This wiki page is designed to be a howto for Australians getting to and getting on in the Bay Area of San Francisco, often referred to Silicon Valley or The Valley.
This page is not designed to be a howto on pitching, raising funds and those very specific reasons most people come to the Valley: this instead is designed to cover a lot of the supporting aspects of getting along here, and where relevant, as related and compared to Australian experiences and ways things are done.
Being a wiki, this whole page is open for you to contribute your own experiences to. In fact, we want you to contribute your advice and insights. It will make it so much easier for those coming after you.
Table of Contents
The first thing to understand about "The Valley" is that it is more a concept than a specific place or region. Broadly, "The Valley" is made up of the region stretching down either side of San Francisco Bay, with the web and software startups mostly concentrating on the Western side of the Bay, and more of the chip and manufacturing type tech companies on the Eastern side of the Bay.
At the top of the Western side of the Bay is San Francisco, which is where many people in the scene actually prefer to live. It has better nightlife, lots of restaurants and a lot of character. There is good public transport, and parking on the street is so bad that it is often desirable to get by without a car if you're planning on spending all your time in San Francisco.
There's quite a bit of startup activity in the City, often in the South of Market area (SOMA) where former warehouses have been converted into chic office accommodation and studios. Many events are also held in these parts of the town.
However, further south in the Valley is where a lot of the action - companies, investors, meetups - is.
Western Bay Area
Running south from San Francisco (see the transport section for "how"), you'll pass through a bunch of suburbia where nothing much happens. Eventually, after passing San Francisco airport, you'll hit what is really the top end of the valley.
And you'll be really underwhelmed.
It is basically just a bunch of low rise buildings and strip mall, with leafy streets in blocks, which run from the wasteland that is the shores of the Bay on the east, to the mountain range to the west.
Nestled in the often boring looking, low rise buildings the dot the sides of the 101 Freeway, Middlefield Road and the El Camino Real are the companies that are at the heart of our industry. In the northern areas you've got the likes of Oracle (look to the left not far past the Airport on the 101) in their beehive campus, Netsuite up in the hills (you won't likely see them), and as you progress further south, there is the (old?) YouTube HQ in Burlingame, Facebook (and countless others) in Palo Alto, Google and Y-Combinator in Mountain View, and (for the time being), Yahoo in Sunnyvale. Plus many, many more. Eventually, heading south, you hit San Jose, a full city in its own right, the home of companies like Adobe.
Mostly suburbia with a town centre, this place pretty much marks the northern end of "The Valley", at least on the western side of the Bay. Is part of San Mateo County, the first jurisdiction south of San Francisco.
Redwood City & Menlo Park
Similar to Burlingame, but with a less defined "town centre", these places have some good long term accommodation options, and is close to the heart of the valley just to the south to be convenient, but far enough away to be a bit more affordable. To the east are some decent sized hosting companies/data centres, and the very helpful lawyers at Perkins Coie (more about that sort of thing below).
The Marsh Road exit in the 101 is your best stop off.
Palo Alto, Sand Hill Road & Stanford
This is undeniably the heart of Silicon Valley.
The town of Palo Alto is pretty sizable, and it even has buildings more than 3 stories in height! ;-) The town centre itself is a very commercial district, with a lot of nice places to eat and drink, and a lot of businesses (both startups and the people who service their needs, like banks) located here. There's also a fair bit of high end retail, and of course a Starbucks on every other corner.
To the West, towards the hills, is the sprawling campus of Stanford. The story of Stanford is worth reading up on separately, but when it first started, the whole area of the Valley was pretty much orchards of orange trees. Standford, more than anything else, made Silicon Valley what it is today.
Running to the West from Palo Alto is Sand Hill Road, a famous stretch of road with many of the VCs in the tech community based there. The road itself is fairly unassuming, and the sprawling business parks - think North Ryde - to the sides of this road house names like Sequoia, Kleiner Perkins and many many more top tier names.
