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When you receive the news that you’ll be moving overseas with a military PCS, you’re likely to alternate between feelings of excitement and near panic, as well as have many questions, like:
What should we pack? Can we bring our appliances? How will we ship our pet? What about our vehicle?
These are all valid and common questions! Many of the details of an overseas move (OCONUS) are the same as a move within the continental U.S. (CONUS), but there are also some big differences in an OCONUS move.
While your transportation office will provide counseling and checklists (including information regarding passports, travel, customs, and medical clearance), some practical starting points for any military family about to relocate are the It’s Your Move document offered by TRANSCOM and Plan My Move from Military OneSource. Also see my.move.mil, the new system from USTRANSCOM to support the relocation of families during PCS (currently by invitation only).
Here are some things to keep in mind as you prepare for your overseas adventure!
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Planning for Your Overseas PCS Move
Will it be a command sponsored or unaccompanied tour?
Command sponsored dependents for an overseas move will be on military orders and have access to military installation resources and benefits.
Unaccompanied tours are shorter assignments for only the service member, due to various reasons, such as the location of the duty station, the length of the assignment, or unavailable family support resources.
Some families may choose to go without command sponsorship to some locations anyway, but keep in mind you may not have access to military facilities or services. You may also need a visa to live in the host country and will have to foot the bill for any moving costs for dependents.
Sponsors may not be eligible for COLA (Cost of Living Allowance) or OHA (Overseas Housing Allowance) for their families for unaccompanied tours. Still, some military families feel that the travel experience is worth the hassle. See our post, Can a Military Family Move Overseas Without Command Sponsorship?, for more information about why a military family would move without command sponsorship, how to request command sponsorship, and the challenges that can go along with moving without command sponsorship.
Connect with the Military's Relocation Assistance Program
The Relocation Assistance Program can help you make contacts and get info and assistance before your move. You’re also eligible for one-on-one support.
From Military OneSource:
Relocation assistance service providers offer information, resources and one-on-one support for:
- Moving costs
- Household goods shipments
- Housing options
- Child care options, both on and off installation
- Sponsorship and youth sponsorship
- Spouse employment and license transfer
- Newcomer orientations and pre-departure briefings
- Loan closet
- Cultural adaptation
- Community resources and more
Find the Military Relocation Assistance Program through your installation’s Military and Family Support Center.
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Your Overseas Sponsor
The military member should be assigned a “sponsor” (not to be confused with command sponsorship) at the receiving installation who can provide invaluable help with specific questions regarding the area: housing, youth programs, childcare options, schools, and even details like whether you should bring your large furniture or leave it in storage. Sponsors usually have similar rank and family status to yours.
For my own family’s overseas moves, our sponsors sent us photos and floorplans of the available base housing, set up a ride from the airport for our family of six, all our baggage, and our pet (very welcome after a long overseas flight!) and had basics like breakfast items waiting for us in our temporary lodging.
The military-wide sponsorship program is available to all military families. And did you know kids can have their own sponsor, too? Connect with the Youth Sponsorship Program to help ease your military child’s transition.
Collect Your Paperwork
Many families like to put all their paperwork into a PCS binder. This will be your "brain" during the move. Include all paperwork and any information you might possibly need. You'll want to hand carry these documents.
Some paperwork you’ll need to keep track of:
- Copies of orders
- Powers of attorney
- Vehicle shipping information
- Birth certificates
- Marriage license
- Child custody paperwork
- Car titles and insurance policies
- Moving company documents
- Hotel and flight reservations
- Your pet’s veterinarian records
- Copies of shot records
- Copy of your passports and visas
- School and employment records
- List of contact numbers, in case your cell phone doesn’t work in your new area
See our PCS Checklists for the months, weeks, and days leading up to and after your move.
Double check your paperwork for accuracy and allow plenty of time for obtaining passports and visas. From 11 Things to Know Before Your First Overseas Move:
“Double check to make sure that every family member is listed on official orders, and that names are spelled correctly. You’ll need that information in order to apply for the no-fee government passports required for PCS travel and all your other paperwork. Check with the specific location to see if you’ll also need a visa.
