If you’ve already visited Portugal, you might be seriously smitten and imagining yourself moving to Portugal.
Or perhaps your dream of living abroad is still a seed of an idea and you haven’t decided on a country or location yet.
If so, there’s a strong chance that Portugal will be a contender.
After all, Portugal is one of the world’s safest countries and regularly features in the top 10 lists of places to retire to or live abroad. There are plenty of good reasons for choosing to live in Portugal, including its climate, friendly people, great food, delightful cities and beautiful countryside, not to mention the world-class wines and delicious food.
Pause for thought before moving to Portugal!
Before you get carried away with excitement and make a down payment on your future home, there are a few things you should bear in mind before making the move to the country I’ve been proud to call home since 2007.
I am in no way trying to talk you out of joining me or pour cold water over your hopes and dreams of a new life in Portugal. My intention here is to help you understand some of the potential pitfalls that could make living in Portugal too challenging for you so that you can take them into consideration when doing your research and planning.
With the right mindset and preparation, you can have an amazing life in Portugal.
Ask yourself, and whoever would be moving with you, these questions and consider the points I’ve made. Then be brutally honest with yourself and each other about how well you think you’d thrive in Portugal, before you take the plunge.
1. How adaptable are you?
I ask because not everyone has the necessary adaptability and resilience to cope with life in a new culture, away from friends, family and familiarity. Especially when you don’t speak the language or understand the culture and how things are done.
If you need to feel in control and find it difficult to adjust to changes of plans, disappointments or unexpected challenges, moving to a new country might be too much for you to handle.
This need not k.i.l.l your plans completely but recognising that it could be an issue offers you the chance to address it. It might help to hire a coach who can help you work on your flexibility, resilience and inner strength before moving to Portugal and during the settling in period. Deborah Dahab has a great programme called Master Your Move, which helps you prepare on a practical and emotional level.
Having access to a network of people who understand what you’re going through can also be a comfort and vital support system when things get frustrating.
There’s lots of support online from people who are going through the moving process or have already settled in Portugal and can offer words of wisdom, for example Expats Portugal.
Another option is to join Facebook groups that are relevant to your specific interests as a starting point for connecting with people. See the suggestions in my Resources For Living In Portugal page or search Facebook for more ideas.
2. Can you live without your favourite foods?
Of course, you should try as many Portuguese foods as you can but sometimes those little familiar tastes of home can be enough to brighten up a tough day.
You’ll find an ever-increasing range of international foods and perfectly good substitutes for many ingredients in Portugal, especially in the big cities. Shops like Glood and El Corte Ingles, and the international section of Jumbo (Auchan) supermarkets often hold treats.
However, some items remain elusive and you will need to do without, find out how you can order them online or get someone to bring you things when they visit.
3. How flexible are you when it comes to customer service?
Your expectations regarding customer service and bureaucracy are likely to be severely challenged at some point during your move to Portugal. Things have improved in the 13 years I’ve lived here and some companies have amazing customer care staff but it’s definitely not like that across the board.
I’ve noticed that service staff often refuse to make eye contact with you until they are actually ready to serve you, so you don’t get any reassurance that they “will be with you shortly”, if ever. I found this confusing and frustrating for a long time and still do at times, if I’m honest.
If there has been a mistake, you may not get an apology, especially from a junior member of staff. There seems to be a reluctance to acknowledge responsibility, even when you’re simply looking for an apology on behalf of the company and recognition that things went wrong and made you unhappy.
Acting like an entitled prima donna or getting angry and shouting at people will usually make things worse.
If you’re getting nowhere, one thing that does often make people take you seriously is to ask for the complaints book. You may not need to go as far as filling it in – the threat is often enough.
4. How important is punctuality to you?
Timekeeping may not be what you’re used to. There’s a widely accepted notion of 15 minutes tolerance in Portugal which means that meetings and events rarely start on time, except for the one time when you are the one who’s 10 minutes late!
If you are waiting for a Portuguese person to turn up and they tell you they’ll be with you in 5 minutes, just be aware that this can often mean they’re running 15-30 minutes late.
Medical appointments, even at private clinics and hospitals, invariably start late so take something to read and don’t book any other appointments straight afterwards.
5. How patient are you?
Patience is an art that you are likely to need to cultivate, even if you already consider yourself to be quite a patient person.
In addition to the aforementioned punctuality issues, things can take a lot longer to sort out that you’d expect, especially in the realms of bureaucracy and building work.
If you’re waiting for an update on work in progress, don’t expect to be kept in the loop. The rule of thumb here tends to be that they will contact you only when there is news, even if that means no contact for weeks.
Again, for those of us who like to feel in control and know what’s going on, this can be very frustrating but it’s easier to deal with if you know not to expect regular ‘no real progress’ updates.