It is because of this concentration of investor money, the Stanford effect with their research and students starting companies in their dorm rooms, and the fact Palo Alto is a nice place to live and hang out that this area is really the heart of Silicon Valley.
The University exit on the 101 is your best stop off.
The next centre to the south is Mountain View, which is also the HQ of Google, the Googleplex. Google is now sprawled over numerous campuses around the area, so if you're heading there, make sure you confirm not just the building number, but also the address.
The town of Mountain View is fairly small - a main street, Castro, with a couple of cross streets like Villa that have something to offer diners, drinkers or shoppers - but pretty nice.
Rengstoff Ave or Moffet Ave exits on the 101 are your best stop off (Rengstoff for Google, LinkedIn and more, Moffet for the town centre).
Some other features of Mountain View include; a great second hand bookshop called Bookbuyers at 317 Castro St and the Computer History Museum at 1401 N Shoreline Blvd (check them online for times). Mountain View also has free wifi. The whole city has been blanketed in transmitters paid for by Google, reception can be a bit spotty but hey it's free (Brian)
Sunnyvale is a more significant centre than Mountain View, and has quite a few accommodation options.
Do you know much about Sunnyvale? If so, please help us out by editing this page and contributing.
Eastern Bay Area
Much of the Eastern Bay Area is suburbia for San Francisco, demonstrated in part by the massive traffic jams that bank up on the Bay Bridge each peak hour.
It does, however, have a few centres of note.
Has big man made lake. Oakland has its own airport, and so similarly to San Jose, you can get domestic flights to/from here, often less expensively than you pay for flights to/from SFO. Has some interesting areas. Oakland was offering tax breaks etc for startups. Council has done a lot to renovate the area. It can be rough - one of those places where not a lot of people hang out after sun set. Has 2 great of Cinemas (the paramont on 20th ? or is it 21st ? Street) is very famous - Pixar used to use it for release of movies. There is another great old thearter on the lake. Some nice car dealers.
Do you know much about Oakland? If so, please help us out by editing this page and contributing.
Alameda is often described by those who have experienced it as a refuge in the wild. Its the home of the Myth Busters. It has a nice shopping center (very basic), good local shops, and one of the best golf courses in the bay (2x18 hole, a great driving range and nice little chip and putt 9 hole). The streets are tree lined, and you can walk along the beach for exercise. It has one of the best collection of victorian architecture. Alameda is really 2 parts, the main island and then Bay Farm. Bay farm has very new houses. Bay Farm is where the golf course is - its also 5 min to the air port and Cost Co. It has a great feel as a community. Commute to SF is usually via the Ferry. Bus is also okay to SF. Easy access to freeway, but you still have to cross the south bridges to get to some areas in the south bay, but has pretty good access to Fremont. If you like going out regularly at night in SF alameda is maybe not for you (as you get around usually by car). BUT it does have easy access to Berkerley (which has great book shops and food and compared to SF PARKING!). For movie's , you can also go to Jack London Square in East Oakland. Has some nice parks (very nice one at the end of San Jose st.) The Gym opposite Webster St Bridge has indoor pool. The park on San Jose St also has pool (need to be member of swim club). Has some great diners for that US style breakfast. Tech Startup wise - has Perforce Software (on Park St, near bridge), and near webster st there is a big tech park - Ingres was there, so to the AT&T / Lucent Labs. Many more in tech park. Was also the home of the tzero (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AC_Propulsion_tzero) (Did they get purchased by Telsa ?). The old navy base has lots going on (besides myth busters) - often used for film productions (post production for Matrix was done there etc)
East Oakland / China Town / Jack London Square
Good food. Cinema and hotel. But at night you have to be aware (its still oakland).
Book shops, Cinemas , Coffee , food , dring and BART. Its a uni town. Great place to hang out on a sunny saturday morning. Its around Berkerley you will find a lot of normal people things - shops ie. the north face outlet (is it still there ?), big Peets coffee, good guys etc. DMV office.
Walnut Creek (and area)
You can reach it by BART. Has good quality housing at good prices. Commute to south bay is still a pain. Good food, good shopping etc. Easy access to the north parts of the bay.
