I’ve just celebrated my first anniversary as a full-time expat in Portugal.
It’s been a great year with lots of firsts and amazing experiences. Making this move was the best decision of my life.
With experience comes wisdom. Looking back, I now can identify some nuggets I would share with others considering a move to this country.
Here are a few of the lessons learned from this first year in Portugal:
Lesson #1: Do Your Homework
I am amazed at the number of people who move to Portugal (or anywhere for that matter) who’ve never visited the country before or who’ve only come for a 10-day vacation.
Many people go online and ask, “Where is the best place to live in Portugal?”
Why would you base one of the biggest decisions of your life on a stranger’s opinion, when they don’t know your circumstances or anything about you? Inevitably, they are the people most surprised and upset when things don’t go the way they expect.
By all means, find others who’ve gone before you and pick their brains. It’s easy to do. Every day there’s a new source or site online about Portugal. But remember that you can’t believe everything you read on the internet. I often read erroneous advice given by people who haven’t visited the area they’re speaking about in years, if ever. You have to visit yourself! Use your own experience and judgement to make your final decision. After all, you’re the one who’ll have to live with it!
Consider getting help from professionals. A professional can help with your visa work, for example, and can go over your needs with you and help you find a suitable place to live… especially important if you can’t make a trip to see places yourself. Many I know have made follow-up moves somewhere they like better than their original choices, in part, because they didn’t start with professional help.
Lesson #2: Once Here, Reach Out To Others
Moving to a new country can feel stressful at first. Try to make friends right away. Start conversations with the locals. When you hear other native English speakers in shops or on the street, introduce yourself and ask a simple question. Believe me, they’ll be happy to meet you.
Having a group of friends, both locals and expats, will be helpful for all kinds of reasons. They can assist with understanding the local transportation system, suggesting an attorney who specializes in working with expats, or finding the closest 24-hour pharmacy.
And the Portuguese are so friendly and helpful that frequenting the same cafés, bars, and restaurants will get your regular order started before you’re even seated.
I made my move as a single person, and I can tell you that can be an extra challenge. Loneliness, especially in the beginning, can overwhelm you. I’ve found that the best way to combat that is to get involved in the community as soon as possible.
I looked for a nearby church, which led me to a volunteer opportunity serving food at a local soup kitchen. In a few weeks, I found myself with a key to the building as one of the main volunteers each week, giving me a chance to help some locals and to make a contribution to the community.
This has also allowed me to meet other expats. We practice our Portuguese with the people we serve. In those hours together, we volunteers discuss all kinds of things… new laws affecting foreigners, where to buy a specific food item… our latest travel adventures…
I know that if I find myself in an emergency situation, some of these new friends would come to my rescue.
Lesson #3: As Much As Possible, Live Like A Local
Living in Portugal can be extremely inexpensive, especially if you live like a local.
What does that mean?
First, it means you should shop where the locals shop. Grocery stores are plentiful, but fresh markets have better value and serve as entertainment, too. The best prices are on items produced in Portugal, and there are many. Fresh seafood, just-squeezed orange juice (that you can bottle yourself in the store), and local produce are the best grocery buys.
Eating out can be very inexpensive, too, if, again, you focus on restaurants popular among the locals. Ask your neighbors where to go for the best deal on breakfast… for lunch… for happy hour… etc.
The local grocery store chains offer great deals on meals made from scratch, without preservatives, in their kitchens daily. A delicious lunch of a sandwich on freshly made bread, a still-warm custard tart, and a coffee is just 3.50 euros.
Lesson #4: Get The Basics Squared Away Early
I recommend taking care of all your paperwork as soon as possible after you arrive. Typically, you’ll arrive with a four-month visa stamped in your passport. You will need to make an appointment to finalize your first-year visa. Don’t wait; do this right away. You won’t be able to fly outside Portugal and return without a valid visa, and with the major influx of expats (the word is out on Portugal!) oftentimes government offices are backed up for weeks or months with requests.
You’ll need proof of private health care to get your visa. In addition, don’t forget to register for a health care number so you can participate in the public system. As a resident, you will qualify for public care. You may want to keep your private insurance even after you’ve become a resident, but it’s better to have the option to use the public health care system if you’d like to. It’s usually easier and quicker to get a private appointment, and you will need a medical exam for your driver’s license, for example. This is another administrative task you should address right away. If you know you’re going to buy a car, get your driver’s license within your first six months in the country. If you wait beyond that window, you’ll have to take a driving test.
Lesson #5: Make It Your Own
Take the time and make the effort to learn the laws of the country so you’re not surprised. Be respectful of the locals. Learn at least a little of the language.
Meantime, get out and about. Attend as many festivals and events as you can. Develop new family traditions. Take up a new hobby. Join a group.
And let yourself savor the experience. You’ve taken a big, bold step. It will come with challenges and hassles and struggles.
Your reward for putting in the work is the experience itself. It will be the adventure of your lifetime.