Life in PortugalMoving to Portugal From The US: Top Things To Consider Before A Move

So you have decided to move to Portugal from America?

Clearly you are not in your right mind because, after all, who in their right mind would take on such a stressful, overwhelming task of uprooting themselves from their home, their family, their friends, their trusted way of life to supplant themselves in a foreign culture where everything?

And I mean everything is different and you don’t speak the language.

Thinking of moving to Portugal from US? Consider this

portugal flag

This is a huge undertaking and for some, there may be no going back for a variety of reasons not the least of which is cost.

I’m surprised by the number of people who take on such a huge undertaking based on a whim.

They read a bit of journalistic illusion and Rick Steves’ hyperbole and ran out and bought their house in the country.

Here are my thoughts and suggestions for anyone thinking about immigrating to Portugal or anywhere for that matter.

1. Visit Portugal a few times before making a final decision

Lisbon, Portugal

To begin even thinking about giving up your home, your family, your friends, possibly even your livelihood, you should visit the country first to see if there is compatibility.

Seems reasonable right? I’m surprised that there are a number of people who emigrate to a new country sight unseen. Seriously people what were you thinking? Or as a friend of mine likes to say, “What could go wrong?”.

Okay, so now I have you pausing for a moment and you are going to do your due diligence and explore your new potential homeland first.

Do not plan this outing as your 2.5 week vacation. Your exploratory visit is not a sightseeing tour. There will be time for that later.

Your first and maybe second and even maybe third visit should be a time you set aside to see what life would be like living in your new country.

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2. Give Portugal a test drive

Portugal coffee: Cafe culture
Customers bask in the sun while enjoying a coffee. (Photo: Flickr/velodenz)

It’s a time to kick the tires and give it a test drive.

What is it like to shop there?

Do the stores carry the things you can’t live without?

Can you live without Tom’s toothpaste or designer vegetables or Pacific’s Chicken or Vegetable broth in a box?

What are the neighborhoods like you might live in?

Can you manage with the transportation in your area or lack thereof?

It’s so romantic to walk everywhere and stroll the old cobblestone streets. But come winter and the rains, are you prepared to trudge home, uphill all the way with a couple of heavy bags of groceries in those designer shoes of yours?

How is it going to be living in your new home and you don’t speak the language?

Where will your community of friends come from?

Is there enough going on to keep you occupied? Lisbon and Porto have a vibrant nightlife. A small town in the middle of nowhere might have a great beach but then what?

Enjoy some of the best parts of Portugal with these tours.

3. Accept the bureaucracy

financas office portugal

Can you live with the bureaucracy in your particular region?

Different towns and different regions have different degrees of complexity to their bureaucratic processes. It could be a breeze or it can be maddening to an outsider and sometimes even an insider.

Survive bureaucracy with these guides: How to get your nif?Mobile Banking in Portugal, and SEF Portugal: Immigration and Residency Assistance.

5. Plan where you’re going to live in Portugal

coimbra neighbourhood

Here’s a suggestion very few will take, but I highly, highly recommend this…

Before you decide to go in search of your Portuguese retreat, perhaps find a nice rental in an area of the country that looks appealing.

If you’re thinking country, then rent a farmhouse.

City? Rent a flat.

Your passport allows you 90 days to visit an EU country without a visa. So, go spend 90 days living there. Not visiting there. Living there.

It doesn’t have to be the perfect location, just one you think you might like. You can always use some of those three months to explore further afield in search of your “perfect” place.

Oh wait, there is no such thing as a “perfect place”. But you didn’t hear that from me. And don’t go during the summer… everyone falls in love with the summer.

I used to live in the Pacific Northwest. Everyone visits during August and falls in love with the landscape and the mild, beautiful weather. They pack everything up and move there and then the rains come in winter. After three winters they’re heading to Arizona.

If you want to save time while looking for a place in Portugal, consider using a buyer’s agent. They’ll set up viewings with suitable properties and schedule them at a time that’s convenient for you. They can then help guide you through the entire buying process.

Goldcrest Advisers offers buyer’s agent services in Portugal.

Find out more in: Property in Portugal: Is it Worth Buying a House Right Now?

6. Pay attention to the things that might annoy you

Here’s another suggestion.

Don’t look for all the things you love about the place. That’s easy.

It’s Europe, what’s not to love? Look for things that are going to bug the heck out of you in six months.

Here in Coimbra, the bus I always take never runs on schedule if it is running at all and the transportation app seems to give me schedules that are good only in Budapest.

These are some of the things that annoy the Portuguese: 10 Things You Should Not Say to a Portuguese Person… Ever!

7. Your shopping habits will have to change

supermarket in portugal
Supermarket in Portugal

As I mentioned earlier, you’re not going to find all your can’t-live without items at the market and all the shrimp come with the heads still on. Most of the larger cities have full-blown shopping malls and big grocery stores.

