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Relocating during the COVID-19

Vincenzo Chianese
Vincenzo Chianese is an Italian Software Developer focused on WebAPIs and User Interfaces. Currently doing APIs @SentinelOne
Updated on ・12 min read

TL; DR: I had the pleasure of relocating exactly a week or so before the COVID-19 spread to a level where the United States decided to declare the shelter in place and lock down the country.

This is a quick and hopefully humorous tale about what happened to me.


For those of you that do not really know me — I have relocated 3 times over the last 6 years; and by relocation I do not mean moving to a house behind the corner or to a nearby city. I mean changing 3 states and a continent.

Prague, December 2014

I had already decided that it was time for me to leave my original country (Naples, Italy) with the clear idea of not coming back for a very good chunk of time.

At that time, I was so desperate to leave that my desidered standard levels were basically 0. Anything would have done the job. I indeed ended up in Prague, Czech Republic — landing on 12/14/2014.

That ultimately was a very good experience, from both a working perspective (I had a great gig for a local startup) and from personal life as well.

Madrid, September 2017

Once the company I was working for was sold to Oracle in January 2017, I started to talk with my managers about opportunities of leaving the country and work from somewhere else along with other requests that have been on hold for a long time.

I wasn't satisfied with the answers I received — and Oracle was not worth my time in Prague, and decided that leaving would be the n. 1 priority.

I quickly found a gig in Madrid, Spain. It was a place that I always wanted to go and the offer was good, so I agreed.

After one month offline (August), on September 4 I moved.

Austin, March 2020

Time passes, in 2018 I was hired by Stoplight and after they realised I was a good fit, we agreed that moving to the United States would be a good idea.

Unexpectedly, I was selected in the H1B lottery AND was approved by the USCIS at the first shot without questioning or asking additional documentation.

I went from the mood I had at the beginning of the application "we'll try, but most likely we won't make it" to "this was clearly destiny, the United States is calling me".

I got my VISA stamped in December and I decided that January 2020 would be my moving date.

For personal reasons, I couldn't finish all the things I had in mind in January and I shifted the relocation, aiming the beginning of February.

Since I had a speaking engagement at the end of February in Atlanta, I decided that it'd have been a better idea to do a single trip (Madrid - Atlanta) and then move to Austin to settle down.

My time in Europe was about to end and I wanted to use it all. I traveled every weekend of January and February. Me and my flatmate wanted to enjoy our time together till the very last drop and so we went to Granada, Berlin and then Tenerife.

Tenerife was already on the spot because COVID cases were signaled at the time but we all felt safe anyway, since we had very little knowledge about this virus. We were still in the phase of "it’s only in Wuhan")

In any case, I took my plane, I landed in Miami first (where somebody was waiting for me just outside of the plane to bring the for the first inspection — had no problem with that; did my work in Atlanta and then I ultimately landed in Austin.

Then, the COVID and the restriction started.

Flight schedule: gone

I had different flights all booked ahead of the time that I had to cancel. Namely:

Date From To
Mar 19 Austin Osaka
Mar 29 Osaka Singapore
Apr 4 Singapore Bali
Apr 7 Bali Singapore
Apr 7 Singapore Madrid
Apr 20 Madrid Amsterdam
Apr 23 Amsterdam Madrid
Apr 27 Madrid Austin
May 31 Austin London
Jun 16 Madrid Austin
Jul 31 Austin Madrid
Dec 8 Austin Madrid

When the whole thing started, the trip in Asia was the first one to be gone. I purchased another flight to reach Madrid anyway in April through a connection in Miami. Such flights ended up being cancelled anyway.

I could have taken the one for June (they can't prevent me because of my passport), but I when I phoned the CBP officer in Dallas to understand what would be the rules to enter the country again they were very clear that if I go out, I would not be able to come back.

Further, once landed in London there would be no flight out for different days; therefore I would be blocked there and it was just not an option.

Current situation: I have spent a significant amount of time on phone calls with different airlines (American Airlines, Scoot, Qatar, Iberia, British Airways). Some of them have refunded me, some of them have offered credit that I decided to keep since I fly with them pretty often.

I still have a significant amount of money out because of this (mostly with American Airlines).

The loop

Once you land in the United States, the first thing you want to do is likely get a Social Security Number, as it's really the door for a lot of other things you probably are going to need such as a bank account, a driving license/ID, set up your health insurance and so on.

When I landed, the offices were already starting to wind down because of the COVID spread, so I ran to the only one still open in Austin and went there 1h ahead of the opening time with no appointment. It goes with no saying that the queue was immense — and with some very weird people there as well.

