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The Military Spouse’s Guide To Moving Overseas: A Step By Step Guide

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Hooray! You’re headed OCONUS! But this can be a special challenge for military spouses moving overseas. Find out everything you need to know about the moving process. From shipping cars to finding schools to heading back to the military base, our guide details the steps.

Have OCONUS orders? Start here with our step-by-step guide for moving overseas, written by a military spouse who has been there and done that.

Tips To Keep In Mind When Moving The Family

Going to a new country while also settling into a new home is both exciting and overwhelming. It’s okay to be stressed and also super happy. (It’s okay to be stressed and really mad, sad or worried, too.)

As you work through the moving process, you’re definitely going to want to keep these tips in mind throughout the entire PCS journey.

Be patient with yourself and others. Everyone in your family is overloaded right now. Between reading the Joint Travel Regulations (JTR) packing up all your belongings and planning the actual logistics of getting everyone from here to there, it’s kind of a lot.

Involve your children as much as possible. This is a big move for them, too. Help them to choose toys for the flight and the first few weeks overseas. Research the climate in your destination country and pick out the most appropriate clothing to pack.

Look on the positive side. Even if this isn’t your preferred duty station, there will be wonderful things to see and do. Start researching local sightseeing locations, history, culture and food. Knowing a little bit about where you are headed, and having a bucket list of things to discover, can help make the transition smoother.

Important Things To Remember When Moving Overseas

Yes, the military will take care of a lot of the heavy lifting and logistics for you. However, you still have an important and active role to play in the relocation process.

These are some things that you (and your spouse and family) must take care of:

  1. Stow or Sell Your Car(s): not all overseas locations are compatible with American-made vehicles. I’m looking at you, Japan. Luckily, if you can’t or do not wish to bring your cars, you can stow at least one of them – paid for by the DoD. Do the math to decide if storing or selling your car(s) is best for you. Consider: car insurance payments during storage, tuning up the car after storage, potential damage from storage and possible updates made to vehicle technology during the time you’re away.
  2. Ship Your POV: some countries do allow you to bring one or both of your US cars along for the ride. Each overseas duty station host nation has the right to set their own vehicle requirements. Before you ship out, you’ll definitely want to read up on all the regulations and make sure that your car(s) meet all requirements. The Department of Defense has made a handy checklist to help you get all the information about shipping or storing your car.
  3. Update Your Passport: Even though your family will each get an “official” DoD passport, this is truly for military-related travel only. If you want to travel internationally while you’re overseas, you’ll need to have valid tourist passports for each member of your family. The process to get or renew a US passport can take some time. And both parents need to be at the passport appointment(s) for all minor children. The tourist passport fee is at your own expense.
  4. Consider How Pets Will Travel: There are a limited number of pet spots on the military-operated flights, often called Patriot Express flights. If you aren’t lucky enough to snag space for your pet on the Patriot, you’ll need to research other options. Currently, options to fly pets OCONUS are more limited than in the past, due to stricter regulations. Check out the pet import requirements for your destination country. Each nation has specific breed restrictions, quarantine regulations and vaccine requirements. For example, Japan has a very strict rabies vaccine requirement. After you’re certain your pet can accompany you, get quotes for commercial cargo pet shipping and private pet transport companies. There are several pet travel companies that cater to military families. FYI: shipping your pet is rarely, if ever, reimbursed by the military. It’s all at your own expense.
  5. Save Extra Money: All the moving prep work can get expensive, especially if you are bringing a pet with you. It is important to add a little extra cushion to your bank account prior to your OCONUS move. How you choose to save is entirely personal, but having some financial wiggle room will make the extra expenses easier to handle.
  6. Stock Up On Prescriptions: While TRICARE will transfer with you, getting set up with healthcare in your new base may take time. Luckily, because TRICARE health insurance has online records that automatically transfer, your case history should be accessible to your new PCM. Still, plan to have a few weeks or months of leeway, just in case seeing a doctor to update medications is delayed, is highly recommended.
  7. Update Credit Cards and Banks: You’ve arrived and…your credit or debit card is frozen. Oops! You forgot to update your financial institutions about your new location! Avoid this headache and give them the heads up at least 1-2 weeks before you leave the US. Calling well in advance and getting clear directions from a customer service agent is highly advised. You might also want to check which credit or debit cards have foreign transaction fees, as they can add up very quickly. Avoid using those cards while OCONUS.
  8. Make Sure Your Driver’s License is Valid: While many locations have mass transit, you might also be in a place where you will need a car to get around. Your host country likely has special rules for active duty and military dependents on the roads, but those will also require you to have a valid driver’s license. Also, if you plan to travel outside of your duty station nation, you’ll need an international driving permit which also requires an active US driver’s license.
  9. Get Hard Copies of Records: Bring hard copies of medical records, marriage certificates, birth certificates and Social Security cards with you on the plane. Keep them in your carry-on bag so that there is not chance they’ll get lost en route. You will need to have these important documents, especially immunization records, as you settle into your new country.

