I have to say though, people care. They will tell you if you lost something on the street or hold the door for you.

This city only works if everybody functions well together. And New Yorkers do their best to do their part.

A Few Tips to Make Friends

One of the easiest ways to meet people is by making small talk. New Yorkers love small talk. If you are waiting in line, start talking. If you both see something awkward, make a comment and probably you will laugh with a stranger. If you meet a coworker at a coffee shop, start talking.

It’s very easy to talk to New Yorkers. 

Many people say Americans are superficial. I have to say though that I’d rather have a small conversation with a stranger than just awkward silence.

In my experience Americans might not right away dig into deep conversations. But they love to talk and laugh. And after meeting someone a few times they will open up more, it just takes them a little more time.

My American friend gave me the best advice before moving abroad: create a village. Find your local coffee shop, bakery, grocery store etc. and start conversations. You will automatically feel like you will be part of the community after a few weeks. 

Sports is another good activity to meet people. New Yorkers love their routine and are hooked on being active. They will most likely always go to the same spin class or the same yoga class every week. If you go regularly you will meet the same people and will be able to start a conversation.

One thing I still find a bit challenging is knowing if a person just says “let’s meet for coffee” as a friendly gesture or if they really mean it. I fell into the trap of believing that just because I had a deep conversation with someone, they will become my friend.

It might take some time to really get close to New Yorkers. But once you found your tribe, they will be friends forever. Because the experiences you make together by living in the Big Apple will tie you together forever.

If you have a hobby or like to try something new there are tons of courses available. From comedy improvisation to pottery to writing classes. You will find many opportunities to connect with like-minded and curious people. Especially if you are creative or work in the creative field, New York is the place for you.

If you like theater, you'll love living in New York City! From Broadway to small theaters, you can go and see a show every day of the year. This is really the center for theater.

Preparing for the Weather

I think a lot of people are not aware of the seasons in New York. If you live here, be ready for some amazing summers and great beaches! Jersey and Long Island have pretty and accessible beaches. You can get there by ferry or train. The weather in summer is hot and humid.

The winters can get a bit harsh. With temperatures below zero Celsius and the wind can really make it uncomfortable.

Getting a Long-Term U.S. Visa

I always get inspired looking at the skyline

This is the tricky part. I had my own complicated story to finally get my green card (permanent resident card). So, I have a pretty good overview of all the options. But please do your own research as this is just my experience that I am sharing here.

The immigration system in the USA is a tough and long journey. I know friends who waited for 10 years to move from a work visa to finally getting a permanent resident card.

So, let’s look at your options.

You need a visa to stay and work in the USA. If your country is part of the visa waiver program, you are allowed to visit for 3 months as a tourist and are not allowed to work. As a freelancer this might be a good opportunity to still do your remote job.

Just find out if your country has some tax rules for working abroad. Do note though that you shouldn't show up to customs at the airport telling them that you'll be working online during your visit. As of yet, the US does not offer a freelance visa.

Also always have a return flight when you enter the USA. The border officers do their job very well, so always be prepared.

You can try to get a B2 tourist visa if you want to stay for 6 months. You must apply at the US embassy in your country.

Another option is a student visa, which allows you to study in the USA.

The best option though is a temporary work visa. This usually happens when your employer is offering you to move to the USA and get a work visa for a few years. Some of those visas even give you the option to apply for a green card after a few years. So make sure you receive a work visa with that option in the future. Work visas might be the best option, as you will come to the USA with job security.

If you want to take chances and really dream about living and working in the USA, apply to the yearly green card lottery, also called diversity visa program. Every country gets a certain number of green cards every year, in Europe the chances are around 1:45. Which I think is actually not bad at all. Entry period is usually early October to early November.

I know people who won. Just try it every year. I know someone who tried 9 years in a row and finally got it. Persistence is the key! 

Bonus Things to Know Before Moving to NYC

If you are ready to move here, be aware that you'll want to get some sort of health insurance. This is very important.

The system here is totally different than in Europe. Costs are much higher for medical treatment. And there is no obligation to have health insurance. If you have a medical emergency and no insurance, it will get pricey very quickly.

Maybe consider extending your local health insurance to an international option for your first few months here or if you're just traveling.

Another thing to note is the power outlet in the USA is running at 120V (250V in Europe). That means you need an adapter plug, and you won’t be able to use your usual household machines like coffee machine, hoover, hairdryer etc. Computers and phones usually work on both voltages. 

Having an NYC Mindset

Photo by Helena Lopes.

After a few months, you will realize that there is a certain mindset that you must adapt if you want to live in New York. New York is the best city in the world in my eyes, but it will also challenge you in ways you never expected.

On the subway you will see the poorest people trying to survive in this concrete jungle sitting next to a banker in an Armani suit. The gap between rich and poor sometimes is hard to understand. Some days I actively protect my heart. The injustice is just unbearable at times. 

If you work in NYC, you will have to step it up! Even in your private life, I think you must toughen up too.

People from all over the world move there and usually they are the best of their industry. They fight to get seen and be heard. They know if they make it in New York, the world will roll out the red carpet for them.

You must be prepared to deal with big egos and big personalities.

I sometimes still get shy and quiet in a crowd of people with big personalities. But I definitely got a lot tougher and my self-esteem is much higher since living there. You have no other option but to step up your game.

It will be a challenge at times and can get a bit lonely but I think you will grow in new ways that you might never have imagined.

The energy of the people in this city is so unique. The cultures are so different. The possibilities of what you could achieve here are mind-blowing no matter which industry you work in. Everybody is so opportunistic and full of dreams.

The magic of New York will creep into every cell of your body and will change you forever.

You're Ready to Move to NYC

I hope this quick overview gave you an idea about what to expect when moving to New York.

I know it doesn’t all seem like a fairytale but I will promise you if you have the opportunity to spend some time there, take it! Especially if your visa situation allows it.

Remember this is the biggest hurdle for everyone living outside of the USA, to get a visa. I have been on my own personal visa rollercoaster but I am so thankful to have the opportunity to live and work in the US. 

Reach out via Instagram or email if you have more questions. Have courage and be kind.

Hero photo by Florian Wehde. *This article may contain affiliate links, meaning I make a small commission on any purchases at no extra expense to you. Read our disclaimer & privacy policy here.

xx,
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