I hit my anniversary this past week, my first year in Portugal. There are times I think “Whatever possessed me?” but those times are few and far between. There were things I knew and expected going in, like I would need to buy private health insurance, but it would be much cheaper than in the US. There were things I knew that I didn’t know, like how I was going to set up my taxes. And then, of course, there were many, many things I did not know that I did not know. Those created some interesting moments of
panic I mean fun. And now I know that there are most likely many more things that I have yet to uncover.
What I didn’t know: The long-stay visa submission process is just the first step of the process. I know that I am not the only one who thought, “Hey, I get through this and I’m in.” Getting the visa gets you into the country for four months. There is an appointment with SEF, Portugal’s immigration agency a few months after your arrival where they examine all your paperwork again and, if it’s in order, you are granted a residency permit for two years with a review for another three years. After that, you can apply to be a citizen (with its own set of challenges).
What I didn’t know I didn’t know: I didn’t know what a NIF was (tax ID number, but not a social security number), much less that I needed one. What I really didn’t know was that I needed a NIF and a funded Portuguese bank account before my SEF appointment. (You now need these just to apply for the visa.) I had the added complication of my passport expiring eight months in which was fine when I applied for the visa. But my SEF appointment was set for three months after my arrival and my passport needed to have at least six months left on it. I knew I would have to get my passport renewed; I didn’t know how much COVID would interrupt the normal process nor did I know just how difficult it would be to have something delivered to an Airbnb when you don’t have access to the mailbox. My first three Airbnbs were not delivery friendly, either by mail or delivery service. (The first place didn’t even have a street number, though residents seemed to get their mail. I don’t know how.)
What I didn’t know: The requirements for residency change from time to time and seemingly from office to office. The Facebook expat groups are filled with people reporting back on their visa (through the embassies in the US) and SEF (in Portugal) appointments, what they were asked for, what problems they ran into, etc. Some people needed every last bit of paperwork for SEF and the appointment was lengthy and intimidating. Others, like me, were only asked for a few documents and breezed through.
What I learned: Take every piece of paper with you every time you deal with any government agency. You don’t know what you’ll be asked for and having it with you will save you a refusal or a return trip.
What I knew: I knew I needed to have at least a one-year lease in place when I had my SEF appointment. When I applied for my visa, the requirement was six months of accommodations and you could use Airbnbs and hotels. That changed. Visa applicants now need a one-year lease in place before they apply. That’s a pretty big leap of faith. Some people are renting places sight unseen; others are making scouting trips and trying to negotiate leases that will start several months in the future. It’s a financial risk and many people consider the few months where they may be paying for a place but not living in it as part of the cost of getting their visa.
What I didn’t know: Finding long term (annual) housing in The Algarve close to the summer season is very difficult. Tourist season is where everyone makes their money—restaurants, hotels, shopkeepers, landlords. You can find a lot of rentals from October to May, but finding a year round rental is tougher. It’s not impossible by any means, but it’s better to have your lease renewal come up mid-winter rather than spring/summer.
What I learned: Use a real estate agent to find your apartment. In Portugal, real estate agents aren’t exclusive on the buyers’ side. They only show the listings (rental and sales) that are in their brokerage. People who are buying or renting will work with several agents simultaneously. That’s very different from the US where your agent is the only one showing you properties, no matter who listed them. My agent supplied a copy of my lease in English as well as negotiated with the landlord for me. My landlord speaks some English—more than I speak Portuguese—and we have a conversation each month when he comes by for the rent and drops the utility bills. But the agent was key to making both of us feel comfortable with the transaction.
What I didn’t know I didn’t know: Along with the normal first, last, and deposit, many landlords collect the rent up front for the following month. That means the payment you make at the beginning of February is for March. So you pay first, second, last, and deposit—usually the equivalent of four months’ rent upfront. Many times, the landlord will ask you to have a local (citizen) guarantor for payment. As usual, I was amazingly lucky and only paid a deposit and the first month. Because of this, I was convinced for the first three months that I had been scammed and I kept expecting the “real” landlord to knock on the door and kick me out. Nope. My lease is registered with Finanças and it’s all legit. I suspect my landlord has been in the business long enough to figure out that SEF can do a better background check on tenants than he can.
