7 Things Expats Need To Know Before Moving To Portugal

Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast. When you move abroad there are inevitably things you find out that you wish someone had told you about earlier. James Cave is going to help with that in this episode, for expats who are considering a move to Portugal.

If his website portugalist.com isn’t the number 1 travel guide to the country, well, it’s gotta be a close second! James, tell me about your background and what’s led you to become a bit of an expert on all things Portugal.

James: Oh thank you, I don’t think anyone’s called me an expert before, but that’s very nice. I grew up in Ireland, but actually I spent some time living in Portugal when I was younger, about 5 years, although I don’t remember a lot of it.

My parents had been working out here, and my two brothers were born in, near Porto, and so I always had that strong connection to it. They actually ended up moving back out here, as soon as I left home to go and I moved over to England, they moved back out to Portugal and started running a bed and breakfast in the Algarve and took my two younger brothers with them, and they went through secondary school here in Portugal. So, you know, it was always on my radar.

And then about 6 years ago, my girlfriend and I, we were working jobs in Edinburgh in marketing, and we both thought that these were jobs that we could do anywhere in the world, and we’d both like to travel before we got too old or got too committed to anything. And we decided to try and take our jobs on the road.

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So we left the UK, and we started working as house-sitters in France. The house-sitting was good fun, but it was, it was also time-consuming, even just looking after dogs was time-consuming. So we started renting places on a long-term basis, sort of about 4-6 months, and we were looking for the next place to go and live, and Lisbon came up. I knew it from coming up there when I was visiting my family in Portugal. So we just decided to give it a go, and ended up really really liking it.

We then ended up spending some time living in the Algarve, in the south of Portugal, several times actually. We lived in Portomarin and Ferragudo and Silves, and Lagos. And, and we kept travelling as well, but always coming back to Portugal. So more recently we’ve made it more of a permanent base for ourselves.

Carlie: So it does come from a lot of first-hand experience in what you’re going to give us today, which is top things that expats need to know before they move to Portugal.

James: Yeah. I think there are a couple of different types of expats in Portugal. The first, and probably the one that people think of when they think of expats in Portugal, is people who retire out there, and that’s a big chunk of people who live out there, mainly in the Algarve, who particularly come from countries like the UK and Germany and the Netherlands, and Ireland and, and move out there and spend a good chunk of their retirement years out there.

And then there’s people who move out for work, and they tend to move more to Lisbon, just because that’s where the jobs are, but, you know, there are people all over Portugal like that.

And then there’s people like myself and, or at least definitely what I did a lot of before who were sort of freelancers or who are more transient, and they’re, I don’t know if you would necessarily call them expats, they’re more called digital nomads, but they crop up in a lot of the same circles, so if you end up going to an expat meetup in Portugal, there’s a good chance you’ll get a mixture of all three different types of people.

Carlie: So what do you see as the key thing that someone moving to Portugal needs to know?

James: I think the most important thing is, and people sort of know this on some level before, is that things don’t move very quickly here. And that is fine when you don’t want anything to be done, if you’re, if life is going well, but if you need something to get done, it can be very very frustrating. But it’s just, you know, it’s a part of what life here is like, and it’s something that you’ve got to embrace, and get used to.

I know someone who has just moved into a house with, with no electricity, and he’s been in there for at least a month now, maybe two, and he’ll probably be in there for at least another month or two without electricity, but he was sort of expecting it to get sorted quite quickly. And that isn’t something that ever really happens in Portugal.

People find the same sort of thing when they go to buy and sell property, especially if they come from countries where you can, you know, you can buy and sell properties over the course of a couple of months, and that doesn’t really happen in Portugal. People can spend 2, 3, 4 years with their houses on the market, especially expats who have a second type of home that’s maybe only going to appeal to other expats. So yeah, the first, most important thing, is patience, it’s very important.

Carlie: Is that something that you think a lot of expats underestimate when they move to Portugal, just how much patience they’re going to need?

