When my daughter was five and my son was just three, we sold everything we owned, packed eight suitcases and moved to Thailand. That didn’t work out, for reasons I’ve detailed extensively on this blog. But instead of tucking our tails between our legs and heading back to Idaho, we decided to go back to the global drawing board. We looked for a place that would align with our wish list but also understood, as veteran expats, that no country is perfect. Because we speak (rusty) Spanish, we first looked at Spain, which turned out to be overly complicated as a business owner.
Then we discovered Portugal.
So in late August of 2019, we moved to Portugal, spent about three weeks touring the country from north to south, and settled in the Algarve, where we currently live. If you’re paying attention to the date, that means we moved right before the worst of COVID and had just gotten our expat legs under us when everything shut down.
Now we’re three years into living in this incredible country. No, things haven’t always been rosy. Yes, we’ve had many frustrations and hiccups along the way. But as any expat knows, hassles come with the lifestyle.
With all that said, here’s a short list of what I’ve learned three years in, both about Portugal itself and about living abroad. This is our fourth country outside the US, and I’m still learning every day! Questions? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer them.
#1 Your happiness is equal to your effort.
This is true especially when you move somewhere new. We have formed a wonderful community here because of the effort we have put in.
Since my husband and I grew up in Idaho, we have a strong network there with lots of friends and business colleagues. Here, we had to start from scratch to build our community. Expect to put in the effort if you want to be part of the local community.
#2 Good weather is good for the soul.
Idaho has four seasons, which used to be mild but now carry extremes in both winter and summer, as wildfires rage and the valley I grew up in fills with smoke. When I was pregnant, there were entire weeks in which I would hold my breath walking to the car so I could drive to the gym to get exercise. Heat rises past 100 degrees Fahrenheit. In the winter, sidewalks are frozen, and the ice-snow-slush on the road makes driving risky.
Here, we have great weather pretty much year-round, save a few weeks of rain and humidity in the winter. For most of the year, we wear shorts in the daytime (it gets cold at night in the winter). The ocean is 1.5 miles from our home, making it easy to make it to the seaside at least once a week.
For me, the year-round, lovely weather has made a huge difference in my quality of life. Just being able to leave the doors and windows open in the winter is amazing!
#3 It’s really hard being away from family and dear friends.
This is true anywhere, but it’s felt especially hard here. Because of COVID, I wasn’t able to see my dad for three years and my mom for two. I also don’t have any trips planned back to Idaho for work, which has been a way to stay connected to my community back home.
Add on the few close friends I’ve had since I was small—one since kindergarten, the others since freshman year of high school—and I miss my people. There is no upside to this. It’s the reality of being away.
#4 Government bureaucracy is a real bear sometimes.
Residency, driver’s license, health care . . . pretty much anything that needs done here requires a lot of paperwork and waiting. In lines. For an appointment. For a document to come in the mail (which often takes much longer than you’d imagine).
And the government changes their mind like the wind. I waited over a year for my driver’s license appointment, plus paid a hefty fee to get help with it because the bureaucracy is such a hassle. Then one day they announced that I can just use my foreign license! What?
If you’re considering Portugal as a potential home, get ready for paperwork (like, real paper) and waiting.
#5 Speaking of waiting: THE LINES. THE HASSLE OF PAYING FOR THINGS.
Just like the government, Portuguese businesses and services are way behind in how they operate. Not only do you have to physically go to a location to take care of most things, but you’ll have to stand in line when you get there. You’ll also probably have to bring cash, as many businesses still don’t accept debit and credit cards.
But my all caps above is partial jest, because really, in the grand scheme of things, what’s waiting in a line? Annoying but something we can deal with.
#6 Health care isn’t as good as the lists purport.
One of the things that attracted us to Portugal is that it’s listed as one of the top countries in the world for health care. While I have been mostly happy with basic health care here, we have not had a great experience with many of the specialists.
There are exceptions. We have found a number of great medical providers, especially when my daughter contracted a life-threatening infection in Porto. But that was in Porto, where there is a university hospital and a lower cost of living that attracts quality doctors. Here in the Algarve, there are few options when it comes to any specialized medical needs.
Even in an emergency, my son had to be driven by ambulance for AN HOUR to the closest pediatrician. An hour. Sixty minutes. Can you imagine what that’s like as a mom, riding in an ambulance for an hour with your sick child? It was terrible. To top that off, the emergency care was poor as well.
