So The Dude Asks Me, “Do You Have Your SOFA stamped?”

“No, sir.  I do not have my sofa stamped.  And honestly, I cannot possible imagine what that even means.  We have a sofa signed out to us from the Army so it should be good right?”

This was an actual conversation between me and some dude at Army Community Service that I overheard when I got to Korea.  The names have been withheld to protect the ignorant….me….the innocent.

I totally understood what a passport was before I came to Korea. And when I say “understand” what I mean is – I had seen one before. I knew that if you were going to travel out of the country – and then come back in – then you needed a passport. Now, you will be able to land…but to get from the inside of the airport to the outside of the airport maybe….mission impossible. (I learned that from watching The Terminal with Tom Hanks).  Oh…..and I knew they were expensive. So why do we need one? According to the US State Department a passport is like your international ID card. It says, “Hi, I’m Paula Walsh. I’m an American.  America, specifically the State Department and the Honorable Ms. Hillary Clinton, has verified that. I would like to come into your country now, please. Have a nice day.”


Some countries are suuuper cool with that. When entering, Korean Immigration stamped my passport with their “tourist visa” that allowed me to stay in their country for 90 days. Ah, another new word Visa…

(I will pause here and let you come up with your own personal Visa/Mastercard/Credit Card joke. I played around with a few of them in my head and none of them where worthy.)

Soooo, what is a Visa? A visa is “an endorsement on a passport indicating that the holder is allowed to enter, leave, or stay for a specified period of time in a country.” That’s according to Google.

So you need a passport AND visa to get into a country? The answer to that is – usually. It appears each country has its very own rules about who can enter, for what reasons and for how long. Travelers have to check those out before heading out there into TV country. I am sure if I were rich I could just hire a travel agent and have them do all that work for me at a cost.  However I am trying to purchase a $1000 ski jacket so the money has to come from somewhere. When Korea let me in, no questions asks, I assumed that every country would be like that. They are not. Looks like if I want to touch the Great Wall of China and do a burpee on it, I’m going to need to get permission to enter the country first. It appears Russia is a real bugger as well.

While I was in the internet surfing mood, I checked out what our (meaning America) rules are for foreign entry. The US State Department breaks down their visas in two categories non-immigrant (or temporary) and immigrant (or permanent). You can probably figure out what each one means. It appears there as about 30 different types of non-immigrant visas that the US issues and well, probably one type of permanent visa… But I’m a US citizen so I get to enter that country as much as I want to (as long as I have my passport), it’s a bunch of the other countries that I am worrying about right now.

So first things first…Korea. If you noticed in the second paragraph when Connor and I entered the country, The Republic of Korea stamped our passports with a 90 day tourist visa, which expires February 2013. So how does one stay in the country for two or three years when she is on a 90 day tourist visa…well because of new term #3 – “Status of Forces Agreement”. Now you need to pay attention to this one…it affects us all more than I ever appreciated until I started doing my research. First, they refer to Status of Forces Agreements as the SOFA…

Ok – I am very well aware that at this point I am about to lose a few of you…I know, learning is boring… Stay with me here.

So, what is a SOFA? A SOFA is an agreement between a host country and a foreign nation stationing military forces in that country. Because we have troops stationed in Korea there is a SOFA between the United States government and the Republic of Korea government. Because we have troops in Germany…..SOFA. Because we HAD troops in Iraq there was a SOFA between the United States government and the Iraqi government (when a new one finally got up and running).

On a side note… a pretty big disagreement with the SOFA between Iraq and the US is what our government points to for pulling everyone out of that country and not leaving any “trainers” in place. Check out this New York Times article. It doesn’t go into detail, just a brief overview, but if you did not understand what a SOFA was a lot of the meaning in this article would be a little lost.  Also, I would like to mention that Service Members are NOT “immune” from doing bad, dumb, stupid, law breaking, and immoral things in other countries under a SOFA. What is usually a deal breaker for the US is when Service Members are processed in a host nation’s legal system. Private Smith may end up one Saturday night in a host nation’s jail.  Yes, temporarily, totally happens usually every day. But once the Service Member is identified, the military branch will take custody of the “hooligan” and put them in Army/Navy/Air Force/ Marine jail.  Subsequently, that person will be processed and perhaps charged under the United States military’s legal system The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The service member may still have to pay host nation fines and get put in Army jail for longer than overnight but they aren’t going to spend 10 years being caned in Asia somewhere…watch Locked up Abroad and get back to me.  So to make a long story…well, long…we can’t have combat troops under orders, in combat zones being thrown into an Iraqi jail for participating in combat operations. SOFA protects them from that. If the host country…say Iraq…won’t agree to that in a SOFA then the government will not keep US troops in that area. And yes, Rush Limbaugh, I appreciate that I have oversimplified this concept and the politics, this is not a foreign policy blog for the love of baby Jesus.

Now – on with the lesson…….As part of the SOFA between Korea and the US, I was allowed to take my driver’s license test on-post and didn’t have to go to the Korea DMV. As part of the SOFA I am obligated to follow all of the laws of the host nation. Also, with the appropriate verification paperwork from the US Army, I  can apply for a SOFA stamp in my passport which allows me to extend my stay in Korea during my husband’s assignment here.

So with all that being said – Yes, I now have my SOFA stamp.

This entry was posted in Army Life, Driver's License, Everyday Life, Korea, Moving to Korea and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to So The Dude Asks Me, “Do You Have Your SOFA stamped?”

  1. Learn something new every day! Well written. Witty and clever as well as informing as usual.

  2. Dianne Brady says:

    Really!! I needed a comfy SOFA (pun intended) to take all that in!!! It really isn’t as simple as I thought, does the US make it too easy for the people who enter or am I missing something. It could really have turned into a nightmare for you and Connor if you weren’t paying attention, glad you got your SOFA stamped.

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