Seattle is surrounded by water, mountains, and evergreen forests, and encompasses thousands of acres of parkland so its nickname of "The Emerald City" is well earned. This makes it easy for the metro's more than 3.7 million people to get outside and be active. Those who prefer a more sedentary lifestyle will still get great views while drinking a glass of locally produced wine or craft beer. This city has something for everyone, from downtown urban living to quiet (and not so quiet) beach towns, leafy suburbs, and even houseboat communities.
This metro is home to several massive technology companies, including Microsoft and Amazon. Other big players like Facebook and Zillow also have offices here, and hundreds of startups call the city home as well. The aerospace industry, anchored by Boeing, is another major part of the metro's economy. And coffee addicts can go straight to the source since Starbucks is headquartered in Seattle. Tourism continues to reach record-breaking levels, adding to the city's economic diversity.
Sports fans will have no shortage of teams to root for: Seattle has a professional football team, a professional basketball team, a professional baseball team, and two professional soccer teams.
This is a city for serious drinkers: you'll find nearly 1,700 coffee shops around town. For more adult beverages, there are dozens of wine tasting rooms and over forty breweries making beers for every palate. The culinary scene is similarly rich, with upscale institutions that have been around for decades and casual neighborhood spots alike.
If there's one thing that's consistent across Seattle, it's the casual vibe. This is not a city that celebrates excess and showboating, perhaps because there's just no competing with surrounding mountains and lakes.
Read on to learn about the basics (housing, transportation, internet, and more!) in Seattle and to find the perfect neighborhood for you.
Seattle is one of America's safest big cities.
Public transit is great in the city center, but elsewhere you'll likely need a car.
No, it's not the cold wintry weather the city experiences. Rather, it's the superficially nice people you'll often encounter. Don't get us wrong: there are a lot of great people in Seattle and you will make friends. But if it's common enough to get it's own name, then the stereotype can't be too far from the truth.
Seattle has a growing homeless population and while the city is doing what it can to help, you'll encounter homeless camps throughout the city and its suburbs.
Following a trend of many major U.S. cities, Seattle's real estate prices have increased at a fast rate in recent years. Some of this increase is due to the booming technology companies here hiring skilled labor, but some is attributable to international buyers, mostly from Asia. Experts expect the city to add 100,000 people to its population by 2025. The increasing home prices have pushed commuters farther away from the city core, resulting in some of the worst traffic in the country.
Renting in Seattle
Seattle is a competitive market for renters and rents have been skyrocketing in recent years. Because of this, you'll need to move fast on available properties because they'll get snapped up quickly. Additionally, Seattle has a law that landlords must rent their property to qualified applicants on a first-come, first-served basis. That means it pays to be the first one to apply, provided you qualify. (This rule does not apply to the cities east of Lake Washington, like Bellevue and Redmond.)
Since you need to react quickly, you'll want to scan real estate websites frequently (or better yet, set up automated alerts on real estate websites) for the type of home you're looking for. Since rental leases typically end at the end of the month and tenants must give landlords 20 days' notice before moving out, there can be a slight bump in the inventory around the 10th or 11th of a month, so if your timing permits you can concentrate your search around those days. And if possible, try to see properties or go to open houses during the week to beat the weekend crowd.
Most properties in Seattle come with major appliances like a refrigerator and stove.
As a tenant, it's important to understand the obligations of your landlord and your own responsibilities. Seattle has a handy guide available for reference.
Buying in Seattle
There are no restrictions in the United States on foreign citizens owning property. You'll generally need to work with a real estate agent and a real estate lawyer to complete the transaction. Foreign buyers are often required to provide a larger down payment than domestic buyers (30-40% versus 20%). A commission of 6% of the value of the sale is typically paid to the real estate agent. Canadians and Chinese are the biggest foreign buyers of Seattle area property.
Helpful real estate websites
Padmapper.com - Padmapper pulls in rental properties from over 100 sources and displays them in a map view. You can easily filter the results based on home size, cost, and whether pets are allowed.
Findwell - This is a regional real estate site that makes it easy to find homes for sale based on region and neighborhood.
Zillow or Trulia - Similar in functionality (and owned by the same company) both sites can be searched for properties for rent or for sale. They generally have the exact same listings; the main difference is how they display the results based on your search criteria.
Craigslist - This is not just a place to find a home: you can find pretty much anything you can think of on Craigslist. But it can be a great place to find a rental or a roommate. Just be more careful with the properties you see here since there is not a lot of quality control for brokers posting here.
