Moving to Portugal as an older, single woman is a thing!
Several times a month a woman will ask in an Expat group if there are any older women who have moved to Portugal solo. They are met with responses from dozens of women who have made the jump and are encouraging and supportive. I have become one of them.
But I want to put some caveats with that encouragement because becoming an expat is not for everyone. There are many issues to examine before you make the leap, whether you are old, young, single or married.
The Single Woman Issue
There’s a reason why women pay extra for valet parking, don’t go running at night, and learn to carry their keys laced between their fingers like DIY Wolverines. One of the main concerns women have when moving to a new, unknown country is their physical safety. That’s the field we play on.
The unknown is scary. When we’ve lived somewhere for a while, we know the area. We know which streets to avoid and how to get back and forth to places we need to go. We know which bar we can go into for a quiet drink where they won’t think we’re trying to get picked up.
We think of the U.S. as relatively safe because we know how to navigate our areas. It’s the devil we know. The 2021 Global Peace Index puts Portugal at number 4 out of 163 ranked countries. Canada is tenth; the US is #122. (Somalia is last, but hey, they’ve got active pirates.) There is some crime in Portugal. Most prevalent is non-violent street crime, usually in tourist areas, which is a nice way of saying pickpocketing or theft from cars. There were fewer than 100 homicides last year, about a quarter of those were by guns. You need to take normal precautions when out and about, but I have found myself walking back alleys with no fear. The reality is Portugal is a lot safer than the US. In fact, most countries are. It doesn’t mean nothing bad will ever happen to me here, just that it is less likely to happen. That works for me.
The Solo Thing
If you’re moving to a new country, it’s a very good idea to start making acquaintances before you arrive and expat groups on social media make it easy. There’s a lot of support in those groups; these people understand what it’s like to start a new life in a new country. There are (once again) in-person expat Meetups where you can share information and resources or just have a chat in your own language. I am not a super social person. I tend to build my network of friends slowly. The Pandemic lockdown has slowed that process even further. Now that I am settled, I will be more proactive in meeting people.
Do keep in touch with friends back in the States on a regular basis. You want someone to notice if you disappear. My next of kin and friends have my address and my landlord’s number. They “see” me every day on social media and we talk via WhatsApp several times a week. You don’t have to be paranoid; you do need to be sensible.
You Need an Income
The financial threshold for residency in Portugal is low by US standards. The government likes to see that you have at least $10,000 in the bank and/or a reliable monthly income of €750 or more. To be comfortable, you need to have at least $1,500 a month coming in. More is always better.
Some of the glossy magazines that cater to expat living extol the virtues of “cheap” living in foreign countries. Cheap is relative. If you’ve been living in New York, Boston, LA, Chicago, San Francisco, then yes, Portugal and most other countries are cheap by comparison. If you’ve been living in Florida as I had or the Midwest, Portugal is slightly less expensive. If you want to belong to a country club, golf several times a week, and travel at whim, your income needs to support that. Moving to a new country does not magically make your dollars multiply. Some countries are cheaper to live in. Others, not so much.
Women typically earn less than men and their retirement income reflects that. You don’t have to be super-resourceful to live fairly inexpensively here. While I have yet to find an award-winning bottle of wine for €3, it’s probably because I haven’t set out on that mission. Restaurants have daily lunch specials. The more rural areas are cheaper than the urban or tourist areas. You can rent an apartment for €500 a month and as in the US, what you get for that money is based on location. I’m very sure the apartment I pay €800 a month for would run at least $1,600 in Florida, more in other oceanfront areas. I pay an “American” price for my apartment. I don’t mind. I know other expats who will hunt and hunt for an apartment at “Portuguese” prices. That’s good, too.
You will have to pay Portuguese taxes if you reside here. There are various schemes that reduce or eliminate your taxes for the first ten years, but you need to factor that into your living expenses. On the plus side, private health insurance here is a fraction of what it is in the States. No, you can’t use your Medicare, but once a resident, you can use the public health system, ranked #12 in the world. (US is #37.) In the expat groups, people will often share a story of going to a private hospital for an emergency and paying less than €150. Medications are much cheaper here. Doctor visits are often less than your copay in the States. If you have a specific medical condition, you will want to look more closely at the health system. You will most likely be well taken care of but there may be some obscure condition that is better treated in the States. If you’re like me with “normal” aches and pains, moving here is a healthcare upgrade.
Yes, Age is a Thing
As much as we’d like to deny it, age is a thing. Even though I had worked out for seven years leading up to the Pandemic, a year of sitting home eating cupcakes with buttercream frosting (I have NO regrets) took its toll. I was fifteen pounds heavier and everything I did physically, from juggling baggage to climbing stairs took more effort. (Pick up a 15 pound weight and walk around with it for about half an hour. It slows you down.) And no, I haven’t magically lost the weight. Sigh.
So yes, as an older person, there are considerations. My first two Airbnb apartments were on the second floor which is really the third floor. Climbing three flights of stairs after climbing a series of steep hills was not fun and sometimes more than a bit exhausting. My lung capacity is not great, so I was huffing and puffing before I even hit the stairs. When I looked for a more permanent living situation, one of my requirements was no hills and the second was that I would only climb one flight of stairs or live in a building with an elevator.
If you don’t have a car, you will be doing a lot of walking, learning to navigate public transportation, and relying on services like Uber and Bolt. Before I moved here, I had used Uber once or twice. I am not one of those people who can do everything from their phone. I can barely answer it. I had never changed out a SIM card in my life. I now have two phones (one US and one Portugal) that I may or may not answer successfully. I use Whatsapp and Wifi calling and texting. I have a Google voice number. I have only a fuzzy understanding of how or why they work. When they work, all is fine. When they don’t work, I have no idea why. For my Portuguese phone, my new go-to move is to add more money (minutes) to the provider and that has been quite successful. Go figure. I get a certain amount of text and call minutes for €10 or €20 but I can’t figure out where they all go since I rarely use the phone. Eventually I will figure out that I am leaving something toggled on that I should toggle off.
Yesterday I changed my internet provider and the package included 150 TV channels. The TV was switched on, I flipped through channels to see what was where (at least half of the channels are sports, much like the US). At some point, the channel I was half-watching started glitching. I changed channels to see if it was the channel itself or the system. All the channels were glitching. Eventually the screen went dead. I fumbled with the two remotes, turned things on and off. It will either magically come back on or it won’t. My internet works and that is what I needed. Frankly, I fumbled between two or three remotes when I was in the States. Same here, just in a different language.
It’s About Your Attitude
No, I’m not going to hit you with that platitude “You’re as old as you think you are.” Frankly, we’re as old as our bodies tell us we are and its volume increases with every passing year.
Here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter if you are old or young, male or female. Making the move to a new country is more about attitude than age. You really need to roll with things. I have a note to myself on my massive to-do list that says “All things will get done in their own time.” That means that things won’t always happen on your timeline. Sometimes I call for an Uber and it’s a 20 minute wait. Do I miss my car? Occasionally. But I also know my car often sat for days without my using it. Laundry takes longer to do because most people don’t have clothes dryers—they hang their laundry out. It dries.
Many of us moved to Portugal without ever having been here. More have moved because they visited and fell in love with this country. (It’s an easy country to love.) I highly recommend visiting once or twice for a month or more to get a feel for living here. Rent Airbnbs in different locations to see what part of the country appeals to you.
Most of all, you need to embrace different. I hear expats (from every country) complain that they can’t get a certain food item or the bureaucracy is slow. Yes. Because it’s a different country and things work differently here. If you accept that going in, and really, look forward to learning new things, you’ll do just fine wherever you land.