There a bunch of telecom oriented companies around Fremont? Has BART access. Sybase is there.
Do you know much about Fremont? If so, please help us out by editing this page and contributing.
There are bunch of chip and other manufacturing companies around Milpitas.
Do you know much about Milpitas? If so, please help us out by editing this page and contributing.
South Bay Area
The South Bay Area is at the bottom of the San Francisco Bay, where the Western and Eastern stretches come together.
The home of Intel and a bunch of other companies.
Do you know much about Santa Clara? If so, please help us out by editing this page and contributing.
The home of Apple computers.
Do you know much about Cupertino? If so, please help us out by editing this page and contributing.
San Jose is the most significant (in size) town south of San Francisco for far. It is currently the 10th largest city (by population) in the US. It has its own airport - which is great for domestic connections - and is located beyond the end of the San Francisco Bay. In this sense, it is at the foot of the West and the East Bay Areas defined above.
San Jose is also a popular place for sizable conferences, and there are plenty of accommodation options in San Jose. Unfortunately, it isn't as much of a startup hub; it is closer to Palo Alto than San Francisco, but San Francisco is a much more attractive urban centre to live in, so people who commute from a major city to the Valley generally come from San Francisco instead.
If you have kids under 5 travelling with you then there is a small scale theme park in San Jose called Happy Hollow that they will probably enjoy, also the Children's Discover Museum is fantastic and for the older kids the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose is definitely worth a visit. The library in downtown San Jose is on the edge of the San Jose State campus and is modern with free internet access. (Brian Menzies)
Do you know much about San Jose? If so, please help us out by editing this page and contributing.
Most of the time, the free market and capitalist way things are done in the US is awesome. One of the times it doesn't so such a good job is with transport. In short transport around The Valley is a hoge-poge mess so some help here before you arrive could be really valuable.
A general rule of thumb is it's about 45 minutes from Palo Alto to San Fancisco. Allow extra time for peak hours and extra time if you are trying to get to someplace across town. The 101 is the shortest route from San Fran to San Jose, but it is always busy and can be slow. The 280 is longer but typically less crowded so you can travel faster and drops you at the VC end of Sand Hill Rd if that's were you are going (note the 280 has terrible cell) (Brian Menzies)
International flights fly into San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Daily direct flights are available via Qantas and United. United's 747's on this route are some of the oldest and most tired flying in the western world, so Qantas charge a premium because they can.
Competition on this route is still horrible, but things to Los Angeles (LAX) have improved since V Australia and Delta have started flying from Australia to LAX direct. Qantas have shifted their focus to LAX, and their premium aircraft (the new Airbus A380 and the newer 4-class Boeing 747s) fly into LAX rather than SFO. The 14 hour flight to the USA is much nicer in the A380 than the 747s, regardless of the class you fly, so it may be worth choosing LAX as your entry & exit port in the USA.
If you choose to take on the trip via LAX, you can then choose whether to fly into SFO or San Jose from LAX; San Jose can actually be closer and more convenient.
If you want things to improve, lobby your local member to adopt an open-skies free trade policy which includes Singapore airlines. Qantas have in the past offered great deals to people in the US flying the SFO>SYD return leg, but don't make the same great deals available to Australians, so whatever you do don't fly based on a mis-placed sense of patriotism - Aussies flying the Valley have been screwed by them for years now.
If you are moving to the US for an extended period, but wish to return to Australia once or more during that time, consider buying a return Aust - USA - Aust ticket but deferring the USA - Aust leg as long as possible. For those trips home, buy your return tickets USA - Aust - USA, and use the deferred leg of your original ticket for when you're moving back to Australia.
If you prefer to fly in Business or First class (and good luck to you - I guess that means your start-up is doing well!), look at the Airline alliances for their round-the-world or circle fares. OneWorld (of which Qantas and American Airlines are members) offers a Circle Pacific fare in Business at around $8000AUD, which you can use to fly between Aust and the USA via an Asian destination of your choice for about the same price as a full-fare Business flight one-way Aust-USA.
