How the Status of Forces Agreement Can Affect Your Military Exchange and Commissary Privileges

Woman reading shopping list

When you spend time in another country assigned with the U.S. military, the status of forces agreement, or similar agreements, between the United States and your host country protects your legal status in that nation. Luckily for active-duty service members, DOD civilians, and their dependents, your privilege to shop in military stores is almost always covered under the agreement, too. But there are some restrictions, and here’s what they mean.

What are the reasons for status of forces agreement restrictions?

When you buy a product from an overseas commissary and exchange, it’s considered custom-, duty- and tax-free when it passes across international borders. Depending on where you’re traveling, some SOFAs or supplementary arrangements may:

  • Restrict you from buying rationed items
  • Impose a monthly spending cap depending on your situation and family size
  • Limit the purchase quantity on certain items to prevent resale in illegal markets or in a commercial capacity outside the installation

Where can I find out about specific status of forces agreement regulations?

Check with your military command, which typically publishes the military exchange and commissary regulations based on the SOFA’s terms. Or, you can check with the installation pass and identification office.

SOFAs and similar supplementary agreements govern more than purchases. They also regulate other elements to taxation, importation, criminal jurisdiction and cross-border transit. It’s a good idea to learn about the SOFAs between the United States and your destination country before you travel.

Plan Your Trip With Space-A Travel

Plane taking off on runway

Note: Effective March 21, 2020, Air Mobility Command temporarily suspended most Space-A travel due to COVID-19.

Service members and their families can use Space-Available flights – formally known as Military Airlift Command or MAC flights – to travel around the country and world at little to no cost. Though sometimes unpredictable, military flights are perfect for families with flexible plans and limited travel budgets. With the right planning and documentation, Space-A travel can be the best way to take a trip with your family.

Space-A Tips and Tricks

Learn how to take Space-A flights like a seasoned pro with these seven tips.

Space-A travel basics

These flights are not commercial, but rather military flights with a mission. That means there are certain restrictions to travel, including:

  • Only service members, retirees and their families are eligible. Only with certain qualifications are reservists, National Guardsmen and family members without an accompanying active-duty sponsor permitted.
  • Flights are typically free of charge, but you should contact your closest Air Mobility Command, or AMC, passenger terminal or the terminal at the location you intend to depart from for specific information.
  • Most terminals have a Facebook page where they post flight information, including their 72-hour flight schedule.

Space-Available travel eligibility

Once you sign up for a Space-A journey, you’ll be put into a category that determines your priority for a flight. A complete listing of eligible passengers by category is contained in DoD Instruction 4515.13. For the most recent instruction, search the DoD Directives Division website for “Air Transportation Eligibility.” Categories include:

  • Category I: Emergency Leave Unfunded Travel.
  • Category II: Accompanied Environmental and Morale Leave, or EML.
  • Category III: Ordinary Leave, Relatives, House Hunting Permissive Temporary Duty, Medal of Honor Holders and Foreign Military.
  • Category IV: Unaccompanied EML.
  • Category V: Permissive Temporary Duty (Non-House Hunting), Students, Dependents, Post Deployment/Mobilization Respite Absence and Others.
  • Category VI: Retired, Dependents, Reserve, Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidate Program and Civil Engineer Corps members.

Prepare for your Space-A flight

AMC has a travel page that includes the following important information about Space-A travel. You should review this travel page for up-to-date information, including what type of identification is required for you and your family, baggage allowance for checked and hand carried baggage, and prohibited items.

  • Travel instructions: travel eligibility; locations; required travel documents; registration, flight schedule and checking-in information.
  • AMC Form 140, Space Available Travel Request (fill out a form online and email it to your desired AMC passenger terminal)
  • Listing of Facebook pages for stateside and overseas locations.
  • AMC passenger terminal contact information.
  • Various travel information links.
  • Legal information for Space-A travel.
  • Operations security for social media and travelers.

Fly commercial with TSA Precheck

If Space-A travel isn’t right for your plans, take advantage of TSA Precheck to expedite your time at the airport when flying commercial. Use your Department of Defense ID as your known traveler number.

You’ll bypass long security lines without removing your shoes or jacket or taking your laptop from your bag. Family members under the age of 12 can pass through expedited screening with you.

5 Tips for Using Credit Cards Overseas

Soldiers board plane

Whether you’re stationed out of the country or just traveling overseas, paying with credit cards is generally a safer option than ATM cards. Check out these tips for protecting your money while you are abroad.

