“Well, we can’t drive it there”: International Car Shipping

Sometimes, I really love the Army. Sometimes. Like when they will ship your car internationally.

It was a headache of an ordeal, but we got my 2015 Scion tC from Columbus, OH to Hohenfels, Bavaria. It took a lot of phone calls, an entire binder full of paperwork, and two long months of waiting.

Once we knew we were definitely moving to Germany, the first thing on my mind was “what the heck are we going to do with the cars?” I voiced these concerns to my friends and parents, to which they responded, “Just sell them. Do you even need a car in Germany?”

Yes. You really do. I’ll get to that in a moment.

The Army allows families moving overseas to ship one personal vehicle. You are allowed to ship another–but at your own expense. I looked into what it would cost us, and immediately knew that wasn’t an option. To ship a car from Ohio to our home in Germany (and back to the United States again) was roughly $9,000 with insurance coverage. And that’s assuming the prices won’t increase after living here for three years (eye roll).

Ok, so we’re taking one car. What should we do with the other one?

Storing or leaving either of our cars with a friend weren’t options for us. Both of our cars are financed. Logically, how could we justify making a monthly payment on (and furthermore, insuring) something we didn’t use regularly? It just didn’t seem like a smart expenditure of money.

The only way to proceed was to sell one of the cars and hope to break even with what we still owed the bank. With both of us owning newer cars, we were anything but optimistic. To top it all off, this had to be accomplished in the two-week timeframe leading up to our move.

I should probably mention that moving OCONUS (Outside the Continental US) for your first PCS move is extremely difficult, because it means your planning has to work around a training schedule. Lee was away for training in Texas right up until two weeks before our move date. He was allotted very minimal time to do crucial things like schedule household goods/unaccompanied baggage pickup, book our flight, and make sure all the paperwork was in order for me to move with him. At the end of the day, all PCS moves are hectic, and that’s just how the Army is. An overseas duty station is just harder to organize when it’s your first. On the bright side, every move after this will seem easy in comparison!

We knew that two weeks wouldn’t be enough time to sell a car privately. So, we drove our cars over to the local CarMax and got quotes. I feel like what they offered us was fair (for CarMax), but if we had the time to sell privately we might’ve come out with our heads above water. Not surprisingly, we realized that Lee had to sell his Scion FR-S. With CarMax’s offer, he broke even.

It was an emotional moment when he had to hand over the keys. He loved his car. In his words, it was just hard to give up the one thing of value that he owned. When you work hard for something and it finally pays off, the last thing you’d want is to have to give that reward back. I get it.

But it was one less thing to worry about.

Next on the agenda, there were two very important things that went hand in hand. I needed a letter of approval from the lien holder (the bank) to ship the car. But, in order to receive that letter, I had to prove to the bank that I had insurance in place for the transit period and German insurance when the car arrived in Germany. My current insurance would not cover the car once it left the port. I called around to other insurance companies, attempting to buy a policy ahead of time that would a. give me proof of German insurance and b. take effect once the car arrived in country, but none of these companies would set up a policy until the car was in Germany.

Ok, so let’s get this straight:

I couldn’t ship the car without the letter from the bank.
I couldn’t get the bank letter without insurance.
I couldn’t get insurance until the car was in Germany.
But I couldn’t get the car to Germany without the letter from the bank!

I did something I should have done a long time ago: I called USAA and asked them what to do. Since USAA insurance exists for service members, they deal with this kind of stuff all the time. They were able to set up a “storage” policy that took effect the day we dropped the car off in Baltimore, and a policy that would take effect when we picked the car up in Germany. Their customer service is unparalleled. The guy who helped me was friendly and straightforward. He forwarded my proof of insurance directly to the bank agent I was working with, and within a few hours I had my shipment authorization letter!

There are only a few Vehicle Processing Centers (VPCs) for military in the US, and the closest one to us was in Baltimore, MD… a 6-hour drive from Columbus, OH. If we lived closer to the VPC, we might have dropped our car off sooner so that we didn’t have to go without it for so long in Germany. Realistically, though, we needed a way to get to BWI Airport on moving day. Keeping the car until the last moment saved us the cost of a rental car.

To drop your car off at the VPC, you need to make an appointment ahead of time. It’s especially busy during PCS season, so the sooner you do this, the better. There are a bunch of forms and documents you need to bring. Original registration, lien holder shipment authorization letter (or title), multiple copies of your orders w/ amendments (we brought six), proof of insurance, and ID. Since the vehicle is registered in my name, we had to show that my name was on Lee’s orders.

The car had to be completely clean, inside and out. They told us that even the smallest amount of crumbs or dirt on the floor can turn rancid after sitting for two months. Everything “loose” had to be taken out, like auxiliary cords, CDs, air fresheners, etc. We also had to remove all paperwork that contains personally identifiable information–like names, addresses, social security numbers, etc. The only things we left in the car were the floor mats (they removed them and put them in the trunk) and the owner’s manual.

