Moving abroad has a ton of moving parts and in some cases, the requirements you have to meet before qualifying to move (i.e., getting a visa) involve some financial risk. As much as you try to time events out to be as frictionless as possible, there will be duplicate expenses, hold ups, red tape, wasted trips and periods of waiting where you can’t get an answer and pushing for one won’t help. Sometimes you will just have to trust that things will work out.
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
For many people, living abroad has been a long-held dream. We’ve all gone someplace on vacation and imagined what it might be like to live there full-time. Or we’ve seen places in movies or on TV that just resonate with us.
Movies and vacations, of course, don’t reflect the reality of day-to-day life. I remind myself that Diane Lane’s character in Under the Tuscan Sun must have had pretty good financial backing to buy that villa and cover the costs of renovations while wandering around picturesque villages. (The character didn’t and there’s your fantasy right there.)
The first decision is landing on where you might like to live. For some, their ancestry leads them to a particular country. For others, it’s a matter of climate or resources or even familiarity. Once you think you know where you want to live, it’s time to start investigating whether you can make it a reality or not.
The Viability of Actually Moving There
I had known I wanted to live in Europe for decades. It was on my life goals list. My first thought was Italy, though I had a childhood hankering for Scotland, too. A trip to Scotland in May 2001 took it off the list. Beautiful? Absolutely. Cold? Colder than a witch’s heart. Memories of bone-aching chill from my New England childhood returned and just like that, farewell to the Highlands for anything more than a summer visit. I needed a warm climate. That knocked out a lot of Europe. (I’m a wuss. What can I say?)
I can apply for Italian residency if I do a ton of paperwork, including digging up my grandparents’ immigration documents and my father’s birth certificate, as well as learning Italian and having certain income and assets. While I was investigating that move, Italy made it a bit more difficult to get in, upping the requirements for income and reserves. I may have qualified, but my self-employment income is sometimes a bit of a rollercoaster and the pandemic wasn’t helping. I decided to look elsewhere.
I bought a subscription to a glossy expat magazine and read the articles which seemed mostly geared to selling real estate as an investment for expats. But one of the countries in Europe that kept getting good reviews was Portugal. I fixated on that. It seemed to have what I was looking for: warm climate, a lower cost of living including inexpensive private health care, part of the EU, ocean(!), and reliable wifi.
Portugal may not be a viable choice for you. As with everything, the more money you have, the more options you have. I would imagine with enough money you could end up on an island without wifi and manage to have a private satellite set up. If you’re still working or addicted to the internet, living somewhere without wifi will not work well for you. The same if you need specialized health care for a specific condition, if you need people to speak English as a first language, if you need to work as opposed to being fully retired or independently wealthy. Some people want to be able to get back to family members within a certain amount of time—whether that’s five hours or three days. Everyone’s needs are different and some things are deal breakers. You can make rapid, sweeping cuts from your list of possible countries by knowing what your baseline must-haves are. Other countries, quite frankly, will eliminate you. For example, if you have been convicted of a crime in the US that would carry at least a one-year prison sentence in Portugal, you won’t get in. Other countries might look at mitigating circumstances or how long ago the conviction was. Don’t worry, you will still have lots of countries to choose from.
Take a Scouting Trip
I planned a scouting trip in the summer of 2020. Yeah. So that didn’t work out. I learned as much about Portugal as I could online, watched YouTube videos, read books, and found out how to apply for a long term stay visa. I think I was encouraged watching videos of others who had made the jump. While I highly recommend making a scouting trip (or several), I didn’t have that luxury. Right now, you do. Take advantage of that.
Once you’ve decided on a country and you’ve put together your list of requirements, it’s time to see the place up close and personal. That means don’t book a week at a resort. Plan at least two weeks, but longer is better. Book Airbnbs in areas that look like they might be right for your needs. You want to experience living in the area which means finding the grocery store, cooking your own meals, exploring the neighborhood, checking out public transit, and yes, figuring out the washing machine. All the day-to- day stuff that you don’t do on vacations. Of course you will eat out and do touristy stuff. But scouting trips should give you a feel for day-to-day living.
Do try to set up coffee meetings with expats who now live in the areas you are interested in. The Facebook expat groups are great for this. Try to give people more than a day’s notice. I see people post, “Hey, we’re going to be in The Algarve. Who wants to have coffee?” The Algarve is good sized. Give people specifics. What city will you be in? When? You can also check to see if any Meetups are happening when you’re in the area. I’ve met most of the people I know here through a women’s lunch group. So network while you’re scouting.
Try to hit several different areas on your trip. When I went to Italy last year, we started in Rome, went to Florence and ended in Milan. Even though we only spent a few days in each place, I knew that Florence was the spot I wanted to spend more time in. A place will resonate with you or it won’t. It’s the kind of intel you only get when you have feet on the ground.
