Tuesday marked my second anniversary in Portugal. It has been two years of learning and getting accustomed to not knowing things and being okay with that. Moving to a new country—especially when you don’t speak the language—is humbling to say the least. But it’s also stimulating, fun, surprising, and without a doubt, the best thing I have ever done for myself.
First Things First
My first eight months were given over to finding my way around and preparing myself for my SEF (immigration) appointment. Getting the D7 visa is Step One. Once you are in Portugal, you meet with SEF (the appointment is set up when you get your visa). They go through all your paperwork, give the final approval on your residency, then issue your official residency ID. All I knew when I arrived was that I needed to “check in” with SEF. Not even close; it’s a formal appointment. My appointment was set for April and it was postponed (due to COVID) to the end of September, which gave me time to do all the things I should have done by April: Find long term housing (12 month lease in my case), renew my passport, get my NIF (a finance number, but not a social security number), open a bank account, and get my health insurance lined up. You now need to do all these things in order to get the D7 visa. My SEF appointment went so smoothly that I was reluctant to tell other expats about it. Everyone’s experience varies, depending on the office, the agent, and possibly time of day. While my agent only wanted to see my lease, NIF, and passport, other people have to provide every last piece of paper. (And believe me, I had every last piece of paper with me, in duplicate.)
There was so much I didn’t know about the visa and residency process. I felt my way through, baby step by baby step. The expat groups I found on Facebook were amazingly helpful. It seems scary and confusing while you are going through the process but when you look back, you realize it wasn’t that complicated. You just were in a learning situation. There are a lot of learning situations when you move to a new country.
Breathe, Then Scramble Again
Once I had my residency appointment finished, I was able to breathe for a couple of months—until I found out I had to change over my driver’s license within three months of getting residency or I’d have to go through taking a driver’s test (in Portuguese). As long as you start the process within three months, you are in the system. I managed to get a doctor’s appointment (they send a certificate to the IMT, Portugal’s version of the DMV, that says you’re probably not crazy or seizure prone) and I sent in some online form. In the middle of doing this, the rules for license exchanges changed. If you’re under 60, you can drive on your US (or UK or whatever country) license until it expires. Unfortunately, I had made it as far as an in-person appointment where I turned in my US license and paperwork. Things were all set until they weren’t. The paperwork requirement changed in the 30 days between my getting a temporary license and my permanent license being printed. So, now I’m in limbo. I redid and submitted the paperwork. I extended my temporary license. If I go back to the States, I can’t rent a car. I’m not sure if I can even drive in the States. My temporary license expires in February. If I don’t have a permanent one by then, I can contact a woman who may be able to speed up the process.
In the meantime, I have become accustomed to the local bus system. I’m happy to hop a train and really, need to do so more often. Using public transportation involves a lot of down time—you are waiting for buses and trains or, in the case of school, I have a two hour wait from the time the bus drops me until classes start. I carry a book with me. I have my notebook and write. Sometimes I meet up with a friend for coffee. School gets out an hour or so after the last bus has run for the night. I usually walk home (about 30 minutes) and get my steps in. The few times it has been rainy or cold, the couple in my class from South Africa have generously offered a ride. (They are lovely.)
This week may finally be the week I buy a scooter to get back and forth to school and the supermarkets. Having the scooter will save me hours of wait time and allow me to do my “big shopping” without breaking my back carrying the groceries to the bus station. It will also allow me to explore some of the little towns around here that I pass while on the train to Faro. Eventually, I may buy a car, but so far, there hasn’t been a huge need for one. Before I do, you can be sure I’ll take a few lessons from the local driving school—I haven’t driven a car in two years.
Oh, boy! My first anniversary also brought with it the next learning curve: figuring out Portuguese taxes. I applied online for NHR (Non Habitual Resident) status which gives some sort of tax break. All I really know is that I don’t pay double taxes for 10 years. I have a Portuguese accounting firm that I am not super confident of, but they file my Portuguese taxes. I do my own US taxes, or at least I do my best and let the IRS tell me where I screwed up. For one brief moment I knew if you paid US taxes first or Portuguese taxes first. I have forgotten and can only hope that I wrote it down. I’m pretty sure it’s US only because that has to be filed by April and Portuguese taxes have until the end of May or June.
Last year, I only had to report my last quarter of earnings to Portugal because my official residency start was in November. This year is the first full year. And so, for my second anniversary in Portugal, I will learn more about how it all works. (Yay?) I may end up forming a US corporation again to create distributions as well as earnings because they are taxed differently and it may financially be advantageous to do so. I don’t know. That’s going to be conversations with accountants here and in the US. I suspect taxes are going to be my big learning curve this year.
You’re going to meet people, and perhaps meet up with them a few times for lunch or coffee or drinks. They may stick or not. Don’t take it personally. There are some people you will “click” with and some that you are just thrown together with in the moment, that shared expat experience. I’ve been picked up and dropped and that’s just someone who realized that we weren’t a good fit.
It’s easier if you are outgoing, of course. One lady I met because she posted that she was new in town and if anyone wanted to meet her for a drink, show up at this place at this time. I did. There were three of us. She and I seem to get on just fine. The other lady had come over from another town and so, was not a geographical fit. You will find your people. Right now, I don’t have any Portuguese people as friends. I know many from the village, but we are acquaintances, not yet friends. I hope to expand my circle of friends beyond expats and native English speakers. Which brings us to…
Learning the Language
I enrolled in the state-sponsored Portuguese class. It is run like regular night school. We meet two nights a week for two and a half hours. Our class is about 40% American (US and Canadian), followed by Brits and Italians, the lovely couple from South Africa, a gentleman from India, and a Swiss lady for good measure. We’re a motley crew with little talent for language and a healthy capacity for laughing at ourselves. I feel like I am not learning very much or very quickly, but then I notice I am picking out more words in conversations and starting to put full sentences together. At the end of the year, we will be rewarded with a certificate that we can use to help us qualify for Portuguese citizenship. But already classmates are talking about continuing on with the next level of classes next year. It’s a commitment: nine months of twice-a-week classes. While we are there for the certificate, we sincerely want to be able to speak Portuguese.
Two Years In
My second anniversary in Portugal marks a bit of a turning point. I have been through an entire cycle of living: a year’s worth of weather in my semi-permanent location, a year of regular doctor and dentist appointments, school, finances, lunches with new friends, visits from old friends. A year of normal living in my new country. A year of settling in. My first year I felt very much like a pinball, rocketing from flipper to bumper, pinging off targets, ringing bells, and really, scrambling from one fire drill to the next. Year two was definitely more relaxed: less official paperwork, no emergencies, much less anxiety. I know how to navigate the area I live in, I have my favorite coffee shops and restaurants, the grocery store no longer induces low-level anxiety. I figured out how to dry my sheets with only one clothes rack. (#winning!) I did a little traveling and hope to do more. I am familiar with what paperwork needs to be filed when.
Year two was about laying the foundation; year three will be about building my new life. I’ve set the baseline and now it is time to not just build up and out, but to send roots down. There is still a ton of stuff for me to learn. I have skimmed across the surface of a lot of things like the medical system, the language, and taxes, doing “as needed” learning, just enough to keep even. Now it’s time to work ahead of the curve. But I also know that there is no need to rush, to be frantic about things. If Portugal has taught me anything, it’s that everything gets done… in its own time. I’m good with that.