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Commissary and Exchange Benefits: What You Need to Know

Image courtesy Edwards AFB 2022

Part of being a military member or the immediate family of a service member is enjoying access to on-base facilities that are otherwise restricted to the general public. You can’t enter most military bases without proper military or dependent ID, and you cannot use facilities on base without one either.

That includes shopping options at Base Exchanges, Post Exchanges, Commissaries, Class Six stores, and on-base convenience stores once known as “Shoppettes”. If you have access to the base, you typically have access to these operations.

Those who have access to a military base can shop at these locations as long as proper military or dependent ID is provided. Dependents, retirees, active duty, Guard, Reserve, DoD civilians and others may be permitted to use these facilities and take advantage of their perks.

Who Runs Commissaries and Exchanges?

Some Exchanges are operated by the Army/Air Force Exchange Service, others may be run by the Marine or Navy equivalent. Commissaries are run by the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCa), and some retail operations on a base may be run by MWR, also known as Morale Welfare And Recreation, an agency that operates on most military bases to provide recreation services, travel, and morale-building events.

The Army & Air Force Exchange Service started doing business all the way back in the 1800s. Since then, AAFES has evolved into one of the top 100 retailers in the USA, serving more than 30 million customers.

AAFES funds generated by retail sales go back into supporting the military community. When you shop on base you may be providing future financial stability to any number of military-family-friendly operations.

Base and Post Exchanges offer exclusive prices for military communities, tax-free shopping, and the ability to order online via the official AAFES retail shopping site. AAFES offers the option to apply for a “Military Star Card” which is a charge card you can use at AAFES sites. The Star Card features no annual fee, no late fees, and a variety of special promotions.

The Defense Commissary Agency is an evolution from the earliest days of American military service when each military branch operated its own commissary. Believe it or not, that went on until 1991 when the Defense Commissary Agency was created to streamline and coordinate Commissary operations worldwide.

Today, DeCa runs well over 200 stores in 13 countries. A large number of Commissaries are located overseas, but there are still stateside bases featuring them for authorized users.

Shopping On-Base

Why shop on post? You can shop in facilities run by AAFES, DeCa, or MWR tax-free, which makes for important savings in areas with sales tax rates at or near 10% (Illinois, for example). There are also regular sales, discounts, perks, and other options that may not be offered at other shops off-post. Some sources claim families can save up to 30% on their grocery bills by using on-base Commissaries.

But who is allowed in? You typically are allowed to shop at these facilities if you meet any of the following criteria:

  • Uniformed-service members including members of the Guard and Reserve
  • Military retirees
  • Active DOD and Coast Guard appropriated fund and non-appropriated civilian employees in the United States
  • Medal of Honor recipients
  • Purple Heart awardees
  • Honorably-discharged veterans with a VA-rated 100 percent service-connected disability
  • Department of Defense civilian employees stationed outside the United States
  • Authorized family members
  • National Guard members not in federal status
  • Military members of foreign nations

The Defense Commissary Agency offers “subsidized” groceries for sale at a modest 5% surcharge to fund DeCa operations.

Expanded Access To On-Base Facilities Like BX/PX, Commissary

Some veterans lose their access to BX/PX, Commissary, and other facilities when they separate from the military. Retirees are allowed base access with their retiree ID card, but those who separate typically don’t have that luxury. In 2020 some of those long-held rules were changed; certain groups who previously had no DeCa or AAFES access are now permitted to use these facilities. Those groups include:

  • Purple Heart recipients
  • Former prisoners of war
  • All service-connected disabled veterans regardless of rating
  • Caregivers enrolled in the VA’s Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers program

The expanded on-post access may also include the following operations where applicable on base:

  • MWR-run on-base golf courses
  • On-base recreation areas
  • On-post movie theaters
  • On-base bowling alleys
  • MWR campgrounds and lodging facilities

Getting on post to use these facilities may be the sticking point for some, at least at first. Every base has its own rules and regulations for access. If you are not a retiree, for example, but are a separated veteran with a VA-rated disability, you may need to visit the post or base visitor center to learn how to legally access these facilities.

Those who were awarded the Purple Heart, those who are caregivers for disabled veterans, and those who are disabled veterans themselves all have more access to these facilities but the first visit is likely to be the most complicated if you need to sort out ID card issues.

What To Know About Shopping At AAFES, BX/PX, Or Other On-Base Stores

Shopping on base at a Commissary or BX stateside may be less restricted than some overseas locations; if you shop overseas you may be subject to purchase limits due to host nation restrictions on alcohol, certain reading material, DVDs, medications, etc.

Some controls are meant to thwart black market operators, others are meant to ensure there is enough for all shoppers when it comes to important staples that may be harder to obtain overseas.

In general, you may not make purchases at Commissaries or Exchanges on behalf of other people. You may not sell or transfer restricted items (again, the restrictions will depend on the agreement the federal government has made with the host nation) to local nationals, and you may not purchase items at the Commissary or BX to resell them elsewhere for a profit.

Each nation has its own regulations. In some countries, alcohol sales may be scrutinized, whereas in others it may be the sale of literature or entertainment deemed “pornographic” by the host country. You may not think your copy of 50 Shades Of Grey is pornography, but in certain host nations this title would be seized at Customs as such, and is not permitted to be sold in shops in that country.

Shopping at Exchanges, Commissaries, Class Six operations and other on-base options means having access to prices, goods, and services that may be sought after off base, but more unattainable depending on where you serve. It’s not uncommon for those stationed overseas to be approached by a local national asking you to purchase an item for them on base. In typical cases, this practice is not permitted and your doing so could lead to disciplinary action for the servicemember and loss of BX or Commissary privileges for dependents.

In some cases dependents could have command support for their presence at an overseas base revoked; it is smart not to run afoul of the rules for commissary and BX/PX access for this reason.