James: Yeah, I think people know it, they know it’s a part of it, and at first people think, I love the pace of Portugal, I love that it’s all so slow and that, but then it can be frustrating until you’ve experienced it first-hand. And so I don’t think people think about it enough, and what it would be like. And you do have to think about things like your property, are you able to leave it on the market for a couple of years if you have to go back to your own country? ‘Cause some people aren’t, and can run into problems, but never expect these, you know, these problems to initially come up.

Carlie: So what’s another big thing that people need to know, if Portugal is on their destination list?

James: One thing that is important for me, because I work from home a lot, is the, the winters in Portugal are actually quite cold and damp, especially if you’re inside. And…

Carlie: But isn’t Portugal supposed to be this amazing sunny all year round place? What are you talking about, winter and damp? (laughs)

James: It’s, Portugal, the Algarve has more than 300 days of sunshine, and Lisbon has, you know, a similar amount of it. But in the winter, the, inside the houses, it can be really really cold. And there’s no central heating in most of the houses, and they’re just designed for the summertime, basically.

The further north you go in Portugal, the climate changes, so I would say Porto in the north of Portugal can be a lot more like somewhere like Ireland in the winter, it’s foggy, it’s damp, it’s grey for many many months.

So yeah, you do have to think about that. I work from home, and it can be very very cold sitting inside, but other people who, if you’re retired for example, you can, you can sit outside for a lot of the day, but then the evenings are gonna be very very cold for you. And without, without central heating it’s very hard to warm the place up, so I think the two things that make a property work are either to have a fireplace, or to have at least one room in the house that’s going to catch the sun during the day, and then that keeps that warm and you can use that as your room during the winter.

Carlie: James, is the climate factor and the reality that Portugal does get cold something that people really need to consider if they’re looking at Portugal as the destination, for example for health reasons?

James: Yes. Yeah, you’re, that’s exactly, if you are thinking about your health, and if you have certain ailments, particularly to do with your breathing or to, anything to do with your bones, the cold and the damp can really affect that. And houses in Portugal really get damp during the winter time, just because of the way they’re designed. I would say if you’re looking to buy a place and you can consider going to do your viewings during the winter time, then you’ll actually see what the houses are like and what kind of warmth you can expect in them.

Carlie: Yeah, don’t be fooled into only going during those hot and sunny summer months.

James: I think that’s also another thing, is that people come to Portugal on holidays and think, if I moved out here, it would just be this holiday extended over 52 weeks. But it’s not really like that, you know, you, you sort of have to settle into some sort of routine, you have to have something to do to keep yourself occupied. I mean there’s a lot that’s good about Portugal, it’s got fantastic weather, and it’s, you know, the food is good, and the wine is cheap, but after a while those things can only sustain you for, for so long.

Carlie: So what else is something that an expat may not have considered if they’re looking at Portugal?

James: I think another thing to think of just before you move is to think about what you should buy before you move out here, and what you should buy when you get here. Some things in Portugal are very very expensive in comparison, particularly electronics, televisions and computers for example.

Appliances, like your fridge or your microwave, and even furniture as well is usually a lot more expensive here. And there really isn’t the same second-hand market for furniture that people, particularly from the UK or maybe Germany are used to having. And that can make things a lot more expensive and you find you don’t get the same quality, or your money doesn’t go as far. So you’ve gotta think about which is more cost-effective, is it better for me just to move out there and buy this stuff when I get there, or am I better off buying this and then trying to transport it in some way?

One other thing that is quite expensive and it isn’t as [unclear word 00:11:16] as, say, buying a fridge or something is cars. Second-hand cars here are very very expensive, and you will pay a lot more here and get a lot less quality for your car. So people will spend maybe a thousand pounds on a car in somewhere like the UK, and that same car might cost them like about three thousand euros here.

