Are you being reassigned to an overseas military base and need to know what rules may apply when it comes to how to insure your car overseas?
What you are required to do will depend greatly on the host country you are traveling to, whether or not you are permitted to ship a privately-owned vehicle (POV), or whether you are buying a vehicle in the host country.
Getting car insurance overseas is something that may be covered in your PCS briefings, final out processing from one base to another, or initial inprocessing at your gaining command. However you get the information, it is important to understand how military regulations, federal guidelines, and host nation laws all factor into your car insurance needs overseas.
So You’ve Got PCS Orders Overseas. What About Your Car?
The first order of car business to take care of once you have PCS orders is to learn whether or not you are permitted to ship your current vehicle at government expense. Some gaining bases will allow you to ship a vehicle, others may have restrictions on the type of vehicle you can ship.
Some types of PCS moves don’t allow service members to bring cars, or even family members. These are often referred to as remote assignments, hardship assignments, etc.
Not all military bases overseas allow POVs to come from the U.S., and some will allow you to bring a vehicle but will not pay for cars to be shipped. Other PCS orders may assume you are definitely shipping a motor vehicle.
There are major differences between the kind of car insurance you can get to store your vehicle in the United States while overseas, insurance you can get while your car is being shipped to an overseas military base, and the type of auto insurance you are required to carry to operate the vehicle in the host country.
Chances are good you will need to look into at least two of the three options if you ship overseas, and insuring your vehicle while in storage during a permanent change of station move is a very good idea.
Preparing A POV for Shipment To An Overseas Military Base
Before you can get your car insured overseas, your vehicle will need to be shipped which may have mandatory insurance requirements depending on the nature of your PCS move and to where.
Shipping a vehicle is not an easy thing. Your car must be drivable, in good repair, and must have any required mandatory safety equipment the host nation’s laws specify.
For example, when Naval Air Station Keflavik, Iceland was still being operated, shipping a vehicle there required the car to meet certain safety equipment standards including carrying specific items such as road flares, warning triangles, spare tire, etc.
Shipping your car also means the vehicle is required to clear customs. This means you will need to completely clean and empty your vehicle. Customs laws cover everything from adult magazines to plants; don’t risk having your POV held up in customs because there was “contraband” of some kind detected during the customs inspection.
Even a certain amount of dirt or soil on the floor of your vehicle may risk being flagged as a customs violation depending on circumstances and the host nation. Customs officials are very serious about preventing the spread of organisms, plants, or other things that could prove to be invasive species.
American Car Insurance Is For Americans In America (Usually)
That may sound like a nationalist slogan, but the reality is that most American auto insurance companies may be able to provide you with insurance coverage while a car or truck is in storage or transit, but once it enters another country, the insurance laws of that nation will apply and the coverage from your American insurance agency is no longer valid. With one exception, which we’ll explore below.
No matter who your insurance provider may be, you will be required to maintain car insurance that complies with your host nation’s regulations. A good example: In the past, military members who were assigned to Japan could operate a car there only if they carried mandatory coverage known to Americans there as Japanese Compulsory Insurance or JCI, and your local State Farm Insurance company won’t offer JCI.
In many cases, car insurance offices near the military base you are assigned at will have English-speaking staff or resources in English to help you get set up with the proper coverages.
Insurance in foreign countries may be higher than what Americans are used to. Some cultures consider those with driving licenses to be professional drivers, and are held accountable as such.
The Exception For Stateside Auto Insurance Coverage Overseas
IF your insurance company is a multi-national company, it may well operate branches overseas, or have partner agencies in-country that can assist you. It’s very important to ask your insurance provider if that is the case for you–if your insurer can direct you to an insurance provider near your new military duty station, you will be ahead of the process in several ways. It never hurts to ask.
The military’s sponsor program, where troops at a gaining base act as points of contact for those being reassigned to that base, comes in handy here.
If you have been assigned a sponsor from your gaining military base, be sure to ask your sponsor about insuring your vehicle, any pitfalls or problems that might await you, and how much you should set aside to pay for that insurance coverage when you arrive.
