Emigrating, Immigrating and Celebrating Our First Year in Portugal
We don’t usually think of ourselves as trend-setters. We left the US in 2012 with the plan to travel slowly and see where the road took us. We’d concluded the year before, in 2011, that the only way early retirement would be possible for us was to look at moving to another country where the cost of living was cheaper and the health care more affordable. We weren’t making any political statements as we traveled slowly from Mexico to Central and then South America with a couple of island nations thrown in for good measure. And how we ended up in Portugal wasn’t because we were disaffected with the US. However, judging from the dramatic increase in Americans inquiring as to how to move to other countries like Canada, (so many that the immigration website repeatedly crashed the night of the election of Donald Trump as the future President) we may well be ahead of a rising number of US expatriates seeking new lives elsewhere.
Coincidentally, the increased interest in moving abroad has occurred on our first anniversary as Portuguese residents, living quite happily in the Algarve area of Portugal. It’s been awhile since we’ve talked about our lives in the small city of Lagos, what we’ve learned as we’ve coped with the cultural differences and figured out how, where and when to get things done.
One of the most important things we did, after consulting our lawyer and giving our landlord the required 60-days’ notice, was to move. Turns out there’s a H-U-U-U-G-E difference in living out of a suitcase for three years and viewing each home as temporary versus renting a place with the plan to stay for a year or longer. Our small apartment at the Lagos Marina was iffy from the start and, over the five months we lived there, doable slowly changed to irritation, changed to the old movie line from Network, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Heaters were replaced and light fixtures repaired but we were still left with broken down, uncomfortable and stained furniture, the sound of late-night partygoers holding loud conversations outside our windows and the fact that we had about a foot of counterspace to prepare meals in our “efficiency” kitchen. And once we rented and later bought a car, the walkable location and proximity to the grocery store, city center, bus and train stations became much less important.
Finding a rental in Portugal. Unlike the US where rental companies and realtors share multi-listing services, it takes a little more effort and diligence to find a rental here. It’s not that there aren’t property managers, rentals or sellers out there – it’s just that their listings are exclusive. A renter or buyer goes from one representative to another and views different properties with different agents until they find what they want. Another wrinkle in the Algarve and especially in Lagos, is finding a long-term rental versus a short-term rental (called a “holiday let” here) because this is a popular tourist area. The rents double and triple in June, July and August and many owners have a good income as well as the option of using their property as a vacation home. We’d made friends with one realtor during our time in Lagos and a new friend recommended another property manager so, in a classic case of the right time-right place circumstances and in the space of a week, we had two great places to choose between. One was a 2-story, 3-bedroom, 2-bath townhouse/condo for €900 in the nearby town of Luz and the second choice was a very modern second floor apartment, 2-beds, 2-baths with a sea view on the outskirts of Lagos for €800. Both were furnished nicely right down to pans, plates, sheets and towels, had gated access with parking for our car and lovely pools. We opted for the second apartment with its granite countertops and dishwasher (only €50 more per month than our original rental) and, giddy with the feeling that we had a most excellent abode, forked over without any hesitation our first and last months’ rent. We’d moved to Portugal with three medium-sized suitcases, two carry-ons and two small backpacks. This time it took two car trips to schlepp our stuff, mostly kitchen items, a bulky printer-scanner, pillows and off-season clothing, Beverly Hillbillies style.
What we learned. We should have rented a place month-to-month (Air BnB has some great choices) for the first one to three months while we looked for a good rental that better suited our taste and budget. It takes a bit of work to wriggle out of a long term lease.
Other things to consider:
*If you’re thinking about the Algarve, start your search during the shoulder or off-seasons, September through May. You’ll save money and there will be more choices available. Keep in mind that living along the coast will be more expensive as is living in a popular tourist town like Lagos.
*Rent a car by the day, week or month (the rates go down during low season) even if your plan is to be auto-free and pedestrian once you settle in. This will give you a chance, in your quest to find the right place, to explore the small villages scattered along the coast and inland which all have unique personalities and characteristics.
*Don’t buy a property right away if that’s what your long term plan is. There’s a lot to choose from and no reason to rush. And, if we haven’t made it clear by now, our plan is to keep renting for the foreseeable future. We’ve been there – done that as far as owning property and we much prefer to keep our options open. In fact, we really can’t see too many reasons to buy property in a foreign country since the rents are so reasonable.
