Moving to Portugal – as with any country – is best explained by someone who’s been through the process themselves.
I moved to Lisbon in January 2020, then relocated to Madeira later that year. This article is based on my first hand experiences of moving to and living in Portugal.
Here, I share 25 essential things to know when moving to Portugal. They will help you understand the country ahead of your move, and navigate it better once you arrive.
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🇵🇹 Part 1: Lifestyle in Portugal
1. Portugal has the EU’s best second citizenship
What’s more, as Portugal is politically neutral, it’s less risky for its citizens to travel around the world. That’s especially useful when visiting countries such as Iran, where UK or US passport holders are subject to more stringent entry requirements.
2. It’s a small country, with diverse landscapes
Portugal is far more than just the sunny beaches of the Algarve. The country’s seven regions offer varied scenery, from rugged coastlines to plateaus and crater lakes.
Whether you’re a fan of year-round sunshine, or prefer a cooler climate, Portugal has it all. Living in Madeira is a great way to opt out of winter permanently, while Porto offers a similar climate to San Francisco.
The Algarve region is loaded with golden sand beaches and boasts a lively international community, while cosmopolitan Lisbon has everything that a world capital should offer.
Central Portugal has countless historical towns, such as the old university city of Coimbra, Óbidos with its medieval castle, and Nazaré with its famed waves.
This region also has affordable real estate investments that still qualify for the Portugal Golden Visa in 2022, as do Madeira and the Azores.
3. It has Western Europe’s most affordable cost of living
Although the major cities are increasingly expensive, Portugal is still very affordable compared to the rest of Western Europe.
Renting in Portugal is generally reasonable, with some exceptions. You can rent a two bedroom apartment in small cities and in central Portugal for as little as €300 per month.
Rents are the highest in Lisbon, where you can find a one-bedroom apartment outside the centre for around €600 per month.
In the fashionable central areas, such as Graça, Baixa-Chiado and Principe Real, prices for a good quality apartment are typically in the region of €1,000 per month.
It’s also quite straightforward for foreigners to buy property.
Getting a mortgage in Portugal is possible for both residents and non-residents (although rates and loan-to-value amounts may differ).
Groceries and eating out are generally very affordable. You can save even more by shopping at local markets and ordering prato do dia (‘dish of the day’) at restaurants.
If you enjoy the taste of Portuguese coffee, an espresso (bica), is normally around 80 cents.
What’s more, Portugal has loads of fantastic wines. You can go to any supermarket and pick up a great wine for €5 or less.
Owning a car is one area of life where Portugal is expensive . Fuel is highly taxed here, as are cars themselves.
Whereas in the UK you can find used cars for very low prices, in Portugal the most basic little runaround would probably cost at least €5,000.
Leasing a car is potentially a good alternative to buying. You can find decent deals on new cars to lease for €200 or €300 per month.
4. Moving to Portugal is great for remote workers
If you make your money online, Portugal is a great place to live.
Lisbon and Porto both have lively and well-established communities of remote workers and digital nomads, with similar communities popping up all over the country – most recently in Madeira, home to the Digital Nomad Village.
The remote worker community is very diverse and international.
It often organises events in the major cities, which are a great way to network and get a foothold in the social life of your new city. There are plenty of remote worker friendly coffee shops and co-working spaces in Lisbon and Porto.
Even better, Portugal has some of Europe’s fastest Internet speeds. Madeira has the fastest Internet speed in the whole country – not bad for a tiny island far out in the Atlantic!
5. The weather isn’t always hot and sunny…
Many people expect a life of constant sun when moving to Portugal. That depends very much on where you move to. Certain areas of the country are warm all year round, mainly Madeira and the Algarve.
But Lisbon can be cold, wet, and uncomfortable in winter. Houses often have poor insulation and no heating, making wintertime an uncomfortable undertaking.
The northern city of Porto is even worse, with winter weather similar to that of Belgium, the Netherlands, or the UK.
Don’t forget to bring some winter clothes, and an umbrella!
6. And the bureaucracy can be maddening when moving to Portugal
Portugal isn’t always an easy country in terms of bureaucracy. Some systems, like the online tax portal, are quite efficient.
But others require going to the office in person and queueing up. If you have to go in person, aim to arrive before opening time (usually 9am) to get a head start on the queue.
What’s more, different government office aren’t always consistent with their requirements.
For example, I once spent weeks gathering the documents for exchanging my driving licence for a Portuguese driving licence. I submitted them online to the Lisbon driving licence agency.
