SOFA Status – What Does it Mean to You?
You may have heard about ‘SOFA status,’ but ‘SOFA’ isn’t part of the furniture – it’s an important set of entitlements and responsibilities governing how we live and function as a military community in our host nation of Germany. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) is a treaty that sets out the terms under which the armed forces of a foreign NATO member state are allowed to operate in another NATO state, including legal issues such as:
- entry and exit to the country
- and even the postal service.
The SOFA agreement is supplemented by another agreement specific to the six NATO nations (including the UK and the USA) that have a permanent military presence in Germany, the Supplementary Agreement (or SA). The SOFA was signed in 1951, and the SA was signed in 1959 and last updated in 1998 at the end of the Cold War. With its 83 articles the SA to SOFA is much more detailed than SOFA itself (with 20 articles in Roman numerals – e.g. XX), and more often than not it is mistaken for the SOFA itself.
As part of the SOFA, certain entitlements were granted to the foreign forces, which in practice means that entitled personnel may enjoy a number of freedoms as individuals.
Entitled personnel are:
- serving personnel when in Germany in connection with their official duties
- the ‘civilian component’ (effectively civil servants) accompanying the force (the SOFA specifically excludes German nationals and individuals from countries that are not members of NATO),
- certain contractors with status equivalent to that of the civilian component
- spouses of the above, and children depending upon the Heads of household for support (BFG sets a maximum age limit of 25)
In order to comply with the SOFA, there are a number of safeguards which are in place to ensure that the entitlements are enjoyed by only entitled personnel. For example, the ability to purchase tax-free goods is granted to the Force (not to individuals): as such, an individual must obtain an official Auftrag (tax-free shopping form) from an Official Procurement Agency (OPA) of the force, as it is the force, not the individual, that is officially purchasing the goods or services.
If someone is posted to British Forces Germany (BFG) for six months or more, they and their accompanying family are seen as holding SOFA status. Some of the main benefits of SOFA status are listed below:
- Exemption from having to carry a German national ID Card (see below)
- Exemption from having to register your presence with the German authorities (for UK and EU nationals) including not having to register your car on the ‘German net’
- Exemption from having to pay German income tax
- Entitlement to purchase certain goods tax-free in BFG, including vehicles
- Entitlement to have own country first-line policing (the RMP) in certain situations rather than the German Civil Police (GCP)
The SOFA treaty does give us many benefits; however, it also sets out that we have certain
responsibilities. As members of the BFG community, we are responsible for:
- Learning and obeying German laws – including driving laws
- Carrying an official ID card issued by the sending state (either a military ID card for serving personnel, or one of several types of civilian ID cards for non-military persons)
- Registering vehicles on an approved own-country system (‘BFG-ing’ your car)
- Having a SOFA Certificate in passports where required (Dependants from non-EU/non-EEA countries) to prove their entitlement to live and travel within Germany.
In addition, there is also an unspoken responsibility to maintain good faith relations with the host nation and to prevent misuse of the system, for example by paying for tax-free purchases on time. In many customs and fiscal matters, the force has been trusted by the German authorities to self police its entitlements; this privilege should not be taken for granted and could be withdrawn.
It is recognised that some processes, currently in operation to gain the benefit of the SOFA entitlements, are not as user-friendly as they could be. There is therefore work underway to make things easier for all users – including you and your family!
HQ BFG – Making Your SOFA Status ‘User Friendly’
Brigadier James Richardson MBE ordered a study into the way we conduct business in Germany in June 2012, which brought together department leaders and policy makers from across the Garrisons.
They looked at how to maximise entitlements and how to encourage people to use them, by making the processes easier. These included streamlining the processes of getting an initial ID card and doing tax-free shopping (both inside Germany and from retailers outside Germany, such as Amazon UK.) Work is also being done to improve the way we ‘BFG’ our vehicles. Great ideas to revamp and simplify the processes came out of the conference, and it is hoped that a number of these more streamlined, ‘leaner’ processes will come into effect in the coming years.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below are some frequently asked questions that many people have about aspects of life under the SOFA agreement.
Why are coffee, and other items, rationed?
Certain items are rationed because a separate agreement between the UK and Germany specifically limits the amount of cigarettes and tobacco, whisky, gin, and coffee that an individual can purchase free of duty, which is why your NAAFI Ration Card must be filled in each time you purchase these goods. To make sure that the tax-free allowance on these goods is not exceeded, they cannot be purchased tax-free from external shops either: for example, if you do your weekly shopping at REWE with a tax-free Auftrag form, you must not buy any rationed items (for example, a jar of coffee or a packet of cigarettes) as part of your tax-free ‘big shop’. Please remember that if any rationed items are included on the receipt of a larger tax-free purchase, then tax will have to be paid back on the entire purchase (yes, the whole amount of the weekly shop!) not just on the rationed item, and you may be subject to disciplinary action.
Why can’t my German wife work as a Dependant (DEP)?
Dependent employees work as members of the ‘civilian component’. As explained above, the definition of ‘civilian component’ as imposed in the NATO SOFA, specifically excludes German nationals, and as such the MoD could not employ anybody in this capacity without a serious breach of the treaty.
If you have any questions on these or other SOFA-related matters, please do not hesitate to ask in your Unit Welfare Office, Unit Regimental Admin Office, LSU, or your station Admin/BFG/MWST offices.