Military Life Overseas: Getting Ready to PCS

Updated: October 19, 2020
In this Article

    Are you getting ready to PCS to or from an overseas base? If you’ve gotten PCS orders or anticipate getting them, there are some important things you can do to prepare for the big move, and some critical do’s and don’ts to keep in mind when relocating in either direction.

    PCSing Basics

    Relocating to or from an overseas assignment means a few basic things–first and foremost you will have to move your entire house or what you choose to move with you. Some relocating overseas choose to put some quantity of their personal items into storage, which can be a very good idea when moving to countries that typically feature smaller housing (think Japan, Korea, and some parts of Europe).

    Your space issues may not be as dire if you relocate to an overseas base that primarily keeps its troops housed on post, but in some areas you will have the option of living “on the economy.”

    PCS moves to Japan have in the past allowed service members to choose the off-base living option but such houses tend to be smaller and differently designed compared to what most Americans are used to. Heavy furniture and a large amount of personal items can be a liability in such settings–it’s best to ask your sponsor about what to expect in this department.

    Moving back home from an overseas location means being aware of customs laws that may affect what you can take back home; plants, animals, and certain consumer goods that are legal in other countries which are not legal at home (think cough syrup with codeine as an excellent example) will be a concern for everyone relocating back to CONUS.

    The same is true when moving to an overseas base but cultural nuances also play a major part in your planning. For example, did you know that many countries have a prohibition on shipping “adult material” in household goods?

    That might not sound like something that affects you personally, but remember that the definition of “adult” varies from country to country. What Americans consider to be “pornography” may be far more liberal than what your host nation defines it as–simple nudity, movies or artwork with “revealing” but not “pornographic” images may be defined as “pornography” depending on the country.

    This is an issue that can be a problem for those not used to the nuances of how such things are defined in other cultures.

    Getting Your House And Your Paperwork In Order

    No matter which direction you are PCSing to or from, getting ready for the big move means getting all vital paperwork including your orders, medical records, education records (for both you and your dependents), and other vital information in one place. Expect to hand-carry these critical documents and DO NOT let the movers pack them in your household goods shipment. PCSing overseas means you could be separated from your shipment for a month or longer–usually longer.

    The movers will come on your pack-out date and they will take anything and everything within arm’s reach. Even if you set items aside and clearly mark them as “do not pack,” if there are items in the house that can be packed into a box, they WILL be packed.

    Expect this and remember that some servicemembers (including the author of this article) have had movers come and pack everything INCLUDING trash. It’s a common problem and you should make sure all your documents are safely stored somewhere other than your home when it comes time for the packing and shipping to begin.

    Shipping Your Most Important Items

    Shipping, as in mailing them instead of letting the movers pack them away. Do you have things you will need immediately upon arrival at your new base? Some people have personal equipment that doubles as pro gear (for example, photographers have their own personal lens kits) and while that does not apply to everyone, it may be wise to mail the most needed things to yourself.

    You can get the help of your sponsor or a relative to accept your incoming mail. Remember, shipping from a military post office means you get to pay standard U.S. postage rates on these items and that’s something you should take advantage of if you need it.

    Make Yourself A Care Package

    Not in a “prepper” sense or in the context of a natural disaster or emergency, but rather in the sense that you should assume your favorite indulgences at home might not be available “over there.” The same goes for those used to living in an overseas community–did you become obsessed with a certain type of canned coffee, snack foods, or even publications you know you can’t get easily (if at all) at your next assignment?

    Anticipate this by making a care package for yourself or your family to ease the transition. You can mail such items to yourself or have them shipped in your household goods (provided they do not violate customs laws and do-not-ship regulations) and have a little taste of “home” from your last assignment that you might not get at the new one. You’ll be surprised at how much of a morale booster that can be.

    Taking Leave En Route

    Lots of people take leave en route to their new duty station when coming home from an overseas base, but consider taking leave en route to your new assignment at an overseas base–you can get to know the area, learn the local customs, and get used to living in the new location before you have to show up for duty.

    Those are all perks you’ll appreciate, but one of the most compelling reasons to do this isn’t associated with any of those concerns. Instead, leave en route could be a very good idea to help you overcome jet lag in the new duty location.

    Some suffer from jet lag worse than others; insomnia, constantly feeling tired and fuzzy-brained, and the other side effects of international travel are forces to be reckoned with. Give yourself some extra time to adjust, you’ll be glad you did.

    Not All PCS Moves Are The Same

    Some PCS moves require the service member to travel alone, others allow dependents and spouses to accompany them. In other cases you may have to travel to the new assignment alone until you can secure family housing, then have your dependents and/or spouse come to join you. In cases where you can bring your family with you, it helps to build in some time (see the above advice on taking leave en route) to help your family adjust if you’re bringing them with you.

    Military members know how to “suck it up and deal with it” when it comes to PCS hardships, prolonged travel, and having to report for duty after having just arrived. But family members don’t have this requirement and it pays to consider their comfort and the adjustment period they will need to get used to living in a foreign country or to get re-oriented to living back in the United States again.

    “Suck it up and deal with it” is a great motto to use when personally dealing with military hardships, but it’s a lousy philosophy to inflict on your family. Try to keep their needs in mind as you deal with the stress and upheaval of a PCS move overseas or back to the United States.

    PCS moves are stressful, and moving has always been listed as one of the most stressful things you can do in life. But anticipating some of the problems you might have along the way is a very good way to reduce the amount of that stress in your life–you’ll be glad you did.

    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

    Written by Team