I heard nothing for several months, until I followed up with them. They told me the system had ‘changed’ and I needed to submit everything again.
Rather infuriated, I decided to try again in Madeira. I went in person to the driving licence office with my documents. 20 minutes later I walked out with everything completed. The licence arrived two weeks later.
The best advice for handling bureaucracy in Portugal is a) be ready to go in person, and b) be ready to try the same task in several different locations. Requirements and systems often vary from one office to another.
7. But there’s lots of tasty food, beyond just egg tarts
Those delicious egg tarts, pasteis de nata, are probably Portugal’s most famous culinary export. But once you get to Portugal, there are many other interesting foods to try.
The national dish is bacalhau, dried and salted fish prepared in various ways. In supermarkets, you’ll see giant pieces of bacalhau hanging up in the fish section.
Seafood in general is vastly popular (and excellent quality) in Portugal, in particular sardines, tuna, and octopus.
One of my favourite dishes in Madeira is octopus stew, served with the island’s version of garlic bread, bolo do caco (above). I also like pao de Deus (Bread of God), a fluffy cake-like bread with coconut topping.
For drinks, Portugal is big on beer. Check out the local mainland brew, Superbok, and Coral if you’re in Madeira.
Madeira also has its own national drink, poncha, a potent mix of rum, honey and lemon juice, invented by fishermen.
🇵🇹 Part 2: Everyday essentials for moving to Portugal
8. Portugal offers flexible visa options
Moving to Portugal is incredibly easy if you’re already an EU citizen. But if you’re not, there are several flexible visa pathways to choose from.
One of the most popular is the Portugal D7 visa, sometimes known as the passive income visa or digital nomad visa, which is aimed at people with their own income source from outside of Portugal.
Another popular choice is the Golden Visa, which offers foreign investors the opportunity to gain residency in return for their investment.
The Golden Visa scheme is undergoing several changes in 2022, namely that investors won’t be able to invest in residential property in Lisbon, Porto and much of the Algarve region.
Madeira, on the other hand, will remain in the Golden Visa scheme, giving investors access to one of Portugal’s hottest property markets, amid year-round sunshine.
Investing in Portuguese venture capital or private equity funds is another flexible and tax efficient route for getting the Golden Visa.
For those who wish to start a new business in Portugal, or open a new branch of an existing one, the D2 Entrepreneur Visa is another possibility.
All these options can be used to gain residency in Portugal. After five years of residency, you’ll be eligible to apply for citizenship.
9. Everyone needs a NIF when moving to Portugal
Getting a NIF (Número de Identificação Fiscal) is one of the first things you’ll do upon moving to Portugal.
The NIF is Portugal’s tax number, equivalent to the UK’s national insurance number or the US’s social security number.
In Portugal, it’s used in many areas of life, from buying property to claiming groceries on your expenses.
There are several ways to get a NIF. If you’re already in Portugal, you can get it at one of the Finanças offices.
If you’re applying for a D7, D2 or Golden Visa, your lawyers will get it on your behalf. Bordr offers an online NIF service, which is fast and easy. Use code DIGITALEMIGRE at checkout to get a discount on your NIF.
10. Portugal has its own payments network
But for maximum convenience, it’s a good idea to open a Portuguese bank account.
Not only will you need one for your visa and residency process, but having a local account also allows you to access Portugal’s internal payments network: Multibanco.
Plus, some small establishments will only accept Portuguese cards, so it’s always useful to have one as back up. ActivoBank offers an account that’s free to maintain.
You can also open an account remotely via Bordr’s convenient online service. Use code DIGITALEMIGRE at checkout for a discount on all Bordr services.
11. You’ll probably need to exchange money
If you’re from a country that doesn’t use the euro, you’ll probably need to exchange money when moving to Portugal.
For everyday foreign exchange purposes, the best service is Wise. It’s easy to open a free account and it will stand you in good stead while in Portugal. I use my Wise account often.
But if you’re exchanging larger sums, such as for a deposit on a property purchase, there are better options than Wise.
We recommend Currencies 4 You, a UK- based money transfer service that offers competitive rates for exchanging large sums into euros.
12. Moving to Portugal can bring generous tax benefits
In a bid to attract wealthy foreigners, Portugal introduced Europe’s most generous tax program – NHR (non-habitual residency).
This program is best suited for those who take their income from outside the country, such as online business owners or pensioners.
