PCS Orders: What is Permanent Change of Station?
New military families need to tackle a lot of new acronyms, learning their meaning and keeping them straight. PCS is a relatively easy one to learn.
But as all military spouses know, the meaning of PCS goes well beyond what it stands for. Those three little letters have a lot of (ahem) baggage, and they cause a lot of stress.
If you're a military spouse facing your first PCS, information is power.
What Does PCS Stand For In The Military?
PCS stands for Permanent Change of Station. A Permanent Change of Station is the assignment, detail, or transfer of a service member (or unit) to a different duty station…unless the orders specify that the duty is temporary, provide direct return to the old station, or provide further assignment to a new station.
In plain English, a PCS is a longer-term assignment where your service member will be based out of a new location. Unlike a temporary duty (TDY) assignment, a PCS generally lasts two to four years, though Military OneSource describes it as any assignment over 20 weeks.
It can be easy to confuse PCS with PCA (Permanent Change of Assignment). PCAs involve reassignment within the same military post, whereas PCSs require relocation.
Another potential point of confusion: a Permanent Change of Station is technically called a "deployment" in some service branches. But conversationally, "PCS" will be used for movement to a duty station (ie, home station) and "deployment" will be used for movement to a combat zone or forward location.
What is a PCS Move and How Is It Different?
As a military spouse, you can expect a PCS move every 2 or 3 years. It's so common that we've verbed the noun – get used to saying "PCSing."
As in, "I'm PCSing to crazy town because we're due for another PCS move."
Even if you're old hat at moving from one home to another, a PCS move can be overwhelming. There's an external timeline that doesn't abide tardiness, and a lot of the factors are out of your control. In a PCS move, the chain of command dictates where you're going, who can come along, how much stuff you take with you, and if the family dog can come…among other things.
It's extra stressful if you're PCSing OCONUS. (You didn't think we were done with the acronyms, did you?). OCONUS means Outside the Continental United States. A PCS move that takes you to Alaska, Hawaii, any U.S. territory, or any international location is OCONUS, while a PCS anywhere within the 48 contiguous ("continental") states is CONUS.
Why do we lump some U.S. duty stations with those "overseas"? It's primarily logistical – OCONUS moves involve unique challenges, like sending your household goods via shipment container. CONUS moves are a lot more conventional. An international PCS is the most complicated of all.
Luckily, the military provides resources and funding for a PCS move as long as you handle the paperwork. (Come on – it's the military. You knew it would come down to paperwork.)
What are Military PCS Orders?
It's important to understand that your service member will probably receive an "assignment notification," but at that point, nothing's set in stone. A PCS isn't official until you receive PCS orders. Plans are still subject to change until then; it's a good idea to start getting ready after your assignment notification, but you need to be open to a change of plans.
PCS orders include information about where your service member is going and when they're expected to report for duty.
In many cases, a PCS order means moving the whole family – these are called accompanied PCS orders. Some duty stations aren't suitable for families, though, which can result in unaccompanied orders. Most PCS orders to Korea and Turkey are unaccompanied.
What Should You Do When You Get Your PCS Orders?
Most PCS orders are issued during the summer, between May 15th and September 15th. July, in particular, is peak PCS move time.
When you get your PCS orders, you should start the ball rolling right away.
Since many PCS orders are issued at the same time, the offices that will help you with your move are always busy. Getting your requests in as early as possible will give them time to help you make a smooth move. It could also get you dibs on the best resources, like moving companies.
As soon as possible, you should:
- Making an appointment with your transportation office to get information (and file your paperwork, if you're first-time, separating, or retiring).
- Make an appointment with your current installation's finance office, which can help you with relocation entitlements and budgeting for your move.
- PCS Tip: Your account expires after 35 days of non-use. This means, among other things, that you need to re-register every time you PCS.
- Gather the information you need to schedule your move, ASAP. Whether you're submitting through the transportation office or DPS, you need:
- Estimated Shipping Weights
- Pick-up/delivery dates and locations
- Specialty items list
- "Pro-Gear" list and weight (for the service member and the military spouse)
- Your preferred moving company
- While you wait for your appointments, it can be helpful to gather estimates of what you need and what the military provides, so you can spot any shortfalls and ask informed questions.