What I didn’t know: I didn’t know how expats handle their taxes but I knew I would figure it out when the time came. There’s a special agreement between Portugal and the United States (NHR—Non-Habitual Residents) where you are not subjected to double taxation. I still don’t know how that works. I do know that I have to qualify (only certain professions qualify) and register for it before March 31st of the year after I attain residency.
What I learned: For this, you hire an accountant because you do NOT want to try to navigate the Portuguese tax system (equally as convoluted as the US tax system) using Google translate. Here, again, the Facebook expat groups will have recommendations for accountants (as well as attorneys, doctors, cleaners, airport transfers, EVERYTHING) for you.
What I still don’t know: How to register online as a self-employed person and then how to record my invoices. I know I have to record them; I don’t know the how. It’s not difficult—I know that much. I just haven’t found the proper places on the Finanças site yet. That’s my job this week.
What I don’t know that I don’t know: Oh, boy! Let’s just say that I don’t WANT to know what I don’t know that I don’t know, but I DO know that I will find out, for better or worse. (Sometimes I make sentences just for me.)
The Facebook Expat Groups
What I didn’t know. Just how helpful these groups can be. I joined one Facebook expat group before coming here; I should have joined more. I had no idea how many there were, some specialized by nationality (Americans & Friends Portugal is the be-all and end-all of information for American expats), and some by location (Lisbon, Algarve, Silver Coast, etc.) These groups are a treasure trove of information… and misinformation. But they are great resources for all sorts of questions and a place to meet people. There are expat Meetups which as an introvert, I encourage you to check out. (Yep, you read that right.) Due to COVID, in-person Meetups are fewer in number but the weather is good enough for outdoor functions. I have not gone to ANY Meetups, partly due to COVID, partly because I live in a small village. It’s important to reach out and make friends in a new country, even if that’s not your usual M.O. You need to start building a network, online and offline, especially if you have moved here solo.
Heads Up: Everything Takes Longer than You Expect
No, it’s not “manana time” or laziness; it’s you. Unless you are fluent in Portuguese and have visited before, you have to learn how to navigate life all over again.
I didn’t know that grocery shopping would raise my anxiety levels into the red zone for the first few months. Grocery shopping, when you can’t read the labels will take three times as long. There are a lot of people (all masked, but still) and because you are taking longer to figure out what the hell you’re looking at, you’re acutely aware that you are probably in someone’s way, even when you aren’t. And every grocery store smells like fish. Dried cod is a staple here and there are piles of it in every store. I don’t like fish. Let’s just say I gained a new appreciation for wearing masks.
You won’t be able to find certain items mostly because the packaging is different. Hot dogs come in glass jars; baking soda in packets. Eggs are not refrigerated. Things are organized differently. You will be surprised by the random US brands you do find and you will need to learn new brands. By the way, you bag your own groceries so bring your own bags. If you don’t have any, they are available at a nominal charge.
What I learned: Not to make myself crazy worrying that I’m holding up the line as I bag my groceries. Everyone does. No one is mad at you or huffing and puffing in resentment. I also learned that my little village market with its narrow aisles has a fantastic butcher counter. I am trying to rely more on the little family-owned, local shops than the big chain supermarkets.
Pro Tip: Just because you found something at the store one week doesn’t mean you will find it there again. When you find something you like, pick up a few extra.
What I learned: Navigating any part of the bureaucracy involves at least two visits, sometimes more. Most of the people in these jobs are older and speak some English, but not a lot. You shouldn’t expect them to. In order to make an appointment at Finanças, I have to go to the Finanças office in the next town over, stand in line, make an appointment, and come back at the set time and date. Any place you visit like that—the post office, hospital/clinics, banks, pharmacies, etc.—has a machine at the door where you take a number, just like the deli counter at your local supermarket. The trick is that there are different numbering systems for what you want. At the post office, you can get a number for the postal line or for the banking side of it. The doctor’s office has a choice for people with appointments, people without, and people who want to pay. I still end up with the wrong type of ticket most times.
I have learned to translate a few simple sentences about what I need into Portuguese before these appointments and print them out to take with me. I start with, “Please excuse me, I don’t speak very much Portuguese.” Then I say my practiced words. Between that and their English and basic gesturing, things get done.
