New Beginnings and a Slower Family Life in Lisbon

About 18 months ago, I relocated with my family to Portugal, sight unseen. A crazy move you might think; especially with a 12-year-old kid in tow. So, what would make a family leave their beautiful home in the heart of California’s wine country and take the plunge to create a completely new life in a country they’d never visited before?

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Well, just about everything. After two years of caring for my terminally ill mom in our home, we were ready for a fresh start. Major life events can very quickly make you realize what you really want—or need. It was March 2020, and the pandemic had just been declared. We were trapped at home with nothing more to do than to dream about what the next steps for our family should be. Our home had too many bittersweet memories and finding someplace fresh felt like the solution.

Initially, we looked for homes in Southern California, hoping to find a smaller, more affordable home in weather I much preferred. Well, we all know what happened to the housing market during the pandemic so that was a non-runner. And as the months went on, staying in California (and even America) did not feel right for us—the cost of living in California was skyrocketing, we were tired of the constant hustle required to live the disappearing “American Dream,” the news had become toxic, and the country was feeling very divisive and less safe for us. And after seeing, up close and personal, how the U.S. healthcare system could deplete the lifelong savings of someone who worked tirelessly for five decades, it was clear to us, we could all be one illness or accident away from bankruptcy if we stayed in the U.S. We wanted better for ourselves and our son, so we decided to look overseas for our new beginning.

The Search Was On

Italy was actually first on the list. It’s my soul country and my husband and I had lived amongst the stunning renaissance architecture of Florence in the early 2000s. I was excited to live out my dream of moving there permanently…but fate had another plan for us. Italy was in pandemic shut down and wasn’t offering new residency visas/permits to Americans. We discovered that only two countries were actively offering residency visas to Americans during the pandemic: Croatia and Portugal…but we knew nothing about either. We were flying blind.

So, I called a friend who knew Portugal well. He’d not only lived in the country for several years, he was also one of the authors of the Lonely Planet Portugal guidebooks. He had also known our family for over 20 years and was originally from Indiana (like us), had lived for years in Los Angeles (like us), and he knew our values and likes.

What he shared with us changed our lives forever.

He told us how easy it is for Americans to live in Portugal as so many Portuguese people speak excellent English. He told us that the cost of living in Portugal was considerably lower than in California. That the weather was gorgeous, the food delicious, the healthcare incredibly affordable, and the people warm and welcoming. He said that Portugal was multinational and multicultural and inclusive. And, that it was a safe place to raise a child. Portugal ticked all the boxes for us.

Our Visa Experience

Our friend suggested we start our visa research and our visa-application process by going to the VFS Global website (see: www.vfsglobal.com/en/individuals/index. html). We also found several Facebook groups for people interested in relocating to Portugal, which gave some great insights into the process.

What we learned was that the time from residency permit to Portuguese citizenship was almost half the time required for doing the same in Italy or Spain. We also learned that it would cost half as much and the process for getting a residency visa (the D7 visa) or a Golden Visa was more streamlined, easier, and cheaper than in most other EU countries, too.

While it’s relatively easy to apply for a residency visa for Portugal, the process is a bit confusing. You have to apply to a specific region’s consulate based on your home state and each region has slightly different requirements, rules, and processing times. Luckily, the amazing Facebook groups provided much of the guidance we needed to successfully apply. Because it was the pandemic and two of the requirements were to get a NIF (tax number) and open a bank account in Portugal, which had to be done either in person or via a Portuguese representative, we hired an immigration attorney to help us with our visa application. This was the single best decision we made.

Our immigration attorney has gone above and beyond, helping us with everything related to immigration, customs, rental and property purchase contracts, cutting through Portuguese bureaucracy, getting us emergency governmental appointments, helping with our driver’s license and getting healthcare set up and overall saving us time, headaches and money. (Our attorney is João Gonçalves of Cruz Oliveira & Associades; email: [email protected] cruzoliveira.pt.)

With our visas in order, we finally got to Portugal in March 2021. Landing in Lisbon with nine large checked bags, three carry-on suitcases, and three carryon bags, we stepped off the plane to be greeted by an African dust storm that looked like a full-on Los Angeles smog out. Not the welcome we were expecting at all and for a brief moment, we wondered if we’d made a huge mistake.

