The love affair between Americans and their cars is well-documented. The culture of the US is constant movement and getting your driver’s license is seen as a rite of passage. A car equals freedom. It’s the call of the open road. Get your kicks on Route 66. Every Beach Boys song. It’s not surprising that people want to bring their cars with them when they move to Portugal. It represents a major investment. But should you bring your car to Portugal?
There’s a stunning array of transportation options available for the resident and savvy traveler, alike. Teehee!
The short answer is no.
By all accounts, importing your car is a lengthy, expensive process. You have to change out your lights to the EU approved configuration (not just the bulbs, the entire light assembly, including wiring in fog lights). The car needs to be stock, as delivered from the factory. You must have owned your car for at least six months before moving to Portugal and you have to keep it for at least a year after. If you have an electric vehicle, you need to make sure you have the correct charging port for the EU. You might find it hard or impossible to get parts for your car here.
There are stiff import fees and taxes. Now add shipping charges on top of that.
If your vehicle is large, prepare to scrape your sides. Many of the roads are narrow, with cars parked on either side. There’s a reason why you don’t many see Ford F-150s (forget about the 250!) or huge SUVs; they’re simply don’t fit. I have been here for over a year. I have seen exactly one Hummer.
Fuel prices are much higher here, too. Americans are whining about rising gas prices, but US gas prices are still lower than Europe’s. Small, fuel efficient cars are the way to go here. Many cars are hybrid and electric cars are common.
Do You Even Need a Car?
Of course the answer is “It depends.”
Most of the cities and towns have public buses. The train system here is fantastic: clean, reliable, fast. You can get monthly train and bus passes and there are special deals for kids, students, and those over 65.
I had been using Ubers to go back and forth to Tavira for my grocery shopping and for some social activities. The Uber drivers work on a thin margin (Uber takes 25% of their fee) and when gas prices rose, most of the Uber drivers did the math and realized they couldn’t make money. So Ubers have been thin on the ground here. In the past month, I have been unable to get an Uber more often than I could get one. Now that tourist season is just about here, the Ubers will be back. For the record, if you can’t get an Uber, you won’t find a Bolt driver, either. Most of the drivers are registered with both services.
So, no Uber? I call a taxi. It’s a few Euro more per trip but even in a smaller city like Tavira, the taxis are plentiful. If you are in a larger city or tourist area, you will have plenty of options.
I can also hoof it into or from town, but it’s a long walk when you’re carrying groceries. My next option is a bicycle. Many people here have electric bikes but I am, of course, leaning towards the old fashioned bike with a front basket like you see in 1940s British movies. Okay, maybe a little more modern. First I need to see if I can still stay on a bike. It’s been (ahem) years.
If you are moving to a rural area, you will need a car or vehicle of some sort. While a two or three mile walk into town sounds healthy (it is), it will get old really fast. If you have kids who need to get to school, if you need to go to work or just want to travel around at your convenience on a daily or weekly basis, buy a car. New or used is up to you.
You are better off buying from a dealer here, especially if you don’t know the system yet. You don’t need to have changed over to your Portuguese driver’s license (that is a process in and of itself) but you will need to have your NIF (tax ID number, which is different from a social security number) and a Portuguese address. The dealer will help you with the VAT fees, registration, insurance, and any other fees. In addition, all dealers are obligated to provide a one-year warranty (at minimum). You can find a good, quick primer on buying a car in Portugal here.
You can also rent if you only need a car from time to time. Off-season (October or November to May) rates are sometimes ridiculously low. In summer, the pendulum swings back: Prices are higher and cars are sometimes scarce. You do need to document every ding and scratch on the car before you take it off the lot. Some of the companies are notorious for trying to stick you with a damage fee. The expat forums are your friends here. The people in those groups will tell you which companies are the best to rent from and which to avoid.
Almost all the cars here are manual transmission. If you don’t know how to drive a stick, you can find automatic transmission cars, but they are scarce and more expensive, whether you are buying or renting. Driving a stick is easy—once you figure out how to get through first gear.
On the plus side, we drive on the right here, just like the US. The roundabouts may throw you at first but once you get the hang of them, you’ll appreciate the logic and efficiency of the system. Insurance is relatively cheap. It depends on the value of the car, of course, but friends have reported that their car insurance is around €500 per year. (I am fuzzy on this, but it’s cheap.)
When should you bring your car to Portugal?
If you have an amazing, valuable, one-of-a-kind, elite edition, incredibly expensive, can’t live without it car, then yes, sure, fine. Bring it. If you have money to burn, bring it. If you love headaches and paperwork, bring it.
If you’re not attached to your car, sell it in the States and buy something over here. If you are attached to your car, sell it and buy something over here. It’s a car, not your first-born.
If you are otherwise-abled and have had your car specially modified so you can drive it, it is definitely worth checking to see if you can bring your car to Portugal. You may or may not be able to import the vehicle, depending on modifications made. However, if you can bring it in, you may be able to get an exemption from certain fees, import and yearly. For something like this, I would retain someone in country to make sure you can import the vehicle and to take you through the process.
Quick Note: Individuals moving to Portugal can request an exemption (for one car only) on vehicle tax if they meet certain requirements. You have to request the exemption within twelve months of residing in Portugal. Be aware that while this will save you on the actual vehicle tax, there are still other expenses and fees that you will end up paying.
Where the Rubber Hits the Road
You may not need your own car in Portugal, depending on where you live and how much driving you do. When I lived in Florida, my car sat unused three or four days a week. I worked from home there. I work from home here.
There are definitely times when I miss having a car. It’s frustrating to have to wait 20 minutes for an Uber, but sometimes, that’s just the deal. (Remember, I am in a small village outside of a small city. If you’re in Lisbon, Porto, or other major city, car hires will be more plentiful.) If I go to Faro or Vilamoura, getting there involves Ubers or taxis to the train station and sometimes changing trains. There’s a dead time mid-day when the trains don’t run back and forth between Tavira and Faro, so I have to factor that in or cool my heels at the station. If I had a car, I would most likely do more exploring of nearby towns. It’s more fun to do that with a friend or two, so maybe I wouldn’t be getting out as often as I think. But, I’d also have the freedom to go visit friends instead of having them drive over to see me.
But for the most part, I don’t have a great need for a car. I go into town twice a week on average. That runs about €20 to €30 per week. When I add up the cost of fuel, maintenance, insurance, and parking, I am coming out ahead, even without factoring the actual cost of the car.
Eventually, I may buy a used car to get back and forth to town for groceries and such. But summer is coming. I think I’ll try out the bike first.