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Getting Started in Berkeley

Disclaimer: The Early Career Scientists Society aims to provide up-to-date information. Please note though that all information posted here is subject to change. As always, caveat emptor.


Postdoc Benefits at Berkeley Lab

Information and a brochure about postdoc benefits at Berkeley Lab can be found at the Berkeley Lab Postdoc Benefits website.


International Postdocs

This section contains some hints, tips and explanations aimed at postdocs coming to the Lab from abroad. The International Researchers and Scholars Office (IRSO) at Berkeley Lab has some useful additional information, and the UC Berkeley International Office (SISS) is a wonderful site with lots of useful information.


Berkeley Lab is home to many postdocs from all corners of the world. If you plan to come to work at the lab from abroad it is essential that you apply as early as possible. The National Academy of Sciences actively lobbies Congress to accommodate foreign postdocs coming to the U.S. and provides a useful website. At Berkeley Lab, all visa matters are handled by the International Researchers and Scholars Office (IRSO)

Social Security Number

The social security number is a unique identifier which is used primarily to enable you to pay taxes, but it is vital to many other transactions and should be obtained as soon as possible after arriving in the U.S. The SISS Social Security Numbers page contains all the details of how to obtain your SSN in Berkeley.

Banking and Credit

In the U.S., almost all financial transactions are influenced in some way by your credit score — opening a bank account, renting an apartment, obtaining electricity or telephone service at your apartment, getting a credit card, getting a cell phone etc. If you come from outside the U.S., you will not have a credit history and U.S. financial institutions have no way of determining your credit history in your home country. This can cause significant frustration. If you do not have a credit history, it may be necessary to give a significant sum of money as a deposit to the Electricity and Telephone companies so that they will provide you with service. Many apartments require a credit check prior to renting. If you don't have a U.S. credit history, it is essential to provide as much information as you can to mitigate this — when viewing an apartment bring as much documentation as you can — a letter of employment from Berkeley Lab stating your salary is particularly useful.

Most banks in Berkeley will allow you to open a "Checking Account", and many will offer you free fees if you agree to allow the Lab to deposit your salary directly to your account. Bring your passport, Berkeley Lab ID badge and your letter of employment with you to the bank. One point to note is that U.S. banks usually charge fees if you withdraw money from the ATM of another bank so it may be prudent to pick a bank that has a large ATM network.

If you have just arrived in the U.S., you may have difficulties obtaining a credit card. Many banks offer a "Secured Credit Card", a situation where you give them a sum of money and they issue you a credit card with a limit equal to the sum you deposit with the bank. The bank will then assess you after 1 year and decide whether or not to give you a regular credit card. A secured credit card provides a useful way to build up a credit history, but it is essential to make all payments promptly. If you have a credit card from your home country, bring it with you in case of emergencies. See also the SISS Money Matters page.
For more credit score information, click here.


All persons working in the U.S. must file an annual tax return. UC Berkeley's SISS provides a good summary of the procedure.



Rents in the Bay Area are among the highest in the country. It is useful before you arrive to browse the various accommodation websites to get an idea of the prices you can expect to pay for the different locations in the East Bay. If you do not plan to buy a car, it may be convenient to live near the Berkeley Lab's Shuttle Bus Routes. If safety is a concern, you can check out the crime statistics of each area within Berkeley or Oakland.

There are a number of fee-based accommodation agencies which will provide you with a list of available apartments to let, or available shared accommodation. One such agency is Calrentals, run by UC Berkeley; another is E-Housing. Many postdocs have had most success with Craigslist, which allows users to browse apartment listings for free, as well as posting wanted ads etc.  UC Berkeley's SISS also has a useful Finding Housing page.

If you arrive without accommodation, there are a number of short-term options. The YMCA in downtown Berkeley has rooms which can be rented by the day or by the week. There are also a number of hotels and motels in the area.

Once you have managed to find a place to live, the next job will be to furnish it. Depending on your budget and requirements a number of options are available. Perhaps the most popular furniture store in the Bay Area (if not the world) is IKEA which has a large store in Emeryville. Other options include Garage Sales which pop up frequently in residential neighborhoods at weekends. Just drive around and follow the signs which people post at road junctions, and you will soon find yourself examining large quantities of assorted furniture, books, CDs that someone is keen to dispose of. Feel free to haggle, and offer a lower price than that requested as reasonable offers are usually accepted. Many people advertise their upcoming Garage Sales on Craigslist. Craigslist is also a useful source for people selling used furniture at reasonable prices.


Cars &Transportation

You can find general information on transportation on the IRSO Transportation page. UC Berkeley's SISS has a useful transportation page on obtaining a drivers license and buying a car.


Attention new residents: "When you make your home here or take a job, you must get a California driver license within 10 days" (information from the DMV homepage). It is possible to do the paper test without a social security number but you need this number for the “driving behind the wheel” test. After you pass the paper test you get a temporary driver license (valid for 2 months). The Department of Motorvehicles (DMV) is a place where you can get all information concerning driver license and vehicle registration.

There are a lot of places where you can search for used cars, for example in newspapers like the Cars or on websites like Craigslist. Another possibility to get a good deal on used cars is car auctions (for example: Alameda County Auction in Dublin, CA). The AAA is also a good place to find information about new and used cars.

There are several car co-ops in the East Bay, including ZipCar and City Carshare. They are quite popular and have many cars to access in the San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley area. The fees are reasonable for short duration trips and provide a great alternative to purchasing a car!

To get access to Berkeley Lab by car you need parking permission. Parking Permits are issued in Building 65A, Site Access Office.

Public Transportation

On the SF website you can find a lot of information about public transportation in the bay area (for example Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART)). Another useful site is, which provides a detailed trip planner to any destination in the East Bay (including buses, trains, etc.).
The local bus service in Berkeley and Oakland is called AC Transit (Alameda County Transit).
Berkeley Lab provides On-Site shuttle bus service throughout its 130 acre facility, and Off-Site bus service to and from its off-site locations, the UC Berkeley campus and Berkeley BART stations.


Bikes in Berkeley must be registered!

Biking at the Berkeley Lab site requires a helmet at all times. To get up to Berkeley Lab on the hill, which is sometimes a hard uphill climb, you can take the Berkeley Lab shuttle buses. All of these buses are equipped with bicycle racks.

Commuting by bicycle from farther locations (including San Francisco) can also be done using the BART.  All BART trains allow bicycles on board (except some trains in particular directions during rush hour, check the BART website)


Health Services & Insurance

If you have a question concerning health service or insurance you might find the answer at the UC Human Resources and Benefits website At Your Service.
Other information resources are:

Also see Berkeley Parents Network for recommendations.


Childcare, Schools & Classes

A very useful site for parents is the Berkeley Parents Network.

You will need time to look for childcare for your kids since the programs, levels and environments vary a lot. Childcare is very expensive ($700 to $1400) so you are advised not to sign up for any childcare before visiting the provider, reading about it and meeting other parents. It is harder to find care for infant and toddlers (up to 2 yrs). You might prefer home day care or a nanny. Bananas is a great place to inform you about different options. Berkeley Parents Network is also great to read about personal experiences. UC Berkeley provides childcare for staff's children. It is a great place but still expensive and there may be a waiting list.

Schools in Berkeley are also very different. You have to get informed and visit different places. You can also check Berkeley Parents Network. There are plenty of education styles here and with time (and money!) you'll find something of your taste. Also, if you are from another country inquire with your embassy about funding.

School ends in May and starts again in mid-August. If you need to work during the summer, you can still bring your child to summer camps (YMCA, Cal Bear.......).