  • Pick a universal card. Stick to widely accepted credit cards, and choose a company that makes using their card while traveling as easy as possible.
  • Notify your issuer. If your credit card company sees your card being used in places you don’t normally go, it could result in your account being temporarily suspended. Save yourself that hassle by letting your card issuer know ahead of time that you are going abroad.
  • Ask about fees. Before you depart, ask the issuer what fees they will charge for using your card abroad. If you have more than one credit card, take the one with the best rates for withdrawing money and making transactions.
  • Keep the contact numbers for the card issuer handy. Look up your card issuer’s international phone number and keep it with you so you can get assistance quickly if you lose your card.
  • Save your receipts. When buying things overseas, or anywhere for that matter, save your receipts so you have a paper record of what you purchase in case of a disputed charge or for whatever reason you believe you are entitled to a refund.

If you plan ahead, using your card overseas should not be a problem. Manage your spending safely and securely from anywhere with help from the financial resources provided by Military OneSource.

Get Your Child the Right Start With Sure Start

Children reading books

Sure Start is a Department of Defense Education Activity program for command-sponsored children in military families stationed at overseas installations. If your family qualifies, it could be a great fit for your child. The program provides:

  • Full-day preschool program for eligible dependents
  • Health and nutrition services that include medical, dental and developmental screenings as well as nutritious snacks and lunch at no charge
  • Social services that provide for close cooperation with existing community resources for Sure Start families
  • Parent-involvement services that provide for two-way communication between parents and teachers, opportunities for parents to participate in their child’s learning experiences as well as participation in two home visit and school conferences

Sure Start: Is your child eligible?

Sure Start assists qualified preschool-age military children living overseas. To qualify, your child needs to turn 4 years old by Sept. 1 of the enrolling school year and be a command-sponsored dependent.

  • Ranks between E-1 and E-4 or rates the civilian equivalent have first priority.

Additional selection criteria may apply:

  • Lives in a single-parent household
  • Had a low birth weight
  • Has an older sibling with severe disabilities
  • Lives in a home with three or more kids close in age
  • Has a parent who did not graduate from high school
  • Has a parent who was a teenager when the first child was born
  • Has a parent whose primary language is not English
  • Has a parent who is on a remote assignment or temporary duty for at least three months

What’s the difference between Sure Start and Head Start?

Sure Start is built on the same foundation as Head Start but fits better into the Department of Defense Education Activity culture and regulations.

Both Sure Start and Head Start:

  • Use a four-tiered delivery system: education, health and nutrition, social services and mandatory parent involvement
  • Run medical, dental and developmental screenings for students and provide follow-up assessments if needed
  • Provide no-cost, nutritious lunches and snacks
  • Encourage family involvement
  • Cater to students’ ages, individual needs and cultures in environment, curriculum, materials, routines and daily activities
  • Follow a full-day program

How is Sure Start different from Head Start?

  • The Department of Defense Education Activity oversees the Sure Start program.
  • Sure Start considers a military sponsor’s rank its first priority for enrollment. Head Start uses income to determine eligibility.
  • Sure Start does not use a child’s disability status to determine eligibility. Head Start reserves at least 10% of slots in each classroom for children with disabilities.
  • Parent involvement in Sure Start is mandatory.
  • Sure Start staffs two adults for every 18 to 20 students. Local or state licensing boards determine Head Start’s staff-to-child ratios.
  • Sure Start staff works with Department of Defense Education Activity special education staff to determine the best placement and services for a child.
  • Sure Start programs follow the Department of Defense Education Activity’s College and Career Ready Standards and adopted curriculum. Head Start chooses curriculum at the local level.

If you think your preschooler may be a good fit for the Sure Start program, contact your local school liaison, your installation’s elementary school or your Military and Family Support Center. You can look up contact information at MilitaryINSTALLATIONS. Or visit the Department of Defense Education Activity’s Early Learning page to see if your child is eligible to apply for Sure Start.

In addition to the Sure Start resources, families with exceptional family members should check out the EFMP & Me online tool. You’ll find a wealth of information covering your needs, including planning and task checklists. A short information video gets you started!

While your child is getting started on the right foot, Penn State’s Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness and the Department of Defense’s Office of Military Community and Family Policy have partnered together to provide comprehensive, on-demand parenting programs to assist you in handling parenting challenges at any age. Learn more about Thrive, the free, online parenting education program that includes positive parenting practices, parent and child stress management and physical health promotion.

Children and Youth Benefits sums up, by service branch, a number of options for child care, before- and after-school services and developmental classes. And if you find yourself needing an extra set of hands as you juggle your busy family schedule, check out the Expanded Hourly Child Care Options available on Military OneSource. Solving your child care needs is now at the tips of your fingers!

Creating New Holiday Traditions When Your Service Member Is Away

A service member watches her children open presents via video chat.

With your service member away and people around the world avoiding travel and large gatherings because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the holidays may feel different this year.

There are things you can do to help make the holiday special for yourself and those you love, whether your service member is stationed far from home or deployed. Sharing old traditions and creating new ones can keep the holidays fun and meaningful, and help you stay connected.

