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Moving to Chicago? Here's what you need to know

Chicago is home to nearly 2.7 million people--more than sixty percent of whom are immigrants. Moving to a new city can always be nerve-wracking, but we highlight a few things from housing to finances to help you prepare for your move from abroad

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Chicago is home to nearly 2.7 million people - more than sixty percent of whom are immigrants. As of 2016, one in three children in Chicago has at least one immigrant parent, making the city a popular destination for newcomers to the United States. 

Located on the shores of Lake Michigan, the Windy City is the third most populous city in the U.S. Chicago is known for several tourist attractions like Millenium Park, the Art Institute of Chicago and Lincoln Park (not to mention Chicago-style pizza and hotdogs).

Moving to a new city can always be nerve-wracking, but we highlight a few things from housing to finances to help you prepare for your move. 

Finding an apartment in Chicago

The first step in choosing an apartment in Chicago is to pick the neighborhood that best suits you. Here are just a few: 

  1. The Loop is the city’s main business district and is home to many young professionals. Here you can find the 108-story Willis Tower as well as Millenium Park and other high-rise buildings as well as plenty of bars, restaurants, coffee shops and parks. Most people living in this densely populated, pricey neighborhood tend to rent their homes. 

  2. The North Side is largely a residential area, with more walk-ups than skyscrapers, although also home to Michelin-starred restaurants, European-inspired villages and world-renowned museums. You’ll also find Lincoln Park and Wrigley Field here in Chicago’s most populated district.

  3. Chicago’s West Side is home to a large residential area as well as numerous historic sites and lots of green space. You can take a stroll through Garfield Park, Douglas Park or Humboldt Park, or pay a visit to the Garfield Park Conservatory, the University of Illinois at Chicago or the United Center.

  4. The South Side is the largest area in the city, with a neighborhood fit for anyone: Kenwood is famous for its architecture while University Village houses college and university students. Chinatown is the go-to for Chinese cuisine and Douglas has several parks—and even a beach street!

Once you’ve narrowed your neighborhood of choice, prepare the necessary documents you’ll need for your rental: proof of identification (e.g. passport or driver’s license) and proof of income. 

You should also check your U.S. credit score to make sure it’s in good shape. If you don’t have a U.S. credit history, don’t worry: you can also ask your landlord if they use Yardi, Intellirent or First Advantage. These services partner with Nova Credit and accept international credit history as part of your rental application. If your landlord doesn’t work with one of these providers, you can opt to use a service like The Guarantors offer third-party lease guarantee services for newcomers. 

Use your international credit history as part of your rental application

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Renting a one-bedroom apartment in Chicago typically costs $1,627 a month. Always clarify with your landlord what bills your rent covers. Does your rent also include your electricity and water bill? What about parking, cable or internet? Make sure to inquire about any additional fees, as well.

Getting around Chicago

The Windy City operates the second largest public transportation system in the U.S. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) operates eight “L” trains, 129 bus routes and 145 rail stations. You can travel around the city 24/7 through two train lines:

  1. The Blue Line connects Chicago O’Hare International Airport and downtown

  2. The Red Line connects the North and South Sides via downtown

Buses, on the other hand, travel throughout the city, but often only until 2 a.m. The average commute in Chicago takes 58.5 minutes.

From downtown Chicago, you can also travel to outlying suburbs via the Metra Rail. Taxis are readily available, as well, where you can pay via credit card instead of cash.

You can also go sightseeing by using Chicago’s water taxis, which let you travel to and from destinations like Chinatown, Museum Campus, Willis Tower, Michigan Avenue, Union Station and Navy Pier.

Driving in Chicago

While the State of Illinois does not recognize the International Driver’s License, you can drive using your foreign driver’s license for up to 90 days. After 90 days, you will have to apply for a license with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Illinois issues a special driver’s license for foreign nationals who can’t get a Social Security Number (SSN). Both lawful immigrants and undocumented immigrants may apply for a Temporary Visitor Driver's License (TVDL), which is valid for three years.

The following requirements must be met to get a TVDL:

  • Proof of authorization to be in the country (issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

  • Documents showing they have been authorized to be in the country for one year. On the date of application, they must have at least six months remaining to be in the country.

  • Proof that they have lived in Illinois for at least one year

  • A valid, unexpired passport or consular ID

  • Other proof of identity and residency (as required by the Secretary of State)

  • Proof of completing a 6-hour adult driver education course (for 18 to 20-year-olds)

Applicants also need to pass vision, written and road exams, as well as provide proof of insurance for the vehicle to be used for the road test. Finally, applicants need to pay the application fee ($35 for motorcycles; $30 for all other vehicles).

Finding a job in Chicago

The entrepreneurial landscape in Chicago is as diverse as the city’s population. More than 1,800 companies in the Windy City are foreign-owned, and approximately 110,000 foreign nationals in Chicago are entrepreneurs.

The average salary for Chicago-based workers is $70,000. Some popular corporations in Chicago and their average wages include United Airlines ($51K to $118K), J.P. Morgan & Chase ($51K to $126K) and Accenture ($63K to $140K). Other companies with a strong presence in Chicago are McDonald’s, Kraft, Mendelez, Quaker Oats, Walgreens, Sears and Ulta.

Managing your finances

Opening a bank account in Chicago requires proof of identification, proof of residence (e.g. cable bill or copy of your lease) and possibly other requirements, depending on your chosen bank. Newcomers in the U.S. may wish to opt with large banks with a national presence such as Bank of America, Chase, Wells Fargo Bank, PNC and Citibank, all of which have branches in Chicago.

In order to apply for a credit card or take out a loan, you’ll need a U.S. credit history. Instead of starting from scratch, however, you can transfer your credit history from your home country with the help of Nova Credit.

The takeaway

Moving to a new city may seem daunting. When armed with the right information, however, you’ll find that it easier to navigate life in the U.S. 

Learn more about products available for newcomers to the U.S. here. For more resources on how to navigate your new life in the U.S., you can visit Nova Credit’s resource library where you can learn about everything from renting an apartment to finding the best credit cards for noncitizens.

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