NCMIR - moving from overseas
- 1 About
- 2 Getting Started
- 3 Preparing to Move to NCMIR
- 4 After you Arrive
- 5 Housing and Living
- 6 Finding Long-Term Accommodation
- 7 Transport
- 8 Induction into NCMIR
- 9 Getting Paid
- 10 Summary
- 11 See Also
- 12 Links
I've recently gone though the process of moving from Australia to America to start work (as of July 1 2010) as a postdoctoral employee at NCMIR at the University of California, San Diego. On this page I've documented the (by-no-means-easy) process of moving to America for work and also listed several useful websites/resources, not only for my own record, but so it might later benefit other people moving to UCSD from overseas. In a way this page is a continuation from a page I wrote on visiting NCMIR from overseas which you can see here:
DISCLAIMER: This page is unofficial there are no guarantees it is 100% accurate. If you find any incorrect/outdated/misleading information please contact the author.
Two very important websites to visit are:
- UCSD's International Center - take you to the International Scholar Office (ISO) with information about the J-1 visa (and a feature to check progress) and several important forms you may need.
- Office of Postdoctoral & Visiting Scholar Affairs - make sure you print and read up on Appointments & Guidelines, and also the Benefits & Services page.
Preparing to Move to NCMIR
Moving to the USA from overseas to start work is, unfortunately, a slow process: even after you've made a work agreement you can expect it to take several months before your US working visa finished. In my case it may have taken even longer as I was also waiting on the assessment and official conferral of my PhD before starting my contract.
Before you move you will need to do the following:
- MAJOR STEP 1: Submit your initial visa application: this will probably be a J-1 visa - be warned this takes 3-4 months and requires a scanned copy of your passports "bibliography page" - so start this first.
- Negotiate and sign a working contract - a deceptively simple one-page document.
- Sign a postdoctoral scholar biography form - 2-3 page form which also requires a copy of your CV or publication list.
- Sign a state oath of allegiance and patent policy form - the oath of allegiance sounds particularly scary but yes you have to sign this document!
- After this, you must wait for the university to process you, and eventually (it could take a couple of months) they'll send you the DS2019 form. Check this form (there was a mistake on mine) and then you're ready to go to the next major step. Just having a DS2019 won't get you into the country: you need to travel all the way to a US Consulate to conduct an "interview" where they check you off and will put an official US Visa (sticker) into your passport.
- MAJOR STEP 2: Arrange interview at the nearest US Consulate in your country: in Australia I had to fly down to Sydney (Consulate General of the United States Sydney, MLC Centre, Level 10, 19-29 Martin Place, Sydney, NSW 2000). Make sure you read the checklist of requirements (see: Camberra US Embassy J-Visa information) and be warned there may be a backlog of a few weeks before the first available opening.
- Before you can book an appointment the consulate should provide a checklist of what you need to have done. The first things you'll need to do is finish a "DS160 form", which is an online form several pages long. It will ask for the unique number in the top right of your DS2019 card and many other questions. Before attempting this form make sure you have an up-to-date passport (hopefully with a few years left on it! Also: need to get a Digital Passport Photo of yourself. This isn't as easy as it sounds, because the US has a different size/standard for passport photos than Australia and you'll probably have to find a special camera shop which knows how to take such a photo of you and put it onto a USB stick, and print a few copies (to the correct size) to take with you as well (see: Guidelines for Producing High Quality Photographs for U.S. Travel Documents - for Visa Online Applications).
- Before your appointment you'll also have to pay three different fees (see here), including:
- A SEVIS fee (i901) fee - $180 US This one you can do online via the Student and Exchange Visitor Program website. Note that SEVIS is a database the United States uses to track immigrants. Make sure you print the receipt, and I've been advised that it's a good idea to staple a copy of this receipt to the back of your passport (and leave it there).
- An Application fee - ~140 USD Which you can pay for at any Australian Post Office. Make sure you do this and keep the receipt before your appointment.
- A Insurance fee - ~120 AUD This fee you pay AT the US consulate after your "interview", so make sure you have cash on you for this (although I'm pretty sure they accept bank cards).
- So yes, all up it's NOT cheap: the fees alone will cost ~$500 AUD, plus the cost of airplane tickets down to your interview.