Seattle has one of the better transportation systems in the United States and you'll find a menagerie of public transit services to get your around, including trains, ferries, buses, streetcars, and monorails. For those who live and work in the core of the city, this means that public transit is sufficient for commuting and errands. The farther way you get, however, the more likely it is you'll need a car.
Using public transit is managed via the ORCA card, a smart card that you can add funds to and is tapped against a card reader when getting on a bus or entering a rail station. (The monorail and streetcar are quite limited in the geography they cover, are mostly targeted at tourists, and don't accept the ORCA.) Bus fares range from $2.50 to $3.25 per ride for adults. Link light rail fares range from $2.25 to $3.25 per ride and train fares range from $3.25 to $5.75. ORCA discounts are available to minors, seniors, disabled, and employees whose companies participate in the LIFT program.
TRANSIT AND WALKABILITY RATINGS
For each Seattle neighborhood you'll see a Transit rating and a Walkability rating. The Transit rating tells you how good and reliable public transportation options are in that neighborhood. The Walkability rating tells you how many local amenities (shops, restaurants, fitness options, etc.) you can walk to in that neighborhood.
There are dozens of banks in Seattle and for day-to-day personal banking they’re all pretty similar so you should pick one convenient to you. It’s important to consider that if you use an ATM (aka Cash Machine for you Brits) from a competing bank you will likely be charged a service fee of $2 to $4 dollars, so don’t pick a bank that is far away or every time to you need to take out cash you’ll get charged.
Alternatively, there are some banks in the U.S. that are online only. Because they don't have any physical locations they allow you to use any bank’s ATM and then reimburse you for any service fees.
Note that each bank will have its own policies, such as minimum balance requirements. Make sure you understand any requirements and fees before you open an account.
All bank deposits in the U.S. are backed by the government up to USD $250,000.
WHAT YOU'LL NEED TO OPEN A BANK ACCOUNT
Opening a bank account is a straightforward process. Once you've picked the bank you like you can visit a local branch and meet with a bank rep. You'll need the following documentation:
A social security number (SSN) or individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN) are not required to open a bank account though it will make opening an account with an online-only bank difficult. You can get an ITIN from the United States Internal Revenue Service.
Education in the United States is typically broken up into five phases:
The great majority of students in the United States in elementary school and high school attend public schools. Public schools do not charge tuition (they're funded by taxes, so they're not exactly free) and are open to any school-aged children in the school district.
School districts are an important thing to understand when moving here. The United States has some terrific public schools, but it also has some terrible public schools. The school district you live in determines which public school your child can attend. You'll typically find that a home located in a good school district is more expensive than a home that isn't. It's also important to know that school districts don't necessarily overlap with an entire neighborhood – some neighborhoods may be split in half by the boundary of a school district, creating a huge difference in home prices even though the homes are separated by a few feet.
And some school districts may have a great elementary school but a bad high school, or vice versa. So if you have school-aged kids and plan to send them to public school, make sure you check the quality of the schools before you find a place to live.
The independent Great Schools organization has a useful website that grades all of its public schools on a number of criteria.
CHARTER SCHOOLS AND PRIVATE SCHOOLS
Charter schools are a type of public school but often have a private sponsor as well to help fund the school's operations. Charter schools typically pop up in communities with bad public schools. They focus on rigorous academics and are less beholden to the rules and restrictions of regular public schools. Because of their strong curriculum and teachers they are highly desirable, which means there are never enough spots for all the kids who want to go to them. Many accept students through a lottery system. This is something you may want to look into if you will be living in a neighborhood that does not have any good public schools in its district.
Private schools are another option for educating your child. Seattle has dozens of private schools within its borders; some of the private schools are among the best in the country and send a large proportion of students to the top institutions of higher education in the United States. There is no restriction on which private school your child can attend provided he or she meets the school's criteria (some are very competitive academically). The downside of private schools is that they do charge tuition and can be quite expensive. You're also still required to pay the taxes that fund public schools so you're double-paying in a way. Most private schools do offer financial assistance to students who can't afford the full tuition.
American healthcare may be one of the most confusing things you'll have to navigate when you move here. If you're being relocated for work by your employer and will be on an employer-sponsored visa, then typically your employer will provide some sort of healthcare plan for you and your family. If you're moving for a different reason and will not be covered, then by law you'll need to obtain healthcare on your own.
