Overseas PCS: How Military Families Can Prepare for the Move

soldier with family

Receiving orders for an overseas PCS is both exciting and stressful for soldiers and their families.

On one hand, what better opportunity to explore Korean culture, German food, or the splendor of the Gulf Countries? On the other hand, doing everything that needs to be done before leaving—processing paperwork, packing up belongings, emotionally preparing your family for the move—requires significant effort.

If this is your family’s first time receiving OCONUS orders, know that you’ll be navigating a road many American families have traveled before you. Their experiences can guide you and make this move much easier for you and your family.

We’ve collected many of their best tips below, along with links to valuable online resources to make your preparation for departure as smooth as possible. Click below for each major section or scroll down to check out all of the useful information.

Thank you for your service to our country!


5 Things to Do When You Receive Your OCONUS Orders

1. Make copies of your orders and start to set aside money ASAP.

The editors at Military Spouse magazine asked their readers for advice on preparing for a PCS, and a recurring theme emerged: You’ll need more copies of your OCONUS orders than you think you will, and you’ll need more money than you think you will.

While getting extra copies of your orders is easy, building a cash reserve requires preparation. Of course, you’ll be reimbursed for much of your moving costs, but having cash on hand is critical to the moving process. Start saving now.

2. Get a binder to track your expenses, receipts and other documents.

Prepare a binder to have all your documents in one place. Make sure there’s enough room for:

  • Plane tickets
  • Copies of your orders
  • Passports, marriage licenses and other legal documents
  • Receipts

Keeping all receipts and carefully detailing all expenses is critical to ensure you’re fully reimbursed. As PCSMoves.com points out, there are many expenses and allowances to keep track of:

  • Per diem, which includes an allowance for lodging, food, and incidentals
  • Travel expenses, such as “reasonable” taxi fares
  • Transportation expenses for dependents
  • Mileage allowance for your vehicle if driving to the shipping port

“When we started the PCS process to go to Korea, I had a small bag, like a laptop case, that I used to keep everything of importance that I knew we would need before, during and after the actual move,” Jennifer Aloisi writes at Army Wife Network. “That bag went everywhere with me, especially when we first arrived in Korea and started inprocessing … Keeping all those forms and documents in one place was a lifesaver on more than one occasion.”

3. Apply for command sponsorship.

Command sponsorship is your opportunity to work directly with someone who has previously made the overseas move, and you can tap into your sponsor’s personal experiences to guide your own move.

Sponsors will know the details of your new station and the specific challenges your family might encounter. “From use of base facilities to reimbursement of travel expenses, you may be surprised to learn all of the things command sponsorship can do for you,” Derek Hartley writes at Veterans United‘s Military Spouse Central blog.

4. Apply for passports and area clearances.

“If you plan to leave your host country at any point during your tour of duty for leave, vacations or emergency family situations stateside, you will need a personal passport for each family member,” says Lauren Tamm, a writer and military spouse, on the Automated Housing Referral Network blog.

“However, when traveling on military orders, you need a no-fee government passport to travel to and from your host country. Basically, you will need both types of passports—a government passport and a personal passport. Prepare and apply ahead of time for your government passport, which is usually handled by your branch’s TMO office. As long as you have web orders, you can start the government passport process. For your personal passport you apply through the Department of State.”

Tamm also reminds soldiers preparing for an overseas PCS to  secure area clearances for family members. This is a process to ensure each family member is medically able to move to the new country, and it involves the following:

  • A doctor’s approval and sign-off on necessary medical paperwork
  • A copy of each person’s immunization record (“If you cannot find it, the doctor’s office can draw blood to verify your immunity,” says Tamm.)
  • Submitting all the paperwork for review and awaiting further instructions

5. Decide whether to live on-post or off-post.

Raquel Thiebes—herself a child of a military family, then a soldier and later a military wife—writes at Military.com that this will be “the most important decision you make” when PCSing.

There are plenty of pros and cons to both, depending on your family’s unique needs, so weigh the decision carefully. To help, check out Thiebes’ own Should We Live On or Off Post? post on her blog, and Military OneSource’s post Deciding to Live On or Off the Installation as a Couple or Family.

Resources to bookmark

  • Move.mil, the Defense Personal Property System’s official portal, will help you find your transportation office, housing and lodging resources, as well as each military branch’s policies regarding the shipment or storage of your belongings.
  • The Overseas Yes! network is a great place to begin researching your OCONUS location.
  • Hands On Banking has a helpful financial checklist for families planning their PCS.