- The interview process itself is pretty easy for most: if you're white, with no criminal record and you've triple checked all your documents are in order you'll have no problems. I was a bit surprised that it wasn't really an "interview" (where you'd expect to sit down), but instead you go into a large waiting room, get called up to a booth with bullet proof glass (US consulates are very paranoid about security), and then hand over your passport. After you get approved and pay your fee they'll take your passport off you and mail it back to you after they finish paperwork and your US Visa into it. In my case it took five days waiting in Cairns for me to get my Passport back in the mail. If not already it's a good idea to staple your DS2019 to the back page of your passport. You should now be ready to fly to America - just make sure you have a place to stay (even if it's a hotel for a few nights) and a phone number because you'll need to write this down on your custom arrivals form. On arrival in America the airport customs in Los Angeles will take a quick look over your US Visa and DS2019 form and then stapled a little "DS-94" card into your passport: this will get removed by US customs every time you leave the US and replaced with a new one every time you enter. I took lots of "supporting documentation" (including e-mails etc), but I'm pretty sure my passport (with the DS2019 and SEVIS fee receipt folded and stapled on the last page) was all they asked to see.
UPDATE: It's important to know and remember that if/when your DS2019 is extended (and it probably will be) you are supposed to repeat all of MAJOR STEP 2.... in other words you're supposed schedule another appointment with your home country's US consulate, pay the fees again (except SERVIS - you should only have to pay that once) then leave the US for the interview for however long it takes them to process another visa..... possibly a week to mail you back your passport. It's a horribly costly and slow system but that's what you're supposed to do to stay legit. If you leave the country for any reason (eg: unforeseen family matters) you will find that no matter what other documents have (updated ds-2019, drivers license etc) customs won't let you back in to continue your unfinished work contract. I thought perhaps I could just use a tourist visa (easy to get the day before), but the repercussion of that is that UCSD will stop paying you completely. Be warned. :(
- International Drivers Permit (wikipedia entry) - these last only 1 year, so in my case I waited until just before I left, filled in this form then went to nearest Australian automobile club (an RACQ office in Cairns) and paid $25. As it turns out it's been pretty useless: while most countries recognize/prefer International Drivers License over a foreign licence it's the opposite in California. My Australian drivers licence (which fits nicely in my wallet) can get me a hire-car and I've found they usually accept it as age ID in pubs/licensed premises.... although strictly speaking they should only accept a Californian drivers licences as age ID. I've not used my International Drivers permit once.
After you Arrive
Once you arrive there are many steps you'll have to take - expect it to take two-to-three weeks (or more) before you're fully "official" - meaning you have a social security number (SSN), a NCMIR e-mail a UCSD e-mail account, logins for most system and are ready to get paid! Here I've listed most of the critical steps, and what I believe is the best order to complete them.
- 1) Sign in at International Center
- The UCSD International Center is slightly hidden by trees, but not overly hard to find (map). I suggest you visit them and sign in on the same day you arrive. On your first arrival they'll make you fill in a one page form asking for your passport number, phone number and address (the latter two you probably won't have yet, so you'll write something temporary and can change it later) (see requirements). You'll also be asked to attend the next mandatory orientation session. These happen on Wednesdays mornings ~9-11:30 and very valuable - you'll watch a PowerPoint presentation giving you a lot of the information about your working in America, including what you can and cannot do with your visa (and a lot of the information below).
- 2) Get Social Security Number (SSN)
- If you are working at UCSD you need a SSN. Your SSN is required before you can get paid, get a US bank account, finish your UCSD paperwork and just about everything else (eg: most mobile carriers require a SSN for you to sign up for a plan)! You'll want your SSN as soon as possible, but not TOO soon because it can take up to five days after your arrival for their database to show you've arrived... meaning you could show up at a "Social Security Administration" venue and they'll say "we have no record of you arriving yet" - meaning you wasted a trip. What you should do is wait about five days and then try.
- 3) Complete Bulk of UCSD Paperwork
- On your first few days of arrival, hopefully the administration people will set you up with paperwork. This gets very tricky however, because there is SO much paperwork (health insurance, UCSD email account, separate NCMIR email account, health insurance, payment info, etc) and not all of it you'll be able to fill in straight away. Do what you can and make a note of what you're missing! The most important thing at this stage is to get a UCSD ID Number (aka "Employee Number" if you are an employee) as you'll need this (plus your SSN) before you can get paid.
- 4) Get a UCSD Academic Card
- By now you may have noticed most people have a "UCSD student" or "UCSD academic" card, with their photo on it. The best thing about this card (aside from having an extra piece of ID) is that you can use this to get free bus trips to/from UCSD! To get this card you'll need to go to the "Campus Card office" which is opposite the Price Center but hard to find (ask at the "International Office" where to find this place). Before you get this card, however, you'll first need your UCSD ID number (read more).
