What SOFA status means

Courtesy of Ramstein Passport Office

The Kaiserslautern Military Community is the largest American community outside the continental United States, which makes it easy for U.S. military members to forget they are actually a resident of a foreign country. Traveling within Germany and crossing international borders is as easy as crossing from one U.S. state to another. But, most military members have never been stopped by police for a routine check or while driving or boarding an airplane back from Iowa. The following are rules of the military’s Status of Forces Agreement status showing how service members can identify themselves as legal residents of Germany and not as visiting tourists.

Active duty U.S. military members assigned to Germany should present their military ID cards and NATO or travel orders. U.S. government civilian employees, DOD-sponsored contractors and all eligible family members require a Status of Forces Agreement certificate in their passport to show they are a legal resident.

What are the SOFA status benefits and responsibilities? SOFA is a treaty setting out terms under which members of the force and the civilian component of a foreign NATO-member state are allowed to operate in another NATO state. The SOFA certificate identifies the bearer as a person who is entitled to unrestricted entry and exit from Germany and to benefits, privileges and protection under the NATO SOFA and the German Supplementary Agreement. These benefits include the exemption from having to register a presence with the German authorities and from paying German income tax. Certain goods may also be purchased tax free, including vehicles.

The SOFA treaty also requires service members to observe certain responsibilities. Individuals are responsible for learning and obeying German laws, carrying an official ID card issued by the sending state, registering vehicles with USAREUR and having a SOFA certificate in their passport to prove their entitlement to live and travel within Germany.

Who is entitled to a SOFA certificate? Eligible people must be U.S. DOD civilians, DOD-sponsored contractors and their family members, military dependents accompanying the force and certain foreign nationals from NATO-sending states employed by the armed forces. Local nationals or foreign employees from countries that are not members of NATO are not entitled to SOFA status.

What documents do I need to receive a SOFA certificate? Command-sponsored family members and stateside-hire civilians should receive a SOFA stamp in their no-fee passport before arriving in Germany. Service members need PCS or TDY orders assigning them to Germany and their dependent’s passports and ID cards to apply for SOFA certificates for foreign national or non-command-sponsored dependents.

Local hire civilians, contractors and their family members need an AE Form 600-77A from their servicing personnel office and their dependents’ passports and valid ID cards. All family members must be enrolled in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System. If dependents, such as those under the age of 10, do not have a valid ID card the sponsor will need to provide a DD Form 1172-2 as verification that the dependents are enrolled in DEERS.

Why do I need a SOFA certificate? If caught without a valid SOFA certificate, at a minimum, your continued travel to your destination in Germany will be delayed, however, violators could face fines or deportation. Not all customs officers check for a valid SOFA certificate but that should not be a risk you are willing to take. Officials have become less lenient after noticing a large influx of travelers without valid SOFA identification.

Random security checks throughout Europe have increased due to the current refugee situation. Citizens or nationals traveling on passports from a country that requires a visa for Germany must obtain a SOFA certificate from the Regional Director, IMCOM-Europe G-1, prior to arrival in Germany. For a list of these countries refer to the Foreign Clearance Guide, accessible only from a .gov domain, at www.fcg.pentagon.mil/fcg.cfm.

Failing to get SOFA identification prior to arriving in Germany may result in denied entry and immediate deportation. U.S. citizens and foreign nationals from countries not requiring a visa for Germany, can enter without a SOFA certificate if they are unable to obtain one prior to departure. However, they should carry a copy of the sponsor’s travel orders to Germany and must visit their servicing passport office to request the identification certificate within 90 days of arrival.

What do I need to visit a foreign country as a tourist? Active duty military members must obtain a tourist passport to enter a foreign country as a tourist. When returning to Germany, they will need to show their military ID card and travel orders assigning them to Germany.

If on leave, the member should also carry a valid leave form when traveling in and out of Germany. Leave forms need to identify the unit the member is assigned or attached to in Germany. U.S. citizen family members, civilians and contractors must also obtain a tourist passport to visit foreign countries. Command-sponsored civilians and their family members as well as military family members will need to carry both the no-fee and tourist passport when on leisure travel and present the tourist passport when entering a foreign country and the no-fee passport with SOFA stamp when returning to Germany.

Members should not use a no-fee passport for leisure travel doing so is at your own risk. All non-command-sponsored family members, local hire civilians and contractors will receive a SOFA card for their tourist passport since they are not eligible for a no-fee passport. Finally, always check the FCG for passport and visa requirements before making any travel plans.

Practice the rule of three. Eligible individuals should always carry a valid and unexpired DOD ID card, passport and SOFA certificate when traveling.