Want To Move To New York City? An International Playgirl Tells You How!

New York CityPhoto by Philipp Klinger.

“Dear Gala, If you ever felt the urge to write a “how to: move to NYC from Melbourne” post, I’d really appreciate it! I found out last week I’m transferring to my work’s office in NYC and tonight my best friend heard he got into NYU, starting in September. We’re moving from Melbourne, just like you did, and any advice on that transition would be incredible!”

I get emails like this all the time! As a New Zealander living in New York City, & as someone who has made that sometimes-tricky leap into getting an American visa, I totally understand. The idea of moving to a new, foreign country–especially one with immigration policies as harsh as the U.S.A.–can be extremely intimidating!

Sometimes I think that crazy feats are only attempted by people who have no idea what they’re up against. This was definitely the case when I moved! I leapt before I looked, & thankfully, it all turned out for the best–though the actual process was long & unwieldy, to say the least!

My story…

I moved to New York City on a whim in 2008. It actually wasn’t meant to be a permanent move, more like a holiday. I was living in Melbourne, as I had been for a year & a half. It was my boyfriend’s birthday, & we decided to go over to NYC for a party our friends were throwing. (Friends we had never met, mind you!)

NYC had always been my dream city. From the first time I visited in 2006, as soon as I stepped out of the cab in front of the Chelsea Hotel, I felt like I was home. I wanted to live in Manhattan more than anything. But my boyfriend had cautioned me that it was an extremely expensive place to live, telling me, “you don’t want to be poor in New York City”. At the time, I had just started galadarling.com & literally had no income. We were sharing his pay-cheque & living a pretty austere life. In fact, the only way we were able to afford the trip to NYC was because he had just gotten a bonus from his job.

We arrived in NYC at the start of May in 2008. It was so beautiful. Spring had sprung, & we spent our days walking around the city, looking at the blossoms & soaking up everything the city had to offer. I never wanted to leave. It had everything I’d ever wanted: gigantic cupcakes, the most amazing raw food, beautiful parks & thriving people. The energy was unparalleled, & unlike anywhere I’d ever been. I was totally in love.

Gala in NYC

Soon, a week had passed. My boyfriend had to fly to London for work, & I had arranged to stay with a friend for a few more days. I had a flexible plane ticket, & could go home any time. I kissed him goodbye. “I’ll see you soon,” he said.

I got in a cab with my enormous suitcase & went uptown to my friend’s apartment. They showed me to my room, a teeny tiny space which really only fit a mattress. (I wedged my suitcase between the mattress & the wall, & used it as an impromptu table!) My friend was one of the original fashion bloggers, & she wanted to set up a project with me & a girl called Meg who lived in Florida. “Let’s go down to Florida & we’ll brainstorm everything!”, she said. “I’ll buy your ticket!” Who could say no?

The three of us spent a week in Gainesville, & while Meg & I were having a gay old time, relations between my friend & I were becoming strained. We finally reached a crazy breaking-point when she practically pulled me outside by my arm & proceeded to yell at me in the middle of the street. I was due to go back to NYC the next day, while she had planned on returning a few days afterwards. She ended by saying, “When I get back to NYC, I’d like it if you weren’t in my apartment.”

So that was that. I called my boyfriend in a panic. He was suit-shopping with his brother in London & not really paying attention to me. That’s when the penny dropped. I realised that I was in a foreign country, entirely alone, & my fate rested entirely on my shoulders. I had to come up with some kind of solution. Mild terror sank in, but quickly dissipated as I started working out what I was going to do next. Hilariously, the concept of going back to Australia never occurred to me. I was going to do whatever it took to stay in NYC!

When I got back to NYC, my friend’s husband met me at the front door & carried my suitcase up the five flights to their apartment. (What a saint.) He knew what had happened–he looked at me like he felt sorry for me, but clearly couldn’t say anything. I packed up the remainder of my stuff & then booked two nights at the Sofitel hotel.

When I got to the Sofitel, it was time to get into it. Thank god for travelling with a laptop–I immediately started browsing the available sublets on Craigslist. When I saw one that I liked the look of, I called the owners & went down to the West Village to have a look at it. As soon as I walked out of the subway station, a girl stopped me to tell me she loved my blog. I took that as a positive omen!

Five flights up, I knocked on the door. The apartment was beautiful. It was huge! It was also expensive, but I pushed that to the back of my mind. You’ll just have to earn more money, I thought to myself. The owners of the place loved me, & offered it to me on the spot. I said yes, & they said I could move in the very next day. I was overjoyed!

My first apartment in NYC.
Gala in NYC
Photo by Craig Arend on my new rooftop!

