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Portugal Travel Guide

Moving to This European Nation Won’t Be What You Expect

It's currently very trendy to move to Portugal, but should eager potential ex-pats curb their expectations?

With its easy-going café culture, old-worldly charm, and impressive 300 days of sunshine per year, Portugal has become an increasingly popular place to settle down. Despite its Atlantic coastline, Portugal has a distinct Mediterranean feel with its sandy beaches and picturesque Pombaline buildings decorated in pastel paint and terracotta roof tiles, loosely reminiscent of a Wes Anderson movie.

On top of that, Portugal is often admired for being the sixth safest country in the world (down one position from the year before) and for having a pace of life that promotes the complete antithesis of the stress-inducing hustle culture. It’s no wonder everyone from retirees to young families and digital nomads are obsessing over Portugal’s idyllic living.

Data shows that for the seventh year in a row, Portugal’s immigration population grew, totaling over 750,000 in 2022. However, beyond the enticement of the country, it’s important to highlight some of the realities of living there.

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Everything Is Slower 

If you’re used to a fast-paced way of life where everything is available in a click, and you can set things up in an instant, you might experience some culture shock when you first arrive in Portugal. For starters, there’s no Amazon, so you’ll have to order from Amazon Spain or Amazon Germany, meaning you’ll have to forgo same-day or next-day delivery options. Alternatively, you can opt to shop locally, which is just as good.

In Portugal, the culture of communicating is not like other Western countries–be prepared for everything to be done by phone or by face-to-face appointment (especially the latter). Emails and messages are not a thing in Portugal, so don’t expect people to respond quickly or at all. You also can’t sign up for utilities such as gas and electricity online. You either have to make a lengthy phone call to providers or pop over to your nearest Loja de Cidadão.

It’s not uncommon to see ex-pats venting on Facebook groups about how slow administrative processes are and how long everyday tasks take to complete–things are never done in a hurry. In particular, bureaucratic matters can be an issue that often requires a lot of paperwork and prolonged waiting times and consistently involves nobody giving you the same answer twice (which can be a confusing nightmare).

Renewing a temporary residency permit seems to be like a game of hide and seek. People trying to go through the family reunification process spend months calling Portugal’s immigration service only to be met with empty dial tones. Exchanging a driver’s license can be an arduous two-year process. 

There is an infinity of unwritten rules in Portuguese bureaucracy, and so much depends on where you are and who you have to deal with.

The Cost of Living Can Be High 

If you still think Portugal is cheap, you’ve likely been misinformed. Portugal is often cited as “affordable” with a “lower” cost of living–a place where you can get bang for your buck, but people are quickly realizing that these are relative terms depending on where you’re from and what you’re accustomed to.

Yes, meals are affordable at local restaurants if you choose their prato do dia (dish of the day). A glass of wine can set you back as little as €2. Public transport isn’t terribly priced. However, when it comes to some fundamentals, the money situation can be eye-watering.

Data from Idealista, a popular real estate website in Portugal, reveals that rental prices in Lisbon increased by 36.8% from February 2022 to February 2023, with the average rental property now costing €18.9 per square meter. And unfortunately, it’s displacing local citizens who live and work in the country.

A 2022 study ranked Lisbon as the third least financially viable city to live in the world (behind only Rome and London), taking into account the average Portuguese salary and the cost of the rent. Unfortunately, the issue is spilling over into other areas of Portugal. Idealista observed that monthly rents in the country had increased by 42% since 2017, and in greater Lisbon and greater Porto rents had risen by 50%.

Taxes are also high in Portugal. In fact, they have one of the highest VAT rates in Europe. While the price of electricity, for example, tends to be in line with the rest of the EU, the taxes and charges component of electricity is one of the highest in Europe. Coupling this with the fact that Portuguese purchasing power and wages are below the European average, it means Portugal has the fifth highest price of electricity in the EU.

Winters Aren’t as Warm as Advertised 

While many people flock to Portugal for favorable weather, they often forget that although the winter months will average 14 degrees Celsius (58 degrees Fahrenheit) outside—and it can be freezing inside. Portuguese homes are often bone-chillingly cold and humid because they are not built to keep in heat or block out the cold. The houses and apartments typically have no central heating system, no insulation, and no double-pane windows so it feels noticeably colder inside than outside.

You will likely need to keep a dehumidifier running in order to maintain a level of comfort and to keep the mold away. Be prepared to wrap up warm for those chillier months–the Portuguese typically wear several layers of clothes indoors in order to stay warm.

If you’re traveling to Portugal during winter, be aware that many Airbnbs will also not have a heating system in place and may not provide an electric heater. Be sure to check their amenities before booking.

Where’s My Package?

Receiving packages in Portugal seems to be a myth that few ex-pats have actually accomplished. Even then, they have been faced with inconvenient customs holding times and hefty clearance fees.

A simple birthday card sent from a family member abroad cost one resident €10 in customs duties. Another resident was billed €128 by customs to receive back the phone he sent off for repairs. It makes receiving gifts and orders from outside the EU a no-no since the fees and taxes can be higher than the value of the goods.

Não Faz Mal (No Worries)

While there’s a lot of hype and excitement surrounding Portugal, it’s important to do your due diligence before you move. Research is imperative and if you want to make the leap, you should travel there first or plan an extended scouting trip to get the feel of things.

At the end of the day, the significance (or insignificance) of these issues boils down to individual perspectives. For most people, the alluring sense of zen, better quality of life, and security that Portugal has to offer outweigh anything mentioned above.

amykraushaar April 23, 2023

Thanks, Hannah. Most of this is spot-on, albeit a few bits are a little general (lived in Portugal over 10 years). E.g., packages from within the EU arrive easily, efficiently, without additional cost. Packages from outside the EU (e.g., US) are stopped at Portugal customs and assessed fees, taxes and duties as most countries do. It's frustrating to Americans used to the ease and convenience of ordering/receiving purchases in the US from anywhere in the world without customs checks. The USPS is too big and too under-resourced to do what most countries do. Portugal is protecting its small market of goods and the taxes in-country purchases generate. It's not about the receiver. (Ask Canadians about the hassle of receiving personal packages from outside of Canada.)
Lots of folks use expacity to research accurate non-rose-colored-glasses info on moving to Portugal.