6. Are you willing to learn Portuguese?
Portuguese is not the easiest of languages to learn but it will make your life a thousand times easier if you make the effort to at least get to the stage where you can manage day to day functional language and simple conversations.
It’s true that there are many foreigners who have lived here for years and still only know the basic greetings; you CAN get by in certain areas without Portuguese but you’ll find it helps enormously when you can communicate in the national language.
Portuguese people appreciate it when foreigners learn their language and you may find you get better service because of it.
7. Can you really afford it?
There are plenty of companies that promote cheap living abroad but they often paint a very rosy picture that may not take into account all the factors involved.
While the minimum wage in Portugal is €665 per month, it is not enough to live with dignity, especially as a foreigner. Whether you rent or buy, you will likely want to live somewhere that would be beyond the means of someone on such a low income.
Even in rural areas, you’ll be looking at paying a minimum of €300 per month rent. In cities like Lisbon or Cascais, you should budget for at least €1,000 pm for anything more than a 1-bed, and double that or more for something really nice, depending on the neighbourhood – see this article for Lisbon neighbourhoods to live in as an expat.
Use a cost of living calculator and ask in expat groups to get a realistic sense of living costs for the area you are considering. As well as your food and utility bills, you should also factor in the cost of trips to see family as well as travels within Portugal.
If you are moving to Portugal on a fixed income, e.g. retirement pension, beware of the massive difference that exchange rates can have on your funds. As an example, the British Pound-Euro exchange rate was once around 1:1.5, meaning that every pound was worth €1.50. Since the Brexit vote, that has plummeted and currently hovers at around €1.10 to the pound, which has a major impact on your income.
Always budget for the worst-case scenario exchange rates and see if you can live off that. Anything better is a bonus.
I have found that the best – and cheapest – way to transfer money abroad is through Wise. Wise, formerly TransferWise, is an international account for over 50 currencies, with instant, super-cheap money transfer, a card to spend in any currency, bank details to get paid in 30 different countries, multi-currency direct debits, and other revolutionary stuff.
8. How will you earn money if you need to?
That minimum wage of €665 per month is an indicator of how low wages are in Portugal in general. If you’re expecting to find paid employment here, you need to do your homework to establish whether you have skills that are desirable, e.g. in an international company, and whether they will pay you enough to support living in a city, if required.
There are, of course, an ever-increasing number and range of remote jobs that you can do from anywhere but look into how you will be taxed and what kind of visa you might need for this.
Setting up your own business is another option. I would advise getting professional help with this to make sure you get all the correct licenses and documents in place.
9. How much tax will you need to pay?
Even if you qualify for tax breaks under the Non-Habitual Resident tax scheme, you need to establish exactly how much tax you will need to pay, and in which countries.
Portugal uses your global income to determine which of the tiered tax brackets apply to you so it’s best to get expert advice on this.
One thing you will undoubtedly need if you have financial dealings in Portugal is a Número de Identificação Fiscal or NIF, which is a tax ID number. You can get one in advance of your move. Find out how to get your NIF online.
10. Do you need a visa?
Most people who are simply visiting Portugal for business or leisure will not need a visa for stays of up to 90 days, providing you have 6 months on your passport. However, if you intend to stay longer, you should do your homework beforehand to find out what’s required.
If you’re moving to Portugal from an EU country, you have the right to live and work here but you’ll still need to get your residency permit within 3 months of arrival.
If you have Portuguese heritage, different rules apply.
Third country nationals, as everyone else is called, need to get a visa before leaving their home country and then convert that into a residence permit within 3 months of arriving in Portugal. There are companies that will help you do this but the steps are straightforward so if possible, it’s a job to do yourself.
11. Will you need/want private health insurance?
While legal residency in Portugal includes access to state healthcare, this is not 100% free as you have to pay for consultations, even with your family doctor, and all tests, e.g. blood tests, x-rays etc.
Some of these tests and prescriptions are subsidised by the government and so only cost a small amount but you need authorisation from your family doctor to get the reduced price.
Dental care is not covered by the National Health Service (SNS) and a simple checkup can cost from €30 upwards. Glasses are inexplicably expensive in Portugal – I get mine on trips to the UK. Prescription medications can be quite pricey, too.
All of these reasons, plus the convenience and flexibility of being able to see a doctor of your choosing without lengthy waits, lead many immigrants to take out private medical insurance. Premiums obviously vary considerably depending on age, coverage and existing conditions but tend to range from around €20 per month to about €150 per month.
Some insurance companies have an upper age limit of 70, and some will not cover pre-existing conditions. For many retirees, this means you’ll need to shop around to find suitable cover.
Even if you don’t get full coverage, you can get partial payments of treatments to keep costs down and your options open.
12. How are you going to spend your time?
Many people are looking to retire to Portugal. If you haven’t yet got used to not having to work for a living, the double life change of doing it in a new country may present quite a challenge.