Once I got that figured out — the employee told me it would take a couple of weeks before I'd get the SSN mailed to my address. That wouldn't normally be a problem, but when also that office closed, I was uncertain if my file had been processed already or not. Without a SSN I was in a situation where:

  • I couldn't open a bank account
  • Without a bank account, getting paid would have been way more difficult
  • I could not enable my health benefits
  • I could not get a Texas ID
  • I could not rent a place — at least not through a regular leasing agreement. The only way would have been a sublet, which I wanted to avoid if possible.

I had the luck of being hosted by a very good friend of mine and, although he didn't have any problem hosting me for all the necessary time I wanted to get out of his way as soon as possible. I'm not the kind of person that takes advantage of situations.

The SSN fortunately arrived 8 days later (that was fast, according to what people told me around) and I was able to register for my health benefits. On the other hand, it wasn't really that easy with the rent and the bank account.

The leasing agency tried to verify my credit score, although I told them ahead of the time I had literally landed 10 days ago, resulting in my file being empty. After being refused and some begging, they agreed to rent me the place anyway with a big deposit (3 months) paid in advance. I liked the place very much for a number of reasons, so I agreed.

Regarding the bank account, the experience was even worse. Since all the physical offices were locked down, I went ahead and tried multiple online services. Chime, N26, Varo, Simple, Capital One you name it.

They would all refuse me with no explanation and calling them on the phone wouldn't help. They wouldn't disclose why I was not eligible for a bank account, and my only clue would be insufficient credit history.

While walking on the street I realised the strong presence of the Spanish bank group BBVA. Although I was not their customer when I was living in Madrid — I tried to call them and see if they could help me somehow. Here's a summary of the phone conversation:

Sure no problem, just come here in person and we'll set up a bank account in less than an hour.

Fantastic. When's a good time to come?

Now? Oh now impossible, we're not letting anybody in with the pandemic.

End result: no bank account in any case. I ended up resolving by opening an account with Revolut which had recently opened their operations in the United States; they wouldn't usually do that but since I am a customer in the EU as well, they have "converted" my account to an US one without having to go through the whole procedure of opening a new one.

Revolut has some limitations: it does not support ACH transfers / Direct Debits and does not provide regular checks — which apparently are still important here, but at least I could get paid and (with a 2.3% surplus) I would be able to pay my rent as well.

Building a credit score

I was aware that credit score here is a thing. What I didn't know was how big of a deal it is.

I never had a credit card while in Europe — and I was not planning to have one in the US either; I then realised at my own expenses that credit score is a little bit more than a simple score for merely credit purposes. It tells a lot about you and essentially for anything that is a monthly subscription — people might ask and check your credit score.

My credit score has been checked so many times that I felt that even buying a coffee would require your credit score to be above 650.

From what I've seen so far, there are 3 ways to build your credit score:

  1. Ask for a secured loan. Essentially a company is going to theoretically lend you some money; in reality they won't give you anything but you're still paying the monthly instalment. In exchange for that, the company will report your payments to the credit score agencies. At the end of the repayment, you'll get all your money back minus interests and fees. Fundamentally, it's like asking for a loan and get only its negative parts
  2. Ask your landlord to report your payments
  3. Get a credit card (secured or not) and pay its balance on time

The first one felt so ridiculous that I imperatively refused to do that, so I went for the option n. 2.

Good thing, the community manager of the property I'm living has already an agreement with an automatic platform to report the rent payments. I would just need to register, pay the 6.95$/month fees and I would be good to go.

I did that, and 20 days later I got an email that my application was canceled. I called the support to understand why and the conversation went like this:

My application has been rejected, I would like to understand why.

Sure, let me check that out…oh yeah, we can't accept your application because you do not have any credit score

Ehm, but the purpose of all this is to build a credit score.

Oh I'm so sorry, I understand, but I can't help you. Is there anything else I can help with?

Option 2, gone. I had no choice but to try with a credit card. I tried to apply to the Apple one, and I got rejected. Insufficient credit score.

Ok fair. Then I tried with Discover. Rejected. All right, I'll go with a secured credit card and go from there.

Discover has a good offer, so I decided to go with them. I filled out the form, got the application approved. Unfortunately when it's time to pay for the deposit I realise they only support payments through direct debits, which my bank does not support. As long as I liked Discover, I couldn’t work with them for the time being.

All right, time to find another alternative. I check out on the internet relentlessly and I land on OpenSky CC webpage. They claim to accept the deposit via Debit Card, and it effectively worked.

I filled up the application and I got approved for the pharaonic amount of 100$ per month (Las Vegas, here I come) but you know everybody has to start from something, so I'll go with that.

