Portugal 101: Essential Tips And Insights For Would-Be Expats

13 From-The-Trenches Portugal Tips

Making a move to a new country is never without its bumps in the road. That’s why one of the great things about the conferences we host is that we bring together people who have done it all before, giving attendees the opportunity to learn from real-world experiences… and mistakes. 

At this week’s event in Portugal, for example, we’ve heard from Alyson Sheldrake, a British-born now Algarve-based expat who gave attendees an incredibly practical look at expat life in Portugal.

Alyson started off with a piece of advice that you can apply to any move anywhere: 

“One thing, one day,” she said.

“If you get one thing accomplished in a day… you’ve won,” Alyson continued.

“The Portuguese have one pace, one way of doing things. That’s just how it is. You really just need to go with it and accept it. And the Portuguese love their paperwork… anyone here will tell you that.”

Next piece of from-the-trenches wisdom from Alyson: 

Find a good accountant and solicitor but don’t pay a fortune for them. 

“In fact,” Alyson explained, “I found someone who is able to handle all my accounting and legal paperwork for me, so I have only one fee to pay. The total cost is 300 euros a year, and it’s a great value… well worth it. 

“You need this help, whether you think you do or not. They know the system; you don’t. You need to find local resources you trust and then let them do their job for you.”

Here are a few more of Alyson’s practical tips and insights for the would-be Portugal expat:

1. Finances—You need to understand that there will always be unexpected and hidden costs and things you can’t plan for. Exchange rates will change, for example.

So, while you want to feel comfortable that you’re financially stable enough to make this kind of a move, if you wait until you have “enough” money, you’ll never go anywhere.

“Follow your heart,” Alyson told the group. “Have confidence in yourself and then muster some courage and just do it. Trust that you’ll be OK no matter what surprises lie ahead.”

2. Banking—Open a bank account locally. Of course you can keep your accounts back home, but transfers and exchange rates will end up costing you a small fortune if you try to operate your new life in Portugal using your old bank account from back home.

Also note that banks in Portugal open at 9 or 9:30 in the morning and close at 3 p.m.

3. Becoming Legal—Do it. You have lots of good options, including one that allows you to live here 10 years tax-free. Once you have been a legal resident for six years, you can apply for Portuguese citizenship.

One of the great benefits of attaining residency in this country is that it means you have access to local public schools, health care, and social security.

Looking down on a row of houses in Portugal
Alyson assures it is entirely possible to sell real estate without an agent in Portugal

4. Buying Real Estate—You’ll hear in Portugal that you have to sell your house through a real estate agent, but that’s not true. You can sell your house privately. Alyson knows this to be the case firsthand. She is currently selling her home agent-free.

5. Security—In England, Alyson was a cop. Security is a concern for her. That’s one reason she’s as happy in the Algarve as she is. This is a very safe place to be.

6. Swimming Pools—They’re enticing but a lot of work. Many homes in Portugal have them, but don’t commit to owning one yourself until you’ve thought through how much work and expense it will be to maintain it.

7. Utilities and Bills—The important practical point to remember here is that the voltage is different than in North America. “Don’t bring your white goods with you,” Alyson warned the group, “unless you would like to burn the place down.”

8. Telephone and Internet—If good internet is important to you, do some research about the service available in different areas of the country before committing to a region. You’ll find great internet in a lot of places but not in the most remote spots. 

“Ten years ago, when we first began spending time here,” Alyson explained, “it was a struggle to find good internet in most of Portugal. Today you’ll be able to access high-speed internet in 90% of the country, and 4G service is increasingly available.”

9. Shopping—”The Portuguese love to shop,” Alyson told us, “but, when they shop, they don’t buy anything. It’s a social occasion. They grab a coffee and meet theirfriends and make it an event.

Two paper coffee cups on a table at a cafe
Shopping is more of a social gathering, an opportunity to grab a coffee and catch up

“There are four or five big shopping centers across the Algarve,” Alyson continued, “plus markets. The Portuguese can make amazing things out of cork (shoes, purses… everything), and they are proud of their pottery.”

10. Food Quality—The produce is fresh and organic, naturally, without the premium you pay for organic in other countries. All produce is labeled to tell you where it’s from. Most of the time it’s very local. The farthest it may have traveled might be from Spain. 

11. Owning and Driving a Car—”The first thing you need to know about driving in Portugal,” Alyson explained, “is that you need to be aggressive. 

“The second thing you need to know is that you need to carry a literal stack of paperwork with you in your car whenever you drive, including a valid license, vehicle registration, current IPO inspection, headlight converters, reflective jackets for every person in the car (within reach of the driver), spare glasses or contacts if you have an eye prescription, spare bulbs, first aid kit, and on and on.” 

The police can stop and ask for documents at will. If you’re stopped, you must show everything in the list of requirements. If you’re missing anything, even your spare pair of contacts, you’ll be liable for a fine payable on the spot. 

“Not to worry,” Alyson added, “if you don’t have cash on you to cover the fine. The police have electronic cash machines in their cars.”

12. Health Care—Alyson shared her personal story of having been bitten by two feral cats. She needed antibiotics and a tetanus shot. Because she’s a resident and has the utility card for her local health center, even though she had never been through the system, she was in and out of the clinic in about an hour. The total cost was a whopping 4.50 euros for the visit and 3.57 euros for the antibiotics. 

“This is one reason I’m so happy to be a legal resident,” Alyson told us.

13. Learning the Language—Everyone knows that Portuguese is just plain hard to learn. But when you try to speak even a little Portuguese, the locals love it. Even if you get it horribly wrong, they appreciate the effort. Then, when they recognize you’re not from Portugal, they respond in English.

Allison Jokinen
Live and Invest in Portugal Conference Insider