You are an important influence in your service member’s life. Sharing traditions or creating new ones during this time of year shows that you are thinking about and supporting your loved ones. This is meaningful, as they – and you – may be feeling a lot of emotions, whether they express it or not.

Creating new virtual traditions

With video get-togethers more common since the pandemic started, your service member and other loved ones are probably comfortable with online visits. Think about scheduling one or more virtual get-togethers this season. Add in some holiday fun to make them even more memorable.

Hold a virtual “potluck.” No need to bring food to this get-together, just something else to share – a toast, joke, poem or favorite holiday memory.

Create a slideshow of holidays past. Collect photos and short videos from family and friends in plenty of time to create a slideshow or video presentation of seasons past. Use screen-sharing during an online gathering to show the presentation. Half the fun will be seeing each other’s reactions and sharing memories.

Schedule a holiday game night. Create and email bingo cards for guests to print out for a holiday bingo night. Or hold a trivia night of random facts, family history or a combination of both. Look into multiplayer online games that everyone will enjoy and that will create the feeling of being there with each other.

Open presents together. Get together virtually to share the experience of opening presents. If your service member has children, read a holiday story.

Watch your favorite holiday movie at the same time. If possible, watch while using video chat or social media to comment on the best parts in real time. If holiday movies are not your thing, you could choose a television series to stream and talk about.

Other new traditions to try

Here are some more ideas to bridge the distance gap and celebrate with loved ones. See if they work for you, and share them with others in your service member’s network of support.

Design family T-shirts or hats for family members to wear one day around the holidays. Put something meaningful or fun on them and then video chat or text pictures of yourselves wearing them. Send your service member one of the T-shirts or hats ahead of time, so they can wear it on the designated day.

Send a care package or even an experience. Sending a care package is a great way to brighten your service member’s holiday season, especially if they are deployed. Or you might consider sending an experience they may remember over time. Think about giving your service member a round of golf or a gift certificate to a local restaurant.

Create a photo book. Include images of you and your service member, together and apart, from throughout the years. Make a copy for you and send a copy to them as a holiday gift to share and look through together.

Encourage your service member to get together with friends. Missing home may put a damper on wanting to celebrate, but suggesting that your loved one get together safely with buddies and newfound friends can help. Remind them to embrace the local culture whether they are in North Dakota, the Pacific region or somewhere else.

Adopt a foreign holiday tradition. If your service member is stationed abroad, research the country’s holiday traditions and incorporate one or a few into your own.

Volunteer or send a donation on behalf of your service member to a favorite charity. Your service member is serving our nation. Take their lead and volunteer over the holiday season in your local community. Or donate to an organization on behalf of your service member, something that is close to his or her heart.

Send several holiday cards in the same package. Write a different note of appreciation and love in each one. Your service member can open one card a day leading up to the holiday. See these guidelines from the Postal Service to make sure your cards get there on time.

Send a homemade ornament with pictures of you, children or cherished pets on it.

Check out these other holiday resources from Military OneSource for ideas to help spark new holiday traditions for your family and alert your service member of available resources for the holidays and beyond.

Whatever your holiday plans, make sure you and your service member set realistic expectations ahead of time. Are you expecting to talk over the holidays? Do you want to send presents? Discuss what you want, and make sure it’s doable based on your loved one’s location and operational situation. And don’t forget the postal deadlines.

Together While Apart, Military Families Connect for the Holidays

Keeping Your Family Strong

You can make this holiday meaningful even if you are thousands of miles apart. Get creative by connecting with your family and creating new traditions. Think outside the box to create special moments that can be just as nice as if your service member was home decorating the tree with you. Holidays are not about how much you give, but about celebrating each other.

Don’t miss out on holiday family fun!

COVID-19-Safe Travel Tips

If you decide to travel, stay safe by following the latest CDC guidance and travel recommendations.

Being apart doesn’t have to mean missing out on family bonding. With the help of technology, here are simple ways you can help bridge the gap until deployment is over:

  • Use video chat to bring the family together.
  • Connect through social media.
  • Send pictures, letters and kids’ artwork.
  • Do something together (while apart) like watch a movie or read a book and discuss it.
  • Send a meaningful gift like a recipe or homemade (non-perishable) treat, a book read in your voice or a personalized do-it-yourself craft.

Keep things simple and don’t forget to take care of yourself. Being away from your family can add to holiday stress. Reach out for help if you need it.

Military OneSource offers a wide range of resources to you. Call and connect with a Military OneSource triage consultant on one or a number of the following resources:

Stay Deployment Strong

If you are stationed overseas and your spouse is deployed, check out the Plan My Deployment tool on Military OneSource for resources to help you stay connected. This tool acts as a how-to guide for valuable tips, resources and articles that will help you and your family prepare for all phases of the deployment cycle. Sort by Pre-Deployment, Deployment, and Reunion and Reintegration to find the information most relevant to your situation.