What happened next was a whirlwind: I made friends quickly, went to crazy burlesque nights, met a handful of my longtime heroes (Dame Darcy, Patricia Field, Marc Jacobs), my best friend came to visit from Melbourne, I met Nubby, went to Coney Island, & basically had the best summer ever.

Alas, the plot thickens! I was in the U.S.A. under the visa waiver program, which is what most visitors are entitled to. You can come into the United States for 90 days–& what an incredible 90 days they had been!–but then, you have to leave.

Oh, did I mention, I had also broken up with my boyfriend? At this point, I was essentially homeless.

I flew back to Melbourne, so exhausted by the angst of packing up my apartment & the prospect of going back to the place we had shared that I slept the entire way. When I got back to our old place, I discovered that he had rearranged the entire apartment, & everything I owned was now in the spare room. Fresh off the plane, I started going through it: sorting it, throwing things out, & making piles. I called a shipping company, who said they would pick it up & transport it to my parents’ place in New Zealand. I hugged my now ex-boyfriend goodbye, & booked a flight to Wellington.

I was pretty relieved to see my parents, I tell you!

Over the period of the next year, I can’t even tell you how many times I flew back & forth between Wellington & New York. I would spend 90 days in Manhattan, then return to Wellington & stay in the spare room at my parents’ house. I’d wait it out for a couple of months, then go back to New York. Wellington to Auckland (1 hour) to Los Angeles (12 hours) to New York City (6 hours). Then, 90 days later, I’d go back the other way. Back & forth, back & forth. It was extremely draining, not to mention, acutely expensive!

The good news is that I had immense luck with my apartments. I stayed in my first sublet a second time, then later, in the apartment directly below it (!), & my last sublet was in the East Village (with Nubby as my roommate!).

Gala in NZ
Killing time in New Zealand…

It felt like life began & ended in Manhattan. My plane would touch down at JFK & my phone would come alive, & my week would be booked solid within a day. There were always parties to attend, shows to go to, friends to see, new places to eat at, adventures to be had. Sometimes it felt like being in Wellington was like having my life on pause, or being in limbo. It felt like nothing really ever happened! It was quiet & slow & though I could appreciate that for a couple of days, after a week, I became itchy. I was always counting down the days until I was due on a plane.

Finally, after approximately a year of dilly-dallying, I knew it was time to arrange it so I could stay in the U.S.A. for more than 90 days at a time! This was partially prompted by an irate immigration official, who told me, as I was coming into America from France, that I was spending too much time in the States (you’re meant to be out of the country for 90 days before you come back!), & partially by the fact that I now had a boyfriend in Manhattan who I didn’t want to be away from!

I did a bit of research & found an immigration lawyer who I liked. He thought I would be eligible for an artist’s visa–an O-1 visa–& we started to build my case. We got reference letters from friends of mine, compiled every article & piece of media on me that had ever been published, & wrote up a resume. It wasn’t cheap to do this, but it wasn’t as hideous as it could have been, either. I think (it was a while ago!) he charged $1500 upfront, & then another $1500 once the visa had come through. (You do, of course, have to pay application fees to the government, too.)

Eventually, the paperwork came through! I was in New Zealand at the time, & had to fly up to Auckland for an interview with a customs officer. They call you to a window, ask you questions & squint their eyes at you. I flirted with my officer, smiled & asked him whether he preferred me blonde or pink (HAHAH!), which worked a treat! Before I knew it, I had a visa in my passport & I was good to go! I booked a flight back to the U.S.A. for that same week, & before long, I was home again. PHEW.

So… that’s how I did it!

Gala in NYCPhoto by Chloe Rice.

“The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” (John Updike)

If you want to move to NYC…

Everyone has a different way of getting here. Some get hired by American companies, some marry citizens & others just stay under the radar once they get into the country, & never leave. (Eep!) What worked for me may not necessarily work for you, & vice versa. But the very first thing I would recommend is…

Get a good immigration lawyer! They are worth their weight in gold. 99% of them will do a free initial consultation, in which you explain your situation & they will let you know what your options are. My lawyer, Alejandro Filippa, is AWESOME, & I recommend him, but the city is full of lawyers & you will surely find one who meets your tastes!

Don’t be afraid of subletting! It is the very best way to get acquainted with the city before you find a permanent spot! Yes, subletting an apartment can be expensive, but there really are apartments to suit everyone’s budget in this city. Craigslist will be your saving grace. (By the way, I have never been scammed, but as with anything in a big city, be sure to use your common sense! I would also recommend asking about cockroaches & bed-bugs. Yuck!)