But from the moment we saw the smiling face of our Portuguese driver who was picking us up and taking us to our new apartment in the center of Lisbon’s famed Alfama district, our fears melted away and we got a glimpse into what life would be like here.

What’s Life Really Like in Portugal?

What’s life like, really? It’s easier…by magnitudes. People are nicer. The pace is slower. Everyone is quick to help and make you feel welcome. The stress of the daily grind has melted away. Sure, we still work and have busy daily lives, but the pressure and weight of the American lifestyle has been lifted. While we do stay on top of what’s happening in the U.S., we’re focused on diving into Portuguese culture and creating our new lives here.

In some ways, our daily lives haven’t changed much. We get up, have breakfast at home during the week and brunches out on the weekends. Our son gets ready for school as we prepare for our workday. Then it’s school/work, family time, and dinner during the week and meetups with our friends on the weekends. Pretty much the same as in the States but the slower pace and lack of pressure here makes all the difference in how our lives are experienced. Plus, we now have the added bonus of quick and affordable travel around Europe, and even parts of Africa, just a two- to three-hour flight away.

What you’ll find in Portugal can be pure magic—great weather, stunning beaches, charming architecture, scrumptious food, a phenomenally friendly expat community, a vibrant multi-national culture, welcoming locals, and a focus on living life and spending time with friends and family.

In fact, it’s been easier to make friends in Portugal than any other place we’ve lived in America or abroad. I often say that Portugal is attracting the most authentic, fun, and kind people I’ve ever met. Our social calendars are filled to the brim as it was so easy to create community here. Because of the Facebook groups, we were able to make friends in Lisbon before even moving here…which also made the transition much easier for our son. He had friends to look forward to meeting in person as soon as we arrived.

Check out our Full Guide to Lisbon here.

Our Cost of Living

Food is incredibly fresh, delicious, and affordable here in Portugal. It’s common to find lunch specials where you can get a beverage (wine/beer/water), main meal with two sides, dessert, and coffee all for under €10. The wine flows here, it’s cheap (but not at all nasty), and the pours are generous.

The stress of the daily grind has melted away.

In general, you’ll find housing costs about the same as the U.S.; depending on which state/neighborhood you’re moving from. The days of super-cheap real estate in Portugal’s more popular areas like Lisbon or the Algarve are gone. But if you want to live in the central regions or away from the city centers, you’ll still find things very affordable. Clothing, home goods, and furniture tend to be more expensive in Portugal. Where you save, though, is on everything else that makes up most of your daily life—food, schools, entertainment and healthcare.

I’ve found the healthcare facilities, hospitals, and doctors’ offices are cleaner, more modern, and filled with more stateof- the-art equipment than anywhere I’ve gone for medical care in the U.S. And the cost for private healthcare here is almost comical compared to the egregious costs we pay in the U.S. for insurance. For example, our family’s health insurance in the U.S. cost $715 a month for the three of us…we had no pre-existing conditions. In Portugal we pay $225 a month for premium health insurance. When we first arrived, I needed to get seven x-rays done for my new osteopath. I walked into a local lab with the lab order (but without an appointment), waited only 20 minutes, got the x-rays, and my total bill (without insurance reimbursement or being in the public-health system yet) was only €52 (about $60 at the time). That would have cost me thousands without insurance in the U.S.

Challenges Living in Portugal

Is there anything challenging about living in Portugal? Indeed, there is.

America is great at customer service and doing business well and efficiently. You won’t really find that here in the local culture. Communication is much slower, with less urgency, transparency or detail. Business doesn’t function as well here (although they are trying to change that).

Also, the government systems and agencies are mired down in bureaucracy at levels we don’t experience in the States, so unless you’re exceedingly patient, you will be frustrated frequently when you have to do anything concerning the government.

As with any country, no place is perfect. But for us, our giant leap of faith to relocate to Portugal completely paid off. Our daily lives have improved immeasurably from day one of living here.

The benefits of living in Portugal far outweigh the annoyances and growing pains as the country emerges as a great place for retirees, families, and digital nomads to thrive. Quite honestly, Portugal offers a peaceful, pleasurable, profoundly satisfying, and good life. A very good one, in fact.

Editor’s Note: Jen Wittman is the creator of the Facebook group, Californians Moving To/Living in Portugal, and the online relocation and lifestyle resource, Everyday Portugal (see: www.everydayportugal.com). Jen lives with her husband and teenage son in Verdizela, Portugal.

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