SOFA – why it’s important to you

ANSBACH, Germany (Sept. 28, 2021) – Ever wondered why your military identification card and orders assigning you to Germany are so important to border control when entering Germany? Or if you are a dependent accompanying a service member, ever wondered why you have a multi-lingual stamp in your official passport with information about entry and exit into Germany?

These documents allow persons on military orders to Germany to enter or exit the country without regard to normal German immigration laws, and to stay beyond what a normal tourist visa would permit. Entry/exit into Germany is just one of the legal exceptions granted to U.S. Forces personnel stationed in Germany because of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance Status of Forces Agreement, or NATO SOFA.

The SOFA, along with the NATO SOFA Supplementary Agreement with Germany, governs the legal status and daily lives, of U.S. service members, Civilian employees accompanying the U.S. Forces, certain contractors, and dependents on military orders to Germany.

The SOFA is an international agreement between the United States Government and the Federal Republic of Germany signed in 1951. The supplementary agreement with Germany was signed in 1959 and last revised in 1998. These agreements clarify the legal status of persons present in Germany pursuant to military orders, and control matters of taxation (and relief therefrom), driver’s license issuance, the import and export of personal property, employment, law enforcement, postal services, and criminal jurisdiction, among other matters. The SOFA and supplementary agreement also apply to the U.S. Forces as a whole, controlling such matters as the use of military installations in Germany, construction on those installations, and training and maneuver.

The supplementary agreement is specific to NATO forces stationed in Germany. If a person stationed in Germany travels to Italy, they do not bring with them the benefits and privileges afforded them under the Supplementary Agreement. Instead, they are present in Italy as tourists. This is one reason it is critical that personnel on orders to Germany obtain an international driver’s license when driving into other countries. The driver’s license issued to U.S. Forces personnel is only valid in Germany.

The SOFA provides many benefits, but also confers responsibilities. First, the SOFA does not provide anything like diplomatic immunity. Indeed, persons present in Germany on military orders are still subject to German laws. Additionally, there is a common misunderstanding that U.S. installations in Germany are “U.S. soil.” This is untrue. Rather, the land is owned by Germany, but may be made available for exclusive use of the U.S. Forces. As a result, German law applies on the installations, subject to narrow military exceptions.

Additionally, it is important our community understands the privileges conferred upon them, such as customs and tax relief, in order to not violate German or American law. Some common issues include improperly using tax-relief forms, importing tax-free items for business purposes, and transferring goods obtained free of tax to non-authorized individuals.

Understanding how the SOFA and Supplementary Agreement in Germany affects you will make for a more enjoyable overseas tour and prevent costly mistakes.

For further reading, there are a number of Army regulations covering privileges conferred by the SOFA available at https://www.aepubs.eur.army.mil/AE-Regulations. Relevant regulations include:

Army in Europe Regulation (AER) 600-700 – Identification Cards and Individual Logistic Support

AER 215-6 – Individual Tax-Relief Program

AER 600-17 – Retail Sales of Motor Fuel to Individuals in Germany

AER 600-77 – Status of Forces Agreement Identification in Germany

USAG Bavaria contributed to this article.

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