I never planned to move every three years and spend my marriage in multiple time zones. But … I married a military man. In our 13 years of marriage so far, we’ve made six military moves, including to and from Europe. Every time we move, I’m greeted by an empty house and an unfamiliar city. Often, I don’t even know the name of the local grocery store chains and the closest contact in my phone is several states away. 

There are a lot of logistics involved in moving with the military, especially when you have a family. We have five children — the oldest is in middle school and the youngest is a baby. Whenever we move, learning about the local schools is an important part of our research. But I also have to find a local doctor, dentist, orthodontist, and eye specialist. And then there are all the extracurricular activities to coordinate — the  kids are involved in sports, scouting, and art classes. 

One thing I’ve learned is that moving a family is much more than packing up and unloading boxes. You have to relocate and restart every aspect of your lives, while respecting the needs of each individual in your house. 

Because we’ve been forced to move every two to three years, military moves have a familiar rhythm for us now. We know when to start researching schools, neighborhoods, and information about a new area. We’ve learned how to “jump-start” our social lives and have a speed-dating version of making new friends. We don’t waste any time and get settled as quickly as possible so we can begin putting down roots in the new location. 

With all this experience, I’ve written countless articles with tips for making military moves. But those mostly deal with the nuts, bolts, and nuances of PCS moves (the acronym for Permanent Change of Station in the military). This time, I decided to share ideas focused on how you make a new place feel like home — something that’s even more important than stuff like choosing moving containers or TSP movers (Transportation Service Providers).

Whether you’re in a military family making a PCS move or a civilian relocating to a new city or state for any reason, I hope these tips for getting settled quickly help you with your next move! 

Planning a military move? Save 10% on moving containers with PODS’ Military Discount — available to all military active duty, retired, and veterans. Find out more.     

1. Unpack all the boxes within the first week

Believe it or not, most military families unpack all their boxes within the first week of arriving at a new home! A house full of cardboard boxes is intimidating, and it certainly doesn’t feel like home. But the faster you plunge into the task, the sooner your house will become more comfortable. Put furniture together first, so you have a place to unpack things. Or start in the kitchen, where the empty cabinets are ready to be filled. Open each box so you can see what’s inside, then plan out where you want to put everything in the new place. Flatten boxes as you go so they don’t take up all your space. 

2. Enroll in schools immediately

If you have children, getting them enrolled in school is important, especially if you had to move during the school year. Before your move, fill out a school application online. This will speed up the process, so when you arrive you only need to appear at the school with the appropriate documents. Get a transition letter and transcript from the school you’re leaving. 

Hand-carry the following documents to each child’s school:  

  • Birth certificate
  • Immunization record
  • Proof of residency at the new address
  • Transition letter and transcript from previous school
  • Doctor form (if required)
  • Social security card

Keep these together in a moving binder, and don’t pack them on the moving truck where they can get lost!

3. Seek out local activities

Think about all the clubs and groups you’re part of at your current home. You may have a favorite place of worship and belong to a gym. Perhaps you’ve joined a book club, a fitness team, or a crafting group. Your children may participate in sports, dance classes, or play a musical instrument. All these activities probably exist in your new town too, but you have to seek them out. 

This is something you can do before the move, with online searches or questions in local Facebook groups. Don’t hesitate to call or email an organizer or business and explain that you will soon be moving to the area and want more information. After your move, you will be physical and emotionally drained, and may not have the energy to seek out these groups right away. However, they’re important for support and your general well-being, so it’s always worth the effort. 

4. Personalize your home

Your new house probably has empty, white walls. It won’t feel like home until you personalize your space. This may feel tedious and draining after a big move, but it’s psychologically important. Painting the walls is a time investment to remind you that you are here to stay, and it will give you the satisfaction of making the rooms feel like your own safe haven. Hanging pictures is a statement that this is your home now, the place that holds the family memories. Dusting off your favorite décor will help your home feel familiar and comfortable.

a woman speaking with a clerk at a plant nursery

5. Ask locals for recommendations

Your new town may feel confusing until you can find your way around to the grocery store, a hairdresser, a place of worship, and maybe a dog park. If you don’t know where to start, ask for referrals from someone who has lived there for a while. Either talk to people as you wait in line or play with your kids at the park, or just post questions in local Facebook groups. Locals will be your shortcut to making a new town feel like home. And you may make some new friends this way, too!

neighbors coming to visit

6. Meet the neighbors

When you’re the new family on the block, chances are your neighbors have already noticed your moving truck. But they may not be comfortable coming over to say hi, or perhaps they’re trying to give you time to unpack and waiting for a more convenient moment. If you want to make connections quickly, be proactive. Write a note to the neighbors in nearby houses. Share whatever information you want your new neighbors to know — your last name, kids’ ages, or names of your pets. Leave it in their mailbox or taped to their front door, perhaps with a package of homemade goodies. It’s a simple, tasty icebreaker that will let you quickly learn what you have in common with your new neighbors and give them a reason to stop by and greet you.

Lizann Lightfoot and family adventure at Yosemite.
(Credit: Lizann Lightfoot)

7. Act like a tourist

The best way to appreciate all that a new town has to offer is to play tourist for a while. Take a break from unpacking boxes and get the family out of the house for a fun local excursion or day trip. Find a park or nature trail for a refreshing hike. Google “Top things to do in ____” and let family members take turns choosing options from the list. Try out a new restaurant that showcases the local cuisine. Sure, it may feel different than your previous home, but there are many things to enjoy about the new location too!

8. Put down roots

Military families move often, but that doesn’t mean they live a nomadic lifestyle. Instead, they put down roots quickly, embedding themselves in their new community, even if they will only live there a short while. When you invest in your home and your community, it lifts your spirits and reminds you that you belong here. You’ll find that simple tasks like volunteering with a local organization, joining the school parent board, and planting a garden help you feel more rooted in your new home. Go ahead and buy the t-shirts, use local slang, and do whatever you need to do to fit in. 

If you’re struggling to adjust after a move, you aren’t alone. Many people experience physical and emotional exhaustion during a major relocation, whether it’s a civilian or military move. But once you walk through these steps, your house and new town will begin to feel a lot more like home. Getting your family settled won’t happen all at once. It’s a gradual process that will take a few months. But one day you will realize, this is your home now and you love it! 

(Credit for photo featured at top: Lizann Lightfoot)


Lizann Lightfoot is the Content Editor for PCSgrades, a company that helps military families through PCS moves with trusted reviews by and for the military community. She is also the author of the Seasoned Spouse blog, which provides encouraging advice for military families. Her new book, “Open When You Love Someone in the Military,” will be released in 2021.