With NHR, many types of foreign income, such as dividends, can be tax-free while you live in Portugal.
You can also use the NHR scheme with income from within Portugal, if your profession is classed as a high added value activity. In that situation, you’ll be taxed at a flat rate of 20% on all your income.
Portugal is also a great destination if you’re into cryptocurrency. At the time of writing, Portugal doesn’t tax gains from cryptocurrency. It’s the perfect place to cash out a large portfolio.
13. Buying or renting property is easy – but watch out for these pitfalls
There’s no shortage of accommodation options in Portugal, ranging from city centre apartments to spacious villas by the beach. Many can be very affordable, depending on which area of the country you want to live in. Lisbon and Porto are the most expensive.
When renting, watch out for landlords who for deposits of multiple months’ rent.
Portugal doesn’t have a third-party deposit protection scheme (such as in the UK), so your landlord will be responsible for holding and returning your deposit. If disputes occur, things can get tricky.
If you’re renting for only a year at a time, look for a landlord who will accept a one month deposit.
When buying, you’ll typically be asked to sign a promissory contract and pay part of the total (normally 10%) as a deposit.
If you’re applying for a mortgage, make sure the promissory contract includes a clause to protect your money, a) if you don’t get the mortgage, and b) if the bank’s valuation is much lower than anticipated.
If possible, you should wait until both the mortgage and the valuation are ready before handing over any deposit.
However, some estate agents will try to rush you into signing the promissory contract, because their commission usually comes from the initial deposit.
14. The Portuguese language is very different to Spanish
Many people assume that Portuguese and Spanish are almost identical. In fact, you might annoy someone if you speak Spanish in Portugal. It’s safer just to speak English. If you know Spanish, you’ll probably find Portuguese easier to learn, as both languages come from the same roots.
Our favourite resources for learning European Portuguese:
Pronunciation and clarity are two of the biggest differences between Spanish and Portuguese. Spanish speakers are typically easier to understand, because the words are more deliberate.
In contrast, (European) Portuguese speakers tend to run the words together. Brazilian Portuguese speakers, on the other hand, enunciate the words more clearly.
Portuguese pronunciation is sometimes compared to Russian.
That’s because both languages share certain features; they’re both stress-timed with a similar rhythm and multiple similar sounds. That may sound challenging, but it will gradually get easier if you keep immersing yourself in Portuguese.
Be careful though, Portuguese people tend to speak good English, so it’s easy to be lazy!
15. It’s best to get a local phone number
International roaming works fine in Portugal. If you have a phone number from another EU country, it won’t cost you any more to use your phone in Portugal. But it’s worth getting a local phone number anyway.
You’ll need to give your number to certain government agencies and not all of them will use a foreign number.
For example, I registered my Covid vaccine with the local health authority to get the travel document. To activate the app, they sent a code to the local number I had on record. It wouldn’t have worked with a foreign number.
Also, some delivery drivers won’t call a non-Portuguese number.
Portugal has three main mobile phone providers: MEO, NOS, and Vodafone. You’ll need your NIF, passport and proof of residency to set up a long-term contract. But a pay-as-you-go SIM card is easy to get. I got mine from an MEO shop for €10.
16. Portugal’s healthcare is great (and free)
After moving to Portugal and becoming officially resident, you can access good quality healthcare anywhere in the country, for free or very low cost.
For those who prefer to go private (for example to get faster access to treatment), Portugal’s private health insurance tends to be very affordable, especially when compared to the US.
Once you’re officially a resident, you’ll need to get a local health number (Número de utente).
Go in person to your local health centre with your passport and residency documents. They will issue it for you.
🇵🇹 Part 3: Politics and Society in Portugal
17. Portugal was Europe’s first colonial power and its longest dictatorship
Long before the British Empire started, Portugal was busy colonising all over the world. Thanks to its expertise in seafaring, Portugal was well equipped to explore the world.
It was the first European country to build an overseas empire, and the last to finally give up its colonial possessions.
The Portuguese empire began in 1415 with the capture of Ceuta from Morocco, and ended in 1999 when Portugal handed Macau back to China.
But in 1933, the Estado Novo (new state) regime took power, plunging Portugal into a long period of authoritarian rule.
Led by António Salazar, the new regime opposed communism, socialism, anarchism, liberalism and anti-colonialism. Salazar aimed to make Portugal into a nationalist and conservative country, with traditional Catholicism remaining a strong influence.