Another thing to consider is whether you’re better off importing your car from another European country, or whether you’re better off buying it when you get here. And that’s a very very difficult question to answer, because it really depends on the individual car itself. The cost of importing a car is quite expensive, but it, but it is something to think about.

Carlie: Is there a workaround when it comes to local prices being so expensive, James? Do you see many expats ordering from other countries because it’s more affordable?

James: Yeah, absolutely. I mean there is a whole, a secondary market here where people are buying so much stuff from other countries like Germany and the United Kingdom, and they’re either shipping them out through the post or there’s specific services that are set up here where people will bring things out, like furniture or, or appliances, you can order them in, in the UK and get them sent to their warehouse and then they’ll drive them down. And yeah, that definitely exists.

Yeah, it’s another thing to think about as well. There’s no Amazon in Portugal, also, which is not such a huge thing, but it frustrates people a little bit. You can order from Amazon in other countries, there’s Amazon Spain which is OK, and then the two main ones are Amazon UK and Amazon Germany, but they don’t always ship to Portugal, or if they do they charge quite a lot to do so.

Carlie: So what else do I need to know, if I’m gearing up for a move to Portugal?

James: I think another thing to think about is the language, and like the sort of weather and you know expecting things to move fast, it’s something that people know on some level is that they’ll have to learn to speak Portuguese, and most people come to Portugal and have very ambitious plans to do that. But very very few people actually get very far with it.

I think it makes a big difference whether you’re moving out here as, as a retiree, or you’re moving out here to get a, a job, because if the only people that you’re meeting are people that speak English, you’re never really going to learn Portuguese. ‘Cause Portuguese is quite an unusual language, it’s not one that people really end up learning unless they have to live in Portugal, even though it is one of the world’s most popular languages, and you can get by without it in Portugal.

People speak fantastic English here, particularly in, in Lisbon and the Algarve, and any of the other regions that get a lot of tourism. So you can get quite far without it, but first it does really limit you in terms of your ability to integrate into Portuguese life, which is you know, why a lot of people come here is they want to try something new, they want to live in a new culture and get to enjoy what all that, about, and not having the language means you’ll only have very very superficial conversations with people.

And then it gets more confusing than, if you need certain things that are sort of government-owned like health care for example, you really do need to have a decent grasp of Portuguese if you end up in the Portuguese health care system.

You will find plenty of people there that do speak English, but it’s not a time when you want to be stuck with things getting lost in translation. So yeah, learn, learn Portuguese, that’s very important.

Carlie: How’s your Portuguese, James?

James: (laughs) Well yeah, I say learn Portuguese. My Portuguese is OK. I grew up actually speaking Portuguese. I went to school, in, to primary school in Portugal, so I don’t know, I had, I think, I had to relearn a lot of it, because growing up in Ireland I, I never ever used it. But I think I probably did have a slight advantage there in that there, you know, there is some familiarity to the language. It is something that you really just, you have to do, and it’s very time-consuming.

You have to find ways to immerse yourself, and it’s something that can be quite difficult to do before you move to Portugal as well, you can get plenty of lessons here, but outside of Portugal there aren’t many people that teach the language, and it can be quite hard to find sort of evening classes or anything in it. I have a, a blog post with all the resources I could find on learning Portuguese, hopefully that’ll give people who haven’t yet moved to Portugal some resources for apps and for podcasts and for different audio that they can use to learn Portuguese.

Carlie: Have you encountered many expats in Portugal who have successfully learnt Portuguese?

James: Yeah, I have. There does tend to be the case that some nationalities are a lot better at it than others. The Dutch in Portugal tend to be very good at learning Portuguese. They tend to have it and German to a lesser degree. I find that in Lisbon, a lot of people who live there a long time tend to learn it a lot more, whereas less so in the Algarve. Basically the less touristic place you can go, the more likely you are to find that people are learning Portuguese properly. So if you go into the north of Portugal, or into regions like the Alentejo, people just have to learn it there.

Carlie: And what else do we have as a need to know for expats heading to Portugal?

