For a military family, a PCS move (permanent change of station) is inevitable. The number of military families continues to rise, and a U.S. soldier can expect at least one station change every 30 to 48 months.
There are significantly more logistics involved in a military move than a non-military move — you need more paperwork in order and a strategy for packing, loading and unloading at a new and often unfamiliar destination. That’s why it’s so important for military families to stay organized.
We created a PCS move checklist incorporating some military relocation tips from those who know — family members just like you who’ve completed a PCS move (or, likely, several PCS moves) and have plenty of military moving hacks to share.
Step 1: Organize your move by creating a PCS binder.
Your military spouse has just received notice — you’re on the move. You might be relocating within the continental U.S., or you could be heading overseas.
Either way, an organization strategy is going to be key to keeping your sanity intact through the lengthy process. To keep paperwork in order, consider creating a PCS binder.
Essentials to include in a PCS binder:
- Personal documents
- Medical records
- Insurance documents
- Marriage license
- Car titles
- Other paperwork that must be accounted for during every phase of the move.
- Contacts for both the current and upcoming duty stations
- Housing applications
- Old housing clearance
- Bill termination notices
- Household inventory
- Reservations for travel.
With this binder that includes every bit of crucial transition information always accessible, this military family is prepared for a smooth PCS move.
Step 2: Save free printable PCS checklists.
Of course, if creating a binder from scratch seems daunting, you can use templates that others have created — using these spreadsheets for all of your move needs. Megan from The Homes I have Made says that spreadsheets work best if you are either printing the sheets to have in a paper file or if you are certain that you will have laptop or tablet access on the road.
Step 3: Plan your transportation.
If your PCS move is overseas, what will you do for a car once you arrive? According to many seasoned military families, it makes sent to ship your car, because the military will pay!
Many military families will ship one vehicle and then buy or lease a less expensive “short-term” car that they can get rid of at the end of their time at that location. If your PCS move is in the U.S., you can still look at shipping a car if you don’t want to put on the wear and tear involved in driving across the country.
Step 4: Look for military airline discounts.
Thankfully, JD at A Semi-delicate Balance has compiled a list of airlines that offer military discounts.
Often, military discounts aren’t included in an airline’s advertised rates, but the booking agents on the phone will help. Usually, the discounts can also apply to dependents or even military retirees. One word of caution, though — still shop around, because a military airfare discount still might not be the best deal.
Step 5: Plan for medical assistance along the way.
Tara is a military spouse, and she also raises a little girl and two energetic puppies. This Aiming High Wife and military mom recommends keeping a list (even if it’s mental, and not on paper) of where the hospitals are located along your travel route. Especially if you’re pregnant or have small children, you want access to immediate medical care if you need it.
That goes for traveling with kids as well. When you’re traveling through or around major cities, there should be plenty of resources if one of your kids gets sick along the way. However, if you’re traveling through less densely-populated areas, pediatric care could be harder to find. Knowing ahead of time where to go can save a lot of stress if something happens along the road.
Step 6: Find temporary or long-term storage.
If you’re not moving directly into a new home, you might find that you need storage for furniture or household items during “gap” time in between permanent residences. Or, if your move is to somewhere with a vastly different climate from where you’ve been, you might have clothes or other items that you want to keep, but that aren’t going to be worn or used during your stay. Check out these resources to help you on your way:
- Search Storage Units Near You
- How to Find Storage Unit Deals
- Choosing the Right Storage Unit for Your Needs
Step 7: Learn about cost reimbursement and unforeseen expenses.
If you own a home, you could incur a loss when you sell if the market is not profitable where you live. Research the seller’s market to see if you should set aside extra funds that would help if you end up losing money on the sale of your house. If you’re currently renting, having an apartment or house professionally cleaned could cost several hundreds of dollars. If you’re able to do the clean-up yourself, you can save a lot of money. Just be sure to do a good job so that you receive back your complete security deposit.
There are a lot of household supplies and food that might end up getting thrown out as you prepare to leave. Most moving companies won’t move liquids or food, so minimize purchases of household goods in the months before you move. You’ll need to do a full restock of food, cleaning products and possibly some personal hygiene products when you arrive. All of this can take a toll on your budget.
The military should reimburse you for time spent in temporary housing at a new duty station, but the up-front cost will be out-of-pocket. You need to have cash savings on hand to cover these costs until your reimbursement arrives.