- 5) Get a US Bank Account
- There are several banks around, but I suggest Bank of America. In addition to several ATMs on campus, there is a branch five minutes walk south of UCSD where you can sit down with someone and if you take the correct paperwork from your UCSD employer (plus of course your passport etc) they can actually set it up such that direct deposits happen immediately. They'll also give you a debit card and online banking straight away, and although your not eligible for a "credit card" (on account of you have zero credit history), you can get a "secure credit card" which is effectively the same and can help get you started earning a credit history (by paying off your payments in time through autopay): the only difference to a normal credit card is that you need to deposit money into this account BEFORE spending it. NOTE: If you decide not to go with Bank of America, Chase is another big one, and they have a branch inside the main food hall at the university, which might come in handy.
- 6) Use single-sign in and get a UCSD e-mail account.
- The UCSD "single-sign in" system is something I found a pain in the arse, but you'll need to learn how to use it as soon as possible. Follow the instructions here or "how to enroll in payroll direct debit" on Blink. This will tell you how to login to "Single Sign-On".
- Call (800) 888-8267 to setup a UCSD e-mail account.
- 7) Sign Medical Insurance Form and Get Assigned a Doctor
- After you get your SSN and UCSD ID you'll be asked to fill in this medical insurance form from "[Garnett-Powers & Associates http://www.garnett-powers.com/postdoc/index.htm]" with instructions here to help you fill in the form, then ask admin who to fax it to (at the time the fax I used was "858-534-3868"). You're supposed to complete this form within 30 days of arriving, and it can take a while to process, so make sure you include a covering letter with your contact e-mail in case there are any problems! The form itself is pretty confusing (meaning I needed to visit "Merritt Bradford", 858-534-3868, to ask questions), but one of the pieces of advice I can give is for your "4a. Medical Plan Option" choose "HMO" (in this option they'll assign you a doctor and you don't have to pay any extra money), for "4b. Dental Plan Option" chose "DPPO" and "4c Vision Plan Option" choose "E". Don't ask me to explain all of these again (I've forgotten what each means), but apparently these are just the best options for postdocs. After you do this you'll get e-mailed or mailed something saying "Welcome to UCSD Managed Care" ... "If you have not already done so please contact the UCSD Registration Department at (888)309-8273 to establish a Medical Record Number (MRN). Your MRN is necessary for scheduling your appointment and many other functions through the UCS Medical Group & Medical Center". I found I did have to call this number, and EVENTUALLY I got a little paper card with my "HeathNet" insurance information and (after they assigned me to a doctor who only takes care of people over 65) I used my MRN + the subscriber number on this card to get assigned a doctor. Honestly the whole process is confusing, and I can only suggest calling these number asking for help, and you'll eventually get forwarded to the right person to help you. Be warned that the Health Care system in America sucks - not only because it's confusing, but because you can't get an appointment when you want: you should call up and you'll probably find the first available appointment you can get is 2-4 months away. Take it! In my case I was lucky enough I found my doctors e-mail address and when I said I needed a shot he organized it. Although it may take ages to get a doctor appointment, if all you need is a shot (eg: flu shot) or blood test, you can often just walk into the medical center and see a nurse after within an hour of waiting so long as your doctor has approved via e-mail.
- 8) Get a Californian Drivers License .... (if you think you'll ever need it)
- Owning a car in California is very expensive (the compulsory insurance costs is VERY steep), but is something you'll probably want to do eventually if you're staying for a while. To own a car, or even drive a friends car you'll need a California Drivers Licence. Although your foreign drivers licences will get you a hire car from most places, the advice the international center gives is that if you've been in California more than three months and are still try to get away with your foreign drivers license you *may* get in trouble with the police.
- To get a Californian Drivers license you'll need to: (1) get a "California Driver Handbook" from the DMV (or online version here) so you can learn the rules/requirements, (2) pass the written test and (3) pass the behind-the-wheel test (using a trusting friend's car). For the written test you can just walk into the DMV, but for the practical you need an appointment. The closest DMV to UCSD is San Diego-Claremont ("4375 Derrick Drive, San Diego, CA 92117" - (800)777-0133 - only 30 minutes via bus 41) or there is one in downtown San Diego. Be warned, however, that DMVs are only open Monday-Friday weekdays (8-5:00) and are very understaffed, meaning that the line extends well into the street if when show up without an appointment you'll have to wait several hours before you get seen.