Schedule your overseas medical clearance ASAP, which you’ll need before travel can be arranged. The paperwork and appointments can be a headache, but the military has to ensure the overseas location is equipped to handle your family’s medical needs.
From a fellow military spouse:
‘Our last PCS was a complete mess. So stressful. But a very cool thing happened. Due to major visa delays, we ended up needing to send our visas/passports to a Marine family (who we'd never met) close(ish) to our departure airport. I used the AMAZING spouse network to reach out to the gal, explained our crazy situation, and asked her to receive and drive our visas 45 minutes to us. She was, of course, a rock star and completely understood this crazy life and was happy to help.’”
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The Logistics of Moving Overseas
Shipping Your Household Goods
Time to purge and organize! Know your household goods (HHG) weight allowance. Also consider what the voltage requirements will be for appliances where you’ll be stationed, and if you’ll need to purchase certain items after you arrive in country and what you might leave behind (this is a great question to ask your overseas sponsor). You may choose to put some belongings in storage before the move— for instance, large appliances. Overseas housing tends to run smaller, so now is a good time to streamline your belongings and donate, throw away, and have a garage sale for items you don’t wish to move across the world.
"Unaccompanied" or express baggage shipments are the smaller shipments of household goods that are expedited and should arrive in country more quickly than the main HHG shipment. Items for this shipment could include bedding, towels, a few pots and pans, and anything else you’ll need immediately. Keep in mind that many overseas locations maintain "loan lockers" for families to borrow household basics, along with loaner furniture, so check with your sponsor for details. I also usually ended up shipping a box or two of things to my new temporary address that I couldn’t fit in my luggage right before leaving the country. Keep in mind that your HHG will take weeks or even months to arrive, so be prepared for a wait!
During an overseas move, all of your belongings and boxes will be packed into containers or crates and sealed. Moving companies are required to seal crates at your residence before leaving with your household goods shipment. At pickup, it's very important that you verify all seals are intact and that numbers match the inventory sheet before you sign anything. Make a note of any seals broken or missing.
Connect with your local transportation office and Military OneSource’s OCONUS Moves and Containerization of Your Personal Property for more guidance.
Packing for Your Overseas Flight
Make the most of your luggage allowance! Military members and their families traveling on official orders will be allowed several free checked bags apiece and aren’t subject to the usual weight limits on baggage. Check with the specific airline you’re flying with, as each one has different guidance.
While it may tempting to pack light for this part, I don’t recommend it for a couple of reasons:
1) You won’t really know until you arrive at your new assignment how long a wait you’ll have to get into housing or how long your household goods will take to get to you. It’s a safe bet to plan for months without your things.
2) You may end up seeing a couple of seasons in temporary housing or without your HHG. Pack layers, extra shoes, your swimwear, and some fun items, too.
Moving with Your Pets Overseas
Each country has different requirements, so find out early about breed restrictions, required quarantines, whether there’s a vet on base or if you’ll need to go off base, airline regulations, and any customs requirements when you arrive. One of the biggest causes of stress for a military family moving overseas is how they’ll transport their beloved cat or dog.
Our extensive resource, Moving with Your Pets, provides helpful information as well as issues you may not have considered. Here’s some info about flying with your pet overseas:
“The best source of information is to start with major airlines. Here’s what some of the most popular carriers have to say about flying military pets. Make sure you carefully read over how military pets and their payments are treated differently among the companies.
You may be eligible for a pet quarantine fee reimbursement or pet relocation grant or other assistance as a military family moving with your pets. Learn more in our post, 6 Resources for a Military Move with Pets.
- Delta Airlines: Non-snub-nosed dogs and cats can fly. Birds, guinea pigs, rabbits, and hamsters can also fly to domestic locations.
- American Airlines: Eligible small pets can travel in the cabin, but their kennel replaces your carry-on allotment.