- PCS Tip: Use DOD calculators to find out your expected Weight Allowance & allowable items, as well as your relocation entitlements. Confirm these numbers with your transpo/financial office though!
- Go to PlanMyMove.mil and get a personalized PCS checklist based on your type of move and specific family circumstances. Every PCS move is different, so this is incredibly helpful!
PCS Tips for Military Spouses
Honestly, the PlanMyMove tool will do a lot of heavy lifting for you – it not only tells you what you need to do but also links you to specific military resources for help. You can save or print your PCS checklist, sort by topic or timeline, and you can further customize the list by entering your own tasks.
You can also find a lot of helpful PCS tips and PCS checklist fodder on Move.mil's Move Preparation, Moving Day, and Moving Tips pages.
Here are a few other PCS tips that will get you PCSing like a pro:
- If you're expecting a PCS but haven't yet received your orders, you can start preparing by "spring cleaning" any household items that need to be thrown out or donated. It can also be helpful to take an inventory of household items you're keeping. This prepares you for your DPS paperwork, and if your things are lost or damaged, having an accurate, detailed, and up-to-date list will help you file a claim.
- Seasoned military spouses recommend splitting your DPS weight allowance into multiple types of shipments, especially:
- Personally Procured Move (PPM). While this category can mean 100% DIY (or as the military likes to call it for some reason, DitY), it can be used differently. Military spouses recommend you register a "shipment" of any irreplaceable valuables and immediate necessities as a PPM shipment. The military will cover 100% of the cost, but you'll keep control of those critical items. You'll get a PPM allowance whether you move these items yourself or hire pros.
- Unaccompanied Baggage (UB). Shipping some items as unaccompanied baggage means those items will be expedited to your new location, while the rest of your belongings will arrive at a later date. This is only available for OCONUS PCS moves. You can't use unaccompanied baggage for a contiguous-state PCS.
- Household Goods (HHG). An HHG shipment is where you'll put the bulk of your belongings – anything you won't need in a hurry. All of these belongings will be packed and shipped by the government – it might take a while, but you won't have to deal with it.
- Non-DPS Items. If your estimated weight is more than your allowed weight and you really can't bear to part with enough to bring it under, research options for keeping or moving those items privately. Don't register them in DPS – weight overages can cost you thousands of dollars.
- Make the most of your relocation allowances, including Housing Allowance (and potential Cost of Living Allowance or COLA), Temporary Lodging Allowance, Dislocation Allowance, and Per Diem travel allowance.
- Your finance office can issue certain resources before the move, so you won't have to wait for reimbursement. That includes a travel card and 60% of the cost for a PPM shipment. They can sometimes advance your pay and provide other assistance.
- The per-diem rate does not pay for luxury accommodations. You can save money by booking lodging through FedRooms, where government-negotiated rates will ensure you're on budget.
- Keep all receipts related to your move (and note down your mileage). This can help with reimbursements, and if you can't recoup that money from the DOD, you can probably write it off on your taxes.
Plan Beyond the PCS
Despite the hectic nature of a PCS move, for a military spouse, the most frustrating part of frequent PCSing is the disruption to your career or education.
That's why the DOD created the Military Spouse Career Advancement Account (MyCAA), which provides grant money for military spouses to train for "portable" careers that can survive a PCS.
One of the ways you can make the most of MyCAA money is with an online professional certification program. Online courses won't be interrupted by a PCS, they're available in even the most remote installations, and they give you the flexibility to control your own schedule.
We're a MyCAA-approved provider with 25 years of experience helping military spouses launch their careers. We focus on valuable nationally recognized professional certifications for MyCAA-eligible jobs that get you work-ready quickly so you can start earning money – anywhere the military takes you.
We offer certification courses in healthcare, education, hospitality, business, skilled trade, and much more. Check out our career catalog and get started – entirely on the DOD's dime!