- The written test is 36 multiple-choice questions and you can get 6 wrong, but don't let that fool you: it's hard to pass without reading the entire booklet. I found an example of one of these test (one of thousands - so don't expect it to help) which you can look at booked an appointment at the DMV in Clarement, so I went into a separate line and only waited 10 minutes, but the catch was the soonest appointment I could get was a five weeks away. My advice is to call (1-800-777-0133) soon after arriving in the US to ask for an appointment (even if you cancel it) and they'll mail you a free copy of the "California Driver Handbook" AND the "Driving Test Criteria". An alternative is to arrive at the DMV early and be prepared to wait hours (... although yes, you can use this time to study). Make sure you take your foreign drivers liscence + SSN + passport and $31 for written test (which you don't get back if you fail). If you pass the test, you'll get your photo taken, get issued a "temporary licence" (which you can use to practice). Make sure you ask for a "Driving Test Criteria" booklet (which they may or may not have) and book a behind-the-wheel test (expecting the earliest date to be at least 3 weeks away).
- The behind-the-wheel test isn't too hard - they no-longer require you to parallel park. Before you start driving you should make sure you can pass the "Pre-drive checklist" which includes: (1) Driver Window, (2) Windshield, (3) Rear view mirrors, (4) Turn signals (F/B), (5) Brake lights, (6) Tries (can't have a hint of balding), (7) Foot break, (8) Horn, (9) Emergence/parking break, (10) Arm signals, (11) Windshield wipers, (12) Defroster, (13) Emergency flasher, (14) Headlights, (15) Passenger door, (16) Glove box, (17) Seat belts. Each of these must be clean/working and the ones in bold you must be able to point to or you may fail before you even turn the ignition key! You pass the test by making no "critical errors" and less than a certain number of errors on the your instructor's driving performance evaulation score sheet. The smart thing to do is practice driving near the DMV so you'll be able to figure out the roads you'll be taken on. Or you could pay for lessons, but I'd rather get them free.
- Once you have a driver's licence it's valid five years. NOTE: If the only reason you want an Californian Drivers License is so you don't have to carry a bulky passport to prove your age, the DMV will actually give you an official card for proof of age for $26 (you just have to take with you your passport and SSN document).
Housing and Living
As you can see in this map, UCSD (postcode: 92093) is adjacent the coast between the suburbs of La Jolla and Torrey Pines State Forest. UCSD is 15 miles (24 km) North of the airport and "Downtown" San Diego - about 20 mins by car.
Some Suburbs You Should Know
Below is a very brief description of some of the important suburbs around NCMIR. I'll add to this list as I find out about them!
- La Jolla - Seen as a very desirable place to live and thus most houses here are millions of dollars. A lovely to visit, but expensive to live in.
- Clairemont - a popular area to live among UCSD student and staff. Clairemont is broken up into 3 neighborhoods: North Clairemont, Clairemont Mesa East and Clairemont Mesa West. Has many complexes with apartments, and many of these are on bus lines which go to UCSD.
- University City - even closer to UCSD, this is actually where I found a unit and are some good shopping centers just south of UCSD. It is pretty awesome to be able to walk to university.
- Del Mar - A fancy suburb, featuring some a very trendy restaurant area. It's ~20 mins from UCSD by bus 101.
- Mission Hills - Just above the city and many apartments. A tiny way NE (just above Balboa Park) is Hillcrest, the trendy "gay capital" of San Diego and a shuttle bus (free forucsd students/staff) drives from UCSD to Hillcrest Medical Center every 30 mins on weekdays.
- Pacific Beach / Mission Bay - A pretty area, lots of shopping, and quite sought after.
- Torrey Pines - Not many people live here, it's a state park area, named after the "torrey pine" tree which only grows in this area - it is however a good place to hike around.
- Sorento Valley - These places, and anywhere much East are considered a little bit dirtier to live.
Finding Long-Term Accommodation
If you are staying for a long period, you probably want to find yourself an affordable rental property or share-house. Below I have listed some useful websites recommended to me (cheers David):
- UCSD Commuter Student Services - has some good links and info about finding accommodation near UCSD including a guide on How to Search for Off-Campus Housing how to search for off-campus housing.