James: I think you do need to think quite long-term about living here. A lot of people come out here and then something dramatic will happen in their lives, and they’ll decide that actually Portugal isn’t the place that they want to live in, they want, they’re going to move somewhere else, and the two things that, that I’ve seen happen to people is, one is that someone in their, in their family, a spouse will, dies, or that they end up having a big thing like they decide to have a baby for, for younger expats, and when that happens to people, people suddenly realise, actually this isn’t the country that I want to live in any more, that I want to raise a child in, you know, I want to go back to what I’m familiar with. And that can be very very disruptive for people. So I think it is very important to decide if this is, if this is for you.

One thing that I’d recommend people do is to come out to Portugal and to give it a try for 6 months or a year, and it’s very easy to do that. In the winter time rental prices are, especially in areas like the Algarve are a lot lower. You can, you know, rent an apartment for, you know, 500, 600, 7 Euros a month, sometimes even less. The cost of living is quite low. I, you know, I’ve had certain friends I know there’s plenty of house-sitting opportunities here. I think it’s good just to move out here and, and see if this is for you, ‘cause once you, once you do move out here and you do purchase a property or do move all your stuff out here, it is quite a big move and it’s not something you wanna do too suddenly.

This one really only applies to people coming from, or mainly to people coming from the UK or from outside the EU, but that’s to, to think about currencies, ‘cause a lot of the expats that move come from either the UK, primarily, as a country that use a different currency, another one the US or Australia. And you’ve got to sort of appreciate that, you know, currencies will fluctuate, and a lot of people have found this out very recently with Brexit happening, where the, the pound dropped by quite a considerable amount, and that meant that their quality of life also dropped by the same sort of amount, they, you know, would lose a couple of hundred euros a month potentially from a pension or something like that.

And that can also make a big difference if you have a, if you take out a mortgage here and you, you take it out in your home currency, there’s always gonna be a little bit of upheaval and you don’t, I don’t think you want that kind of turbulence. But on a much smaller level I think you sort of do need to pay attention to the exchange rate and to work out when the best time of year is to, to send your money over in, in bulk, rather than holding on to your, your money in your own country and using your bank account there to withdraw money here.

Carlie: For sure, and we’ve spoken to Will Hewitson from FC Exchange here on the Expat Focus podcast, about how important it is to get your timing right when it comes to, for example, sending the proceeds of your house sale from one currency to another, and how much that can fluctuate.

James: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Hopefully people will listen to, to that podcast episode, because I’m sure he knows a lot more about the subject than I do.

Carlie: (laughs) And finally James, what is your, your final need to know for people who have Portugal on their destination list?

James: This isn’t a very big one, it’s just something that I know from experience, but swimming pools are a lot of work! A lot of people move out to Portugal, the dream is to purchase a house with a swimming pool.

Carlie: Yes of course!

James: But cleaning a swimming pool is a very very time-consuming thing, and I’ve, I’ve had to clean a few of them in my time, and they, yeah, they can take up a lot of time. You then, if you go away, you need to either get someone in or you need to, you know, get special chemicals to clean it when you come back. There are electronic cleaners out there that can do the job for you, but, but yeah, that’s not a big issue, but I just, think about, think about it.

Carlie: So if your dream is to move to Portugal and get a swimming pool, you may need to put in some extra work or compromise on your dream home?

James: Absolutely!

Carlie: (laughs) Well James, thank you so much for joining me today on the Expat Focus podcast, offering some very important tips for expats who are looking at moving to Portugal.

James: No problem, thanks for having me!

Carlie: Well that’s it for this episode. What do you think of James’ checklist for expats moving to Portugal? You can join the conversation and add your own tips by going to expatfocus.com and following the links to our forums and Facebook groups. You’ll find more episodes of this podcast jam-packed with advice on all aspects of living abroad on our website, or through your favourite podcasting app, and I’ll catch you next time.


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