If you're going to be heading anywhere other than San Francisco city when you get into town, plan to hire a car right away, and book it before you leave (see car hire below). Public transport everywhere except the heart of the city is horrible - you really need your own car.
The Bay Area Rapid Transport (BART, and pronounced like the name of the famous Simpson's character) is a great system for getting from the airport to the City. It will cost you about $10 to get into the middle of town (probably Powell St Station) is your best bet for onward connections using the Muni (see below) around the city), and you need to feed a ticket machine enough credit, at which point it will give you a re-usable, re-loadable plastic card.
These machines dispense change in coins only, so if you've just gotten a bunch of $20 bills out at the ATM, buy yourself a Snapple juice or something to break it down so you've got at least a $10 note.
You stick the card into the front of the turnstile, and then you need to take it out again (for once Sydney trains do it better since you can maintain forward momentum as our gates spit the ticket out the top). Make sure you use the few "wide gates" if you are dragging your luggage or you'll get stuck and look like a twat.
Don't be afraid to get a seat. The ride from SFO to the city is a relatively long one. It is also mostly in tunnels and quite loud - bring your own iPod soundtrack.
The stations are well announced, and there are LED sign panels in most carriages, so you shouldn't get lost or miss out.
If you get into the city during the day, there is a helpful information centre upstairs from Powell St Station - you can ask them for help with forward connections on the Muni, etc.
Muni is short for the Municipal Railway, but don't be fooled: this is more a bus and tram operation than a railway.
The Muni has lots of routes all over the city. There is a light rail style metro service which runs from platforms in the same station facility as the BART, but one floor up.
You'll need to exit the BART, get tickets for the Muni (and they don't accept notes (not sure if this is still accurate), so make sure you got lots of quarters from your Snapple purchase back at the airport).
The buses are a bit more forgiving: you pay the drive $2 as you board, and you'll get a "ticket". This is a transfer, that allows you to ride any Muni you like until the time designated by the torn off section at the bottom of your "ticket". The drivers don't give change, however (you feed the money into a little box that takes coins and notes), so unless you're shouting a few travelling companions, make sure you have $1 notes.
For those with smartphones and local data plans, the NextMuni service is pretty good: you can select your route or your stop number, and it will tell you how long until the next service, and you can even see a map of the city with the route coloured in and little red arrows showing you where each bus on that route is.
The buses are often cramped, so seriously consider getting a taxi to your hotel or accommodation when you get into town with all of your luggage.
The Caltrain is a diesel powered double-decker commuter train service that runs from San Francisco (south of Market) down to San Jose. The trip can take quite a while, and unfortunately, it doesn't connect with the airport directly; instead, you need to take the Bart to the connecting station, Millbrae.
If you're connecting from the airport, make sure you've got more change for the Caltrain ticket machine (BART and Caltrain are completely separate). Also don't be slow at getting off from the BART and across to the Caltrain platforms; their schedules are often synchronised (although the Caltrain is less frequent than the BART), so you don't want to be trying to run with your luggage down the stairs to the Caltrain, only to see it shut its doors and drive off right in front of you (it has happened to me).
The Caltrain now runs in either all stations or express modes. Most express modes will stop at Palo Alto and Mountain View. For more information, check the timetables at Caltrain and print them off before you leave (since the time taken to clear customs at SFO can vary).
Remember, only plan to catch the Caltrain south to the Valley if you're really, really sure you won't be relying upon it or taxis to get around to wherever you need to go. Public transport outside San Francisco really really sucks.
In case you haven't gotten the message yet, hiring a car is almost essential if you're going to be based outside of San Francisco. Thankfully, the options are plentiful. Kayak is a great place to start your search.
I've had success and great deals with Enterprise, ABC and Alamo in the past, but the rates and competitiveness between the firms often depends a lot on how long you're hiring the car for. Kayak knows best. Also don't be afraid to get a "compact" at the lowest price; almost every time I've hired the smallest and cheapest, I've gotten something much better value.