Documentation probably freaked me out the most. I had a checklist from VFS Global, which processes visa requests for Portugal, making sure everything is in order before it is sent to the Embassy. (And yes, they process for other countries, too.) When I first looked at the list, it was confusing and seemed like it would take forever to assemble.
I decided to take it one step at a time. Fingerprinting was the most involved step and it takes the most amount of time. I started with that, knowing that I could assemble the other documents while my FBI report was processing. As it turns out, the documentation is just a matter of gathering information and organizing it. The hardest thing for me to figure out was what a notarized copy of my passport was. I merely had to make a color copy of the passport and then have a notary stamp it. I got confused because I went to one of those check cashing places to get documents notarized and they said they couldn’t notarize a passport which I took to mean that NO ONE could notarize a passport. It was a company policy. I found a mobile notary who didn’t even blink.
If you start hitting overwhelm on the documentation, just do one thing. I had to translate the application form as I went and some of it was confusing. I filled out what I could and then, on a new day, I went back in and figured out the rest. Some days you can’t even. Recognize that, don’t beat your head against the wall. Do what you can, leave the stuff you can’t (yet) do for when you are fresh.
Getting fingerprinted was a process. You apply online, pay a fee, receive a confirmation number (which isn’t called a confirmation number, of course), take that number to a post office that does electronic fingerprinting (DON’T try to book that online—just go. I wasted days trying to get someone to answer the phone at a post office branch.). Pay the post office a fee. Then you wait for an envelope to come in the mail, which you do not open, no matter how curious you are.
Once you’ve got all your documentation together, you send it into VFS Global. They check it and send it to the Embassy. Once you’re approved, you Fed Ex your passport to the Embassy, they stick the visa in and Fed Ex it back to you. I did this during COVID when the offices for everything were shut down or operating at minimum staffing. Now I think you actually go to the Embassy, which involves a trip to Washington, DC, San Francisco, or New York.
Every country is going to have a different process. Now that I have done the documentation for Portugal, I feel like I probably would be able to tackle citizenship in Italy if I wanted to. Frankly, I’m good where I am. But the paperwork is no longer scary.
I won’t lie, it’s not cheap to move countries, but you don’t have to be wealthy, either. I’ll have a future post detailing the expenses, but these are some of the costs you’re going to run into:
Visa Expenses: This ran slightly over $700 for me, including a year of private (really shitty) health insurance. I looked at this as the cost of doing business. You need a health policy that includes shipping your body back to the States and the companies that offer this kind of insurance know they have you over a bit of a barrel.
Housing: I had to show that I had a place to stay for at least six months. At the time, you could use Airbnbs, so I set up three separate places for two months each. I paid the first month of each in advance and the second month of each as they occurred. The upfront cost was $1,960. Portugal now requires you to have a one year rental contract in place. That means you are risking having to pay for a place for a year even if your visa isn’t approved. (Actually, less than a year. Portugal leases can be broken at various points.) It could mean that you pay for an apartment that you don’t get to use for the first month or two, if your visa gets delayed. It’s a risk and another reason why I recommend making scouting trips.
Storage: Some people are more than happy to chuck everything when they move. Others aren’t sure what they will need or want in their new country or even if they will end up staying forever. If you’re not sure how successful your transition will be, put your stuff in storage. When you’re going through all your stuff, deciding whether to pay storage on it or not, ask if it is something that is easily and cheaply replaced. I have stuff in my storage that I really should have just donated. However, since I have the absolutely smallest storage space I could rent, having less doesn’t affect the bottom line. My storage runs just under $60 a month. I can ship everything in my storage area over here for about $2,000. I’ve got about a three-year break even period. Some of the stuff I won’t ever bring over. It’s going to be a fun day at the storage center when I make those decisions. Best advice: Throw away as much stuff as you can bear. Then throw away more.
I bought a one-way ticket for just under $400. I got charged for my big suitcase and then I got an extra weight fee on top of that—probably tacked on another $175. Pretty sure I paid twice but that was a fight for another day and another day didn’t come. I had hired a car to pick me up at Faro Airport which was the best thing I could have done. (Thanks to my friend Akasia’s mom, who kept nagging her to tell me to get a driver!) I was so tired and shaky when I arrived that finding a cab would have put me down for the count. The driver was professional, knowledgeable, and lugged my outrageously heavy suitcase up three flights of stairs, opened the lockbox for me, and then opened the door for me. I was that done in. The driver was about $45 including tip.
Moving into my permanent apartment was less expensive for me than it is for a lot of people. I have read stories about people paying three or four months’ rent up front (think first, last, deposit but not). Many landlords have you pay the rent two months in advance. For example, the rent you pay in February is actually for the month of March. Some landlords want six months upfront. (That’s a no.) My landlord took one month deposit and I paid the first month’s rent when I moved in. After reading horror stories in the expat groups, I was convinced I had been scammed for the first four months and that the real owner was going to arrive and kick me out of my apartment. Nope. Just a great landlord. A year later, I’m still here.