This, I think, is unique to the Algarve. But we have also driven to the Lisbon and Porto areas on a number of occasions to see specialists, and I’ve found that some of their medical approach/mindset is behind the US by at least a decade. Treatments are not current or are not holistic. Again, there are certainly exceptions, and we have had some great doctors here. But it is not easy to find a forward-thinking, expert doctor if you have a specialized need.
But access and cost are still a huge health care plus.
All that said, I am still happier here than I was in the US, simply because we can access any specialist we need within a reasonable time frame and cost. And when my daughter was in the hospital in Porto, hospitalized for a week and requiring surgery, I didn’t have to think about the cost. Our bill at the end, for a private hospital with an excellent doctor? Five hundred euros.
#7 Portuguese is crazy hard to learn.
This is a huge downside for me, partially because I came in with a base of Spanish and would have loved to further develop the language. Portuguese is sort of like Spanish but also not at all like Spanish, which is confusing for us Americans who have almost zero language exposure and training as kids. Hearing and reproducing the sounds, which have a harsher quality to them than flowy, singsong Spanish, has been tough. Layer in the pandemic, which kept us at home for a long stretch, and the demands of parenting young kids, and I haven’t made much progress in the language.
I aim to fix this, but it’s been slow going.
#8 Education quality largely depends on where you live.
Here in the Algarve, there is an education crisis. I don’t say this lightly. There are not enough schools for the amount of kids who need to go to school. This is especially true in the international community. Many of us have kids who don’t speak Portuguese and are too old to be put into a Portuguese system without severely interrupting their learning. Or we want a different educational approach, and the public system doesn’t meet that desire.
Waiting lists for international schools are 100-plus deep, with families desperate for spots. The worst part is that the schools hold way too much power, often not informing families of availability until a week or two before the school year starts. This isn’t totally their fault, as they will often have last-minute openings because a family decides to move schools (or even countries!). But the other side of this is that I have seen a lot of discrimination and closed-mindedness in the private system, and have seen schools tell families they can leave if they don’t like the way things are run. As you can imagine, this is a problem and doesn’t foster a community of collaboration and growth.
Of course, this is not true across all schools. There are good schools here, but they are few. And you’d better believe their lists are crazy long.
#9 Cost of living is OK but not as good as the media claims.
One myth we busted quickly is that it’s cheap to live here. It’s not. In fact, we happen to live in one of the most expensive cities in the Algarve (oops!).
Even outside this city, prices have risen quickly. Dining out is not cheap. We usually spend about 50–60 euros on a typical dinner for two adults and two kids. That’s not anything fancy—just a basic meal out at a normal restaurant. Even stopping for a quick poké bowl, with paper bowls and wooden forks, runs us 45-plus euros. Yes, coffee and wine are cheap, but the average restaurant is not.
Homes and rent aren’t as cheap as the articles say either. Sure, if you’re moving from LA, New York, Miami, or another large US city, you might be happy with the prices. But coming from Idaho, it feels about comparable.
What does save money is health care. Back in the US, it was common for us to spend about $2,000 per month on our health insurance and medical appointments. And that was for terrible insurance with a huge deductible. Here, we spend less than $300 per month for excellent insurance, plus maybe an extra $100–$200 per month during months when we have bigger medical needs. I still remember the first time I saw a specialist out of pocket and braced myself for the bill . . . which was 100 euros (!).
#10 We love it here.
There are so many things we love about living here that have nothing to do with cost of living, health care, and schools. And I’m sure I won’t capture the depth of our love for this country in this short section, but here’s a short list of things I love.
Living near the beach soothes my soul. The people—especially Portuguese—have been welcoming and helpful. We have made great friends and feel connected to the local community. The pace of life is slower and less stressful, which is a good balance to my ultra-driven, must-get-everything-done, tendency-to-work-too-much self. Living in a tourist town means ebb and flow of people and busyness, which I love. The food is fresh and delicious. The views are dramatic—stunning cliffs and vast green-blue ocean; old buildings and cobblestones; hillside vineyards with a backdrop of windmills. It’s beautiful.
If you’re thinking of moving abroad, whether to Portugal or elsewhere, keep in mind that there are pluses and minuses anywhere you go. Here, the pluses have kept us for three years, and we have no clear plans to leave (though who knows what the future holds!). For us, it helped to make a list of our needs and wants, and to understand our deal breakers. We weren’t clear on those three things when we moved to Thailand, and it ultimately didn’t work out.
But we are happy here, and our journey in Portugal will continue. I’ll report back as we learn more about this wonderful country.
What do you love or find challenging about your current location? If you’re dreaming of moving, what do you hope to find? Share your thoughts in the comments!