In early 2019, we were living in southern Thailand on the island of Phuket. We’d been through what felt like endless obstacles during our short time there: a bat infestation in the house we rented; multiple hospitalizations; severe and constant sickness pulsing through our home. The kids had a bout with hand-foot-and-mouth that lasted two weeks. There was rabies found in a dog near our house. Two people were struck and killed by a car near the entrance to our neighborhood. Two king cobras were found just a couple miles from our neighborhood (and where there are two, who knows how many more there are).
For this Idaho native, the challenges and dangers were too much. Sure, I’d lived in the Dominican Republic and Vietnam. Sure, we’d had countless experiences that were dangerous or hard or overwhelming. But that was before we had kids. For us, the challenges of living in Thailand with our young kids was too great. As much as we loved the country, we needed to live somewhere easier.
So we set our sights outward, scouring the world—or at least the World Wide Web—for the right next location for our family. We considered all options. We looked at New Zealand. We considered areas of Asia, including Singapore and Japan. We talked about moving to Costa Rica. We heavily considered Spain. And then, we found Portugal.
Now, if you’re an American like me, or really a non-European, you probably didn’t hear a lot about Portugal growing up. I’ll admit I wasn’t even sure where it was on a map. But as we learned more about the country, we started to imagine that maybe, just maybe, this could be our place. In August of 2019, we landed in Lisbon and set out on a driving tour of the country, visiting the schools my husband and I had carefully added to our spreadsheet, and eventually landed in the Algarve.
What it’s like to live in the Algarve
The Algarve is the southernmost region of Portugal, extending in a band across the southern part of the country. I’d read about the area and watched tons of YouTube videos, but it was nothing like I expected.
Our first impression of the Algarve was completely inaccurate. When we visited, the area was dry. I remember driving through Albufeira, a town toward the middle of the Algarve, and telling my husband, “I can’t imagine living here.” It looked like a barren wasteland. I felt like I was in an old Western, with a tumbleweed about to blow across the dirt road we were driving on.
We visited a beach nearby, and while it was beautiful, it was the most heavily touristed beach I have ever seen—and that’s saying a lot, considering I’d lived in three coastal areas! I’d also never taken an elevator down to the beach, but there we were, riding several stories down a glass elevator to the beaches below, swarming with tourists.
I told my husband again, “Nope. This isn’t for us.” He agreed. We made our way back to our rented car—which we had precariously parked on a narrow road, and made our way out of Albufeira, back to our Airbnb in Silves, a town nearby. Our Airbnb didn’t have an air conditioner, and we roasted all night in the heat of August, barely sleeping.
Now, as I reflect, my initial impression couldn’t have been more wrong. The Algarve is stunning and lush and all the good things. We just happened to arrive in the dry, dusty summer. By fall, the area would transform. By spring, the area would be lush with wildflowers.
I’ve fallen in love with the landscape: stunning cliffs, picturesque beaches, rolling hills. I adore the people and the practical, disciplined, kind culture. I can’t get enough of the food: cheeses, bread, olive oil, soup. And the wine. We can’t forget about the wine.
As amazing as this area is, I do want to be clear: our lives are normal. We do everyday things like drop the kids off at school and take them to dental cleanings and go grocery shopping and clean up something one of the kids spilled at dinner. It’s just that some of our everyday experiences are just a little bit different than what we knew back home, and that makes living here amazing to us. For example, I might need to run to the natural store, but that store is located in the town center near a historic building and down a cobblestone street. That kind of stuff. The novel everyday.
All in all, we have found living in the Algarve to be better than we’d hoped. In fact, we’re smitten. But living here isn’t without its challenges.
Practical challenges of living in Portugal
The practical challenges are many. But if you dream of living here, I wouldn’t let them keep you away. For us, the benefits of living in any foreign country are greater than the difficulties. To keep this simple and clear, here’s a short, bulleted list of the biggest challenges living here.
