Single military members will most likely be spending the first few years of their military career living in the barracks, dormitories, or onboard ship depending on your branch of service. Living off base at military expense (receiving housing allowance) may not occur until you make E-4, E-5, or even E-6 in some branches and military bases. This all depends on the occupancy rate of that particular base.
Here is the service branch breakdown of the basic policy of living on or off base while single:
- Army policy allows E-6 (some bases E-5) and above who are still single to live off base at government expense.
- Air Force policy allows E-4s and above who are single with 3+ years of service to reside off-base at government expense.
- Navy policy allows E-5 and above and E-4s with more than four years of service who are still single to reside off base and receive a housing allowance.
- Marine Corps allow E-6s and above who are single to live off base at government expense. Depending on the base, E-4s and E-5s will be allowed to live off base at government expense.
Different Living Situations
In the Army and Marine Corps single lower ranking members will live in the barracks. In the Air Force they live in the dormitories, and in the Navy - depending upon the command will either live in the barracks or on ship. However, the rent (and utilities, etc.) will have to come out of their base pay. In these type of situations, lower enlisted won't receive a housing allowance, nor, in such cases, will you receive a food allowance (you will still get free meals, in the chow hall, however).
The choices are not easy. Living in the barracks/dormitories means that you (depending on base and service branch), will have to share your room (about the size of a large bedroom in a family home), with one, two, or even three roommates - sometimes in an open bay of many people depending upon the berthing situation. Sometimes the bathroom is a for large groups located down the hall, not in your room. Many young troops decide to trade new car payments to live off base with roommates in their own apartment. For a young military member off-base is the place to be, even if they have to pay for it.
Roommates or Single Room?
Other than training bases (such as basic training and job training), and deployment locations, such as Iraq and Afghanistan (where you are not allowed to move off-base anyway), all of the services (except the Marine Corps) are striving to give all junior enlisted members a room to themselves (Note: The Marine Corps goal is to give all junior enlisted Marines a room with just one roommate, and all NCOs a room to themselves).
Today, all Air Force junior enlisted enjoy a single room at most bases, and the Army is just a little behind the Air Force. The Navy can pretty much guarantee a single room for junior enlisted assigned to shore duty, and they are working hard to give rooms to junior enlisted assigned to ships (when the ship is in port). They're not quite there yet, but they are working hard on it. Many bases (in all the branches) are converting to more modern dormitories, which include two to four bedrooms (one service member assigned to each bedroom with a private bath), with a shared living room and kitchen.
Some locations even allow enlisted members to move into on-base family housing, if there are spare houses available, after offering them to all the members living with dependents. For example, two single members would live in one two-bedroom on-base house.
As you make more rank, you can usually choose to move out of the dormitories and off-base at government expense. In this case, you would then receive the above-mentioned housing allowance and monthly food allowance (however, you can no longer eat for free in the chow hall -- you'll have to pay for any meals consumed there). It varies from service-to-service and base-to-base, but in general, you can expect to be allowed to move off base and get paid for it, when you make the pay grade of E-4 (over 4 years of service), or E-5. Typical housing allowances will cover all or a majority of the rent for members qualified for it.
At most bases, junior officers are given a choice of living on-base, or off-base at government expense. Some bases don't even have on-base single junior officer quarters. At a few bases, they may be required to live on-base. Generally, on-base single officer quarters are pretty nice (sometimes they are like small apartments), and officers don't generally have to have a roommate.
If a single member is authorized to live off-base at government expense, they retain that authority, even if they deploy to a combat zone, such as Iraq or Afghanistan. However, the Servicemember's Civil Relief Act allows a military member to break a lease, without penalty, if they deploy for 90 days or more. Many single members terminate their leases in such cases, put their property in a storage shed, and pocket their housing allowance during a deployment (this is completely legal). The disadvantage is that you're going to have to run around and find another place to rent when you return from deployment.