Deciding What Should Stay and What Should Go

The next stage is deciding what should go with you overseas.

Anyone who’s moved knows the challenges of packing up a home and transporting everything. An overseas PCS presents additional challenges: There are weight restrictions to consider, and the things you ship will arrive at different times. A packing strategy is needed.

Here are three things to keep in mind as you sort through your family’s belongings.

1. There are weight limits on how much you can ship, and those limits vary.

Two big factors determine how much you can take: Your rank and how long you’ve served. Higher-ranking officers and longer-serving soldiers can take more abroad. Move.mil will help you determine your family’s weight limits.

Compare your weight limit against the approximate weight of everything in your house. Military OneSource says you can get a close estimate by calculating 1,500 pounds per room, not including bathrooms or storage rooms. Subtract your weight limit from that number, and you’ll have an idea of how many things you’ll need to either leave at home, sell or put in storage.

Storage may be a viable option for your family. Navy spouse Michelle Volkmann writes at MilitaryOneClick that when her family moved to Okinawa, they were able to store their washer and dryer, their refrigerator and their dining set—all on the military’s dime.

Check the U.S. Transportation Command’s It’s Your Move pamphlet for details about having your storage paid.

2. Take a household inventory.

Survey everything you own—both for your own benefit and for documentation purposes in case something is lost during shipment.

Raquel Thiebes has an excellent guide for creating a thorough property inventory. She recommends creating a spreadsheet that identifies every item you inventory, when it was purchased, its model name and manufacturer, and what the item’s purchase price was.

“For collectibles or something of greater value, I like to print off a page from the internet that lists the same or similar item for sale; try to find a collectible item for sale that also lists some of the history or background on the item, too (for reference),” she says. The It’s Your Move pamphlet even recommends having valuables appraised before putting them in storage.

You can also use your phone to snap a photo of each item you inventory.

Once the inventory is complete, you’ll have solid documentation in case anything is lost or damaged during transport. The team at Military Benefits suggests making multiple copies of your inventory list, plus copies of any relevant receipts. This will make your life much easier if you have to file a claim.

3. What you bring will fall into one of three categories.

Here is where packing strategy comes in. By design, some of your things will arrive earlier than others, so narrow down a list of essential items that you want to arrive at your new duty station first.

Keep these three categories in mind as you begin to pack:

  • Professional items — These are the professional books, papers and equipment (PBP&E) you must have to do your job at your new duty station. You’ll pack and label these separately, and they won’t count against your weight limit. Check the It’s Your Move pamphlet for specific instructions.
  • Unaccompanied baggage — This will arrive about three weeks after your move, so more essential items will go in this shipment. The National Military Family Association has an excellent checklist for helping you decide what should go in your unaccompanied baggage.
  • Household goods — HHGs travel by sea and will arrive several weeks after your unaccompanied baggage. Less essential belongings go here.

Be sure to also visit Lauren Tamm’s blog, The Military Wife and Mom, and print out her moving overseas checklist.


More Moving Decisions That Require Preparation

Sorting valuables, furniture and other cherished items is a personal experience. No two families make the same choices about what to store and what to ship.

There are, however, three decisions that most families will have to address, and each requires a good deal of advanced planning.

1. Bringing pets overseas

Dogs on Deployment is a nonprofit that helps military members find volunteers to look after their pets while they fulfill service commitments. The organization has an excellent PCS resources page that anyone with pets should bookmark when planning for an OCONUS move.

Corynn Myers, Dogs on Deployment’s national public relations director, says each duty station will have its rules for pets, so service members should contact their commanders well in advance for the most up-to-date regulations, as well as restrictions on breeds or number of pets. Myers also recommends contacting the management company responsible for the base’s housing to find out whether or not there are pet-specific rules.

“Moving for pets can be stressful because it’s stressful for everyone,” she says. “Before the move, make sure your pet is microchipped, is up-to-date on all vaccinations, and all their medical records are easily accessible. When the movers come, keeping your pet in a familiar room that can be packed last and full of their toys and favorite things can help reduce stress as well.”

For service members going overseas, Myers has five tips to make the move less stressful for pets:

  • Make sure your pet is familiar with a crate and is comfortable being in one.
  • Make sure you book at pet-friendly hotels, and re-confirm the policy with hotel staff.
  • Stop and allow your pet to get out and explore as often as possible.
  • Words of encouragement, lots of petting, and understanding.

2. Whether to ship or store your vehicle

You can only ship one privately owned vehicle (POV) to your new duty station at the government’s expense. For some families, one vehicle will be sufficient, or altogether unnecessary, or not enough.

