San Francisco Swede

Reflections on San Francisco from a Swedish perspective

First day in SF – banking, phones and apartments

On my first full day in SF (not counting day of arrival), my priorities were to open a bank account (to facilitate paying for an apartment once found, as it often is not possible to do via e.g. credit card), get local in-expensive wireless 3G and/or LTE access, getting a local phone number, and looking at some apartments.

Get a local phone number

Having a native US phone number seems to make a lot of things easier. For one thing, most people don’t seem to know how to make international phone calls which complicates matters a lot whenever a person actually needs to call you (and it’s not just about registering a phone number as a matter of principle). For example, I had problems with my checked luggage on the way in, and the baggage handling person didn’t know how to call an international number so I ended up having to give them the number to my hotel.

Additionally, some services require it. For example, Uber wants you to have a local phone number. Bank of America had trouble entering an international phone number in their system when I created my account.

So, I recommend people to plan on getting a local number as soon as possible. In my case I have a transient Skype Online number, and I intend to transition to Google Voice as soon as the Galaxy Nexus is out and I can upgrade my Verizon account (Google Voice doesn’t seem to do VoIP on the phones, so I can’t use it on my HTC Desire HD over a data connection).

Get inexpensive mobile data access quickly

In my case, I got a wireless hotspot and associated data plan from Verizon. It is likely to work a lot better than your average hotel internet connection, and it’s so much easier to get around the city using public transportation when you can use Google Maps on your phone to navigate. Doing so without insane costs requires not using roaming data though. I recommend signing up for a local phone plan with data as soon as possible. (My use of a mobile hotspot was just the result of wanting to avoid buying a phone for use a few weeks only to then upgrade to the Galaxy Nexus.)

Opening a bank account

As I had surmised before going here, online banking is a bit different here. Often you protect your account by e.g. a password, and customer service authenticates by asking you personal information (this is probably why US people tend to treat certain information as more private than Swedes are used to, and why there seems to be more identity theft going on – but I’m just speculating).

I was able to walk in and open an account without fuss, with my passport and social security number (but I was “lucky” in that I had a social security number dating back to a period of being in the US on a student visa; if you don’t have a social security number there might be more fuss, but according to Bank of America customer service, when I asked prior to finding my social security card, I should have been able to create an account without it).

Normally, it takes a few days to get a debit/credit card, and it’s sent to your mailing address (maybe this is Bank of America specific, I don’t know). I was able to get a temporary one-month debit card however that I could walk out with immediately.

Transferring money form my SEB account to the Bank of America account is expected to take 3-5 days according to SEB. Some minor problems ensues with the transfer; SEB want’s a routing number/ABA number, and Bank of America has two – one for “electronic transfers” and one for wire transfers. After some back and forth the SEB representative seemed convinced I should be putting the one used for wire transfers in the text box on the international payment submission for the transfer to myself.

A point of convenience: You can deposit money into your account using an ATM (never seen that in Sweden). You can also transfer money between your accounts at the bank at the ATM. (May be Bank of America specific, but I suspect not.)

Getting a cell phone plan

In general the cell phone/plan market is a bit different in the US. In my particular case I went with Verizon because I knew I wanted Galaxy Nexus + LTE in a few weeks when that phone is released. My european HTC Desire HD is not compatible with Verizon’s network however (the phone works in the US, but not through Verizion; in SF it seems to be picking AT&T but sometimes I’ve seen T-Mobile as well). So be prepared to either be limited in your selection of carrier, or else having to get a new phone even if you don’t initially care about 3G/LTE speeds.

Finding an apartment

I am by no means going to be able to accurately represent the SF housing market as a whole. But, my experience so far is with an apartment community called Archstone (just happened to be the one, I’m not implying they are special). First off, despite people often saying how hard it is to find an apartment, there seems to be apartments pretty readily available as long as you’re not too specific about your demands and (I suspect) are not in need of well-below-normal price ranges.