To get to the car rental at SFO, you'll need to catch the Airtrain (which goes around the airport on an elevated track) to the Car Rental Garages. There are two airtrain lines, and only one goes to the rental car garages; it is pretty well signposted which is which. If you're coming out of international, go to your right hand side after getting your luggage for a shorter trip, and catch the elevator to the top/airtrain floor.
Remember to note that if you are with someone like ABC Rentals or Fox Rentals, these are "off airport" rental car companies. They will want to know what flght you're coming in on, and they'll have a driver downstairs from the rental car centre on the southern (towards the airport) end in parking bays, ready to take you to their facilities. This can save money, and the hassle isn't too big a deal in my experience (the queues for the on-lot rental car companies can really suck, sometimes making off-lots faster).
Taxis are good in San Francisco itself. Outside of the city, they're very hard to find and not very reliable. Don't count on them outside of San Francisco.
Couch surfing can work well for short stays. Put out an email to the Silicon Beach Australia list and introduce yourself, and separately (and preferably at least a few days later), mention the dates you're coming to the Valley, what you're hoping to achieve, where you're looking to stay/base yourself, and whether anyone would be prepared to put you up at their place.
For less chaotic accommodation than couch surfing but on a tight budget, take a look at AirBnB. The service lists rooms to rent on a per-night rate in private homes across the US and has a good depth of listings in the Bay Area starting around USD60/night (Oct 2009). Chances are, your hosts will be working in technology, may well be ex-pats too, so will be understanding of irregular working hours . You're likely to find good coffee and free wifi most of the time. (Alan Jones Oct 2009)
Hotel rate comparisons
If you are looking for the best rates on last minute hotels check out www.hotwire.com and www.priceline.com - the name your own price feature I have got 4 start hotels in the city ie the Hyatt for $120 US a night. In Mountain view $50 a night long stay hotels that have a kitchen in them.
Another to try is Wego.com, which does a meta-search of all the other travel sites and can turn up a few hard-to-find bargains. (Alan Jones Oct 2009)
San Francisco Hotels and Apartments
San Francisco has a lot of hotels, ranging from the fancy to the horrible. Services like Hotels.com do a pretty good job of covering them and finding last minute deals the way we do in Australia with Wotif.com.
- The Mosser is a decent hotel in the middle of town, near the Moscone Centre (where a lot of big events get held). Its rooms are small but clean and well presented, and you have a choice between shared bathrooms (backpacker style) or your own ensuite. The bar/restaurant downstairs is good too, particularly their Buffalo Wings.
- Hotel Bijou Also not far from Moscone, 1 block from Union Square and last time I stayed was 1/2 the price of the big hotels (also has a movie theater with two San Fran themed movies a night for free) Just on the edge of the wrong side of Union Square, it is very clean, good sized rooms and had breakfast included.
Palo Alto Hotels and Apartments
- Sheraton Palo Alto - around $250 per night. Good walking distance to downtown Palo Alto, Stanford, etc. Not the flashiest of places, but the best of a fairly average bunch.
Mountain View Hotels and Apartments
- Oakwood Serviced Apartments - around $100-$150 per night including taxes. Good walking distance to downtown Mountain View. Because they're apartments, you get your own kitchen, which can save you money as well as getting fat on American restaurant food.
Sunnyvale Hotels and Apartments
There a lots of reasonable priced restaurants around but if you are staying in a place with a kitchen and have a tight budget then super markets are the way to go. Most of the main chains have standard (high) prices and specials that you can only get if you have a membership card. So the first time you shop at that chain say you want to join the membership club, they will give you a card with the necessary bar code and an application form, keep the card and ditch the form and your good to go. The supermarkets also sell wine and beer without having to pay twice! Best way to find them is search for the following Ralphs, Albertsons or Safeway (ps you can trust google maps in the Valley) (Brian Menzies)
More than anything, it is the people, and the person to person connections, that make Silicon Valley so successful. While the money/venture funding helps, it is the person to person relationships and connections that get deals done, provide the brain food for coming up with new ways of doing things, and the fact the eyes of the tech world are on the place means that you have the chance with other people to make a pretty big difference.