Step 8: Determine your preferred type of housing.
When you are embarking on a PCS relocation, there are several options for finding a home:
- Private military installation housing. In this situation, a service member and family can receive basic housing allowance and live in a private home where rent is paid to a manager or owner who functions as a property manager in the civilian community.
- Government-owned military installation housing. Sometimes, especially overseas, government housing is the only solution. This is owned and maintained by the DoD, and the family wouldn’t pay rent or utilities but also won’t receive a housing allowance.
- Single military installation housing. This is also called “unaccompanied” housing, which is an option when the service member is single, or if a married service member is separated from the family and living alone. Often, these take the form of barracks or dormitory-style living, which could mean a single or shared room or private room with a shared living area. In this case, too, there is no housing allowance, but there is also no paying rent or utilities.
- Rent a home off-installation. If you choose to live off the installation, you could rent a home or apartment that you find yourself. In this case, you handle the specifics of your lease, utilities, maintenance and other responsibilities. The military does have specific legal protection if service members must break a lease when they are deployed or transferred.
- Buy a home off-installation. Of course, buying a home is a huge commitment and investment. The biggest consideration is what you will do if you are reassigned or deployed. Would you put your house on the market immediately? Is the area likely to be a good seller’s market? Would you look for a tenant if you can’t sell immediately? Can you afford to maintain the one home and buy or rent another in your new location? These are all questions that you must ask if you’re contemplating buying a home near your installation.
Step 9: Reach out to resources like the Defense Travel Management Office (DTMO).
The DTMO is prepared for things you might not have considered. It will provide you with a preparation checklist that the service member must complete. If you’re headed overseas, there will be mandatory health checks for the whole family, for example. But, DTMO can help with your transportation planning and other logistics, even if you’re intending on a DIY move or PPM (personally procured move).
There are lots of other services like the Automated Housing Referral Network (AHRN) that offer resources like PCS move checklists, rent comparisons, school information, and other factors based on your specific criteria. Use the AHRN in a way that will most closely benefit you and your needs.
Step 10: If you’re buying, get pre-qualified for a mortgage before you shop.
Many agents won’t allow a prospective buyer to even look at a home unless she is pre-qualified for a mortgage. The first step, though, is to check your credit score. The interest rate you ultimately get on your mortgage will likely depend on a combination of your credit score and the amount of your down payment.
Robin McDaniel is one of the experts behind Everything Finance, and she advises making a list of “needs, must-haves and wants”. You might see a house that just sings to you… but still consider whether it’s truly the right purchase. It could be a wonderful house, but in a neighborhood where your children won’t have any playmates. If that’s important to you, then you might need to look further.
Step 11: Make a separate househunting binder.
You might have the most complete PCS move checklist ever, but consider that house hunting requires its own file and system of organization. When you’re searching for a house, even if a lot of the research is online, there will be listing sheets, brochures, application forms and more that you’ll need as you shop.
If you’re making a special trip to your destination for a few days of intensive house-hunting, you will want a separate moving binder to keep your papers, contacts and other information in order.
Step 12: Prioritize packing if moving with children.
Even if this isn’t your first PCS move, your priorities might be different this time from the last. For instance, if you’re moving with children for the first time, think about what that means for packing. Make sure that all of the baby gear is on the truck first. With PCS moves, the first truck could fill up and the second truck might not arrive for another month. It’s important to prioritize packing the essential nursery and children’s items so they are included in the first arrival.
Step 13: Plan a do-it-yourself move if it makes sense.
It is possible to have a do-it-yourself PCS move—just ask JG, a military wife, who has done it four times as part of her Me and My Soldier Man lifestyle! She, her husband and their baby daughter are experienced at moving, and she gives the following advice:
- Figure out how many boxes you need before you start to gather supplies.
- Pack your decorative items that have no use (other than to look nice) early and get them out of the way.
- Label boxes clearly and with more detail than you think you need.
- Have a garage sale to get rid of anything that you don’t need to bring. This is great for kids’ items that they’ve outgrown or no longer use. “Hippy Milspouse” Kara has tips for getting rid of stuff you don’t need (aka “a guide for hoarders”). She loves it because she has left her home in Vermont for deployment in Korea.