You May Not Wish To Bring A POV
Some countries may allow military members to ship a vehicle without thought to whether or not the driver would actually want to use the local roads or highway systems. Japan and England roads are reversed from the “driver on the left” configuration we are used to in America.
“Driving on the wrong side of the road” can be a very stressful learning curve and some Americans aren’t interested in taking up the challenge.
In countries where public transportation is a preferred method of travel, where parking may be impossible to find, and where roads are (comparatively) far smaller than what Americans may be used to using, you may not want to bring your POV.
Sometimes the only way to know whether that is the case or not is by consulting your sponsor at the gaining base, or asking the unit orderly room at your gaining base what is considered typical for the area.
Buying A Car Overseas
There are three basic things that can be problematic when it’s time to consider shipping an American vehicle to an overseas duty assignment.
The first is whether or not your vehicle must be modified in some way to meet the host nation’s requirements including emissions, safety equipment, etc. The presence of absence of a catalytic converter on your automobile may be an issue since some countries may require them. The expense of modifying a car, truck, van, or motorcycle may be more than you are willing to pay.
Some host countries don’t allow certain standard features on American cars. In Japan there are strict rules about window tinting. You are restricted from driving with tinted windows to the front windshield, for example, except for a small permitted amount for UV protection. No two countries may approach such regulations in the same way, but this is a good example of what you can expect when shipping a car overseas.
Some prefer to buy in the local market. Should you choose to do so, you may be required to have your car inspected on its initial registration. In Japan, this process is called shaken And requires:
- Exterior inspection – the vehicle must have no illegal exterior modifications
- Wheel alignment inspection
- Speedometer accuracy inspection
- Brake inspection
- Exhaust / muffler inspection including carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions tests
On top of all this, you still need to get insurance for your vehicle. The dealer you purchase from may offer to help you get car insurance, but it’s best to comparison shop for these services. You simply can’t rely on a single company’s word when it comes to coverage.
Buying a car in the local economy means getting familiar with the laws on driving while uninsured after leaving the dealership. Are you required to commit to buying, then go and purchase insurance BEFORE driving the car off the lot?
Don’t assume the rules work the same overseas as they do in America. This is a very bad mistake to make and there may be no recourse for those who inadvertently violate the host nation’s laws.
The bottom line? Know before you go. Ask your sponsor or any other service member who has spent enough time “in-country” to know the rules and advise you accordingly. At the very least, your base Public Affairs office or Family Support Center may be able to direct you to the guidelines for buying and driving a car in the local area.
How To Insure Your Car Overseas
Let’s review the steps to getting a privately-owned vehicle insured at your overseas location:
- Determine whether or not you are permitted to ship a privately owned vehicle to the new duty station, what the requirements are for shipment, and how to properly clear customs.
- Contact your current auto insurer and explain your situation. Ask if there is insurance for the vehicle while it is in transit to the new duty station, and for how long that insurance coverage lasts. Also ask under what conditions the insurance is null and void.
- Contact your sponsor at the gaining base or request a sponsor from your gaining unit orderly room so you can ask about getting car insurance for a POV shipped from the USA.
- If you are not shipping a vehicle but plan to buy one when you arrive, ask your sponsor what the procedures are, what are common mistakes newcomers make when navigating this process, and whether or not you are permitted to drive the car from the lot to the insurance agent after purchase and before your policy is written.
- Ask your sponsor how long you have to purchase insurance after buying the car, what may be involved if you make payments rather than buying outright (remember, cars that are financed require more insurance), and be sure to ask whether or not you are permitted to ship the car you buy overseas when your assignment there is over.
- When you go to purchase insurance, you may or may not have access to English-speaking customer service. It’s best to anticipate that you may have a language barrier to cross. Ask your gaining unit if there is help available to interpret contracts, legally binding agreements, claims forms, etc. It’s also crucial to ask the insurer if such services are offered to you–you may or may not be able to take advantage of these services by appointment only, etc.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News