Once the card finally arrives and I swipe it a couple of times, I realise that they accept a debit card to pay for the deposit, but the only option to pay the monthly due amount is via direct deposit or mail a check. Guess what? My bank does not support any of these.

I needed to find a way to pay back my due amount as soon as possible, otherwise I would start very bad in terms of credit score.

I started to google any single combination of keywords about credit, bank account, checks, credit cards until I found https://www.plastiq.com. The basic idea is simple: you swipe your card, Plastiq will mail a check to the designated recipient.

Although complicated, I thought I finally found a way to close the loop with my secured credit card and slowly build the credit score. I sign up for the service and I issue an order to mail a check to pay my due balance. I went to sleep convinced that I’d have fixed it.

Unfortunately for me, my tale with this wasn’t over yet. I received an email 4-5 days later with a “good” news from Plastiq:

Plastic Announcement

I’m back to the beginning. I can’t pay for my secured credit card balance — and the due date is almost coming. I needed to find a bank account with direct debit support. There was no other option.

I started very early the following morning with a sole purpose: finding somebody willing to open me a bank account online (or even in person, didn’t really matter) with direct debit support.

I’ll skip the whole tale and the 3000 phone calls I had to do. The ultimate choice was between Betterment and Radius and, after a long chat with the support person on the phone, Radius approved to open a bank account right away with full support for paper checks and direct debit. I was finally done. I transferred some money on it as soon as it was opened and paid the secured credit card balance in time.

Totally out of curiosity/boredom I applied again for a Discover Credit Card — not even secured — and it got approved right away for a line of 1000$. I was very very surprised. I guess that the first payment was reported and the fact of having an US Bank Account probably helped during the qualification process.

The skin rashes

I am not allergic to anything.

I’ve been saying this sentence since forever; not because I wanted to brag myself; but rather because it was my belief since my childhood.

How wrong I was — and if you’re thinking about the same, it’s highly probable that you’re wrong too.

Austin is one of the worst places in terms of allergies — and I knew that when I was relocating. I really never worried about that though since by the time I was about to relocate I had visited the city multiple times (October 2018, May 2019, August 2019, November 2019) for a relatively long time (2 to 6 weeks) and I never had any problem.

So after a couple of weeks I’d have moved, welts would start appearing on my body, but since they were few (4-5), localised and weren’t bothering me at all, I didn’t care at all.

The situation degenerated quickly — when I started to have them almost everywhere in my body; I would start to feel itchy; wake up during the night because I would be itchy, and some occasions even painful.

Initially (since I was still convinced that I wasn’t allergic) I thought about bed bugs. I inspected all my furniture (for the record, it was all brand new) and I effectively did not find anything; still, I was still paranoid about it and called the leasing office for an inspection/sanitisation and left the place just to be sure, being hosted by a friend of mine here in Austin for an entire week.

In the meantime, I started to look for a doctor to get a diagnosis and eventually a treatment, if necessary. I looked for a primary physician and a dermatologist.

Because of the pandemic, unfortunately, nobody was willing to see me in person and all they would be able to offer would be video calls, which I refused for some time until I started to see the symptoms worsening (I was literally unable to sleep and felt zoned out the whole day).

The situation did not improve and I was on my way to the emergency room (I had no other choice); fortunately by speaking with my coworkers found a dermatologist willing to see me in person.

That was NOT the end of it. I am not going to go too much into detail, but here’s the history of the visits I had (so far):

Date Physician Diagnosis Prescription
Apr 1 TelaDoc Bed Bugs Triamcinolone
Apr 13 Walk In Clinic Seasonal Allergy Claritin
Apr 16 TelaDoc Hives/Urticaria Prednisone
Apr 20 TelaDoc Hives/Urticaria Hydroxyzine
Apr 23 Dermatologist Folliculitis/Atopic Dermatitis Keflex/Clobetasol
Apr 30 Dermatologist Folliculitis/Atopic Dermatitis Keflex/Clobetasol
May 15 Dermatologist Skin infection Not disclosed until I know more
Jun 3 Dermatologist Skin infection Not disclosed until I know more
Jun 12 Dermatologist Skin infection Not disclosed until I know more
Sep 11 Dermatologist Skin infection Not disclosed until I know more

You can see that almost every doctor had a different idea of what my problem is. It seems like the last one finally got it right. I’m still keeping my fingers crossed.

During this weird situation I discovered:

  • I am effectively allergic to Cephalexin
  • My family has an history of Psoriasis
  • My sister has been suffering of atopic dermatitis for a while

What about now?

My skin issue is not solved yet, although it seems that it has been dramatically improving.

In any case, I am now trying to leave the country on July to rest a bit in Europe, and try to start over in September. Again.

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