Sunday, June 19, 2016

PCS: A Civilians Guide

So this is obviously my experience and my experience only with PCS-ing to Spain.  Everyone has a different experience but I tried to include tips, tricks, etc. that worked for us as well as stuff I heard from friends both in the states and once we got here to Rota.

PCS stands for Permanent Change of Station...  which basically means you are moving to your new duty station if you were in the military.  You get orders which tell you where you are going, where you are PCS-ing too and the process of moving begins...

While we are associated with the military, we are not a military family.  We are considered civilians (but Trevor is not a contract employee) and so the whole moving process was very new to us and also very stressful because there was so much neither of us knew -- because we are civilian we don't move every 2-4 years like those in the military!  I was able to talk to many of my military friends in the states and they gave me a lot of tips, but since none of them had ever done an overseas move, I still had a lot of unanswered questions.  So if you are new to all of this, PCS-ing to Spain, or a civilian like us, here is your guide!

Before you can even schedule your movers, you have to have your orders -- meaning your paperwork that says, yes you are moving and yes, you need movers (and where exactly you are going).  Everything from here on out will require your orders, so always have your original and make sure you have an insane amount of copies!  The fun part is guessing when you are leaving to then schedule the movers at a good time.  We had our orders but we didn't have our passports yet, so we guessed we'd be leaving sometime around end of February/early March.  We scheduled movers for mid-February and figured if we left later, Trevor could stay with friends and go to work while Serafina and I went to my parents.  We ended up leaving just a few days after our stuff was shipped, so it worked out perfectly.

Before your movers come, take pictures of your more expensive items -- we took pictures of our TVs (including the product numbers), our furniture that we cared more about, our bikes, the BOB stroller, and other various items.  I think it goes without saying that all of your important documents -- birth certificates, marriage license, social security cards, passports, medical records (yes, have copies of all of your medical records), etc. should go with you on the airplane and NOT in your shipments!

Everything is packed and moved for you.  The movers come into your house for a few days and pack up EVERYTHING.  And when I say everything, I mean E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G.  They open a cupboard and pack it all up!  We had heard horror stories about people who had had their trash packed, or half full sippy cups of milk or wet towels.  So we were a little freaked out that something would be packed that we didn't want packed.  I had bright yellow paper that I used to write "do not pack" on closet/bathroom doors where we hid everything that was not being packed -- our suitcases, clothes, etc. that were coming with us on the plane; things to go to goodwill; food we'd need for the next few days while we camped in our house, etc.  We kept important papers (medical records, passports, stuff like that) in my car which was away from the house all day.  We lucked out big time with our movers -- they were wonderful and so nice.  They were constantly asking Trevor about things they should pack.  We did have a few things get broken, but nothing major.  And we did have one sippy cup be packed FULL of water that did not spill -- who knows how that happened!  Made for a good laugh as we unpacked it :)

We provided food (sandwiches, pizza, snacks) and water for our movers, and also gave them a tip.  While this is not required, it is a nice gesture.  They really appreciated it and we figured it can't hurt -- they are in charge of moving almost everything you own so you want them to take care of it.

So now to the details...  You will have three separate shipments: express (unaccompanied baggage), storage, household goods (HHG).  We were also allowed to ship one car, but Trevor dealt with all that craziness so I have no idea about that!  All I know is that your car has to pass an inspection prior to shipping, so make sure everything is in working order.  Anyways, I'll break down each of the other shipments:

Express Shipment (also called unaccompanied baggage): this shipment is a smaller shipment (under 2000 pounds or something like that) that should arrive before your HHG shipment.  However, many express shipments arrive just a few days before your HHG or the same day -- so don't count on this shipment coming faster!  Even knowing this, we still did an express shipment that included: some essential baby items (wipes, diapers), a lot of clothes for all of us, half of our kitchen, some toiletries and sheets/towels/pillows.  We knew that we would be staying in a hotel (because we are not military, we did not stay on base when we arrived) so we didn't feel the need to pack sheets/towels in our luggage coming on the plane -- some people do this but only pack this stuff if you are staying in temporary housing and if you have room (you can buy it here).  Also, this shipment is going on an airplane so be mindful of what you are including in your shipment.  I had wanted to send our BOB stroller and our bikes in our express shipment, but we were told they would be more protected and safer in the our HHG shipment.  Our express shipment ended up arrived two weeks before our HHG and was able to be delivered on the exact day we moved into our house (it arrived like the day before we moved in), so I was very happy to have sheets, pillows, kitchen stuff so that we didn't have to buy or borrow from the base.  One thing I would have done differently was included Serafina's crib in this shipment -- the one item of furniture you are allowed to ship in your express shipment.  It didn't hurt her to sleep in her pack n play for an extra two weeks, but it would have been nice to get the transition into her new room going that much faster!