Don’t let the size of the store fool you, however. Two aisles are all yogurt. Go figure. Go to the supermarkets, check out the aisles. Look to see what you can and can’t get. I’m a cooking fanatic. I love to cook. Cooking apps are my friends.

Now I go to Epicurious (great recipe app by the way) only to peruse the recipes I can’t make. My inner dialogue is something like…“nope, can’t get that, nope, doesn’t happen here. Ooh, look at that recipe…uh, oh, not that one either, you can’t get (fill in the blank) here.

Discover the best Portuguese cuisine: Typical Portuguese Food: Your Guide to Authentic Regional Cuisine.

8. Embrace the new culinary and cultural differences

And remember, Costco is a four-hour drive away and in a different country. Want to live in the country? Are you okay with getting your few groceries (just picked this morning maybe) from the back of a truck once or twice a week? Talk about really limited selections.

But yes, they are likely farm-fresh and seasonal. But how much cabbage are you really going to want to eat?

People rave about the Portuguese diet, fresh vegetables, fresh meats, fresh fish. But after a while, there is only so much porco, bacalhau and potatoes one can consume.

Ah, but they also deliver fresh bread that way too.

It’s all about give and take.

Shopping in Portugal will be quite easy if you read this guide first: Best Supermarkets In Portugal: For All Your Groceries Needs.

9. Define how important technology is for you?

And while most places in the cities have fiber optic cable for internet, (except us) if you’re in the country you might have to walk two miles to the local library to use their computers, assuming they are operational that day.

10. Dogs barking might make you go crazy

Oh and that barking dog at night. You know the one that slept all day while you were stopping at the local restaurant during your express drive-thru so you wouldn’t know about it until you moved there.

Remember, it’s a town, not a MacDonald’s. Stop a while. Living in the city, that same dog is out on someone’s balcony while they’re at work.

Portuguese dogs bark non-stop for 16 hours.

11. Learn the language

Keep Calm Learn Portuguese

The point again here is that until you really spend some time in one place you really are not going to know much beyond how romantic you remembered that old church or castle was.

And it is likely you will come away mistakenly thinking how easy it will be to live there and pull the plug on your country of origin.

I’ve noticed that there are people who come to Portugal and are angry because no one speaks English (uh, their native language is Portuguese.) In the larger urban areas, you will find English spoken quite a bit. Enough to get by.

But do you just want to get by in your new homeland and always be on the outside of things?

And in the smaller villages, good luck. Much of the older generation does not speak very much English.

The other complaint I hear a lot is that customer service is not what they are used to (in some places it’s better, trust me on this).

Again, it’s cultural. Usually, bad customer service is because you didn’t try to communicate, you just assumed everybody should speak your language.

Unless you are talking about an internet company. Then it’s just bad customer service, just like home.

Please don’t come here thinking everything should be like it is back in your home town. I can tell you for certain it won’t be.

And please don’t come here thinking it is your mission to make it as much like home as possible.

If that’s your mission, stay home. It’s would be easier for all of us if you do. The point is that too often people come on their exploratory visits and don’t know the right questions to ask or what they should be looking for.

Learn Portuguese Like a Boss: Easy Tricks to Learn Faster and Learning Essential Phrases in Portuguese for Your Visit to Portugal.

12. Finding a community fitting to your needs

So when you find a community you think you want to join, don’t just look at the ancient churches and forts and museums and fancy restaurants.

Look at the buses, the laundromats, the grocery stores, the medical facilities, the local schools if you have children.

Don’t get seduced by the romance of living in a new and mysterious culture, open your eyes and look and see if you like the day to day realities of living in a new culture where things are going to be very much different from home.

Will this still be your dream place when it’s raining, when the mould is creeping up your walls, when you’re housebound, you can’t just drop by the neighbors for a beer and you’ve eaten beans and potatoes for the fourth time this week.

Here’s an essencial guide if you want to make friends fast: Expat Events In Portugal: Never Feel Lonely With Our Guide.

Checklist to consider when moving to Portugal from America

Here is a completely non-exhaustive list of things to check out in no particular order or priority. That would tax my brain too much.