Government bureaucracy. Oy vey. The challenges here are next level. The residency process was difficult and expensive, not to mention long. With COVID, it’s much harder than not. That said, once you’re in, renewing is extremely easy. I was able to seamlessly renew my residency for three years with a simple online form and payment at an ATM. Pro tip: hire a lawyer to help you.
School vacancies. Many expats move here without securing school placement for their children. I can say definitively: this is a bad idea. We spent months before we moved communicating with schools around the country. Nearly all were full. A few had vacancies, but they weren’t the ones we really wanted to attend. We found that the Algarve had more availability, and the school we liked had a spot. This is not true anymore. Based on my mom-intel, the schools are full or nearly full everywhere. So if you’re planning to move, secure a spot somewhere. Then get on all the waiting lists in case the school you choose doesn’t work out.
Time zone challenges. If you’re American or work with a lot of Americans, the time difference can be a challenge. It’s not as bad as Asia, but it can be tricky to squeeze most calls into the last two hours of the day. For me, it’s important to eat dinner with my family most days of the week, and if I can’t make dinner, at least get done by 6 p.m. so I have time with them. That means I have to schedule calls out several weeks because of the limited hours that work with the American time zones, especially Pacific time. Most people are understanding, but I do occasionally have to take a later call to accommodate a client’s schedule.
Health care availability in the Algarve; navigating health care nationally. Let me preface by saying that private health care is excellent and affordable here in Portugal. My son recently had to have some testing done that would have likely cost us thousands of dollars back home with our crazy-high-deductible insurance that cost us $1,100 a month for the family. We paid $45 for his tests and pay about $250 per month for insurance. That said, access to health care in the Algarve is poor. The best hospital is an hour away, with no comparable private hospitals nearby that offer pediatrics; if you need a specialist visit or surgery, you really need to travel to Lisbon (and we have). And communicating with the hospitals and insurance companies? Don’t get me started. You will be hung up on, disconnected, or forced to provide endless documentation over and over for weeks to get access to exam results. I speak from experience with different hospitals in both the Algarve and Lisbon. I am 100% confident this would be easier if I spoke Portuguese. Which brings me to my next point.
Learning the language. I have learned and practiced very little Portuguese while we’ve lived here. That is my own fault—I was in survival mode for so long with the pandemic that I didn’t feel I had the mental or emotional bandwidth to take on anything besides running my business and caring for my family. That said, I start Portuguese lessons next week and will report back on my experiences learning the language. I will say that I picked up Spanish quite fast, but I haven’t had that experience here in Portugal, so I’m hopeful that lessons will help kickstart my learning.
Access to English-language books, toys, and learning materials. Since Brexit, I’ve been sorely disappointed to find it difficult to order English books, toys, and learning materials. Books are my life, y’all. I’ve built my entire life and business around books! So not having easy, fast access to real books (not digital) is hard. It’s also difficult when I want to buy a toy for my kids. As an example, my mom wanted to buy my son a toy cell phone because he asked for one “so he could call grandma.” I spent nearly two hours looking at different models of toy phones to find one that was in English and that I could order without paying a small fortune for shipping ($20+ for a $12 toy). The struggle is real.
Cost of electronics and similar items. My little guy shattered my iPhone recently, and as I price out the phone I want to buy, it is $500 more than I would pay in the United States. $500! That’s insanity. About $350 of that is just taxes. I also bought a new camera, mic, and lighting, which cost several hundred dollars more here than it would back home.
Some other challenges you might run into: finding well-paying work; navigating the tax system; finding a rental home if you’re not ready to buy. Again, for us, the challenges have been worth it. We love it here.
The short of it: I ❤️ Portugal.
As Buddy the Elf said, “I’m in love! I’m in love! And I don’t care who knows it!” Practical challenges aside, and there are many, we have fallen head over heels in love with this place. I deeply miss home—my family, my friends, and the Boise community—but we are happy, healthy, and grateful to get to call this place home.
How about you? Do you love where you live, and if so, what makes it amazing? Where do you dream of moving? Please share in the comments—I love hearing from you!