- United Airlines: See their updated military and State department pet travel regulations.
- Southwest: They do not have a military program but point out specific regulations for Hawaii travel.”
More tips for moving with pets:
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Shipping Vehicles and Driving Overseas
Driving overseas is a unique experience! If you have an oversized vehicle, you may want to rethink shipping it and possibly downsize, as it will be a different proposition altogether since you’ll usually be driving on much narrower streets. For instance, while living in Germany, it was a challenge getting my minivan down some village roads, not to mention parking. Friends with larger vehicles talked of parking at a village’s edge and walking because their vehicle simply couldn’t fit on the roads or clear the ceilings in European parking garages.
Regarding shipping your POV overseas:
“You will be limited by your vehicle’s size. The government will pay to ship a vehicle up to 20 metric tons at the government’s expense. For any vehicle that exceeds the size limitation, you may incur excess cost. Your family sedan will usually pass the test, but you may have to pay the excess costs for an oversized truck, SUV, camper or recreational vehicle.” - Military OneSource
Visit PCSmyPOV from International Auto Logistics (IAL) for more specifics on shipping your vehicle. IAL operates Vehicle Processing Centers (VPCs) across the globe and annually transports over 70,000 vehicles. They also manage long-term storage facilities that house and maintain thousands of vehicles in the U.S.
You’ll also want to take into account the costs of maintenance, fuel, and whether or not parts and labor will be easily accessible for your model vehicle. Depending on the country, you may be placed on fuel rations.
Make certain that your stateside driver’s license is not due to expire before you leave the U.S., as you may be required to test in the country and, in most cases, will need a current U.S. driver’s license to do so. For instance, in Germany, spouses and dependents aged 17 and up can take the test for the USAREUR driver’s license test, avoiding the costly fees associated with a German driver’s license. In Guam, dependents over 18 are required to take the territory’s state licensing test.
Local licensing and vehicle registration laws vary from country to country, and deadlines tend to be tight. Check in with your Military and Family Support Center on arrival to get the latest information and avoid any fines.
Important: don’t forget to contact your insurance company to update your policy and transfer your coverage overseas.
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Moving Overseas with Military Kids
Helping Military Kids with the PCS Transition
Military children will have their own questions and concerns about moving overseas, and there are numerous resources designed to make their transition easier. As mentioned, the Youth Sponsorship Program facilitated at your installation can be invaluable at helping your child feel welcome in the new country.
Researching and talking about the new location together can help children feel a sense of anticipation. Military spouse Courtney Woodruff found her children were reluctant about a move to Germany and found some strategies to help them get excited about the move, including creating a “family travel bucket list.” She says,
“Have a family meeting and invite each child to contribute one destination to a travel bucket list. It can be a city, a theme park, the home arena of a favorite sports team — any place they’d like to go that will get them excited about experiencing your OCONUS duty station! Have a tablet, smart phone, or laptop handy so your kids can research opportunities with your supervision. For younger children, it may be a good idea to provide a short list of options they can choose from. Once you’ve decided on the list of places to visit, get creative and come up with a format (on a chalkboard or in a photo frame, for example) for displaying it in your new home overseas.”
With our own four children who lived overseas multiple times, here are some tactics we used to help them cope with the transition of moving overseas:
- Research the new location. Go online or head to the library together to learn about the new country, language, foods, popular music, and local sports teams.
- Prepare for travel. Overseas flights are long, and your young ones may have never traveled by air for that length of time or even at all. Emotions from goodbyes may also be running high, so a little preparation will be key. (Check out Dawn Smith’s post, Air Travel with Kids, for some great tips for traveling by plane with your kiddos.)
- Make a wish list together of all the places you’d like to visit. Mark a map with pushpins or a marker of all the places you’ll go or landmarks you’d like to see, or use a map app on your phone.
- Stay positive. Moving is difficult, and it’s important to allow time for grief and goodbyes. Still, make a point of looking forward to all the new experiences awaiting!