Storage: you are allowed to store some of your items in temporary storage (basically for as long as you are gone) and the movers will also pack this up and take this to the storage unit.  We opted not to do this step and here is why: we wanted access to the stuff we were planning on storing.  We have our own storage unit that our family members can access and send us items if needed, rather it being stored some place for as long as we are gone without anyone being able to access it.  We chose to store items like: baby clothes that no longer fit, some clothes of ours that we wanted to keep just never wear, appliances that we knew wouldn't work over here -- basically things we wanted to keep but that we knew we wouldn't need/miss/want in the next few years (or if we did need it, it was easy to ship).  We opted to store our kitchen appliances, except my hand-held mixer.  We knew that none of these items would work without an adapter or transformer and that using both of these can run out the motor faster and basically, we didn't want to ruin our nice appliances.  For more information on using appliances in Spain -- see this post.

Household Goods Shipment (HHG): this is everything else -- the rest of your stuff!  We shipped all of our furniture too.  We had learned that houses here were bigger than what you'd expect from Europe so that all of our American furniture would fit (we ended up with one couch that won't fit where we wanted it to go, but we had a Plan B and it all worked out).  The movers again pack everything and take apart any item of furniture that they can (shelves, tables, crib, chairs, etc. were all taken apart and packed up).  This shipment takes 1-2 days to pack up and load on to the truck (into crates) that will take its sweet time getting to you while it crosses the ocean on a boat.  We were told that our stuff would arrive anywhere from 60-90 days.  Our HHG arrived exactly two months to the date that it left our house in the states.  And this was a little on the faster side for coming from the west coast.

You will have to separate out each shipment before the movers arrive (but don't pack anything yourself).  We had our express shipment going a few days before our HHG so we moved everything that was going in our express shipment into one room and closet -- we told the movers to only pack that room/closet and they did; it was that easy.  Then all that was left was the HGG stuff which was packed up a few days later.  If you had a storage shipment, you'd need to separate that our too, make sense?

So are there things you can and cannot bring?  Yes... and no.  I had read that there was A LOT of stuff they wouldn't pack -- food, liquids, toiletries, anything flammable...  But this all depends on your specific movers, not even the moving company, but the actual guys that show up to pack/move your stuff.  When the moving company came out to do an inventory before the movers came, I kept asking the guy -- will they ship this, can we pack that? And he kept telling me "if they can't ship it, they will set it aside" which I found extremely annoying, I didn't want to buy extra toiletries and then find out they won't ship it.  So basically I kept anything that was unopened, full-sized and hoped that they'd ship it and they did!  We lucked out and had laundry soap, food, toiletries, and batteries shipped.  I think most movers will ship the stuff so with that said....

STOCK UP! Anything you use that you are very brand specific about -- lotion, shampoo/conditioner, baby products (diapers, wipes) -- buy it ALL!  We use a lot of Honest Company products (specifically diapers and wipes) so I was literally getting a bundle almost every week to stock up -- I am sure the customer service people thought I was crazy, but I am happy we had a lot of diapers in our express shipment and our HHG.  I would also recommend trying to bring any food item that you love and can't live without -- lots of people buy out Trader Joe's products before moving. Me, I had stocked up on ketchup!

Because I am pretty brand specific about a lot of things (hey, when you and your kiddo have sensitive skin -- you know what works for you and what doesn't) and because I didn't know if the movers would pack the stuff that I wanted/needed AND because I didn't want to waste precious luggage space with toiletries...  I shipped a few (okay like 5) boxes to our sponsors to have waiting for us when we arrived.  I shipped: diapers, wipes, a few outfits for all of us, toiletries, and toys.  I also ordered a few things on Amazon and Toys R Us because we had gift cards and I shipped those to our sponsors too.  And while everyone gave me crap for it -- I am SO thankful I did.   It was amazing to not have to figure out where to get basic items (toothpaste, diapers/wipes, lotion) those first few days (even weeks) when I was a total walking zombie thanks to an insanely jet lagged baby.  It also allowed me to figure out what I could buy here and what I needed to ship (and how to go about doing that) when we ran out of stuff.  And thanks to our Toys R Us gift card, we had some new and fun toys for Serafina to use in the hotel room which was a huge bonus!

