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Thinking of Relocating to Portugal? One American shares his story

Thinking of relocating to Portugal? You're not alone! Over the last few years, Portugal has become one of the "it" destinations for foreigners seeking that idyllic European lifestyle. Portugal ticks the boxes: 290 sunny days per year, affordable prices across the board, a local population that counts as some of the friendliest and welcoming folks on earth, an historically rich and vibrant culture and favorable tax and visa incentives to those who want to retire, the self-employed and digital nomads alike. There is a lot to love about Portugal. 

I moved myself in 2015 after eight years in São Paulo, Brazil. My (now) ex-wife and I (Brazilian of Portuguese descent) were looking for a healthier, cheaper and safer lifestyle. We narrowed our search down to Portugal or Denmark and given that we spoke the language, understood the country's history and my ex's own family ties to the country, Portugal won out in the end (it's also a hell of a lot cheaper than Denmark or Panama!). We never looked back.

I remember one of the first nights in country, I was out rather late, lubed up on excellent Portuguese wine, and walking home at 2am from the train station with headphones on my ears. All at once, I felt eight years of concern and apprehension leave my body as I realized I didn’t need to look over my shoulder or even pay attention whatsoever to my surroundings. I could never do that in Brazil or even North America. There was nothing to worry about. Portugal is safe. 

While a lot has changed since 2015, here's some things to keep in mind that might help ease your big move.

Relocation Research

I moved to Portugal about a year before it became one of Europe's hottest destinations, so there wasn’t nearly as much information out there on relocation as there is today. We were sort of on our own, but you have no excuse! There are still way too many folks posting on Facebook groups (and other resources) who seem to be taking a life-changing decision like moving to another country entirely too lightly. There is way too much to know to go into great detail in an article such as this, but key highlights you need to be thinking about include healthcare (Will you need private insurance or will you qualify for Portugal's excellent universal healthcare? Are the medications you depend on or an EU equivalent available in Portugal? I'd also add cost to these concerns but don’t worry too much about that — it's going to be way cheaper than the USA!); taxes (Will you qualify for Portugal's Non-Habitual Residence tax regime, or NHR, and do you understand how to apply and what the deadlines are? Do you understand how bilateral tax agreements work? Are you aware that, if you're an American, you will be required to file a US tax return no matter where you live — in addition to filing taxes in your country of residence?); Importation of personal effects (Do you know you must fill out a Certificado de Bagagem, or Certificate of Household Effects, with your nearest Portuguese consulate in order to enter the country with your possessions tax-free? Is it worth it to bring all your things or buy new in Portugal?); and Pets (Are you familiar with the US process for exporting animals and the importation process in Portugal?); phone/mail (Have you figured out a way to keep a US phone number for two-step verification? Have you looked into a mail forwarding service? Do you have a friend or family member whose address you can use for things like bank accounts that require a US address?). There is a lot to learn. Look to Facebook expat groups for advice and guidance.

While we imported five cats hassle free,  we didn’t know about or understand the NHR, so we missed out on the tax exemption on most foreign income for 10 years; and we had to deal with a lot of haggling at the post office in Lisbon in order to free several boxes of personal items we had sent to ourselves (they all arrived broken — do not send boxes of fragile personal items through the post). There is a nearly overwhelming amount of information and research needed to make your transition as smooth as possible — so take your time and plan ahead accordingly. And don't freak out when the rules change — it's inevitable and all part of the fun!

Lifestyle & Culture

Most urbanites naturally gravitate to Lisbon and Porto, Portugal's two biggest cities. Both wonderful and wonderfully different from each other, they are also the most expensive. Rising rents, fueled by AirBNB hosts taking so many apartments out of the rental market as well as the influx of foreign residents over the last few years, have priced out many locals (and foreigners). So it's a good idea to be open-minded and consider other areas of Portugal, which are often considerably cheaper and strikingly beautiful. One of my personal favorites is the Alentejo, highlighted by an absolutely breathtaking coastline that isn’t overrun with development or expats (the anti-Algarve, if you will) and an interior that offers some of Portugal's richest culture and most mouthwatering cuisine. The Portuguese call the Alentejo its own nation, with its own dialect, distinct Moorish flavor, white-washed towns, and unique songs.  Most towns seem to be on hilltops above the plains, wrapped by a castle. Stone towers and red tiles stand beyond the groves of cork oaks. The songs of the Alentejo, a huge sky and a scent of coriander and garlic tell you that you have arrived. And it is less than 1 hour from Lisbon, with good rail and road connections.

But no matter where you move, remember that things aren’t going to be like home. Let's start with tipping. You do not tip 18-20% like you would in the USA. For the most part, the Portuguese do not tip much— restaurants workers are paid an actual living wage and are not tip-dependent. It's fine if you leave a few Euros, but beyond that, you are doing a disservice to the local economy by trying to import US tipping habits. Sticking with the dining out theme, the bread, olives, cheese and other goodies that magically show up at your table are not free. You are charged by what you consume and it's perfectly acceptable to send it all away if you don’t want it. It is not a scam to take advantage of unsuspecting foreigners — it's just how things are done in Portugal. And when you go to pay, they will accept cash (of course), Multibanco (Portuguese debit cards) and/or Visa (meaning credit cards, be it Visa or MasterCard). It took us six months to figure out the Visa thing — and we spoke Portuguese!

Another notable difference is that the Portuguese are very polite. Nearly every conversation begins with "com licença" (excuse me) and any request with "se faz favor" (if you please). Family takes on new levels of importance when compared to North American culture, too. But generally speaking the biggest difference in Portugal is that things move slower. Everything. And so should you. If you loved North American-style keeping up with the Jones's, you wouldn’t be relocating now, would you? Everything in your life is about to downshift — and that's a good thing.

Language

Many people choose Portugal because English is widely spoken by most well-educated people under the age of 50 (over 50 and they might speak French as their second language). It is true that the Portuguese are immensely better in English than say …the Spanish, the French or the Italians (not dubbing television shows and movies give Portugal a tremendous leg up). And the Portuguese are a friendly lot — they often don’t mind switching to English to help smooth along the conversation. But that doesn’t mean you can come to Portugal and get by without learning Portuguese! 

First of all, the availability of English to bail you out of a linguistically challenging situation drops outside of major cities. Secondly, you might be surprised how often you will be expecting someone — due to social status or perhaps profession — to hold their own in English, only to find out they simply cannot. Thirdly, all government business takes place in Portuguese and the government employees at SEF (Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras, who will handle your residency visas and renewals unless you are an EU citizen), Finanças (who handle taxes), Conservatória (who handle numerous registration and licensing services), IMT (where you get your driver's license) and the Freguesia (the local municipality), among others, aren't alway fond of switching to English. A little Portuguese goes a long way — download the Duolingo app and start studying!

Of course, these are just a few of the most notable things that I wish I had known more about before leaping across the pond. But the more you know, the better you will navigate your transition and the more time you will have to enjoy the best of Portugal: Robust Alentejo red wines and refreshing vinho verde (green wine) from the North; succulent and hearty pork dishes from the Alentejo and outstanding seafood everywhere; incredible beaches around places like Odemira or Grândola and pretty much everywhere else;  stunning vineyards throughout the entire country; and some of the friendliest, most welcoming people you'll ever encounter. 

Kevin Raub is an Italy-based travel and entertainment journalist who grew up in Atlanta and started his career in entertainment in New York.

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