About 2 months ago, the latest round of successfully funded Marie Skłodowska Curie fellows has been announced, and some might soon start to plan their move abroad. My move one year ago was spiked with some unforeseen obstacles. But even without those presumably rather unique incidents, there are quite a few things I wish I’d known before. With that in mind, I’ve put together some helpful information on the administrative side of planning your stay. Since I am on a Global Fellowship to the USA, this post is especially geared towards those in the same situation. I hope that large parts can also be useful for fellows going to other countries and postdocs receiving a different kind of funding, though. So here you go!
How to manage the money?
The full grant amount will be transferred to your home country host institution rather close to your starting date (around a month ahead, if I remember correctly). It took my host institution’s admin staff and me ages to figure out how to manage the money. The full grant amount did, in my case, mean a grant financing two years in the US and one year in France. As explained here, there are different grant portions – two portions that usually go to the researcher on a monthly basis (personal allowance which is taxable, the mobility allowance which should not be taxed), and two portions that go to the institution (research, training and networking costs and overhead and management costs). Lessons we learned:
- You need to be on your home country’s payroll. Both I and the local Parisian admin staff would have preferred me to be on payroll in the US. When I first inquired with my project officer, she told me that it didn’t matter where I’d be on payroll. But deeper digging revealed that there is actually a clause prohibiting fellows getting their salary from the non-EU host institution, the final verdict by the EU commission thus being that I need to be on payroll in France. This causes practical issues like having to transfer my Euros to the US each month (more on how I do that below), but also has a significant monetary impact: As specified in the tax treaty, foreign researchers who stay in the US for up to two years can be exempt from income tax if they are paid by their US institution; a clause I cannot make use of for purely administrative reasons. For the administration at my French institution this arrangement also caused headaches. The fact that my salary while in the US is different from the salary I’ll receive in France (due to a country coefficient system) causes administrative problems, since it is tricky to change the salary on the same contract without a particular reason. The workaround is that I have a contract where the page that states the salary is independent from the page with all the signatures, and thus can be updated when I get back to France.
- Pay attention to what happens to your mobility allowance. The mobility allowance is supposed to be 600 Euros a month on top of and independent of your salary to compensate for you being abroad. Now, your institution might not know how to deal with this allowance, since legislations differ as to how and whether this amount is taxable. Christina, who started her postdoc earlier, was paying income taxes taxes for half a year before she could convince admin that this amount could be exempt from taxation. Now we both get around 450 Euro out of the 600 a months, since the institution still deducts social security and other deductibles from this amount.
- The institutional costs can be transferred to the foreign host institution. Different from the salary portion of the grant, the institutional costs for the two years abroad can be administered by the foreign host institution. I decided to transfer them, since it is much more practical when booking flights or buying equipment to do it locally. One pitfall is that admin in the US has absolutely no idea what the rules in Europe usually are, and they would tend to stick to NIH regulations. For instance, a colleague has had problems reimbursing parts of a meal for a speaker, which would have been no problem based on most European rules, but was not acceptable for the US university administration that followed NIH guidelines. The fellowship guidelines are not very clear on that matter either. In any case, for getting the money over the pond, both sides needed to sign a grant agreement. This required some language-barriered back and forth, but nothing extraordinary. However, my money got temporarily lost – with France having sent it off, but US not receiving it for two months, during which my account would have been frozen had I not had a trusting department.
- In order to access your research/networking costs at your US institution, you need a social security number (SSN) and be on payroll. The bright side of not being paid in the US seemed to be a reduction in related admin work – but alas, in order to access the institutional costs that had been transferred to the US, I needed to be on university payroll. For getting on payroll, I needed a social security number. For getting that, I needed a document from my university certifying that I qualified, my passport with visa page, and my DS-2019 (a document you should practically glue to your body while in the US; more on how to get that below). I also needed to wait 10 days before I applied for the SSN, and was advised by the international office to not leave the country while the application was pending (advice I was not able to follow because of prior obligations, but that did not cause any complications).
- You will need to fill in a tax declaration in both countries. Oftentimes, if you receive salary in one country but live in another, it is difficult to figure out where to pay taxes. I advice you to go to a tax service counter in the country where your host lab is situated ahead of time. Our situation is quite special, and it can be tricky to get all necessary information online (especially if, like in my case, my host lab is not in my home country). In the case of France, there is a clear rule that recipients of salaries from a public agency in France need to file a tax declaration in France. There is a dedicated tax office for those who live abroad but file taxes in France where I need to declare my taxes there. This might be different in other European countries. In addition, in the United States, all individuals on J-1 visa status have to fill in Form 8843, even if they do not receive a taxable salary.
How do I get my visa?
As important as sorting out the money issues is getting a visa. You should start doing that very well in advance, as in, ideally 6 months in advance, to be sure it reaches you in time (I was, of course, later than that, though not terribly late, and look what happened to me). You will want a visa in the research scholar category of J-1. Here are the steps.
