What It’s Like to Legally Change Your First Name

As early as I could remember, I’ve hated my Chinese name. It was a completely masculine name. I felt my female identity was challenged.

Growing up, I constantly dealt with people’s surprised reaction towards my name. So much so I tried to apply for a name change with the local authority when I was 17 years old.

I was denied. The reason they gave me was that 17 is too old for a name change. Later, I found out that was not true at all. I may have encountered a disgruntled civil servant who was trying to wrap up her day without getting more work from a kid.

When I moved to the U.S., I had a new problem— English speakers butchering my Chinese name badly.

To make things easier, I picked out an English name (Italian to be precise), Stella, from a dictionary. After living in the U.S. for 10 years, I was ready to make it official.

I had been warned of the hassles. However, to celebrate the end of my first decade in the U.S., I was ready to say goodbye to all of the confusions whenever I call customer service.

After filling out numerous forms, sending documents to various government agencies, publishing notices on newspapers, court appearances and hundreds of phone calls to credit card companies, banks, social security office and every other place I have an account with, I have a new name.

It took a total of three months, a couple of hundred bucks, and lots of emotional stress. Worth it? Absolutely. It is not for the faint of heart, but it’s definitely not as scary as I thought.

Until recently, I didn’t realize that legally changing my name was a possibility as a non-U.S. citizen. I was well aware that my home country’s government will never change my name on my passport to an English one because English is not our language. However, I learned that it is possible to add a note on my passport after I legally changed it with the U.S. government and obtain my green card.

Every country has different policies regarding changing names for citizens living abroad, but knowing that my country’s no-change policy wouldn’t affect my ability to assume an English name in the U.S. was knowledge that I wish I had earlier.

As an immigrant, I was no stranger to lengthy legal processes. I was confident to do this alone without an attorney — and I was glad I didn’t hire one because it was actually very easy to do.

The only complicated side was following through with every step outlined by the court — in my resident state of New Jersey — roughly 20 easy steps!

As with everything else in the U.S., every state follows a different process, so if you’re contemplating doing the same in your state, check in with the superior court of your state (often the county you reside in) to make sure that you are following the correct procedure.

For the State of New Jersey, I downloaded a document from the website of Superior Court of New Jersey with a clear outline of all the steps required. As a meticulous person, I followed all the steps and quickly received a court appearance date. The steps are relatively straightforward, when condensed as follows:

  1. Notify the court that you want to change your name. Fill out 6 forms, make copies and send to court with $250 check.
  2. Prove to the court that you are not on the run or owe creditors money. Send forms returned from court to County Prosecutor and Director of Criminal Justice.
  3. Tell the world that you are changing your name. Publish your court hearing on newspaper designated by the court. This will run you about $50-$100 depending on the word count, which is determined by the length of the hearing court order.
  4. Appear in court on the date of hearing. Do NOT be late! Yes, the judge can be late, but you, my friend, cannot. Unless you want to waste your time and come back again in a few weeks.
  5. Publish the court’s final judgment on newspaper after hearing. Once again, you have to announce it to the world that you are changing your name — one final time. And yes, you will have to shell out another $50-$100 for this one.
  6. Purchase copies of court order (final judgment) with raised seal. This one, again will cost you money per copy. In my case, I paid $75 in total for 3 copies as 2 needed to be sent to government agencies for record and I needed 1 copy to bring to other places (banks, credit card companies, SSN office etc.) as proof that I legally changed my name.
  7. Notify Department of Treasury and Registrar of Vital Statistics. I was confused if I should send anything to Vital Statistics because I was, after all, not born in the U.S. The clerk at court said that I should send it anyway, and I did. Guess what? I shouldn’t have. A few weeks after I sent the court order to Vital Statistics, I got a call saying that they couldn’t find my record. Duh! If they could, I would need to call my mom and ask her where she really was when I was born. The fact that one government agency does not talk to another one still baffles me, but it is the reality and I got a good laugh out of this.
  8. Notify the Motor Vehicle Commission, banks, social security office and every other place you have an account with. This is the final and the most “fun-filled” part, as some companies and institutions will not make it easy for you. Some customer service agents are not familiar with the process and will waste your time going back and forth. I made an extensive list of all the accounts I have ever opened and called multiple companies a day for almost a month trying to thoroughly change my name.

After months of paperwork and phone calls, I am finally settled with my new American identity. Nothing feels better when I no longer have to explain and spell out my first name to every customer service representatives.

Funnily enough but perhaps not so surprising, nearly everyone on the phone immediately jumped to the conclusion that I was getting married and offered their sincerest congratulations. I had to explain again and again that I wasn’t getting married.

Flashback of spelling out my name to everyone came crashing through (if you know the classic rock lyrics reference, let’s be friends)…

One thing I am certain is — this will be the last time I ever go through a name change. That means if and when I get married, I will not be adopting my husband’s last name. It is not in my Chinese tradition to do so, and I’m really happy with my current name.

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