- Craigslist San Diego - very popular site/online community in the US for advertising and finding accommodation - also used for selling and buying just about EVERYTHING else too (great for used furniture for example). (*****)
- San Diego Reader - Classifieds - is a daily newspaper and on this page they list rental ads in their classified sections, including requests for room-mates. (***--)
- Signons San Diego - another newspaper featuring classified, but sadly a clunky interface. (**---)
- Walkscore - gives an indication of how livable area is without a car - just enter the address and it calculates the distance to various facilities. (****-)
- Off Campus Housing UCSD - typically requires a UCSD e-mail to login, but you can also e-mail them to request a temporary login and you may get one. I actually found it wasn't that helpful, but maybe for you it will be different.
If you wish to rent privately you can expect to pay between between about $500 and $900 per month (always charged per month) for a one bedroom unit. For $800-900 you can probably get a fairly nice place and/or very close to UCSD. For $500 you'll probably get a pretty crappy place, although if willing to share you might find a nicer place with roommates, but it's unlikely to be as close to USCD for that price.
I've found the public transport in SD a little unreliable at times (hence most people get around using cars), but what is brilliant is that the timetables for all buses, trolleys and trains are integrated into Google maps... so just go here: Google Maps, select public transport then select the time and date to find your best options.
I've written more about public transport here: NCMIR_-_visiting_from_overseas.
If you live withing riding distance of UCSD, buying a bicycles is a great idea. There is a bike-shop on campus, but it's just as pricey there are other bike stores, so I'd advise you to try using Craigslist - San Diego bikes to get something second hand. After you buy a bike you should definitely go to the Bike shop to get it "registered" with the "Pedal Club". The cost is only $6, and when you do this they'll record the serial number on your bike (in case it's stolen), put a sticker on your bike to make you more "legal", and send you to the Gilman parking structure where you will get a 10 free-days parking per quarter if your a pedal club member. In San Diego a legal requirement to have a front and back light during night, but it's not legal to wear a helmet (but I'd HIGHLY advise you to)!
As mentioned before, cards are expensive! I'll type more here when I find out more... my plan is to survive as long without my own car as I can (before I go crazy).
Induction into NCMIR
There really is no formal induction to NCMIR, although if you're lucky the admin staff will have enough time to walk you around and show you the pigeon holes, phone system and supplies cabinet.
On of the only required courses at UCSD are courses you complete online. When you are required to compete these courses you'll be e-mailed an individual URL. These online courses are generally ~15 minutes, and pretty easy to finish - if you get questions wrong it will tell you and you can just change your answer till you pass (read tips).
Computer Network and Internet
If you're lucky will you get your own computer, but many of use used shared computers. To be able to log into computers you will need to first request an "account". Go to Request a CRBS Single Sign-On (SSO) Account, and submit your details as per this example:
- Name: ................. Mr Joe Bloggs (your name here)
- Requested Username: ..... jbloggs (best to follow this convention)
- Email Address: ........... email@example.com (personal e-mail will do if you don't have NCMIR email yet)
- Email address of CRBS Sponsor: .... firstname.lastname@example.org (your supervisors e-mail address)
- Reason for Request: ..... I've just started work here and need to be able to login to shared access computers.
- SSH Key: ..................... NCMIR only (here you'll probably just want to tick NCMIR and nothing else)
- Resources you need to access: ... this is tricky - but unless you're a programmer you'll probably leave blank
- Phone: - (can leave blank or enter your mobile if comfortable with that)
- How to add a printer - shows how you can add the NCMIR printers to your laptop etc. In the NCMIR building you'll want to add "keck-bw-printer.ncmir.ucsd.edu", "keck-color-printer.ncmir.ucsd.edu" (both southern end) and "bullpen-printer.ncmir.ucsd.edu" (northern end).
I was lucky in that, because I use Bank of America, payments happened pretty seamlessly - I just had to give them my UCSD employee number and card (on an official document), and though a special arrangement Bank of America have with UCSD, they were able to setup automatic payments into my savings account.
In California you'll have to pay both federal income tax and state income tax. Federal tax rates are high - 2010 rates for a single person being at 10% up to $8,375, then 15% to $34,000, then 25% to $82,400 (see here).
State tax in California has six brackets and for a single person begins at 1% at ~$6,622 in income and rises to 9.3% over $44,814 (see here) - representing the second highest state income tax of any US state (the first being Hawaii).
The US tax year is Jan 1 to Dec 31 (unlike Australia).