- Your US host institutions applies for form DS-2019. The first step needs to be done by your US host institution. I emailed my US advisor and asked him whom to talk to for that, and he referred me to the departmental admin personnel. They needed a document confirming that I get the grant as well as my CV. The grant agreement is kind of the only document the European Commission issues, and since, see above, my EU host institution was not able to indicate my salary on my contract I had to go with that for documenting my stipend. For my first year of J-1 application my school accepted that, but when I needed to reapply for year 2, they all of the sudden wanted an additional document where my salary was explicitly spelled out – so, see above, apply early since you never know what they might need! Back to the DS-2019, after my department had issued the request, the school international office requested me to fill in a form with a few details. After that, usually it’s supposed to take “up to a month” to get this form. However, both times I applied the responsible office did not get back to me within this time frame, and once I got in touch they immediately sent me the form, making me suspect it had been sitting in a folder somewhere. So I recommend to ask immediately if there’s any delay!
- Pay the SEVIS fee. Now that you have your DS-2019 (my department emailed me a pdf of it so I could use the information to proceed with this and the next step, and they later sent me the original by post), you have been assigned a SEVIS number. What can you do with that? Pay the SEVIS (I-109) fee of $180, for instance! This will get you a I-109 payment confirmation, a document you will need for your visa interview. This fee is apparently used to cover the costs of the automated system to keep track of exchange visitors.
- Fill in a very long form called DS-160. This is the final countdown for being able to make a visa appointment! Bring some patience and humor with you, though not too much humor either, since you might be tempted to answer yes to one of their long list of questions on whether you’re a spy or anything else of suspicious nature.
- Pay again! This time the visa appointment fee. This was € 160 for me, and you need to pay it on your local embassy website before you can make an appointment. Based on my bad experiences last year, this time I opted for the “premium delivery” (sic!) option for an additional € 16 (an option that I believe didn’t exist last year), which means that I pick the visa up myself in some copy shop at the edge of Paris instead of having it sent by post. That’s US premium for you.
- You make your visa appointment. Finally! Once you’re this far, there’s a fairly straightforward online scheduling system. Visa appointment availability can hugely vary. In case that is useful at any point during your application process up to here, you can check for wait times here. You will be emailed a confirmation along with a list of things to bring and things not to bring.
- You attend your appointment. You need to bring: Your valid passport, confirmation of obtaining your various obscurely numbered documents and having made all payments (DS-2019, DS-106, I-109), documentation of your research/training plan, and a photo. You may not bring: Weapons, luggage, your laptop, food, drinks.
- You get your visa. Or, like for me last time, not. Hope that won’t happen to you. You’re all set!
What about health insurance?
One requirement for being granted a visa is to have health insurance covering, at minimum these things. Now there are several options. Usually there will be a health plan offered by your institution, which will be expensive compared to EU standards, but offers good value for your money by US standards. At my US institution, for instance, I could have enrolled in a plan for around $400, and it would have covered a lot. However, I chose to take a minimal health care plan that seems to cater to Chinese exchange students, which insures me for emergencies or hospitalization and costs me around $80 a month. For the rest, I have my French social security (which is obligatory for me since I have a French contract, see above) – so it is actually cheaper for me to do all my regular check-ups while visiting Europe. Two months of health insurance here buy me one plane ticket. But of course, I do by no means recommend doing it like I do if good health coverage is important to you. Also, the brand new MSCA recommendations do state that additional health care may be financed by non-salary portions of the grant, and given that health insurance of postdocs employed by my US institution is obligatorily covered by their employer and independent of the salary that seems only fair.
How can I access my foreign currency salary?
As I said further above, my salary arrives on a bank account in Paris. A regular transfer would cost me around $30-$50 a month – a cost I want to avoid if possible. But there are alternatives.
- Get cash and deposit it. What I ended up doing is opening an account with Bank of America, the partner bank of BNP Paribas, my French bank. That way, I can deduct cash for free with my French debit card and immediately deposit into the same machine onto my US account. A downside of that is that BNP Paribas’ card is not free (I pay about $8 a month, but I’d do that anyways). My US account is free if I keep a certain base amount in all the time (here again, the fact that I am not able to receive salary in the US works to my disadvantage: If you receive a regular salary via bank transfer, your account is free no matter how much you still have on it). I would say this is a good option if you already have an account with a partner bank of a US bank. Speaking of bank account, my experience is that opening your account in a branch that is close to your university is always a good idea – employees there are much more used to foreign visiting students or scholars and all the particularities of our situation.
- Use Transferwise. This peer-to-peer transfer system makes transfers around the world affordable. I’ve only heard good things! I personally can currently not use it, because it requires an authentication of your identity in the country of origin, including a proof of domicile that is consistent with the information your financial institution has. Since I do not have an apartment in France anymore, I gave my bank the address of my French lab after moving to the US – and I do absolutely not have a rental agreement document with my lab.
- Use Paypal. Another good option seems to set up Paypal accounts in both countries and transfer money from one to another. I have previously used it to get money to someone in the US without paying transfer costs. I have never tried it from my name to my name, but I imagine it would work.
Moving internationally is always paired with quite some boring and exhausting admin hassle. But in my experience, it usually works out in the end (and I hope from the depth of my heart that the new US administration will not change this experience for any researcher that is planning to come to the US in the future). Though I can’t say I’m happy about having to go through all this each time I move, I can ascertain you that I am happy each time I arrive in a new country for new experiences and a new adventure.