What’s in a Name: for Expats moving to New Jersey or elsewhere in the USA

MOVING TO NEW JERSEY: For expats moving to New Jersey or elsewhere in the USA, a common problem that arises is inconsistent spellings and presentation of their names in key documents. Avoiding this can be critical for a smooth relocation process. This may sound a bit trite but I come across expats regularly who experience much frustration due to this. It is particularly common where expats have more than one first and last name. This is a frequent issue amongst Hispanic/Latino and French expats relocating to the USA . Those from China and from some other Asian countries can also suffer from this problem too. These issues  usually occur due to lack of knowledge but also because of circumstances beyond their control.

 For expats relocating to the USA: before you go

The starting point for getting your name presented the way you want it, is at the start when planning to relocate. Getting it right then can make everything a lot simpler down the track. Below are some key steps to follow:

  1. Try to go with the right name on your passport

Many people have a passport years before they are an expat. Often, the name on their passport is not always updated. This may be due to marriage, divorce or another reason. Having your name correct is very helpful although not imperative. If getting a new passport though, think about the details you are going to include. If it is optional to avoid including a middle name, then do not include it for simplicity sake.


  1. Check Your name is correct when getting your visa

The next step is your US visa. Getting the right name here is more important. That is because this is the basis used by immigration officers to enter your records into their system. The U.S.C.I.S. enter your immigration record details into the S.A.V.E. database. This is the system used to share your record with other agencies.

Your visa details influence how correct the record entry is going to be. Once your visa is approved and delivered to you, check your name is correct. You should also check the stamp put into your passport. Make sure your first name (given name) and your family name (last name) are spelt and presented the right way. Ensure that there are no typos and that multiple first or last names are placed on the right lines. If there are inaccuracies, try to get them fixed before you leave, as this will be easier than afterwards. visa docs

The visa software used by US government has some limitations. For instance, it does not allow a hyphen (dash) or titles to be included. So this may change the nature of your name. My visa excluded the hyphen between first names, leaving me with a single first name and a new middle name (the second part of my name). This small but important change caused hiccups during my driver license application. It also changed my core identity – something I had no control over.

  1. Other Documents to Check Before leaving

Other documents will need to be obtained before leaving for the US. Two such examples where the name details need to be consistently accurate include your home country driver license and accompanying international driver license.  These are both important for obtaining a driver license (DL) in NJ, and almost certainly in other US states.

If expats relocating to the USA have different names on these papers compared to their visa, they should ensure these are updated before leaving their home country. Even if your passport has a maiden name (name before marriage), get your home DL and IDL versions corrected to match the visa entry. All details should match such as first, middle and last names to reflect your intended visa name.


For expats relocating to the USA: after you arrive

  1. Check your I-94 or other immigration record asap after arrival

Once arrived at your first US port-of-entry, you will go through Immigration. Here your details are entered into the system by a Customs & Border Protection officer. These details form the basis of your US immigration record as an alien entering the USA. The details are summarized in an I-94 form. After you leave the airport the Dept of Homeland Security will review this record. This is to check you are legally allowed to visit. Later, the Social Security Administration (SSA) and DMV (Dept of Motor Vehicles) will access your record details via the S.A.V.E database. These latter agencies wish to check your immigration status when applying for new documents.

At the airport, you will not be able to directly see if your record is entered correctly or not. All you can do is emphasize politely to the Immigration officer, how your name is normally presented so he/she can avoid mistakes. However, this is hard to do effectively, as most officers don’t encourage discussions about this.

After leaving the airport, it is very important to check your I-94 entry online asap. You can print out your I-94 at the Dept of Homeland Security website. If there are mistakes, you should try to get the record corrected if possible. Check all names, entry date, visa status and expiration date you have been given. Mistakes are common.

You need an accurate record to apply for your next US documents, i.e. social security number or driver license. Changes to the I-94 often need to be made by visiting a Homeland Security-administered Deferred Inspection Site (DIS). For Northern NJ, this means Newark International Airport.  For those in southern NJ, there is a DIS at Philadelphia international airport. There are over 70 DIS locations throughout the US and its territories.

Some minor mistakes such as dates may possibly be addressed through a phone call to the DIS. However, most changes, especially name/ID changes, will probably need a personal visit to the site.

  1. Documents for a Social Security Number (SSN)

Your application for a SSN will require an original I-94 (or one corrected by DHS), together with the usual SSN application, passport and visa. This process was written about previously: How to Apply for a Social Security Card in the USA. During your application visit, the SS officer will check the S.A.V.E. database to see if your immigration status is verified by the DHS. The SSA use your I-94 to enter your name details. If there is an undetected issue with your name, then the SS office may either request you get your I-94 fixed yourself or they may try to address the issue themselves by sending your application details via the DHS/USCIS to check and fix. social-security-administration-building-nj

It depends on the issue at hand as to which way they will proceed. Be aware that the SSA software has limits to how many characters can be input. This means that often expats with multiple names will end up with an abbreviated last name or similar. This may be unavoidable but shouldn’t create an issue, as long as the rest of the names are presented correctly.

  1. Applying for a Work Permit (EAD)

This is another document that should reflect the same name as your visa and I-94. I have seen an expat’s DL application derailed due to differences in the names used on their EAD and other documents. In NJ, the EAD is not normally presented at the DMV. However, this expat happened to pull out her EAD card by accident. The DMV staff, then dismissed her application. This happened even though she was right at the very end of the DL process, having passed all tests and document checks!

Understandably this was extremely frustrating and upsetting for the poor lady. When she received her EAD earlier, she hadn’t noticed her maiden name was used while her visa used her married name. Her immigration lawyer used her passport (including her maiden name) without realizing that the DMV would be so obstinate approving a license with her married name.

You need to be mindful of what name spellings and presentation are used by such third party providers. This is particularly important when government documents are being applied for.

  1. Applying for a Driver License

One of the last documents that expats relocating to the USA have to apply for is their DL. As highlighted in earlier posts, this can be one of the most frustrating things any expat goes through. This is partly due to the number of papers and documents required to obtain a DL, at least in NJ. To start with NJ MVC (DMV) will request three proofs of ID that make up 6 points. This includes passport, visa, I-94, Social Security Card, and one other proof. For example, this might be a bank debit card or health insurance card etc. All these ID proofs must have matching names in spelling and presentation. When obtaining such documents in the US, pay special attention that everything matches. Banks usually have the flexibility to include several names and cater for your special requests.


NJ Driver permit application

Getting your name right in all your documents early on is important for any expats relocating to the USA.

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2 thoughts on “What’s in a Name: for Expats moving to New Jersey or elsewhere in the USA

  1. I just stumbled across your blog and I’m so glad that I did: such great information!

    My wife and I are moving to NJ from Tokyo this summer and have recently started the visa process. Having gone through all the trials and tribulations of getting visas then permanent residency, a driving licence, insurance etc in Japan, I can appreciate how important it is to have all personal information recorded correctly. At least this time around, the officials will (sort of) speak English!

    Keep up the good work!

  2. My wife and along with my 4-year-old boy are planning to migrate to the USA, and live in the NJ area around Montclair early 2019.
    Currently, I work as a Senior Manager in one of the banks here in Sydney, Australia.
    One of the questions that come to mind is how difficult will be for me to find a job out there. Can anyone share their thoughts on this please.

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