Planning Your Overseas PCS

by Jen McDonald

When you receive the news that you’ll be moving overseas with a military PCS, you’re likely to vacillate between feelings of excitement and near panic.

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 are the same as a move within the continental U.S. (CONUS), but there are also some big differences in an OCONUS move. While military personnel or civilian travel offices 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 MilitaryOneSource.

Will this be a "command sponsored" or an "unaccompanied" tour?

Command sponsored dependents for an overseas move will be on military orders and have access to military installation resources.

Unaccompanied tours are shorter assignments with few resources available for families or a place that the military doesn’t feel is safe for dependents. Some families will 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 dependents moving and returning. Sponsors may also not be eligible for COLA (Cost of Living Allowance) or OHA (Overseas Housing Allowance) for their families. Still, some dependents feel that the travel experience is worth all the hassle!

For some specifics about command-sponsored vs. non-command sponsored assignments, see this example of benefits offered on a common non-command sponsored tour, Korea.

Make contact with your overseas sponsor.

Your family should be assigned a sponsor 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!

For all of our 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, all our baggage, and our pet (very welcome after a long overseas flight!) and had basics like milk, bread, and cereal waiting for us in the temporary lodging.

Set up a PCS binder.

This will be your "brain" during the move. Include all paperwork and any information you might possibly need. Suggestions for this binder: copies of orders, powers of attorney, vehicle shipping information, birth certificates, marriage license, child custody paperwork, car titles and insurance policies, moving documents, hotel and flight reservations, vet papers, copies of shot records, and a copy of your passports. Also include a list of contact numbers, in case your cell phone doesn’t work in your new area.

While not an exhaustive list, here are some other pointers to keep in mind as you prepare for your overseas adventure!

Household goods. Know your household goods weight allowance. Also consider what the voltage requirements will be for appliances and if you’ll need to purchase certain items after you arrive in country. You may also choose to put some belongings in storage before the move. Overseas housing tends to run smaller, so now is a good time to get rid of extras and have a garage sale!

"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 as well, so check with your sponsor. I also usually end up shipping myself a box or two of things I couldn’t fit in my luggage to my temporary address right before leaving the country! Which leads me to….

Packing for the flight. Make the most of your luggage allowance! Military families traveling on orders get several free checked bags apiece. 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 get there how long a wait you’ll have to get into housing, so you can’t count on seeing your household goods right away, and 2) Because of that, you may end up seeing a couple of seasons in temporary housing. Don’t forget to pack layers, extra shoes, your swimwear, and some reading material!

Pets. Each country has different requirements, so find out early about quarantines, vets, airlines, and customs regulations so you can plan ahead. Shipping your Pet provides helpful information as well as issues you may not have considered.

Vehicles and driving. Driving overseas is a unique experience! If you have an oversized vehicle, you may want to rethink shipping it as it will be a different proposition altogether driving on usually 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 than mine talked of parking at a village’s edge and walking because their vehicle simply couldn’t make it on the roads or not having enough clearance to get into European parking garages. Also consider 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.  

Be sure your stateside 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 license to do so. For instance, in Germany, spouses and dependents 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, and in Guam, dependents over 18 are required to take the territory’s state licensing test. Each country has their own driving laws, so do your research ahead of time and deal with what you can while still stateside!

Contact your insurance company to update your insurance policy and transfer your coverage overseas. Information about shipping your POV is readily available for more specifics on shipping your vehicle.

Schools. Inform your child’s school of your impending move and begin any transfer paperwork. The Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) provides education for dependents living overseas. Sponsors assigned to areas 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. Military members assigned to embassies or countries without DoDEA schools may have access to schools for embassy staff or State Department dependents. For homeschooling information overseas, check with the school liaison officer or even the installation’s library, as many overseas locales have vibrant homeschooling support groups. Overseas homeschooled students are also eligible to participate in classes, activities, and sports through DoDEA schools.

Make the most of newcomers’ resources and social media. Check the installation’s website for up-to-date information. Many bases and posts now also have Facebook pages or Twitter, not to mention spouses’ clubs, so you might make a friend even before arriving!

Relax and enjoy the ride! Once the planning is complete and you’re on your way, remind yourself of the amazing opportunity you have in living overseas—something most people only dream about! While there are some challenges, I believe you will find the experience of living in a different culture and the opportunities for travel to be absolutely amazing.