You will need to hook up utilities: water, gas, electric, internet. My apartment includes electric and the landlord kept the water and gas in his name. He gives me the bills each month and I pay them. Sometimes he pays them and I pay him. It all gets paid. This saved me the confusion of having to figure out utilities here. If you use a real estate agent to help you find a place, they will usually help you get everything set up. I pay for my own internet and cable, a little under €40 a month. My electric is a flat fee of €50, included in my rent. Water and gas run about €25 max each. If you have a family, live in a big house, run a lot of appliances, or shower eight times a day, your mileage will vary.
My place came furnished, right down to plates and silverware. The kitchen is a mish-mosh of stuff, including a decent set of pots and pans, and three French presses. There were 14 wine glasses, two Sagres beer glasses, and two shot glasses but no real drinking glasses and only two (mismatched) coffee mugs. I don’t know who the former tenant was, but I think I figured out his hobby.
I didn’t have to buy a lot. I purchased a recliner (some assembly required), some kitchen stuff as needed (yes cupcake tins), linens and towels. Once winter hit, I bought two space heaters. I’ll buy a box fan this month knowing that August will be way too hot. If you buy or rent an unfurnished space, prepare to spend some money. IKEA seems to be the fallback here so if you go through their Portuguese website, you can create an approximate budget. Adjust for taste.
If you’re not fully retired, or even partly retired, you will need to earn a living. Good jobs are scarce in Portugal and frankly, they are for the Portuguese people. Portugal welcomes you as long as you’re not taking a food out of someone’s mouth. (There are exceptions, of course, usually high-level and specialized.) Whether you’re on a tight budget or living the good life plan for how you’re going to cover your day-to-day costs.
If you’re still working for a company, you will need a letter saying that they will keep you on as a remote worker. If you work as an independent contractor, you will need to show contract(s) that guarantee you will earn the minimum required to live here. If you are self-employed, you will need bank or tax statements proving your income.
If you’re working for an employer who is not going to allow you to work remotely, you need to either have assets that pay out the equivalent of Portuguese minimum wage or you need remote/online work that brings in that much. No trust fund or nest egg? Work on building up a side hustle that you can do from anywhere. Some side hustles are more realistic than others, but there are really only two main criteria: be able to work from anywhere and bring in more than $850 a month.
Truth be told, you will need more than that to live on. My ongoing expenses hover around €1,300 – €1,400 ($1,370 – 1,475 right now). That doesn’t include my business expenses, storage, and a few stateside bills. If I lived in Lisbon or if I had a car, it would cost more. I don’t live large. I don’t go hungry, either but I’m not golfing a couple times a week or attending a lot of social events. Your discretionary spending is your discretionary spending.
Can you live here on $1,000 a month? Probably. I think it would involve renting a room rather than having your own place or having a housemate. You’d be in a smaller town or out in the country. You’d be limited in your activities, but if you are good with small town life, it probably wouldn’t be a hardship. I think to be comfortable, a single person would need $1,800 to $2,000 a month and a couple at least $2,500. More is always better.
Americans are used to certain conveniences. Portugal has them, of course. You can get a pool home with central heat and air conditioning. You can have a dishwasher and a dryer. But you need to be in the larger cities to have things like food delivery and all night stores. Amazon Prime delivers from Spain, but it’s usually at least two or three days, not next day service. Not every building has an elevator. Just as when you were deciding what country you might want to live in, make a list of requirements for your new home. After months of Airbnbs on the third and fourth floors with no elevators, one of my requirements was ground or first floor. I had already learned I didn’t need a clothes dryer, but I definitely needed a washer. Again, everyone has their own requirements. Having a list will help you when you go house-hunting.
Why Does the Floor Move, Indy?
It helps to know going in that you are walking on shifting sands. Think about the work and planning it takes when you move from one house to another within a limited geographic area. There’s the throwing out and packing, arranging movers, hooking up utilities, getting to know the area, finding new providers for everything.
Add government bureaucracy, a different language, and an ocean, and you’ll wonder how anyone makes the jump to a new country at all. But people do, every day. There are plenty of moving parts involved in moving to a new country but with the proper planning and a bit of patience (okay, a lot of patience), you can do what thousands of US citizens do every year: Make the move to living abroad.
PS: I haven’t even mentioned kids and pets. If you have them, you know to add $$$. But you will also need to think about whether the kids will go to private or public schools, child care perhaps, and any special medical situations they may have. If you have pets, please know that Portugal doesn’t allow certain breeds of dogs and transporting pets can be expensive.