Founded in 2002, ANZA TechNet has been helping innovative Australian companies explore and enter the US market ever since. Hundreds of Australian companies across virtually every tech sector have taken part in ANZA workshops in Australia and attended the Gateway to the US Summit in Silicon Valley, usually held in October.
ANZA is run by Viki Forrest. She's based on San Francisco and really accessible to Aussie entrepreneurs when they're in town. She will have a cup of coffee with you and listen to your plans about the US and offer helpful tips, no matter how early-stage your company is — or how far advanced. If you're serious about relocating to the US, via Silicon Valley, contact Viki at moc.tenhcetazna|ikiv#moc.tenhcetazna|ikiv.
Advance is a dynamic and diverse community of Australians overseas, with more than 18,000 members, extensive industry networks and strong relationships with global business, government and academia. They have a large and active Silicon Valley/San Francisco membership and run monthly events like Word of Mouth that brings together locals working in the innovative tech industry. Louis Matthews is the West Coast manager, based in San Francisco. Contact him at gro.ecnavda|ocsicnarfnas#gro.ecnavda|ocsicnarfnas
Anyone with an eye on the US, and US-Australia connections should subscribe to the daily news digest distributed by Dateline Media.
Blogger who works with a number of small and innovative businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area, makes the occasional US-Australia connection with fun posts called "US and Under".
Telecommunications in the US has a few similarities to the public transport system comments: in some cases the free market does a great job, but in others, not so much. When it comes to fixed line communications, the Americans have it sweet - free local calls in most cases, inexpensive long distance, and unlimited data plans bundled with cable TV plans. In mobile, however, it is a horrible mess, but one that is getting sorted out gradually.
The core problem stems from having at least two competing standards, across numerous spectrum bands. The two main standards are GSM - like we have in Australia, as well as for most of Europe - and CDMA, which was phased out in Australia a couple of years ago. There is also the iDEN standard, used by Boost Mobile, and based on TDMA.
Beyond this problem, there is the issue of coverage: whereas the Australian carriers have (mostly) stopped competing on having the best coverage or the least number of dropped calls, in the US this is very much where they're still at. CDMA generally has better range than GSM - which is why we had it in Australia for a while: for people in the bush to use after Analogue was shut down - and so there is a common complaint that AT&T's coverage is horrible (using GSM) compared to Sprint or Verizon (who use CDMA). Basically, don't expect to have the same quality of coverage here, in the richest country on earth, as you do in downtown Bangkok.
Problems I have experienced with mobile data connections.
The end of Sand Hill Road is where the money is. Unfortunately its not where the GSM/3G coverage is (this was in mid 2008). If you are pitching to VC's and you need to connect to the web to demo, make sure you check in advance you can use their Wifi, as even if you arrive with 3G Dongle, there is no guarantee you will get 3G. Get there 15 minutes early and setup the Wifi. Mike Nicholls
Roaming from Australia
In almost all cases in Australia, we're on a single, standard format known as GSM, or the Global Standard for Mobile. In the United States, however, they have lots of different standards. AT&T is the main GSM carrier in the West Coast area, with Verizon and Sprint being CDMA based carriers (and thus incompatible with phone you're using now in Australia), and T-Mobile being more east-coast focused, but with roaming agreements with AT&T so that they let each other's customers use each other's networks.
To keep using your Australian service in the US, you'll want to call your carrier in advance, ensure roaming is enabled, and then when you land in the US, you'll turn your phone back on - or turn off flight mode - and you'll likely get service via AT&T.
Anyone who's travelled will know how astronomically expensive international phone calls can be. There's no good reason for it, other than the carriers can get away with it due to inadequate competition, they figure if you're affording to travel and want to use your phone, then you are going to be able and prepared to pay for it.