Random Things I Did Not Know:
- There really aren’t that many people here from the US. All told, there are about 5,000 in a country of 10 million. There are tons of Brits, some Canadians, many, many Brazilians. I heard more American accents in the first few hours in Florence than I have heard in my village in six months.
- Automatic transmissions are few and far between. Not a problem for me, but if you don’t drive a stick, you should learn.
- Just how pricy shipping internationally is. (Yikes!) DHL seems to have the best rates. On top of the shipping fees, anything coming into Portugal from outside the EU gets stuck in customs. You are taxed on anything valued at over €20 at a rate of 23% and your stuff can get stuck there for weeks and months. Friends kept trying to send me stuff (Peets coffee), but only one package made it through. That was sent US postal service with the option to be held at my local post office. It could be the way to go; it could have been a fluke. We can get just about everything here from Amazon Spain and Germany (EU countries) without dealing with Customs.
- I really don’t need a lot of stuff. I felt terrible having my poor airport driver carry my heavy suitcase up three flights of stairs when I first arrived. Then I saw “airport pickup porn” in the expat groups. People show up with 15 to 20 suitcases, kids, the family pets, bicycles, golf clubs, you name it. I came with a big suitcase, a small suitcase, and my computer bag. I am glad I didn’t bring a lot of stuff. You’d be amazed how much stuff you don’t “need” when you don’t have it. Even with my limited wardrobe, I still have several blouses, most of my shoes, and a pair of pants I haven’t worn. I don’t get out much.
- I had no idea how comfortable I would feel here, while still being uncomfortable. I am aware I am a stranger here: I don’t speak the language, I don’t have a social circle (yet). While I don’t really fit in, I feel so at home here. I love the pace and the scale of things. I am more content here than I have been for a long time.
Things I wish I had done:
- The Big One: I wish I had focused more on learning Portuguese before I got here—at least some rudimentary Portuguese. Ten lessons of Pimsleur does not do it. I also had the Michel Thomas courses which focus on grammar and structure. Very helpful, but not enough vocabulary. One of the best sites to learn is Practice Portuguese (€15/month). It gives a lesson, teaches vocabulary and spelling (which helps you with pronunciation). It also has video of native Portuguese speakers saying phrases to help you train your ears. My goal this year is to be able to hold a real conversation in Portuguese. That whole “immersion” thing is bullshit. You’ll drown. Study the language.
- Joined expat groups on Facebook so I would have had a better understanding of what I needed to do when I got here. Only COVID delays saved my butt on things like having my passport renewed and setting up my NIF and bank account.
- Brought more Peets coffee. There are very few things I can’t get here and I am getting used to new brands, but I miss my Peets. Fortunately, friends have sent and brought care packages for me.
Thoughts on My First Year in Portugal
I feel as if I should be further along with my new life than I am. Some of that delay is due to COVID. Portugal had major lockdowns which limited restaurant dining, meetings, and travel. It also delayed my residency appointment, and, while my visa was extended, I wasn’t sure of my ability to travel in and out of the country on it after the initial period had expired, so I stayed put.
My biggest disappointment in myself is my lack of ability to speak or understand Portuguese. I feel like this is my next best step to take (after getting taxes set up, of course). I want to be able to converse intelligently with my Portuguese neighbors and to catch the jokes and the local news. Learning the language will take some discipline (definitely not my strong suit), but I am motivated, so let’s hope that will help.
Without a doubt, I am absolutely thrilled that I made this move. I totally lucked out just in choosing Portugal. I had never been, but it fit my parameters. It could be a little warmer in winter, but the days are sunny and warm enough. I actually like the cool temps when it comes to taking walks. Florida heat is relentless and the humidity, while great for your skin, can be suffocating. Right now, the air is crisp with temperatures in the mid 60s. (Yeah, I haven’t converted to Centigrade yet.)
I moved here to have a base to explore Europe from, and even with the pandemic, I have managed to get to Spain (yes, Costco counts!!) and Italy. I am attending a conference in Madrid in June and a comedy show in Inverness in May. I hope to return to Scotland in August with a friend. All of this, of course, is dependent on how the pandemic treats the world. But if I can’t leave the country, I still have the entire country of Portugal to discover. And, as it turns out, I am quite content in my own little village, too.