Many physicians will not provide their services if you do not have healthcare. Note that in the event of an emergency hospitals must provide treatment even if you don't have insurance. However, you can expect to receive a bill for the treatment and even simple procedures can cost thousands of dollars.
PREMIUMS, DEDUCTIBLES, COPAYS, AND COINSURANCE
When you're evaluating healthcare plans you'll see the terms premium, deductible, coinsurance, and copay. These are important terms to understand since they'll impact the cost of the healthcare plan to you.
A premium is the payment you make, typically monthly, to your health insurer to keep your health insurance plan active. If you have health insurance provided by your employer then they may pay for some or all of the premium.
This is the amount of money that you will personally have to pay for healthcare services each year before your health insurance starts to provide coverage.
For example, if your plan has a deductible of $2,000 then your health insurance won't cover any costs until they are higher than $2,000. So if you have a procedure that costs $5,000 you would pay $2,000 and your insurance would pay $3,000. If you're a healthy person who doesn't require any major treatment during the year then it's likely you'll never spend more than your deductible.
Some health insurance plans do provide coverage for basic services like an annual check-up before you've met your deductible.
Plans with a high deductible typically have cheaper monthly premium payments, but you'll pay more out of pocket before insurance kicks in. And some plans with very high monthly premiums do not have a deductible at all.
Think of coinsurance as sharing the cost of healthcare services with your health insurer. This is a fixed percentage amount that you pay for healthcare services and applies after you've met your deductible
For example, let's say you have physical therapy treatment that is covered by insurance and your health insurance plan dictates that each time you visit a physical therapist you have a 25% copay. If the physical therapy treatment costs $100 then you must pay $25 and your health insurance will pay $75.
Plans with a lower monthly premium payment tend to have a higher coinsurance amount.
Some health insurance plans have something called a "copay" when you obtain medical services or prescription drugs. This is a fixed amount that you pay for healthare services and, once again, only applies after you've met your deductible.
For example, you may have a prescription for medicine that is covered by your health insurance, but each time you go to the pharmacy to refill the prescription you have a copay of $20 – basically, you have to pay $20 to get your medicine and your health insurance covers the rest.
If your situtation or your family's situtation requires frequent trips to the doctor or you are frequently refilling prescriptions, you'll want to find a plan that has a low copay amount.
Some health insurance plans may have both copays and coinsurance.
HELPFUL HEALTHCARE WEBSITES
GetInsured - This simple-to-use site makes it easy for you to shop for insurance if you're not covered by an employer. You can filter by different criteria such as deductible amount, plan type, and health insurer.
ZocDoc - ZocDoc is an easy way to find a doctor in your neighborhood who accepts your insurance.
Very few Americans install landline phones these days, so we'll focus on "cellphones", which is what mobile phones are called here. There are two main ways of getting a cellphone and cellphone service in the United States:
CELLPHONE SERVICE PROVIDERS
Cellphone coverage is ubiquitous across this country's major metro regions but not all service providers are created equal. There are four main businesses in the United States and they each offer trade-offs between the quality of their coverage and their price.
There's no clear winner in Seattle when it comes to choosing an internet service provider. And if you live in an apartment building you may not have any choice: some buildings are only set up for one service provider so you can either take it or leave it.
Time Warner Cable (TWC) is ubiquitous but much hated for their terrible customer service. They've been working to improve the experience recently, however. They offer speeds of up to 100 megabytes per second (Mbps) download for $39.99 per month.
CenturyLink is a regional provider that offers fairly pedestrian speeds of 7 Mbps and 12 Mbps, both for $29.95 per month. (Why anyone would choose the slower option when it costs the same is a mystery.)
Xfinity by Comcast, like Fios, is not available everywhere in the city. It offers speeds of up to 250 Mbps. Their 25 Mbps speed plan costs $29.99/month when you sign up for 12 months. The 150 Mbps plan is $49.99 and the 250 Mbps plan will set you back $79.99 per month.
Seattle is a very dog-friendly city and there are some great dog parks around. While some Washington state municipalities ban pitbull type breeds, Seattle itself has no such restrictions. However, you may find some landlords who otherwise permit pitbulls do not allow tenants to have these types of breeds due to liability concerns.
You may only have three small animals, such as dogs or cats, at your home if your property is less than 20,000 square feet (1860 square meters).
If you're interested in more unusual pets, you may keep miniature goats and small potbelly pigs.
A full list of pet restrictions is available on the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections website.