In the military, if you’re lucky enough, you might get the chance to move outside the continental United States to Europe, Asia, or even little-known tropical places like the Marshall Islands. While it’s exciting to experience an OCONUS move, it also takes a lot of prep time. Unlike a CONUS PCS, you will need medical screenings, multiple good shipments, passports and more.
Here is a list of things to do when prepping for an OCONUS PCS that people may not always share:
Get to a levy briefing
Each branch may call this something different, but it’s basically a briefing that shares all pertinent information to your OCONUS PCS. It will be everything from shipping vehicles, to explanations of shipments, to learning how to get your pet there and a whole lot more. This is required for the service members, but some installations offer a class for spouses. You can check with your installation for more. Orders are not necessary for this step, but the Request For Orders is needed.
Apply for the medical screening
The overseas medical screening is necessary to ensure that all immunizations are up to date and that no family members have specific health care needs that may make them part of the Exceptional Family Member Program. If anyone in your family is EFMP, the coordinator will check that the proper care is available at your next installation. It is also necessary to get official orders. If you have TRICARE and are seen at a Military Treatment Facility (MTF), you will sign a form for the coordinator to access online records. If you are not seen at an MTF, you will need to request a copy of your medical records and send them to the coordinator (this can take up to 4 weeks). Either way, the coordinators like to see five years’ worth of records. If you or your children haven’t had a physical in the last year, you will need to schedule one before your screening appointment. If you don’t have a list of immunizations, you will need to track them down in most cases. Some exceptions can be made with a blood panel, which tests your body’s immunities. If you have lost any immunities, you will need to re-vaccinate. At your screening, all family members and the service member must be present.
Check the orders
Before you start any other steps, read the orders and ensure that all family members are listed on the orders with the correct spelling. If there is anything incorrect, get it fixed so it doesn’t hinder the remaining steps.
Apply for government passports
This can be a tricky step. Regardless of whether or not you have a regular tourist/travel passport, you will need to apply for a government passport in order to fly to your next installation. You must have orders to apply for government passports. Government passports (or “no-fee” passports) are required to fly on orders, even as a family member. No matter your age, every family member will need a government passport. Even newborns! The passport is free and you can complete the form online, but you will need to pay for your photos. Get four copies of your photos so you can use them to apply for a tourist passport. You can find the passport paperwork on the State Departments website, but make sure you are filling out the DS-15 form, with the barcode on the left-hand side. Each family member will need birth certificates. Don’t get nervous when you have to wait for them to be given back. This is normal procedure.
All family members will need to be present at the passport office the day you submit paperwork (while you can fill out the forms online, you cannot submit them online). Make sure to ask if you need a visa, since some countries require one. Don’t lag on this step — it can take over 8 weeks to receive a passport during the summer months.
Apply for tourist passports (if you don’t already have them)
There is no need to get a travel passport if you don’t plan on leaving the country to which you’re moving. For example, if you’re moving to Germany and don’t plan to travel outside of Germany, you don’t need a tourist passport. Since you should take advantage of everything your next duty location has to offer, you really should apply for tourist passports to travel. These are filed through the State Department as well, but they are not free. You can, however, use the same photos. Don’t lag on this step — the current wait is over 6 weeks. No orders are needed for this step. You can complete the form online.
Contact your sponsor
Everyone gets a sponsor when moving to an OCONUS location, and they will be a lifeline. They can answer any questions you may have about schools, make lodging reservations, set up an address so you can ship items before you get there, research housing and more. Some installations have spouse pages, which can also provide a ton of information.
You may not be assigned a sponsor until you receive orders. You may also receive emails form the Family Readiness Group/Organization before arriving. That’s a great time to ask about volunteering or unit events.
Plan your move
An OCONUS PCS offers three different shipments. You will want to schedule these in advance. The service member can go to move.mil to complete the self-counseling, but you cannot submit that paperwork until you have orders. Completing the paperwork in advance can greatly shorten this step:
- UB shipment: This is unaccompanied baggage and is meant to contain any “essentials.” It can take as long as 6 weeks to ship. You may be offered a significant weight allowance, so it can pay to ship more than you need. Our shipment included cooking utensils, pots and pans, some dishes and cups, silverware, a shower curtain, toilet paper, paper towels, clothing, a coffee maker, a crib mattress, pillows, linens, military gear, books, magazines, DVDs and way, way more. Cribs and pack-and-plays are also authorized. It’s most helpful to have these items in the middle of a room. We were sent one packer and he was done in about 30 minutes.
- Household Goods: This is the usual shipment with the usual restrictions. There may be slight variations with the company who packs your belongings, so always ask about their policy. This can take as long as 8 weeks. It’s always good to videotape everything before the movers come. As always, read all the paperwork before signing. If you’ve never done an OCONUS move, you will need to wait until the crates are sealed before signing any paperwork. Everything else will be like a regular PCS and you can stick to your own process.
- Long-term storage: This is anything you don’t want to take with you, but you also don’t want to trash or donate. These items will remain in storage until you return, paid for by the good ol’ DoD. We chose to take everything with us and store other belongings with family, so we skipped this shipment.
You can also downsize depending on where you’re going. Most overseas installations will have government furniture that you can use the entire time you live there. Some foreign homes are large enough that you may not need to get rid of anything. Lean on your sponsor for more guidance.
Plan to ship a vehicle
This is a step that is new if you’ve never done an OCONUS PCS. The military will pay to ship one vehicle from the states to your next move. There is a size limit for vehicles, so anything outside of that authorization must come out of your pocket. You can get information about how to ship a vehicle from your installation. Some companies allow you to ship a stroller or even car seats inside the vehicle. You must have orders for this step.
Double-check your driver’s license
While on the topic of vehicles, double-check the expiration date on your driver’s license. Most countries will require that your license be valid the entire time you’re living in that country. You will also need to take a driver’s test for the country to which you’re moving. If you’re going to Europe, you will also need an international license.
You don’t hear very often about Americans living a few years in a different country. Get excited and prepare to soak up living in a new nation. While prepping to move to Germany, I took classes to learn German. I could have focused on key phrases like “How much is this?” or “Where is your bathroom?” But I wanted to be conversational.
Also, research customs for your new location. For example, in Germany, if you have available chairs at your table, a stranger may come sit in that seat. It’s good to learn the customs so you aren’t thrown off when something like that happens. Most importantly, don’t waste a minute. Two or three years will fly by in the blink of an eye when living overseas with so many fun things to do. You really don’t want to leave, saying, “I wish we would have done that.”
Sarah Peachey is a 20-something journalist from southern Pennsylvania, back in the Mid-Atlantic after voyages to the Deep South and Southwest. She lives with her husband and two toddlers. She began a career in journalism with The Fort Polk Guardian, an installation newspaper, winning three state awards for her work. She has written for The Homefront United Network and consults for MilitaryOneClick. She is the writer behind #MilitaryVotesMatter, the sister site of MilitaryOneClick that was launched to keep service members and their families informed of their impact on the election and what the candidates will do for the military and those who serve it. She has a passion for politics and fiery debate. She considers herself a bookworm, pianist, wine enthusiast and crossword addict.