- Although you’ve packed on your own, hiring help to load the truck is a huge help.
Step 14: Select your unaccompanied baggage for overseas military moves.
If you have an upcoming PCS move overseas, you can take 1,000 pounds of unaccompanied baggage by air, which means those are the items that will arrive first. You might have to wait for the rest.
So, think carefully about how you choose those 1,000 pounds of necessities. Jess, at Jessica Lynn Writes, is an Air Force wife, mom to two girls, and calls herself a “globetrotter.” Her unaccompanied baggage includes everything from bathroom mats to DVDs.
Step 15: Pack with your first day in mind.
Things will be frenetic when you arrive. Regardless of how organized you are, you need to anticipate a little chaos on the first day or two. That’s why one of our favorite tips is to have a “first-day box” that is well-stocked with like batteries, electronics chargers, night lights, tools and other move-in essentials.
Step 16: Color-code for easy unpacking.
One mom says her favorite trick for a PCS move is to use duct tape in bright colors to mark every box and piece of furniture. She codes by room (kitchen, each child’s bedroom, playroom, etc.). When she arrives, she places a piece of the corresponding tape on each door jamb so that the movers know exactly where to place each item. Then, when she unpacks in her new home, everything is accessible and easy to place.
Step 17: Create fun times moving with kids.
Are you laughing yet? Anyone who has moved with kids will tell you that it makes for a tiring trip. However, Military Spouse contributor Stacy Huisman is full of advice for preparing your kids and for the actual trip. She says:
- Make the trip an adventure. There are travel apps, car games, treat bags, snacks, movies and other ways to keep your children occupied on the road or plane.
- Find “fun” hotels. A hotel with included breakfast and an indoor pool is key. The pool will give your kids a much-needed opportunity to blow off some steam after a long day of being cooped up in a car or plane.
- Keep kids on their normal sleep and eating schedules as much as possible. Kids take a while to adjust to changes, and this can be hard, especially if you’re traveling across time zones. But, if you can keep their naps, routines and mealtimes consistent, it might help to keep them happy and things under control.
Step 18: Pack a little extra for the kids.
Want to make a road trip with kids more fun? Worried about nutrition on the road? Prepare travel-friendly healthy meals in advance so that your kids aren’t eating fast food along the way (well, maybe not for every meal, anyway).
Step 19: Get the best deals on what you need in your new home.
Phew. Done. You’ve found a home, moved and unpacked. Now what? First things, first. You likely need to do at least a little restocking, or you need to supplement your supplies a little for the new digs. Before making any purchases, seek out retailers that offer military discounts.
Step 20: Use your dislocation allowance.
You might be eligible for a dislocation allowance if you have been ordered to move into military housing, or if you were evacuated from a duty station. Kate Horrell, who is a military finance coach, says that you might be eligible for government reimbursement for some of your moving or housing costs.
Step 21: Make your temporary house feel like home.
Sometimes it can be difficult to make military houses feel like home. Take some time after the move to create a welcoming environment, which will in turn help alleviate some stress. Display your favorite family photos, invest in some cozy home decor, and get creative with blank walls.
Step 22: Build your community.
This might be the most important of all of the military relocation tips out there. You might not think that your new home is ideal for your family, but for the sake of your children, you want to have a positive attitude. Military communities are some of the easiest places to make friends because everyone is an outsider. From moms who have experienced a PCS move several times:
- Ask for help. Military communities are very giving when it comes to time and resources. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need, whether it’s childcare or even just companionship.
- Be a joiner. Even if big events aren’t your thing, attend parties or events so that you can make a few solid friendships. Or, invite new friends to your home for a pizza party or playdate so that you can establish connections.
- Keep on top of your long-distance friends and family. It’s natural to miss those you left behind, but you can stay connected through technology. Apps like Skype and FaceTime allow you to celebrate occasions like birthdays or holidays together across the miles.
Step 23: Use our Printable PCS Checklist
If all else fails, we have a printable PCS checklist for you to use while you’re planning.
A PCS move involves so many moving parts that we’re sure that you have your own tips to share. In the comments below, we’d love to hear your strategies for making an easy move with your military family. Share with the fellow military parents and spouses in your community so that we can learn from them, too. If there’s one thing we know about military families, it’s that you love to help each other out.
Updated 7/9/18 from a post originally published 2/18/16.