- Wikipedia - Income tax in the US, or try a federal state tax calculator like calculator this one.
- Bankrate.com - California state tax rates
NOTE: I'm not 100% sure on these figures, but according to my calculations, an annual income of ~$40,000 will be subject to ~15% federal tax + ~3.8% state tax (~19% total)
Tax return forms are must be posted on/before April 18. Even if you were present working in the united state for only a day of 2010, you may have to submit a tax return for federal and/or state tax. A certain amount of federal and state tax is already taken from your pay check, and by completing the forms correctly you'll work out how much money you owe (and thus must send) or how much money the government owes you! For most of us, the government will owe you, but the state tax here is especially greedy, and if you have any kind of payment for your home country for being here (eg: fellowship money) the Californian government wants some. If for any of that year you worked in your home country they'll ask how much you earned there, although I believe that's just to establish what bracket you belong in - not take any of THAT away! Explaining tax is a bit out of my league, so my high recommendation is that you pay attention to the UCSD International Students and Scholar Office - particularly their "Tax Support" page. Every year they have a tax workshop where you can pickup the forms you need, and learn how to fill them in. From NCMIR (or wherever you work) the form you'll need is called the W-2 - which is pretty standard from all employees and shows your annual income, federal income tax withheld and state income tax.
The federal tax is the easy one. The International Students Scholar Office will give you a password to login to a website called CINTAX "Complete International Tax Preparation (at: https://www.cintax.us/)... and a few short questions later (asking social security number, all the dates you entered and left the US, and few questions about medical information) and it generates a PDF. For me this PDF included two forms: Form 1040NR-EZ "U.S. Income Tax Return for Certain Nonresident Aliens With No Dependents" (if you have dependents this will be form 1040NR without the EZ) and 8843 "Statement for Exempt Individuals or Individuals With a Medical Conditioned" (medical stuff which is "for use by alien individuals only and you must submit even if you have no conditions) in a single PDF - which you must print, sign and then mail to the IRS at:
> Department of the Treasury,
> Internal Revenue Service Cener
> Austin, TX 73301-2015
... making sure you include a copy of your W-2.
Sadly state tax is more complex. For non-resident scholars like us it's so complex there are no online and/or software tools to generate the forms we need... it's not unless you are a resident you have this (relative) luxury. The form you'll probably need to fill in is 540 NR "Nonresident or Part-Year Resident Income Tax Booklet". If you're lucky (as I was in 2011) you'll only have to fill in the "short form", but there's a better-than-average chance you'll have to fill in the long form. Both forms require you to refer to the big "tax table" at the back of the booklet, plus a lot of carrying-subtracting-and-multiplying numbers. After completing the form, I attached my W-2, and had to mail it off to the "refund due" address. As it says on the form:
If you have a refund, or no amount due, mail your tax return to:
> FRANCHISE TAX BOARD
> PO BOX 942840
> SACREMENTO CA 942400-002
If you owe, mail your tax return to:
> FRANCHISE TAX BOARD
> PO BOX 942840
> SACREMENTO CA 942400-002
Or you can actually visit the follow address and drop it off in person:
7575 Metropolitan Drive, Suite 201
San Diego, CA 92108-4421
.. and can dial (800)852-5711 for help (during business hours only).
If you are owed any money for either the federal and/or state tax you'll have the option of getting a cheque mailed to your given address or providing a "bank routing number"... in which case make sure you ask your bank for your "electronic routing number" - as opposed to 'paper' or 'wire' routing number.
Sales tax and tips
A "US sales tax" applies to the sale of almost all items (similar to a "Goods and Service Tax"). California's statewide minimum sales tax is 8.25% - the highest of any state. Unlike many other countries, this tax is typically NOT included on the advertised price listed in supermarkets or restaurants - meaning when you go to pay for something, expect to pay up to 10% more than the listed price (even prices listed in fast food joints)! I do hate this about the US, and it takes a little getting used to.
Tipping is widely practiced in the US and in California you'll be expected to tip about 15-20% (15% if average service, 20% if great service) every time you eat at a restaurant where you have service or catch a taxi. At most fast-food places you don't have to tip, but when it doubt you can always ask. One of the reasons for tipping in the US is because wait-people are paid so low. Minimum wage in California is $8 an hour, and in most other states even less (see here).
In this document I have tried to provide some practical advice on how to seek accommodation and make an easy transition to the NCMIR. Some of the best advice however, will be provided by the members of your new group. I hope this document has been useful!