Moving abroad requires some forethought and planning. But there are always things you don’t know…until you get there. In January, I made the move from Florida to Portugal. While I had set up my life to be able to work from anywhere, I was not as well prepared for actually living in Portugal as I could have been. Part of that was because I wasn’t able to make a scouting trip before moving. It turns out I’m not alone in this; a surprising number of people just make the leap. A prior trip isn’t absolutely necessary but it would have helped me to explore some of the areas and I would have had a better feel for the country and how things work here.
So, what should I have done or would I have done differently, knowing what I know now?
The Little Things:
Brought Warmer Clothes. Not that I actually own a lot of “warmer” clothes. I have been living in Florida for the past 30 years. About 90% of the last 20 years I have spent barefoot, in shorts and polo shirts.
“Mild” is a relative climate term. I chose the Algarve region because it is the southernmost region of Portugal and it boasted “mild” winters. And it does, indeed, have mild winters. If you’re coming from New England or the Dakotas or even Scotland. Very few places here have central heat. To be fair, this past winter has been colder than normal. I arrived in the middle of a cold snap and my first Airbnb had a window left open for a couple of weeks, so the cold air had settled in. The apartments in this area are designed to stay cool in the summer. That makes them cold in the winter.
I only brought one pair of warm socks. I own one pair of sweat pants and two slightly warm pairs of pajama bottoms. Soft, warm, comfy clothes are a necessity in the winter. I have slowly been remembering what we did in Massachusetts during the winters—like sit under a quilt or afghan while watching TV. Some days I work from bed because the covers are so cozy warm. (And the apartment is not.) I’ve been away from cold weather for so long, I had forgotten all my early training. It comes back. And for the record, I was only miserable for a week or two. The days are quite beautiful, especially now (March). The nights are chilly but manageable. Even for this wuss.
Thrown out more stuff. I have been here for two and a half months. I have a shopping bag full of paperwork. So far I have pulled two file folders out of it. That was today. I have a 5’ x 5’ storage unit back in the States. So far I haven’t needed a thing from there. I brought perhaps a dozen dress shirts, of which I have worn three. This could be because Portugal has been on lockdown since I got here and there’s no place to go except for the grocery store. Shops and restaurants are slowly opening up over the next month so I will see if my wardrobe starts getting more varied. So far, it’s been t-shirts and sweats, and a pair of jeans.
Joined more ex-pat groups/participated in ex-pat Meetups. I went to my first ex-pat Meetup via Zoom a couple of weeks ago and I was surprised by how many people were there who had not yet moved to Portugal. You don’t have to be in country to join some Meetup groups. Before Covid, Meetup didn’t allow more than one online meeting a month. The idea behind Meetup is that people get to meet each other in person; you create a more solid connection. With Covid, they were forced to allow online meetings. I am pretty sure they will not go back to only in-person meetings once the world is vaccinated. So, if you haven’t moved yet, take advantage of virtual Meetups.
I joined two ex-pat Facebook groups in the months before I left, but I should have joined more. I found one group that is specifically for American ex-pats and it is a treasure trove of information that helps you work your way through the paperwork of getting settled here. That particular group has helped me more than the other three, but they all offer friendship, support, and advice. You will find resources in all of them, so join more than two. Make sure at least one is for the specific town or city you plan to live in.
Applied for My NIF. I didn’t know it at the time, but I could have applied for a tax identification number (NIF) before I arrived. You need a NIF to do anything with money here—open a bank account, register a car, rent an apartment, buy a house, sign a mobile phone contract.
To get the NIF, you need to have a fiscal representative, a Portuguese citizen or in many cases an attorney, who advises you on your tax obligations, annual reports if necessary, formal paperwork, and things of that nature. While there is no charge for the number and the card itself is under €10, if you don’t speak fluent Portuguese or if you’re not yet established, it’s much easier to hire out the process. Don’t overpay. Since I did not know anyone in Portugal, I paid a company about $85, which some will say is too much. I have heard of other people paying hundreds of dollars. The convenience, speed of service, and the assurance that it would be done right made it worth it for me.
Opened a Bank Account. You don’t have to do this before you arrive, but it is one less thing to do when you get here. If you are applying for residency, you need to have an account with a Portuguese bank. Covid has made it more difficult to open an account, but many of the banks have an online process or a hybrid online/in person process. Again, you will need your NIF to do this.