The first few months after your move will be busy with paperwork and settling in but after a while, you might find yourself at a loose end and start to feel isolated.
Unless you’re already fluent in Portuguese, you are likely to find your leisure options to be somewhat limited compared to what you had in your home country. While cinema is usually subtitled (except for kids’ films), most theatre productions will be beyond your language skills.
There are meetups, workshops, clubs etc. but again, the language barrier might make it a challenge to find them and to fully participate in ones that are conducted in Portuguese.
In areas that are popular with foreigners, such group activities are also arranged by and for fellow immigrants but there’s a danger that you’ll end up living in an expat bubble if you don’t make an effort to also do things with locals.
A good way to get to know local people as well as other immigrants is through volunteering or joining a sports club.
13. Where do you want to live?
Portugal is a beautiful and varied country with lots of different landscapes, city cultures and microclimates so you’ll need to do some serious research and testing before settling on a place that suits you and your desired lifestyle.
In many ways, Portugal is a modern European country with all the facilities you could need in major cities. The popular cities of Lisbon, Cascais and Porto, as well as parts of the Algarve and the Silver Coast come with a higher price tag to match their facilities and conveniences.
If you’re on a tight budget, or crave country living more than the coast, you might consider living inland, in what’s known as the interior. However, you might feel constrained by poor infrastructure and limited activities, food options and services in rural areas and smaller towns.
It’s a good idea to create a personal checklist of the things that you and your companions agree are essential and desirable features to help you narrow down your options.
While there are some brave souls who move to Portugal without ever having been here, I’d recommend doing a few scouting trips to help you choose a place to try out, ideally renting for a full 12 months before buying anything.
And make sure you plan your scouting trip carefully to ensure you get the information you need to make important decisions when you get back home. This short course will help you do that.
14. What about when you get older?
If you’re moving to Portugal for the long haul, don’t forget to factor in how suitable a location is likely to be when you get older. Will you have to move if your circumstances change?
Easy access to healthcare will become more important and, if you’ve chosen to live in the countryside, you need to consider how you’ll manage if you can’t drive.
The village where my husband and I live is fine while both of us drive but there are no shops, services, or public transport close by so without a car, we’d be quite isolated.
I love our home but I don’t fancy living here alone and elderly for lots of reasons and I anticipate moving to a larger town with more facilities at some point in the future so we have to plan for that financially.
15. Are you cut out for village living?
Perhaps you’re tired of the rat race and dreaming of getting away from it all by moving to a small village in Portugal. Aside from the limited infrastructure and cultural activities, there are other things to consider before moving to the countryside to grow vegetables and rear goats.
The simple life suits some people very well and you’ll find that your Portuguese neighbours are typically welcoming, friendly and generous.
They’ve seen their young folk disappear off to live in the cities and so having people in their village who will take on and care for a property is good for the community. They are usually proud of their village and love that someone from another country has chosen to live there.
You are likely to be invited to village shindigs and given vegetables and advice about growing yours. You may not agree with all of their methods but they have been doing this for decades so don’t dismiss their knowledge out of hand.
Many of your neighbours will have lived in that village or nearby their entire lives and their way of life is relatively simple and based around subsistence farming, family and community.
For this reason, conversation topics may feel a little limited after a while and you might want to make additional friends outside your immediate community.
16. Are you willing/able to drive in Portugal?
Driving in Portugal is mostly fine, with a few caveats; bumper huggers are common and impatience rules the road, especially in cities. Roundabouts, even for those who think they know how to use them, can also be stressful.
While it might feel daunting at first – I had to learn to drive on the right when I moved here – as with most things, practice makes perfect, or good enough at any rate.
You don’t necessarily need a car if you choose to live in a city. However, if you’re not willing to drive, many villages and even smaller towns may not really be an option, especially if you need good access to health care or schools. Public transport in these areas is limited during the working week and can be non-existent at weekends and public holidays.
Note that most cars are manual shift, rather than automatics, which you CAN get but at a premium. Cars are already way more expensive that you’d expect, thanks to excessive duties.
17. What kind of weather are you hoping for?
Tourist boards and travel magazines tout the fact that some parts of Portugal get a lot of sunny days, up to 300 days per year in some places!
What they skip over is that we usually get an extended rainy period at least once a year. This can last a week, 2 weeks, or sometimes longer and it can feel like forever and make for very damp, humid homes. Mould is a common problem in homes that are not properly insulated.
Severe storms happen every year, especially in coastal areas, so living on the coast may not be quite so appealing in winter months.
Even without the rain, coastal zones often have a sea mist that ups humidity levels and may not suit some people. Snow is rare, except in the mountains, but hailstones can occasionally happen at any time of year.