The Move

It’s here, D-Day. You are prepped for your overseas move.

What you need the day of your move:

  • Up-t0-date passports, both tourist and official
  • Secured pet transport (if applicable)
  • Stored, sold or shipped your vehicles
  • Hard copies of important records in hand
  • Belongings have been packed, crated and (hopefully) shipped

You are now in for a very long flight to your final destination.

Whether you are flying commercial or on the Patriot, you’ll want to double-check that you have:

  • A variety of snacks because plane food gets very old, very fast
  • Your important records
  • All your passports
  • Military orders
  • Fully charged individual devices
  • Extra charger
  • Headphones
  • Blankets and pillows
  • A boatload of patience

After You Move

You made it! You have landed, a little jet-lagged but hopefully in one piece with all your people and pets. If you have travelled via commercial air, you’ll need to go through airport immigration and customs. However, you should not need a visa. Your official DoD passport(s) and military orders plus area clearance should suffice. Patriot passengers should have landed at their new home base where immigration and customs is expedited.

Your sponsor or other unit designee should pick you all up from the airport/air station and bring you to your temporary lodging facility (TLF). This is where you will wait out the first few weeks while you quarantine due to COVID-19 (based on DoD guidance in December 2021).

Following your quarantine, you will likely need to attend a welcome aboard brief which outlines the SOFA agreement and country-specific information. In Japan, you may be given the opportunity to take your driving test at this brief.

Once you have attended the welcome aboard brief and checked in administratively to your new unit, you will likely be cleared to begin hunting for housing. Your housing options will be specific to where you are living. In some locations, you may be required to live on base as the first choice. Other duty stations may provide you the choice of on or off base.

Your sponsor will also help you get set up with your on-base mail. All mail should be sent to this new address, which will being either an APO or FPO box number. NOTE: this does not generally apply if you are stationed in Alaska or Hawaii! You’re still technically in the USA, just not in the lower 48 states.

Official Terminology for Your OCONUS PCS

Throughout the whole process, you’ll be learning a new vocabulary!

Study this military terminology to help you better understand what everyone is talking about:

  • JTR: Joint Travel Regulation is a big one-stop-shop to everything military moving. This big document outlines the rules about moving everywhere, not just overseas. However, it is especially important to read when you’re moving OCONUS because special circumstances may apply.
  • TMO: Transportation Office or the people and systems that handle your move, including booking flights and arranging for packers and movers.
  • Medical Clearance: a series of medical and administrative appointments you and all dependents must complete prior to being “cleared” to go overseas. Not all medical conditions are able to be fully supported by military medical staff OCONUS. This is designed to help prevent those with unsupported diagnoses from arriving in a location where care is not available.
  • Area Clearance: the final check in the box to moving overseas. After all paperwork, including medical clearance, is complete, everything is submitted to someone in your next duty station. They check the paperwork over and either accept or deny each individual.
  • Patriot/MAC Flight: the US Air Force-operated flights to/from OCONUS bases and the US. The JTR has regulations that route PCSing military families onto these flights over commercial flights.
  • OCONUS: outside of the continental United States. Basically, every international country plus Alaska and Hawaii.
  • SOFA: Status of Forces Agreement, which governs how US military-connected residents operate in your new home country. In some countries, it might limit your work opportunities to on-base or pre-approved industries only. In other places, it imposes rules about driving. Knowing your country’s SOFA agreement is important!
  • ROM: Restriction of Movement or when you are required to be located in one or more specific places due to extenuating circumstances, like limited liberty or COVID-19 quarantine
  • Sponsor: a person or family connected to your receiving unit who will help your family settle in. They should provide transport, assistance with acclimation and securing lodging upon your arrival
  • APO/FPO: Army Post Office and Fleet Post Office, or basically the “town” portion of your new OCONUS address
  • AP/AE: Asia-Pacific or Africa-Europe, the continental location where you are living. This acts as the “country” portion of your new address.
  • DoDEA: Department of Defense Education Activity: on-base public schools for military children assigned to a particular duty station

Getting Connected Overseas

One of the biggest struggles no matter where you move is getting connected. Luckily, there are tons of resources to help military families find new friends! Many people meet forever friends on the Patriot Express flight or welcome brief. You’re all stuck in the same proverbial boat, right?