“We sold our second car (which was paid off) because the government would only ship one vehicle,” writes Lila at NextGen MilSpouse. “When we got to Germany, we quickly realized that we had to buy a second car. We couldn’t immediately find a reliable used van or SUV big enough for our family. We ended up buying a new vehicle through military sales. Hello, car payment.”

“I’ve heard this lament from many others stationed in Europe: ‘We should have explored the possibility of shipping our second car. For a few thousand dollars, we would have had a ride that was paid for.'”

Here are helpful guides for either shipping or storing a vehicle:

  • Stripes has a thorough step-by-step guide for shipping your vehicle.
  • PCS my POV, which specializes in shipping service members’ vehicles to their duty stations, also has an excellent guide on what you should do to prepare your vehicle for storage.

3. Preparing your stateside home

If you rent

A big worry for civilian renters is the potential fallout from breaking a lease. Fortunately, the US Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act provides military renters the legal right to terminate a lease when they receive PCS orders.

That said, it’s a good idea for military families to talk about the possibility of a PCS with a potential landlord before signing a rental contract.

“The most important thing any service member needs to do is ensure that there is a valid military clause written in the lease before they sign it,” says Brian Birdy, President of Bird Properties in San Antonio and the 2016 National Treasurer for the National Association of Residential Property Managers.

“This allows them to end the lease with a 30-day notice with a copy of valid PCS orders that move them out of the county they are stationed at. Once they have an idea that they will be getting PCS orders they need to start communicating with their property manager or landlord. Most will require a physical copy of the orders to start the process of exiting the home.”

If you own your home

Homeowners, on the other hand, have to decide whether or not to become landlords. If you do decide to rent out your home, Birdy strongly recommends hiring a property manager.

“The biggest problem for services members who want to rent out their home is that they try to do it themselves,” he says. “I have seen it many times where they think they have found a good tenant, then once overseas all the problems start, and they are too far away to solve them. These problems always cost the homeowners money, and in most cases more than the cost of a professional property manager’s services.”

Birdy says families should begin looking for a property manager early on because making the transition to landlord takes time.

He points out three things new landlords will need to consider—none of which can be done in a hurry:

  1. A home insurance policy must change from a homeowners policy to a dwelling policy, and a public liability policy must be set up to cover property damages or any potential injuries the new tenant might suffer.
  2. Warranty information is critical—both for the home itself and for any appliances left behind.
  3. A contact person—possibly with power of attorney—must be chosen to make management decisions.

“The most important thing to remember, whether you are looking to rent a home, or to rent out your home: Read the contract and understand what you are signing,” Birdy says.

Here are a couple of bookmark-worthy resources if you plan to rent out your home while overseas:

boy in sand

How Families Can Feel at Home Wherever They Go

Once your family arrives at your new duty station, it’s important to make your new home feel, well, like home. Having a home that feels familiar will go a long way toward helping everyone make the transition to life in another country.

Weight limits permitting, ship over Christmas lights, Halloween decorations (you probably won’t find many Halloween decorations abroad), family photos, or anything else that makes you feel at home.

“Make your home your sanctuary, your oasis,” says Kara, who writes at The Hippy Milspouse and is currently living in Korea. “You can’t control the outside world. Your duty station might not be your bohemian heaven, but your home can be. Decorate your home with the things you love, let it reflect everything that makes you feel alive, safe, and at home. Even if it’s just a corner of your home that’s perfectly you, make your home reflect your inner peace. Your own welcoming, bohemian hideaway.”

One last tip: Amid all the stress and struggle of packing up and moving your family to a new country, it’s important to pause, take a breath, and let yourself be excited for your upcoming adventure.

Headed to Korea or Japan? You’ll eat better than you could have ever imagined.

Headed to Bahrain? The beaches are out of this world.

Headed to Germany or Spain? “Even if you did not choose or don’t want to go, there are people every day trying to figure out how to make their own European Dream Vacation a reality, and yet you get to live it!”  writes LeAnna Brown at Jo, My Gosh.

“Remember that while of course there may be tough times figuring out a foreign land, that you are so fortunate for this opportunity,” says Brown, who has also written a book on what you should do if you’ve received overseas PCS orders. “Most people don’t ever even get to consider a weekend jaunt over to France or a cruise to the Greek Isles, yet that is a very real possibility for you!”

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©wavebreakmediamicro/123RF Stock Photo, Eric Rothermel, ©warrengoldswain/123RF Stock Photo, Matthew Wiebe, Grant Benton