Skip to main content

Military Families Returning to the USA After Living OCONUS

by Stacey Faris - September 1st, 2022

Military Families Returning to the USA After Living OCONUS

Our three-part series, Moving OCONUS: Before, During and After helps you navigate the ins and outs of an OCONUS move from the minute your spouse walks in and yells “Kon’nichiwa!” or “Guten Tag!” to the time you land back stateside.

After years of living overseas, you are finally moving back to the United States! Your family probably feels a mixture of excitement and sadness about saying goodbye to your international home. Returning stateside after living OCONUS can be a stressful PCS for your whole family.

A successful transition back to CONUS after living overseas is almost entirely dependent on the prep work you’ve done prior to ever touching down on U.S. soil. To ensure all of your bases are covered, we are going to delve a little deeper into those months and weeks leading up to your departure and your ultimate return to the U.S. We will talk reverse culture shock too and how to ease back into life in the good ole, U S of A!

What you need to know about returning stateside after living OCONUS

Prep to move from OCONUS to CONUS

Prep early and with a list. Carry it with you everywhere. You are going to get stressed. Don’t let it keep you from getting everything sorted. And when it comes to the actual travel portion of your PCS, use technology to your benefit. Scan all of your important documents and save them online somewhere like Google Drive or Dropbox. This way, if you lose paper copies of anything (orders, passports, plane tickets, etc.), you can pull them up on a smartphone, laptop or tablet.

Milspouse D’Antrese McNeil got pneumonia two days before her family flew out of Korea. Overcoming this would be hard for anyone. Add flying across the world with four kids and two pets, and it just might break the best traveler. But D’Antrese handled it like a champ, “I am super organized, so even though I was sick, and we lost a kid in the airport…long story, I didn’t have to worry about being unorganized.”

Saving money for an international move

Time and again, the conversations turn to money. When I asked Michelle Prosser, an Army spouse whose family was stationed in Germany, the top issue her husband addresses with returning soldiers, her answer was an unequivocal, "COLA. The Cost of Living Allowance can be a significant amount depending on where you are overseas.” She says it’s especially hard if you’ve been stationed somewhere for a long time and are accustomed to receiving it.

One trick to ease into the loss is to take your COLA pay and put it into savings immediately. Do this for at least two months before you plan to leave. You get the double benefit: 1.You don’t see the money available in your account, and 2.You’re building up that oh so necessary savings!

Speaking of that savings you are diligently building, Erin Ensley, Air Force spouse, says no one had warned them how expensive it would be to move back. Fortunately they had savings; unfortunately, it was gone in four months. Marine Corps spouse Lakesha Cole states that you need a minimum of $10,000 in savings to return comfortably. If you haven’t started saving yet, don’t freak out. Put that COLA aside and then look for ways to save on expenses once you return.

Look for travel deals when PCSing stateside

Often, moving back to the States involves a long hotel stay while house-hunting or being on a waitlist for base housing. Know what travel fees are covered in your orders, and request extensions if applicable. Lakesha saved money on her family’s hotel stay by booking with Priceline to get an incredible rate, “Me being the frugal business person that I am, I was not going to pay $89 for 30 nights. So what I did was, I Pricelined our entire 30-night stay. So instead of paying $89 a night, I got $49 a night at various Marriott hotels and saved us about $1200 over the entire stay.”

Moving is expensive just going state to state. It grows exponentially when you return from overseas. As Lakesha explains, “We really had to reintegrate slowly back into our life and the standard of living we were accustomed to prior to moving out of the country.” Pace yourself, those new couches will still be waiting when you’ve gotten a handle on your finances, and you will feel so much better paying for them with money you’ve saved!

What about PCSing with pets to the States?

Remember to make PCS travel arrangements for your fur babies too. These expenses are often out of pocket. Whether you decide to travel with your pet or send them beforehand, do your research early enough to allow your pets to PCS back to the U.S. in the least stressful fashion for everyone involved.

Milspouse Michelle came back from Germany with a dog. She briefly summed up the process of getting her family’s pooch back to the U.S., “It’s a HUGE pain in the behind!” Make sure flights line-up with the animals if you aren’t on the same planes. Then figure out how you will get them from the airport if you don’t have a vehicle waiting at home. Michelle said that to make things easier, many people she knows sent their animals back to family in the U.S. ahead of time.

Moving with cars from OCONUS to CONUS

Plan ahead to determine which vehicles can be transported back to the States under your PCS orders, and whether you need to sell one in-country before you move. With each family I spoke to, vehicles were consistently part of the conversation. Lakesha Cole’s family had to buy new cars when they returned to the U.S. because Marine Corps regulations do not allow you to bring a vehicle back from overseas. This put a big dent in the $10,000 they saved. Army spouse, Caitlin Nyunt and her husband Alex forgot to renew their car registration while in Korea. As a result, they were hit with a $1,000 bill once they got the cars out of storage. Know your options, and stay on top of your paperwork.

Prepping military kids to return to the United States after living overseas

How we prepare and present what is happening to our children can make all the difference. Try to set up something special for your kids to help them say goodbye before you leave. When D’Antrese’s family left Korea, it wasn’t that big of a deal for her younger kids. They hadn’t been in school for long, and most of their good friends had already PCSed. Her oldest, however, was in sixth grade and was really struggling with leaving her friends behind. D’Antrese’s plan was great, “Since we were in lodging – two rooms, attached of course – we got permission from her three best friends’ parents for the kids to stay with us in the room until the day before we left. It meant so much to her.”

When you get back stateside, prepare to fully immerse your kids in your new community. “For us, we immediately missed the close-knit community that came with being an expat,” says milspouse Caitlin. She says children generally adapt very well to change as a family because they jump right in, getting involved in their new communities and making new friends. Take advantage of social media before you return. Join Facebook community groups for your new installation. Check out parks and rec calendars so you can join new activities once you’ve recovered from your jet lag. The sooner your kids have something to do, the happier everyone will be!

What you need to know about reverse culture shock

Yes, reverse culture shock exists! And most military families go through it after living overseas. Just ask National Guard spouse Erica Glass, “I lived overseas a while and of course shopped on base. As we know, base has a limited number of items. When I came back the first real store I went to was a Target. I had a mini panic attack in the shampoo aisle because there were too many to choose from!”

Erica is in good company. Air Force spouse Susan Reynolds had a similar experience, “I will never forget my move back to the states from Germany. I went to Target for the first time and spent three hours in there!” And milspouse Erin had a similar experience, “I began to have anxiety after five minutes and had to leave. It took a few weeks to get over the shock.”

Lakesha recounts her transition back from Japan. “It almost feels like I had to learn how to be an American in America again.” Is she settled now? “All it takes is for me to walk into a Wal-Mart to realize I’m still in the transition phase.”

Returning stateside after living overseas

PCS moves are never easy, and an international move will be stressful, even though you are returning to your home country. Caitlin suggests after the initial shock wears off, “It’s like jumping into cold water…you just have to do it. Don’t tiptoe. Immerse yourself immediately.” If you’ve taken all these steps ahead of time, everything might not go perfectly, but things will certainly fall into place much sooner than you would imagine.

Start planning today by learning about your new Stateside neighborhood and reading reviews from fellow military families here!

Stacey Faris

Stacey Faris is a military wife of 10+ years. When not busy toting kids all around the desert, scrambling to meet writing deadlines because she is a master procrastinator, or trying to get fit at the gym, she can be found working as the Business Administrator for JCW | A Creative Agency and