And I should let you know that PCS-ing to Spain is very different from any other overseas duty station.  There are various differences from other bases because Rota is a Spanish base and therefore, we have to follow their rules/regulations.  The biggest one that we have come across is that most other bases allow you to ship a motorcycle in your HHG in addition to a car, but that is not the case going to Rota -- it's either your car or your motorcycle (but you can ship a motorcycle in your HHG back to the states).  This obviously didn't affect us but it can be a pain for some people.  Everything you ship is inventoried and then has to go through Spanish customs before making its way to you.  This is often why your express shipment and HHG arrive at similar times -- things can get held up in customs very easily.  So be mindful of what you are shipping -- it may be legal in the states, but not in Spain.

So now that you have been living without the majority of your personal items for a good two to three months, what happens next?  Well, you get a call from someone on base (they called Trevor so I have no idea how that all works) that says your stuff has arrived!  And you do the biggest happy dance of all time (not kidding on this one).  You schedule a moving day and all your stuff arrives in a large truck -- still in the crates that were shipped across the ocean.  Everything is unloaded, usually one crate at a time.  I must admit, it is a very efficient and organized process -- the guys call out numbers or show you the box if they don't speak English as items are coming out of the crate, you check off the number, tell them where it is going and away it goes into your house!

A few more tips -- if you have young kids, put them somewhere for the day: daycare, school, a friends house... It makes the day go so much smoother without worrying about your kiddos too.  The same goes for pets -- lock them in the bathroom, put them at a friend's house -- the doors are open all day long and you don't want your animals running away.  This goes for both your pack out in the states and when your stuff arrives in Spain.  Whatever your moving company in the states took apart, the moving company on this end will put back together.  You may have to ask, but they will do it.  This will save you a ton of time because you will be shocked at what comes apart!  You will end up with an insane amount of paper and boxes -- do as much unpacking while the movers are there as you can so that you can give them the paper and boxes to take with them.  But don't worry if you don't get it all done, unpack when you can and then call the moving company to come pick up all the paper and boxes -- it's that easy!  While we did have food for the movers if needed, they only took water (we were told this was pretty normal).

And there you have it.  A very long post about what it is like to move to Spain -- but hopefully this answers some of your questions and eases some of your fears.  While it was extremely stressful, we would do it again in a heartbeat!  And of course, don't hesitate to ask any questions if you are lucky enough to PCS to Spain!

Sadly I took no pictures of our pack out or when out stuff arrived -- I think I was too stressed with the pack out and too excited when our stuff finally arrived to even think about taking pictures.  But here is a picture our insanely adorable Peanut discovering her new favorite activity -- sand throwing.


  1. Wow what a big crazy move. We moved across the US twice and that was hard. I can't imagine going to another country. Good luck in your new home. xo ~ Megan The Fashionista Momma

    1. Thanks Megan -- it was a tough transition, but we are loving our new life here as each day gets easier!

  2. Hi Abby - I'm so glad you created this resource for others (like me!). We are PCS-ing across the US and I'm having such a hard time with the slow accrual of information we get regarding the process.

    How long did it take for you to get orders, and how close was it to his start date? Apparently we can't list our house until we have orders, and my husband's start date is fast approaching.

    1. Hi Kate! That's so exciting about your move -- good luck!!

      It took us a good while to get official orders (almost 4 months after the hire date) and then once we got our orders, the start date was just 2 weeks away (eek). But since we were moving overseas, we had to get special passports which you can only get once your orders come. So -- the official start date was actually about 2 months after the orders start date. We also couldn't make any airline/travel reservations until we had our passports. BUT once the passports arrived, we were on our way within 10 days!

      So even though the initial process was very slow, once our passports arrived, it all moved very fast. We had scheduled movers prior to our passports arriving (because we had orders, we were able to do so)

      Hope that all helps! Email me if you have any more questions!!


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