When you get orders to PCS to Germany, the first thing you need to do is get your passport! But you don’t just need a tourist passport. You also need a no fee passport, and you may need an official military passport as well.
It can seem really complicated at first, and it’s really important that you get it all right! But lucky for you, I took the time to figure it all out. So here is your easy-to-understand guide to all things passports when moving to Germany!
About US Passports
In short, passports verify citizenship and entitle travelers to the protection of their country’s laws while traveling in foreign countries. They also determine whether or not foreign nationals can enter any given country. For example, during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, most US Passport holders were not allowed to enter China.
Some countries require a visa in order to visit. They can be for a variety of reasons such as health restrictions or as a measure to prevent illegal immigration. India and Vietnam, for example, require US Passport holders to have a travel visa before arriving in the country.
As a government-issued document, the passport contains personal identifiable information (PII) such as your full name, birthday, and place of birth. And because it’s proof of citizenship, it’s extremely important to keep your passport safe!
But which one lets you travel throughout Europe?
Pro tip: Starting at the end of 2022 (originally 2021), US Passport holders will need to register with the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) before arriving in the EU.
Fee Tourist Passport
Any US citizen who leaves the country for international leisure, private business or personal travel has a (blue) fee tourist passport. It’s what your family and friends will need when they visit!
Adult tourist passports are valid for 10 years. Tourist passports for minors (anyone under the age of 16) are valid for 5 years. You’ll learn more about the application process in the how to apply section.
The “Official” Passport has a red cover and is only issued to stateside civil service employees and their family members. But occasionally they’ll be issued to some active duty members.
These passports are only valid for 5 years. Most people don’t need these – if your job requires it, you’ll know!
No Fee Passport
As a service member, spouse, or family member PCSing to Germany, you need this passport in addition to your tourist passport – this one is also blue. Each U.S. citizen who is listed on official orders and accompanying the sponsor — even infants — should have a no-fee passport. (If you’re not a U.S. citizen, we’ll cover that in a bit.)
If you aren’t able to get one before PCSing to Germany, don’t panic. You can be in Germany legally for 90 days without one. But after checking into your hotel in Grafenwoehr, obtaining your no fee passport needs to be your first priority.
The passport is only valid for 5 years and is free of charge. It also allows applicants to bypass the process of applying for a tourist passport. But you still need both!
The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) stamp is required for all military dependents, contractors, DoD civilians, and their dependents while assigned to Germany.
Once it’s in your no fee passport, it exempts you from Germany’s 90-day visa limit and ensures you benefit from U.S. customs subsidies. In other words, it proves that you’re allowed to live in Germany for the duration of your contract or orders.
Germany is one of the few countries that allows SOFA stamps to be issued in the fee (tourist) passport if the family member or civil service employee does not possess a no-fee or official passport. If for some reason you complete your SOFA application before receiving your tourist or no fee passport, you may receive a SOFA card instead.
Most official passports already have the SOFA status stamped in them. If not, then you need to be issued a SOFA card.
You should always travel with both your no-fee passport and your tourist passport to make sure you can get back into Germany!
Questions about pet passports? Check out our guide to PCSing with pets! Psst… you get this at the vet clinic, not the passport office.
SOFA Restrictions: What if I’m not a U.S. citizen?
Non-U.S. citizens in need of a SOFA stamp should contact the U.S. Army Garrison Bavaria Passport Office for further guidance.
Non-U.S. Passport holders from countries such as China, the Philippines, Russia, Thailand, and some African countries will need a green card to apply for SOFA stamp. Take care of this BEFORE you leave the U.S. for Germany!
How to Apply for a Passport
As a new soldier, it’s unlikely that you’ll have a passport.
To get one, you will need your original birth certificate. And no, your mom can’t send you a picture of it – you need the real thing! If you can’t locate a hard copy of it, go to vitalchek.com to order a new one.
If you’re naturalized, you need to have original U.S. citizenship/naturalized documents.
You can apply for a passport at most U.S. Post Offices, where they can also take your picture. But to be safe, I recommend getting your passport photo taken at your local Walgreens, CVS, or other chain drug store beforehand and then bring the photos to the post office.
If you decide to do it yourself in a photo booth, remember that:
• It has to be a color photo taken in the last 6 months
• It cannot be filtered
• Selfies aren’t acceptable – have someone else take the photo
• You need to remove your glasses
• The background has to be white
• Your face needs to be “neutral” (i.e. no smiling)
Head coverings are acceptable as long as they don’t obstruct the face. You can read a full list of do’s and don’t’s on the travel.gov website.
Frequently Asked Questions about the No Fee Passport and Tourist Passports
Now that we’ve covered the basics of passports, I’ll answer your specific questions about PCSing to Germany with (or without) a no fee passport!
Only if you’re active duty. Family members and civilians need a travel passport at minimum (yes, even babies).
You can apply for a fee (tourist) passport at your local post office in U.S. or a courthouse. The travel.state.gov website has a full list of what you need and where you can apply.
If you’re already at USAG Bavaria Grafenwoehr and need a new one, schedule an appointment with the passport office.
Wrong. The U.S. Department of State has a list of travel advisories for every country, including some that citizens are strongly advised against visiting.
And wherever you travel, you need to have a fee tourist passport at minimum! But it’s best if you bring all your passports with you when you travel. And if you’re active duty, bring your orders as well.
Where You Can Learn More about No Fee Passports
I compiled all this information from a number of sources and websites, which are linked throughout the post. I also spoke with the passport office on post about common misconceptions and answers to the most common questions.
Speaking of which, I also went through all the Facebook groups to learn more about other people’s experiences and what questions people had before leaving the US and soon after arriving.
There’s a lot of information out there about passports, but once you have it checked off your PCS to-do list, you’ll be free to explore Europe! Speaking of which, here’s my TOP 10 places you MUST visit when you PCS to Germany!