18. Portugal’s economy is on the upswing
In 2011, Portugal was suffering from austerity measures imposed by Brussels. But the country soon took dramatic action to get out of this slump and rejuvenate its economy.
Portugal began by attracting real estate investors, offering tax breaks and easy residency to those prepared to invest in the country. This focus on real estate soon snowballed, helping Portugal bring in over €5 billion, boost tourism and rescue its economy.
As Portugal emerges from the pandemic, its economy has suffered once more, just like many nations. But Portugal has set up a comprehensive recovery plan, with EU funds, to focus on supporting innovation in business, enhancing the population’s digital skills and tackling climate change.
19. Politics are refreshingly unpolarised
If you’re moving to Portugal from the US or the UK, then you won’t find the same polarised politics in Portugal.
No political system is perfect, but you get the sense that the Portuguese government actually tries to help the population. For example, Portugal’s approach to handling the COVID-19 pandemic was one of the most effective in Europe.
Rather than leveraging the virus to score political points, as in the UK, for example, the Portuguese government tackled the problem in a pragmatic way, while still balancing the population’s freedoms.
Madeira was particularly impressive, implementing free Covid tests at the airport for all arrivals, and managing to avoid a lockdown during the hard winter of 2020.
20. There’s some great literature
Portugal has the world’s oldest bookstore, Livraria Bertrand, in Lisbon’s Baixa Chaido neighbourhood. Founded in 1732, this historic shop is definitely worth a visit if you’re in the city.
There’s a long history of literature in Portugal, with well-known authors including Alexandre Herculano, Fernando Pessoa, and José Saramago.
One of Saramago’s most famous novels, Blindness, was also one of the first Portuguese novels I read. The compelling plot will haunt you for days afterwards, especially in the light of the 2021 pandemic. Lots of Saramago’s books are available in English, so he’s a good author to start with.
Also, some interesting novels are set in Portugal, such as Night Train to Lisbon, by Pascal Mercier.
21. The Portuguese are obsessed with football
If you’re in a Portuguese city and hear lots of cars honking and people shouting, you’ve probably caught the tail end of a football match. The Portuguese are crazy about football and the whole country grinds to a halt when a major match is in progress.
The three most popular national teams are Lisbon’s Sporting CP and SL Benfica, and FC Porto. Together, they’re known as Os Três Grandes (The Big Three).
Portugal also produced one of global football’s most famous names: Cristiano Ronaldo. Hailing from Madeira, Ronaldo is legendary on the island and even has his own statue in the capital Funchal.
22. Same-sex marriage is legal in Portugal
Despite being a conservative Catholic nation, same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples is legal in Portugal. The country has some of the world’s most advanced anti-discrimination policies.
What’s more, Portugal went a step further than many countries, as its constitution includes a clause banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.
In 2018, Portugal’s government passed a new law to simplify the process of sex and name change for transgender people.
Those who change gender can change their name and gender in legal documents, without the need for a medical report.
In general, LGBTQ new arrivals in Portugal find the country not only tolerant, but also accepting and welcoming.
23. Portugal’s gun laws are the most relaxed in the EU
You might be surprised to discover that Portugal has some of the most relaxed gun ownership laws in the EU.
Portuguese citizens can own guns for hunting, target shooting, pest control and collecting. Nevertheless, gun crime in Portugal remains extremely rare.
In 2016, Vice News tracked all the mass shootings across Europe. Portugal featured only twice.
In both instances, five people were injured, but no-one died. In contrast, in the same year, the US had 133 mass shootings in just 164 days. That included the notorious Orlando nightclub attack in which 49 people were killed.
24. Portugal decriminalised all drugs in 2001
Portugal has one of the world’s most unique approaches to tackling the problem of drugs in society. In 2001, Portugal became the first country ever to decriminalise the consumption of all drugs.
Since then, there’s been a dramatic drop in overdoses, HIV levels, and drug-related crime. It’s important to remember that supplying drugs is still illegal in Portugal, but possessing small quantities of them is not.
25. Immigration is encouraged
Portugal’s attitude to immigration makes a refreshing change from the populist sentiments currently sweeping the US, UK and much of Western Europe. The government of Portugal actively encourages immigration and wants more foreigners to move to the country.
Because of Portugal’s low birthrate and ageing population, immigration is necessary to keep the economy active.
In 2017, when the government passed new laws to boost immigration, prime minister Antonio Costa said: “We need more immigration and we won’t tolerate any xenophobic rhetoric.” For immigrants like you and me, that’s great to hear.