Get more ideas: 5 Ways to Get Military Kids Excited About Moving Overseas.
Military Children's Education Overseas
DoDEA and Local Schools
You’ll usually have the option of utilizing DoDEA schools, local schools (if available), or homeschooling. Some areas may also have private schooling options.
Some military families opt to have their children attend off-base local schools to immerse themselves in the culture and help them learn the local language. This is location specific as fair as eligibility and availability and varies widely, so check with the School Liaison Officer (SLO) at your location for information.
The Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) provides education for dependents living at most overseas locations. DoDEA operates 160 schools in 8 Districts located in 11 foreign countries, 7 states, and 2 territories.
Military families living in locations without a DoDEA school available may be eligible for tuition reimbursement for private schools, have the option of dormitory schools, or participate in correspondence courses run by DoDEA. Check with your installation for specifics.
Military members who are assigned to embassies or countries without DoDEA schools may have access to schools for embassy staff or State Department dependents.
Regardless of which option you choose, inform your child’s current school of your impending move and begin any transfer paperwork as soon as possible.
If you’re planning to homeschool overseas, check with the school liaison officer or even the installation’s library for more information, as many overseas locales have active and engaged homeschooling support groups. Overseas homeschooled students are also eligible to participate in DoDEA school auxiliary services:
“DoD dependent students who are educated in a home-school setting but are eligible to enroll in DoDEA-Europe and DoDEA-Pacific and live within the commuting distance of the DoDEA school are entitled to use or receive the specified auxiliary services without being required either to enroll in or register for a minimum number of courses offered by the school. Depending on the eligibility category of the students as determined by DoDEA Regulation 1342.12, tuition may be required.” -DoDEA
These services can include academic resources such as libraries, internet use, and textbooks; extracurricular activities such as band, sports, and club activities; enrollment in courses; Gifted and Special Education Services, and much more. Check in with your local DoDEA school for further information.
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Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP)
If you have a family member with special needs, consultants with the Exceptional Family Member Program can help you make sure your family member’s needs are met during and after your move, especially if your exceptional family member will transfer to a new school. You can also check out the EFMP & Me online tool for information and support anytime.
More support and info for helping your military child through a move:
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Settling Into Your Overseas Duty Station
Where will you live?
Depending on your location and eligibility, you may have the option to live in military housing or rent or even buy a home off base. There are pros and cons to each approach, and if you’re given the choice, take the time to weigh them before making the decision.
Regardless of where you live, you’ll be required to check in with the housing office before signing any lease. Renting a home in a foreign country has many differences! You’ll need to understand your Overseas Housing Allowances (OHA), how utilities are calculated and paid for, local laws, rental lease terms, and more. Get an in-depth look at renting overseas: What to Expect When Renting a Home Overseas.
Considering buying a home overseas? See 6 Factors to Consider Before Buying a Home Overseas.
Make the most of newcomers’ resources and social media.
Check the installation’s website for current information. Most military bases maintain an active presence on social media, including spouses’ clubs, so you might make a connection even before you arrive!
Most overseas locations will offer a newcomers’ orientation and possibly a tour of the base and surrounding area. Take advantage of this opportunity, and then check in with the base’s support services to learn about language courses, day trips, and events designed to help you get acclimated, learn about local customs and courtesies, and immerse yourself in all there is to know about your new country.
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Explore and Enjoy Your Time Overseas!
Now that all the PCS planning and travel is behind you, take a breather and remind yourself of the amazing opportunity you have in living overseas—something most people only dream about! While there are some challenges, I hope you’ll find the experience of living in a different culture and the opportunities for travel to be absolutely amazing, as our military family did during our four overseas tours.
Want even more information about your OCONUS move? We’ve got you covered! Check out these articles and blog posts:
Get even more tips for your overseas move in our FREE resource below, the Overseas PCS Survival Guide, and be sure to subscribe to our blog for the most current information for military families on the move.
By Jen McDonald
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