Weather websites claim that summer daytime temperatures don’t go higher than 25ºC (78ºF) but that’s simply not true. Even in coastal areas, which tend to be coolest in summer, daytime temperatures can be in the mid 30ºCs. Inland, particularly in the Alentejo and eastern parts of Portugal, daytime temperatures frequently exceed 40ºC.
When temperatures go above the mid 30ºCs, it’s too hot to enjoy being outdoors unless you’re near water and you’ll want air conditioning at home.
18. Have you thought about heating?
Following on from the weather, although winter temperatures in most of Portugal are relatively mild and rarely drop below freezing, homes are typically not well insulated or properly heated so it can feel colder inside than outdoors.
I have spent many a day working at my computer in a hat and fingerless gloves, even with the central heating on (it was inefficiently installed so the heat is not evenly distributed).
You will undoubtedly need heating of some kind and may need to top up whatever currently exists in your home with extra radiators, a portable gas heater or by installing air conditioning. Depending on the heating system you use, this can bump up your household bills considerably.
We chose a pellet stove for the convenience of being able to pre-programme the system to start automatically rather than come home to a cold house and have to light a fire and wait for it to make a difference.
19. Do you want to buy a property in Portugal?
If you value being a homeowner over renting, you might be tempted to rush into buying property in Portugal.
There are many reasons why this might not be such a good idea. One is that the property market in Portugal, especially outside the major cities, can move very slowly.
It can literally take years to sell a house in some areas so before sinking your savings into a place, it’s worth seriously considering renting for 12-24 months while you discover how you really feel about living in Portugal.
After a year of living there, you might realise that the location that ticks all the boxes on paper doesn’t really suit you, for any number of reasons. Perhaps you hadn’t anticipated how your dream town would be transformed in full summer season or experienced how quiet it can be in the winter.
You might worry that paying rent is eating into your savings but it’s a lot cheaper than having to take a loss on a property just to shift it if you need to move.
20. Can you really handle a renovation project?
Many foreigners, especially Brits, dream of doing up an old property and there’s no shortage of charming buildings that are crying out for a restoration project in Portugal.
Mike and I have got carried away with such fantasies in the past but thankfully seen sense before taking the plunge. We know deep down that it would put too much strain on our finances and relationship.
I’m not here to talk you out of anything but it’s important to be aware that reliable contractors are scarce in Portugal. Many of the better ones have gone to France, Germany and Switzerland to earn more money.
It can take months to get a quote sorted out and much longer for the work to be done. Even with a project manager, things can and do go wrong. Frequently. This is part of the reason why there are so many decaying properties in Portugal.
Building materials are not as cheap as you might think here, especially for quality goods. Based on the experience of friends who have undertaken renovation projects in Portugal, I’d say that whatever price you are given by an architect or real estate agent for potential renovations, you should double it and add a bit extra to be on the safe side.
21. Do you need to bring your stuff when you move to Portugal?
I’ve shipped belongings to different countries on three occasions and after moving to Portugal, I swore I’d never do it again. I found it very stressful every time, partly because of inevitable customs delays and partly because things I cared about got broken.
The general advice among the expat community in Portugal is to bring as little as possible with you; just sentimental, unique or valuable items.
If you’re renting to begin with, you don’t want to have to pay storage for things you’re not even using. You can buy furniture and white goods here and bear in mind that your electrical goods may use a different voltage system from Portugal’s anyway, e.g. if you’re coming from the US.
Planning ahead gives you time to scan old photos into digital format and sell off or give away your unnecessary items before moving to Portugal.
22. How will you keep in touch with loved ones after moving to Portugal?
The internet and social media make keeping up to date with family and friends affordable and easy for most people to manage but you’ll need a decent internet connection.
The speed and strength of this varies wildly between network providers and locations so this is something to research with care once you’ve got a place to live in mind.
It’s also worth bearing in mind how tech savvy your older relatives are – do you need to teach them how to use WhatsApp or Zoom before you go?
23. How often can you go back to visit family and friends?
The pull of missing your loved ones is one of the hardest things that immigrants have to come to terms with. Adult children can excel at making you feel guilty about your choice to live abroad or you may find it unbearable to be away from grandchildren for extended periods of time.
Elderly parents or relatives can also be a worry. Some people even bring theirs with them to Portugal as residential and healthcare can be more affordable here than in your home country.
It’s much easier to cope with absence when you know that you have the funds, time and easy access to international airports to facilitate regular and emergency trips back ‘home’, pandemics permitting!
It pays to consider and budget for this kind of travel when you’re working out your living costs.
24. Can you afford for them to visit you?
One of the many joys of living in Portugal is having loved ones visit you so that you can share your new home and discoveries with them.
However, this will invariably bump up your monthly living costs as your visitors are likely to be in holiday mode and will want to go sightseeing and eat out more frequently than you might ordinarily.