Changing your address. Since we’d traveled for several years we’d gotten out of the habit of a having either a phone (when you’re new in town who are you going to call?) and mailbox. The ease of doing everything online and staying in touch by email is a no-brainer.
*However, now we had a phone and internet/cable contract so we walked over to our service provider, MEO, to advise them that we were changing addresses and needed to have the cable moved to our new apartment. The new installation cost a whopping €100.
Consider: In a foreign country, we always try to do things face-to-face to make sure we understand and are understood!
Consider: If you’re going to rent short term, find a place that has wi-fi and cable TV (almost every apartment but the one we rented!) to avoid a package contract. Our new apartment had public Wi-Fi and cable so now our services are duplicated. On the upside, our total bill is only €54/month and our internet is private. Still, if you only have a phone contract, it’s much easier to update the address and pay the bill as an auto deduction from your bank.
*We took photos of the water, electricity and gas meters of our old apartment on the day we moved out to give to our former landlord to change the utilities back to his name. The whole process of changing the utilities took a lot of patience and ended up with us feeling frustrated as well as feeling like we’d (most probably) been ripped off.
Lesson Learned. Our new property managers gave us the option to keep the utilities in the owner’s name and we pay the bills online as we receive them which is much easier and more straightforward.
As foreign residents, the most important people to tell about an address change is the SEF, Service de Estrangeiros e Frontiers aka the Foreigners and Borders Service – in short, the immigration authorities. We stopped by the nearest SEF office in the city of Portimao where we showed them our new lease and address, forked over €40 each and had new photos (hurray, the new photos make us look less like fugitives but one of us is lacking a chin!) and fingerprints taken since SEF would issue a new resident card with our updated information.
Another lesson learned. Make sure your address is complete. While our address was correct the original information we’d been given lacked our apartment number which meant the postman couldn’t deliver it. We waited and waited for our new resident cards to come, checked at the post office where they shrugged their shoulders in a polite but unhelpful way and finally went back to the SEF office to find out the cards had been returned. We picked them up and, next time, will make sure our new cards have the apartment number on them when we renew our resident visas.
Car Taxes and Road Inspections. We’d bought our spiffy little car, a used, low-mileage, 2012 Skoda, from a reputable dealer for €7500. In Portugal, the license plates come with the car and a road tax is paid annually at the Finanças office. Our cost was about €120. Once a car reaches the grand old age of four, it also needs to be inspected either annually or biannually depending on its age. Using a hand-drawn map, we headed out of Lagos toward the town of Sagres for a few kilometers, past the campground, around a few roundabouts until we saw a furniture store and, next to it, our target, the Inspecção Automóvel. We paid the inspection fee of €33 and watched as our baby was poked and prodded, the brakes stomped on repeatedly until we thought we’d have to buy new tires and then shaken, over and over which had us thinking, “This can’t be good.” And it wasn’t … We were given a temporary pass, told to have our shocks replaced and headlights adjusted (€300) and instructed by the unsmiling technician to return within the 30-day grace period. A final re-inspection fee of €8 (and a smile at last) confirmed our car’s continued road worthiness for another two years.
Portuguese Driver’s License. We haven’t quite figured out what to do here. As residents, we’re supposed to have a Portuguese driver’s license but we understand that we have to exchange our US licenses. In the US, a license is necessary for many day-to-day transactions. Since we travel to the US and also drive, we don’t want to surrender our licenses. We’ve talked to several Brits who have lived here for years and have yet to find anyone who has exchanged their licenses. So, for now, this issue is unresolved.
Lastly, and thanks to our lawyer, we recently received our registration as Non-Habitual Residents (NHR) which exempts our foreign income (like social security) from being taxed twice, once by the US and again by Portugal, for ten years. We’ve included a link here which will explain this difficult concept much better than us since our understanding is, “WTH?” at best! Taxes for Non-Habitual Residents
Looking back at this lengthy tome we’ve written has us thinking “We should have done this months ago” in more manageable posts! For those of you with questions about becoming a resident in Portugal, hopefully this provides more information and didn’t induce too many yawns. For those of you happy where you are, we hope we’ve impressed you with our dogged determination to master our lives in a foreign country. Every day we’re reminded in many small ways that, “We ain’t in Kansas anymore.” Things are done differently here in Portugal but the extra effort is definitely worth it.
By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash
Next Post: Continuing with the “We ain’t in Kansas anymore” theme, we’ll talk about some of the things, for better or not, that are different here in Portugal.