  • Cost of living – Yes, life in Portugal is cheaper (unless you are in Lisbon, Porto or Cascais). But what is the cost of living in your chosen region? Some things are way cheaper: food, utilities, restaurants. Some things are super expensive: medicine and electronics for example.
  • Taxes and Visa – Remember VAT and income taxes here start at 23% (look into NHR status for immigrants). Will your investment firm talk to you once they know you are living abroad? How much will taxes be? Your income can also be taxed in addition to the taxes you pay your country of origin. There is a tax holiday granted, it’s called an NHR. See if you qualify. But know that in ten years that expires and then can you afford the difference?
  • Online Shopping – Can you live without Amazon? Yes, we have Amazon… Amazon Spain, Amazon Deutschland, Amazon UK. Shipping is at least €8-€10. Sometimes shipping can be more than half the original cost of the product. And often you will find your item you have been searching for only to discover it can’t be shipped to Portugal. Again, what?
  • Health in Portugal – What is the medical situation where you will be? Health care here is incredibly inexpensive compared to the US. However, where is it and can you get to it in less than half a day. Here in Coimbra, we have the best hospital in Portugal. Someplace remote, it might be two hours to the nearest emergency room.
  • Food markets – I already mentioned checking out the food markets. And by the way, don’t just shop at the big name grocery stores (if there are any). Please frequent the smaller mom and pop shops and the public markets. That is a culture that is vanishing rapidly, being pushed out by corporate Europe. Besides, it’s more fun and the produce is cheaper and way fresher and you will get a Portuguese lesson from the fruit vendor.
  • Transportation – What is the price of transportation? How do you get around in your new community? Will you need a car? Can you afford the cost of gas to drive a car? Or the tolls for that matter? Tolls can be your second biggest expense after gas.
  • Moving costs – What are the hidden costs of moving here? There are all the fees you have to pay for the Visas, the NIF, the SEF, the Certificado do Bagagem, etc. Trust me you will learn what all that means as you go. But there is also the cost of moving your belongings. And that includes not just the shipping costs but the packing costs, the loading costs, the unloading costs. Do you know how expensive it is to buy all at once, the little things like cleaning supplies and kitchen stuff you accumulated over a lifetime and left behind?
  • Real estate – Are you going to buy or rent? Is there a reliable realtor in your area? What are the terms of a typical lease? Is there a typical lease? Different rules where ever you go.
  • Learning Portuguese – Is your mother tongue spoken in the areas you are interested in at least enough until you can learn Portuguese. Is Portuguese a learnable language? Some say no. Please start learning Portuguese now. Practice Portuguese is the best starter site for online learning. And don’t study Brazilian Portuguese. This is Portugal not Brazil and no, your high school Spanish will not ingratiate you to the community. But a few simple phrases in European Portuguese will.
  • Documents – What documents are you going to need to immigrate? What consulate do you have to go through? What has to be apostilled? What has to be notarized? Each consulate is its own fiefdom and the rules vary from consulate to consulate and day to day and bureaucrat to bureaucrat.
  • Social life and community – What are you going to do with yourself once you get here? Is there a plan besides golf and liquid lunches? So many immigrants return home because once the newness wore off, they didn’t have anything to do and all their friends and family were back home. Where are your friends and support groups going to come from? Do you just want to hang out with people from your own country or do you want to try and integrate into your community?
  • Local cuisine – Do you like fish and potatoes? Do you know what Bacalhau is? And by the way the “h” is always silent. I can go on, just ask my partner. You’ll get her eye roll. It’s worth it.

Learn all about the cost of living in Portugal vs the USA, the cities preferred by the Americans and other details right here.

Do you still want to move to Portugal?

So after all of this, if I haven’t scared you off and you are still game, (clearly you weren’t paying attention) once you have decided to give it a go, hire yourself a really good expeditor.

Be careful when hiring an attorney, they can be expensive and untrustworthy. Always make sure you check their references. Someone who really knows the ins and outs of the system and can guide you through the seemingly endless corridors of bureaucracy and deliver you safely to the shores of your new homeland.

As I have said during my own journey here to Portugal, emigrating is not for the faint of heart. Trust me on this. But also don’t get me wrong.

Now that I am here, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I love my new homeland with all of its quirks and inexplicable rules and behaviors. For me, it’s more to love.

You have to decide if it’s for you. If it is, go for it. But make sure before you do that you know this new life is for you. Because as I said, for some, there is no going back.

So, boa sorte!


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Michael Rosenberg

Michael is an artist, photographer, and writer who recently relocated to Coimbra, Portugal. Prior to moving to Europe, Michael owned a fine art portrait studio for thirty years. He photographed families, children, and individuals in his unique, lively and creative style. The high point of his career meeting and photographing Barak Obama on several occasions. Never one to settle, upon closing his studio it seemed apparent that this was a good time to begin a new chapter in his life. Relocating to Europe with his creative partner in life, an accomplished encaustic painter and photographer in her own right, freed them both to start anew, pursuing their shared passions of art, food, and travel. He recently started a new facebook page, Tertúlia das Artes – A gathering of Creatives in the hopes of bringing together artists of all disciplines and all nationalities currently practicing in Portugal.

Cristo Rei Lisbon Portugal

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