Renewed My Passport. You have to have six months minimum left on your passport to get your D7 (residency) visa. I had eight months left on mine when I arrived. I was reluctant to renew it in the States because the State Department said it was only issuing/renewing passports in “life or death situations” and that the process could take “several months.” I didn’t want to risk sending my passport in and then not getting it back in time to leave or in time to send to the Portuguese Embassy in DC to get my visa stamped in it. I knew I could renew it at the Embassy in Lisbon when the time came.
My residency permit appointment is set for mid- April, three months after I have arrived and mere weeks before my visa expires. It will probably be postponed. (Portugal has extended all visas through December 31st due to the Covid delays.) But that means my passport will not have enough time left on it to qualify for residency. No problem, I thought. I’ll run up to Lisbon and get it renewed in person. But Covid. The Embassy in Lisbon is only accepting mail-in renewals. Now I have the lovely conundrum of walking around without my passport for three weeks in a foreign country or not having it renewed in time for the appointment. To further complicate things, I don’t have ready access to mail being delivered at this Airbnb. I’d rather pick it up in person. I haven’t figured this out yet. I strongly suspect my residency appointment is going to be postponed until sometime in July. In the meantime, the lockdown is gradually being lifted. With luck, I will be able to go to the Embassy in person, give the information for the renewal, and be allowed to keep my old passport until the new one is ready.
All this could have been avoided by renewing my passport a year before it was up. Don’t be me on this one.
Gained a better working knowledge of the language. I had Portuguese lessons. I listened to hours of them. Anything I knew flew right out of my head the minute I needed to speak. Fortunately for me, I am in a tourist area where most people speak English. I don’t know how many people are able to learn a language just by listening to lessons on their own. I think self-study courses are good but you really need to practice speaking with native speakers. You can join an online class that basically forces you to form sentences and have a real conversation rather than parrot back a phrase you just heard. For me, because I am self-conscious, I am re-dedicating myself to my self-study course and then I will join an online class. With real people. Gulp.
To be honest, there are many ex-pats who have been here for years who can’t say anything much beyond “how much” and “please,” and “thank you.” I confess that when the grocery checkout clerk tells me how much to pay, I just use my card and say thank you. I have no idea what I spent until I look at the receipt. That is probably not the best way to handle my money. Since I have to be able to carry everything I buy in my two Trader Joe’s bags, I can’t do too much damage. But still. I’m a guest in this country. I need to make the effort to learn the language. It will also make me feel more confident in my every day dealings.
What one thing would I have brought with me that I didn’t?
This is really trite, but for sure I would have brought as much Peet’s Major Dickason’s Blend coffee as I could fit in my suitcases. This is most likely a Covid-related issue. I use regular ground coffee, not the K-Cups which are everywhere. Finding decent ground coffee in the grocery stores has just not happened. I know Portugal has great coffee. The few times I have been able to buy coffee out, at pastelerias (of course the one word of Portuguese I know is for pastries!) or restaurants, it’s been great. I can buy Starbucks here in K-Cup form. I’m not a big fan of Starbucks but it would definitely be an improvement over what’s available. I just can’t bring myself to use all those environmentally unfriendly plastic cups. There is a coffee roasting company on the east side of town. I am definitely checking it out when they are allowed to open up. In the meantime, I am boosting my caffeine consumption with a cup of tea each afternoon.
There are probably a dozen other things that I should have done or brought with me. But considering how much I didn’t know when I made the jump (and most likely how much I still don’t know), the transition has been fairly easy. There are some foods I miss. The Airbnb kitchens are small, usually a six foot strip with a microwave, sink, stove/oven and no counter space to do anything. When I get my long-term apartment, I’ll have more room and likely eat a little healthier or at least have more variety than the chicken and rice routine I have settled into. (I will also be looking for an apartment with central heat!)
The more you can do before you leave, the easier your transition will be. Some people rent an apartment long term or even buy a house, sight unseen. That’s more risk than I am willing to take. But taking care of as much paperwork in advance as you can will save you some anxiety once you’re here. And if you’re a caffeine addict like I am, bring a supply. Trust me on this.