Potential payment problems

Be prepared that you may not be able to walk in and pay the first month’s rent by e.g. credit card. You may need to use a check, or “bill pay” (which seems to be something similar to e-faktura except the other way around (push instead of pull)) used over here. In short, it’s easiest if you try to arrange to get the necessary amount of money into your US bank account as soon as possible (either by transfer or by withdrawing cash and depositing) so that you can more easily fulfill whatever requirements are imposed by the landlord.

Before arriving, talking to the relocation agent, I got the impression that landlords would often want to see proof of employment, credit reports, and may demand several months rent in advance initially. This is probably true, but is not always the case. With Archstone, there seemed to be almost no fuss at all other than that I could not pay by credit card. Basically no paperwork required.

In the end it’ll be up to the landlord, which might be a bigger commercial entity, a person, or a smaller entity. Presumably they are very different.

Contrasting with Stockholm rentals

Well, you can freaking get an apartment immediately. There is no multi-year queueing system that you have to go through (or know someone, etc) as there is in Stockholm. That said, it’s definitely more expensive. For a studio apartment around 40m^2, expect to pay $1800-$2500/month (can be even more, but assuming you want to keep it reasonable) for a good place.

Contrasting with a Stockholm/Uppsala BRF

(For non-Swedes: A BRF is an organization that owns buildings containing condos that the BRF members own the right to live in; in theory controlled by members in a democratic way. You pay a monthly fee that goes to e.g. heating, and then you buy the apartment which amounts to a monthly fee to the bank, and a requirement to be able to get the loan. Basically, if you want to easily get a place to live in Stockholm, being able to select where, and not queueing, you seem to have to buy a condo. EDIT: Someone pointed out that you can often get a place easier by finding sublets, and I think this is true. But, there’s a trade-off involved in having to use a sublet such as not knowing how long you can stay. Especially since there are rules that give the renter of a sublet automatic rights to stay there after a certain while, by law, so there is an incentive to kick people out before that time expires… I’m not sure how often that is an issue though.)

Comparing the expectations of a BRF with that of something like Archstone is… sort of difficult because the difference is fundamental. My personal view of the BRF system is that it is something that looks good on paper (democracy and such), but in practice pretty much sucks. Those making the decisions end up being those that have the time/inclination to spend effort on paperwork and bureaucracy, and I have never yet noticed a BRF being particularly service minded. For example, laundry rooms being booked very restrictively and wastefully, having 1 hour of opening hours per week for speaking to the BRF. Having to use that special hour to get the key necessary to drive into the area. Randomly getting papers in the mail saying “we need random person X to enter your apartment and you better react within a week” (e.g. someone doing an inspection or adjusting ventilation).

Looking at Archstone (again, I’m using it as the example but I’m certain they’re not alone in it, but I also assume there are plenty of independent landlords who will work quite differently) you have quite obviously a situation which is much more focused on providing a service to a customer (since it’s run by a commercial entity trying to make money, wanting to sell to customers). They have, and make a point to advertise, things like on-site fitness centers, ATM:s, grocery stores, starbucks, post offices, laundry services, 24/7 ability to report a problem, 24h guarantee of fixing reported issues, a proper garage (no queueing, again). There also seems to be quite a bit of flexibility in moving between apartments within Archstone without penalty; so upgrading/downgrading seems pretty easy as long as there are available units.

To me, the commercially run apartment community form is a much better fit than a Swedish BRF. In particular because:

  • There is no need to make a personal investment, playing the housing market.
  • No need for huge loans and mucking around with banks.
  • No need to pay tens of thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) of SEK to a realtor on every move.
  • It’s a service, and as such, I can contact the service provider at any time and they are interested in being helpful.
  • No sudden “oops, bathroom must be renovated because someone measured water damage” surprises.

In short, I’m really looking forward to finally having a high-quality rental apartment instead of a condo.

Avoiding needing a car

SF is one of the best cities in the US when it comes to public transportation. There are buses, cable cars and underground trains that are part of Muni and there is a separate system called BART for longer-range subway service – plus the CalTrain for commuters.

