If you’re getting ready to make a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move from an overseas assignment back to the United States or to another overseas duty station, there are some important considerations to remember when getting ready for your household goods shipment.
If you’ve never PCSed from overseas before there are some unique issues to be mindful of–some of these can make or break a move in terms of speed, convenience, and getting your shipment done right the first time. Others can mean a potential loss of property or even confiscation by local authorities.
What Does It Mean To Ship Household Goods From An Overseas Base?
To get the best results from an overseas PCS move, it helps to understand the nature of your move. Starting with who will be responsible for your shipment. First-timers might assume that there’s some military office on overseas bases that is responsible for packing and shipping your household goods.
This is partially true; depending on the branch of military service you may be referred to a “TMO” or Transportation Management Office. TMO will help you coordinate your household goods shipment, give you instructions and advice, and explain the legal issues associated with your move should there be damage or loss of personal property.
But the military people at your base TMO office or its equivalent do NOT do the packing and physical moving. This is usually done by contractors who either work at the base or work for it on a contract basis to pack and ship your items.
This has important implications for your move because the use of a local entity means three basic things:
- There may be a language barrier between you and the packing and moving crew.
- The packing and moving crew have limits imposed on them by both the DoD and the host nation as to what can be packed and shipped in your household goods and these crews cannot deviate from those rules.
- Your contact with the crew that packs and ships your household goods is generally limited to what happens when they show up to pack your items.
These three things have implications you might not expect, as we’ll discover below.
Packing And Shipping: The Rules
All host nations have rules about what can be exported or shipped from their country, and what cannot. In general you may not ship plants, explosives, certain legal drugs, all illegal drugs, endangered species or bodies/parts of endangered species, firearms, war trophies, etc.
These prohibitions will be explained to you during your PCS briefings, but some either forget or deliberately attempt to skirt these rules by concealing prohibited items in hopes that they will escape the scrutiny of the packing crew.
And sometimes, that approach works long enough to get contraband inside a household goods shipment. But what these people don’t realize is that all household goods shipments are subject to customs inspections. Materials that cannot clear customs may be seized. In some cases they may be seized as evidence. In other cases they are simply seized and destroyed.
What cannot be shipped? That varies depending on the host nation’s rules. Some countries have strict prohibitions on pornography, for example. And what actually consists of “pornography” in these countries is on a sliding scale.
A book of fine art nude paintings may be considered to be pornography in certain countries, while other nations may have a less far-reaching definition of what is prohibited. Laws change frequently and today’s liberal interpretation may be replaced by tomorrow’s far more conservative approach.
These gray areas should be respected by military members if for no other reason than to avoid legal trouble or issues within the chain of command over non-compliance of host nation restrictions.
Household Goods Shipments From Overseas: Things To Do
Remember the language barrier issue we mentioned earlier? There are some very important things you will need to remember to avoid major trouble because you cannot communicate with your packing and moving crew or vice versa.
One big issue–making sure that items you need to hand-carry to your next assignment (orders, records, documents, uniforms, financial instruments such as checks, bonds, your wallet, etc.) do not wind up being packed by accident.
And unless you take specific measures, your hand-carry items WILL be packed. What specific measures do you need?
The best policy is to completely remove such items from the home before the movers arrive. They cannot pack it if they cannot find it. And the reverse is true–anything movers can find they will likely pack.
The writer of this article has personal experience where this has been true and there are plenty of horror stories involving the same issues–people who had travel orders and airline tickets accidentally packed into their household goods never to be seen again until the other side of the journey when they are no longer crucial to have.
It is best to lock such items into a vehicle or have them relocated completely outside the home on packing day.
Another thing to do for the same reason? Remove all trash, and items to be donated, discarded, or given away. These can and often do get packed. The best rule of thumb–assume that if it is inside your home on packing day, it will go into a box.
Another “to do”–take photographs of all shipping containers once they have been packed up and have had customs seals affixed to the crates. The seals are to indicate the boxes have not been tampered with.
Photographic evidence of these seals can help you in cases where you need to file a claim because of lost or damaged household goods. You will want to hang on to ALL documentation of the move given to you by TMO and by the packers and movers until after your household goods are delivered and unpacked on the other end.
Here are some additional tips for household goods shipments from an overseas location:
DO share all packing and shipping rules with your spouse and dependents where applicable. If your family does not know the rules of engagement, they can’t help you comply.
DO share with your family (where applicable) important details about the packing day and how long it will take to get the shipment on the other end–knowing these things can take longer than expected helps each family member prioritize what to hand-carry and what to let be packed.
DO compare a list of prohibited items to your own personal household goods inventory. If you don’t have one, it is a very good idea to begin taking an inventory as soon as possible ahead of packing day.
DO err on the side of caution with all household goods. Don’t ship items that can leak or are subject to age-related problems such as batteries which can corrode and leak over time.
DO throw away all caustics, cleaners, thinners, etc. but wait until you’ve had your final cleaning and inspection from the home. You may need those items before you PCS.
DO contact the TMO office or equivalent if you encounter any issue with the packing and shipping of your household goods. Do not let problems slide–report them immediately.
DO make note of all serial numbers or control numbers on the customs seals on your household goods. Keep these numbers stored in a physically safe location but also copy the numbers and post them to a cloud storage account so you can instantly access them if needed.
What NOT To Do
DON’T allow your household goods to be packed without doing your own personal inventory. Photos should be included for best results. You may need them if you have to file a claim.
DO NOT let any military records get packed. Hand carry them even if they are not relevant to inprocessing, etc. Imagine what could happen if you lose the originals of your important documents because of an issue with the shipment.
DON’T allow day-to-day uniform items to be packed–take them with you. You won’t get them in time to start your next assignment. This includes mess dress, full blues, whites, or greens, etc.
DON’T leave your movers unattended. They may require help knowing if an item should be packed or not. In general you may not be asked. But there are some instances where certain items might be in question–for example, did your home have a microwave when you moved in? That item must remain. But a mover might not know whether or not it’s appropriate to take.
DON’T include contraband, prohibited items, anything that may be confused with pornography, etc.
DON’T pack alcohol, caustics, batteries, plants, items that may be confused with hate speech, etc. The hate speech issue is particularly tricky as there is a general prohibition against packing such items.
However, a base historian might have books in their personal collection, for example, of things that were published as hate speech but are relevant to studies of a certain time in history. It is best to ship such items via U.S. mail instead of having them packed in your household goods.
DON’T assume that your household goods are covered by insurance. Ask your TMO what recourse you have otherwise, but if you have insurable items that are of high value, consider having them insured for their actual value.
DON’T assume your household goods will ship in a timely manner and arrive quickly. There are usually delays of some kind and if you have an immediate need for anything in your household goods you may wish to consider paying to have them shipped separately and at your own expense.