In this age of persistent data services and connections, however, there is a sneaky roaming cost that could really hurt: data costs on Australian carriers (mostly) when roaming are around A$20/MB+GST. So, just leaving your mobile's data plan on is likely to cost you a lot, and you won't find out about it until later. So, unless money is no object, turn off data on your phone, even going so far as to delete your data profile/settings, so that it can't accidentally connect to the data network.
The alternative, however, is to get a local number for the US, which will give you the benefits of cheaper calls, cheaper data costs and if you're a smartphone and Google maps user, also help you get around.
Getting a local SIM (prepaid)
If you're only planning on being in the US for a little while, you should probably think about getting a pre-paid SIM card from AT&T or T-Mobile (the GSM carriers). T-Mobile have a pretty good deal, at $50 per month for unlimited calls, and another $10/month for unlimited internet connectivity. AT&T has a deal where you pay $1/day for your calls and then you pay $19.95 for 100MB of data. So, if you're only here for a couple of weeks, you should probably go with AT&T, if you're here longer, and/or if you're a really heavy data user, go with T-Mobile.
While you can order the services online, they'll only ship them to US addresses, so your best bet is probably to enable roaming on your mobile, don't connect to data, and go to a T-Mobile or AT&T store as soon as you get in.
Getting a local handset (prepaid)
Much like in Australia, you can get discounted handset purchases where the handset remains locked to the carrier in question. This situation applies here in the US too, so if you're thinking that you'd like to leave your normal phone alone, and get something specifically for your time here in the US, then you have a bunch more options than just AT&T or T-Mobile.
Specifically, an originally Aussie outfit, Boost Mobile, has a $50/month prepaid, completely unlimited service. The handsets are all from Motorola (since they are the people who invented the iDEN network the Boost Network runs on), but they're a good option. Alternatively, you can look at carriers like PlatiumTel (who run their stuff of Sprint's CDMA network). In fact, by going CDMA you get better signal and coverage, good data speeds and a LOT more choice between carriers (for example, you get to access both Sprint and Verizon's networks, as well as their resellers).
Of course, your phone will be useless in Australia because it is both locked to the telco and on a frequency we don't use down under, but if you're planning on making regular trips, this could work well.
Getting a local handset (postpaid)
If you're settling in, you'll probably want to get a local handset on a proper plan. As in Australia, going postpaid instead of prepaid gives you access to much better details. Contracts have similar terms as in Australia, but one thing that is different between the US and Australia is that the carriers get a lot more involved in the phone selection. Because they are so big here, the carriers enter into agreements with companies like Nokia, HTC, Motorola, Apple, Palm, Blackberry and more, and make significant changes to handsets, including putting their branding all over and all through them, and sometimes getting exclusive arrangements so you have to go with Carrier A if you want Phone X. Anyone who's followed the drama about Apple and AT&T online would appreciate the headaches this lack of choice has for consumers.
So, in many ways, you should choose the handset you want first, and then head over to the carrier in question and see what plan options they have that suit you best.
While it might be hard to find free Wifi in Australia, this is very easy in San Fransisco. Because most data plans in the States are unlimited the hotspots tend to be open wifi, so you don't need a key at all. You will find most free wifi around restaurants and pubs. Mountain View are has the free Google Wifi network, but my experience with it is not great. If you want to get some work done in Mountain View, try Red Rock on Castro street.
C-Corporation (an 'inc' company)
Visas, Immigation & Tax
Social Security Numbers
San Fransisco is a city of micro climates. Especially the difference between downtown San Fransisco and the bay area is huge. While it might be blue skies and warm in Palo Alto, it's likely to be overcast, cold with strong winds in downtown San Fransisco.
Getting Set Up
Frys is an electronics shop and Vallay icon. It's the sort of place you used to go before the cloud when you really needed another 12 servers at 8pm on a Wednesday night. If you are setting up a home or office then a trip to Costco could be a big help too. You need a membership card to enter the store and it's scanned before each purchase so sneaking in won't help, but ask around someone will have one that they can lend you. If you drive up and down the 101 you'll notice that Palo Alto has an Ikea, so that's office and home furniture taken care of! (Brian)