We knew ahead of time that the gas level can’t be more than 1/4 tank upon turn-in, but it’s really hard to time that right, especially since we drove in from out of town. Our needle was just above the 1/4 line, and they turned us away. We had to drive up and down the street for 30 minutes just to get the needle on the line. There were some people that came into the VPC with large vehicles and full tanks of gas. Needless to say, they could not ship their car that day. The employees at the VPC will not be sympathetic if you can’t follow instructions.

(I found out everything I needed to know from their website.)

There is a military-discounted taxi you can call once you’re done at the VPC. The BWI airport was only about 15 minutes away and we went directly there after turning in our car.

Once we were all set up in Germany, we started receiving e-mail notifications on the progress of our car. They informed us when it was staged for shipment, and when it actually left the port. We also received a notification when it arrived in Germany, and finally, when it was in Grafenwöhr and ready for pick-up.

One of the first things we did during our first week here was get our driver’s licenses. Getting a USAREUR license (for military and spouses) was very easy. You have to watch a short series of e-learning course, and take a 200-question practice test. The final test is 100 questions and took me about an hour to complete. We did all of it from our personal computers, and our scores were submitted electronically. Then, we went to the transportation office, paid $10*, got our temporary licenses, and waited for the permanent licenses to arrive in the mail.

*Note: I read that USAREUR License prices increased to $20 on Oct. 1

While waiting for the Scion, we really needed a way to get around. Lee also needed a way to get to work. You’ve probably heard about public transportation getting you everywhere in Germany… Well, it doesn’t work like that around the base. To go to the German grocery stores, or to the Parsberg train station, you need a car or €60 for round-trip taxi fare. Transportation is much simpler once you get closer to cities like Regensburg, but we live in a small town surrounded by farms and other small towns.

The military community here is always selling and buying used German cars, mostly BMWs and VWs. They just keep cycling around as people move here and buy a car, then sell it again when they leave. Sometimes they’re hoopties, but for the most part, they’re in great condition. German cars are built to last. And best of all, they’re cheap cheap cheap.

Lee bought a 2001 BMW 316i right after we moved into our apartment. I won’t tell you how many miles are on it (the previous owner drove it all around Europe), but I’ll just say that you would never find a car in the US with that many miles that still ran. It’s reliable, it’s cheap to insure, and it’s built like a miniature tank. We drive it locally, and it handles Autobahn speeds like a champ. And, since we don’t have a lot of money invested in the car, we never have to worry about it getting dinged up from tight parking spaces.

The day we got notification that the Scion arrived in Grafenwöhr was a very happy day (for me, at least). Grafenwöhr is a larger Army post about an hour drive from us. We had to bring the shipping document, original registration, and temporary plates (we got those from our registration office in Hohenfels and it only took about 10 minutes). Fun fact: in Germany, your license plate is your proof of insurance.


Temporary plates shown.

The car was extremely dirty from the move, but the VPC offers a car wash voucher that you take down the street to the German car wash.

We also got a temporary gas card for the car in Graf. As a US service member or spouse stationed in Germany, you can buy gas from Esso gas stations at US prices. You have to load money on a pre-paid card ahead of time, and then present your registration, ID, and card inside the store to purchase gas. It’s a couple extra steps than I’m used to, but I would do anything to avoid paying €90 ($98) for one tank of gas!

I had very dark window tint on all the windows in my car, including a strip at the top of my windshield. Tint on front windows is illegal in Germany, but I was allowed to keep it until I got the car inspected. It definitely turned a few curious heads. Once you get your temporary plates, you have 30 days to get your car inspected. We used a razorblade to peel the tint off, and then some Goo Gone and oven cleaner to get the glue residue off. It was disgusting.

We initially failed the inspection because my front license plate bracket looked “American.” Apparently, it is a safety concern to drive around Germany with an American-looking car. Understandable. But, my car can accommodate the long German license plate. Some cars, like Mustangs and Impalas, only have a small spot for a license plate and have to get a modified German plate that’s shaped like an American one. So wouldn’t that be more of an “giveaway?” And what about the people driving F-150s down the Autobahn? There’s only one thing I can say here: LOL.

All it took was the inspector to unscrew the brackets to pass our car, and we took our inspection form to the registration office for our permanent plates. On newer cars, you can purchase two years of registration at a time so that you don’t have to get the car inspected every year. We also had to get a new gas card to go with the new registration. Kind of annoying, but again, who wants to pay German gas prices?

Sometimes it feels unnecessary to have two cars here, but other times it feels completely necessary. I fully plan on landing a job, and I would need my own transportation. It’s also nice not to feel “stuck” while Lee is at work, and by having my license and my own car I’m able to go out and run errands during the day, or provide rides to other people who need them.






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