In addition, there are services like Zipcar which allow you to pick up a car within a few blocks (walking distance) whenever you want to, without actually having to own one.

I have not yet tried Zipcar, but my plan is to utilize public transportation as much as possible, and combine that with Zipcar and Uber where necessary. I fully expect this to work quite well.

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2 thoughts on “First day in SF – banking, phones and apartments

  1. Awesome to see the perspective of things from the opposite direction I went 🙂

    Regarding banking: I’ve never used them myself, but I have never heard anything good about Bank of America. Everyone hates them. They do have a lot of branches and ATMs though, so that’s the only way I can explain why people keep accounts there. They may meet your needs perfectly well, but if not I can recommend checking accounts from Charles Schwab Bank. They have no (or very few) physical branches or ATMs, but they provide you refunds on fees charged by any ATM you use. If you get a check, you can mail it to them to deposit it, and I’ve always had good luck the few times I’ve needed to call them for something else. Some other nice benefits with Schwab is that they give a good exchange rate when you use your card while traveling outside of the US and don’t charge transaction fees, and they hold accounts in Sweden (and several other countries) that you can wire money to from a bank in that country for free/cheap. Then again, this last point may not matter for you much since you are getting paid in the US, but it’s super handy for me since I am of course paid in Sweden but need to send money to my account in the US often to facilitate easier payment of the occasional bills I have there.

    Being able to transfer between accounts and deposit checks and cash at ATMs is a common feature in the US. Generally only for bank run ATMs though, not the ones in convenience stores and such, and probably only if you have an account at the bank that owns the ATM. Also, if you don’t have checks available, you can buy a money order from a post office or convenience store with cash or a credit card. Anyone who accepts checks ought to accept a money order as well.

    I think your experience with renting is looking good because you are willing and able to pay quite a bit. Granted it was five years ago and I didn’t live in the best places, but I never paid more than $950 when I lived in San Francisco. Competition for apartments is fierce if you want low rent, and that’s probably what most people are after who talk about how much of a pain it is to find an apartment there. Anyway, you will almost certainly have to pay a deposit for anywhere you rent, but I believe in SF it is not legal to charge more than 1.5 months rent as a deposit.

    I’m a bit conflicted about which way to handle housing is better. I have a first hand contract I’m happy with now in Stockholm, but it took four years of my wife being in the bostadskö to get that and we had to move a ways out. The system of renting really doesn’t work here for anyone who is too new to the city, and it is useless if you want to live close to central Stockholm. I really would rather not buy an apartment here or anywhere else, at least until I was comfortable with the idea of living in it for a long time. Similar to reasons you mention, I don’t like the idea of carrying the weight of a gigantic loan and not having someone I can call when something breaks, like I have now. But if the rental market in Stockholm were allowed to be a bit more like SF, prices would rocket up I’m sure and many of the people who have waited years through the queue to get a good apartment would be unable to pay the super high rent.

    And yeah, you don’t need a car in SF. Muni is less reliable and in general crappier than SL, but it’s cheaper and actually pretty decent by American standards. BART is pretty good but of fairly limited use for travel just within SF. Zipcar is awesome for those times when you want/need to drive but don’t need to rent a car for the whole day.

    Yikes, I am being wordy. Hope it helps a little at least.

  2. Thanks a lot! I like hearing different perspectives. Based on your thoughts, I’ll definitely re-visit the question of bank choice once I get settled properly, because I do like to support the better bank if I can even if BoA works for the moment.

    And yes, $950 apartments seem much more hard to find… And agreed, to an extent, about Stockholm prices. But what gets on my nerves is that the queueing system is not really fair to begin with anyway, so I’m highly skeptical of it. My feeling is that it seems like a better idea to make sure public transportation is good enough that living non-centrally works well if you need a cheaper apartment, than to have these artificial limitations and a queueing system that favors people who know how to play the system rather than having anything to do with e.g. “need” or something similar that might be argued has to do with fairness. Oh well.

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