…Though, while nice people, almost everyone I’ve ever subleased an apartment from was pretty nuts in their own way! I once had a neighbour crawl out onto the fire escape & stare into my window, because the owner of the apartment I was in had asked her to “check on” me. (What?! Wouldn’t a simple knock on the door have sufficed?!) I think the simple truth is that being in NYC for a while makes you nuts, so you just have to come to expect that, & learn to roll with the punches!

Flirting with the customs officials always works!

Have a bit of money put away! It’s true that New York City is an expensive place, & especially if you’re subletting. Most people will want the first month’s rent plus security (typically another month’s rent). Not to mention, you have to eat! NYC will either teach you how to budget, or you’ll get really comfortable living on the bones of your ass! I find NYC really inspiring–it compels me to earn money in a way that Melbourne just didn’t. From necessity comes creativity & innovation! It’s also a great place to test your own limits!

Become familiar with Yelp. I used it to find out where to do my laundry, where to get a good cup of coffee, & where to get my nails done. It saved my ass so many times!

Grab a copy of Love & Sequins #11: It’s Up To You, New York, New York! It has all my tips for surviving (& thriving!) in this nutty metropolis, as well as a list of my favourite restaurants, bars, nail salons, & stores!

Dating in America is crazy. Be prepared! But I found the dating scene here to be really refreshing. If someone is into you, they’ll let you know! People actually “date” here, which was a very foreign concept to me, too!

Video via Nubby!


Twitter wisdom!

@ambyrosia said, “Spend the first week or two getting used to your neighborhood, as well as lower-midtown Manhattan”, & I agree! No matter where you’re living, take some time to explore your neighbourhood! You’ll find all kinds of treasures, & again, dive into Yelp & see what’s recommended around you!

@stotto said, “There will never be a “right” time to move here. Just do it! Also, don’t be afraid to work multiple jobs if necessary.” It’s true! Most people in NYC work a few jobs, either to pay the bills or because they have a side-project that they want to make into their full-time vocation. Everyone here works hard (it’s compulsory in order to live), but we play hard, too!

@sklose said, “Use a local friend’s address for job applications & apartment hunting. That stuff is much easier if people think you’re here already.” Smart cookie!

@everyday_runaway said, “Secure temp housing for 1 month to best educate yourself to what neighborhood “fits” for you before committing to a long lease!” Yes, definitely! When I first came to the city, I thought the Upper East or West Side would be the place to live, but after about, oh, a week (!), I realised how wrong I was! I’m a downtown girl!

@eggvip said, “Calculate two hours of travel time when planning any visits to a different part of the city (if you’re completely new)!” Haha, yes! Getting around NYC can be complicated until you get the hang of the grid, the subway, & cabs.

@caseymlewis said, “#1 tip = don’t worry about not knowing anyone, if you love nyc, don’t let anything stand in your way.

@vivnsect said, “This series on Curbed helped me find humor (and he has good tips for dealing with real estate brokers!” (Also, here’s part two & part three!)

@jeanniehuang said, “Living in NYC means frequently being alone. You’ll combat loneliness but learn a lot about yourself.” This is so true! It’s a strange thing to feel alone in a city crammed full of people, but it’s a feeling you’ll become familiar with! However, just like she says, you’ll become so much more self-sufficient, independent & strong!

@alexandra412 said, “Don’t be afraid to explore by yourself, you never know who you might meet!” New York City is wonderful in this way. I feel like I am always meeting fascinating people here. One of the things about NYC is that the population is so densely-packed that you just have to be a people person. (If you weren’t, you’d have a breakdown!) Sure, people can get stroppy & impatient (they’re human, after all), but most people here love to talk to others. It’s fantastic.

@luinaemcanish said, “It’s more expensive then you can imagine. Have a safety fund in case things go drastically wrong.”

@hercatwalk said, “Rent is ridiculously expensive, so get a roomie! You can live in a nicer apt for cheaper that way.”

@theotter said, “The first year of living in NY is the hardest”. Yes! It takes time to adapt to any city & NYC is no exception. Once you have your bearings, you will go from strength to strength!

One of the most exciting nights in NYC… ever!

Don’t be afraid of New York City.

& don’t let anything stop you from coming here, either! New York City has a big, bad reputation, but the city is absolutely what you make of it.

New York City is all about sinking or swimming. Some people who come here can’t hack it. It’s too noisy, too rushed, too bright, too much–& those people inevitably leave shortly thereafter. But for those of us who relish all that–the sounds, the pace, the colours, the extravagance–for those of us who love the unique challenges this city presents, who adore walking out the door knowing that absolutely anything could happen… It’s the best place on Earth.

If you’re ever feeling alone, lost or bewildered, remember that almost everyone who lives here came from somewhere else. If they can do it, & if I can do it, you can too!

Video via Nubby!