If you are living on base, you will likely make fast connections with your neighbors. If you’ve lived in military housing before, you understand just how tight knit these communities can be. Overseas housing takes that to a whole new, wonderful level.

Finally, Facebook and social media can be a lifesaver for finding new friends. There are all sorts of social groups specific to your new OCONUS location. From new parents to runners to bookworms, you can find a group of people who have your same interests.

How To Find The Right Neighborhood Overseas

Truth time: you might not have a choice in where you live overseas. Sorry. For example, in Okinawa, you are provided with two choices on-base, if housing is available. If there is no housing available, then you will be given time to find a suitable home off-base using a rental agency connected to the military. However, you can still make some choices, even if they are limited.

When you are considering your housing options overseas, think about:

  • Your belongings: Will they all fit inside the house?
  • Your pets: Are they allowed and is there a pet-friendly space for them?
  • Your kids: Do you see other kids in the neighborhood? Is there a playground nearby? Are you near their potential school(s)?
  • Accessibility: How close are you to work? To shops? To restaurants and nightlife? To cultural sites and other destinations of interest?

No house will be perfect, but you’ll be looking for something that works for all members of your family in the most ideal way possible.

How To Find Pet-Friendly Housing

A lot military housing overseas may be pet-friendly! There may be some unique limits, like no dogs above the 6th floor of apartment towers in Okinawa due to typhoons.

When you arrive and check-in to housing, you’ll want to be very clear about your pets and your commitment to finding housing that accommodates them. If you are renting off-base, consider that you may need to pay a pet deposit or other fees. On base, you will need to confirm that all housing options presented to you are pet-friendly.

How To Find Schools Overseas

With an overseas military move, finding schools actually isn’t that hard. Typically, most military kids will attend the local DoDEA schools, which are located on-base. These are American public schools and follow traditional US educational curriculum.

In some locations, there are no DoDEA schools. In these instances, the DoD has relationships with one or more local private schools. Enrollment in these specific schools should be fully paid for by the DoD. Your School Liaison Officer should have more information if this applies to your family.

Some families do choose to enroll their children in local public or private schools. However, it is important to note that off-base schools will likely be offered fully in the local language. If your child is not fluent, this may be a difficult transition. In order to enroll, you will need to speak to local school authorities. There may be tuition fees or other regulations.

There are some private schools in many locations that do offer a traditional American educational experience with instruction in English. Some of these schools may be religiously affiliated and enrollment may be limited.

Finally, many military families choose to homeschool their children while overseas. The DoDEA schools support this, and can provide supplemental enrollment into electives like art or PE. There are very few regulations which apply to military families who are homeschooling, even in countries that do not traditionally condone non-traditional education.

How To Find Overseas Employment

If you are located in Alaska and Hawaii, you are free to seek employment as if you were in California or North Carolina. There are no additional rules or regulations which apply to you since you are still in the US. However, if you are living internationally, the SOFA agreement with the host nation will dictate where you can seek employment.

Some countries highly regulate network marketing jobs (Scentsy, Shaklee, Pure Romance, etc.), work from home jobs and off-base jobs in the local community. In these countries, like Italy, your employment could be limited to on-base DoD-connected employment only.

In other countries, you have more leeway when it comes to flexible employment options, like working for a US company from your international home or starting your own business. But you will need to pay attention the base rules and regulations, like registering your business or non-compete clauses.

On base jobs are highly competitive, especially in the medical and educational fields. Take a look at USAJobs.gov to search available job openings in your location. This covers almost all on-base DoD-connected jobs, from the PX to civilian jobs in military units. DoDEA has their own separate application process.

Take advantage of resources to help make your resume more competitive. In almost all locations, there are advisors available to help make your resume federal job search-friendly. Check with your employment and education office to learn more.

Meg Flanagan is a teacher, blogger and military spouse. She owns Meg Flanagan Education Solutions, an education advocacy service dedicated to serving families on the K-12 journey. You can find Meg on Facebook. Meg is also available as a freelance writer and personal education advocate!


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