Lisbon is getting a lot of buzz lately thanks to its economic revival and its growing creative and startup scene. Understandably, there’s a lot of interest in the city, which has risen rapidly in various Quality of Life indices.
I moved to Lisbon in 2016 and living here has been a fantastic change, but I also noticed that some of the information about Lisbon can be hyped up or neglecting to tell both sides.
Since someone recently commented on my Lisbon city guide asking for tips on actually moving there, I took this as my cue to share some advice for anyone thinking of doing so…
1. It’s hard to find a place!
Lisbon has loads of houses for sale, but very few places to rent (at least for the medium or long-term). Competition is huge, so make sure you schedule ample time for researching, making calls, and going on viewings.
Some articles about Lisbon from a couple of years ago paint a picture similar to that of Berlin from a decade or two ago — when rents were super low and people took advantage of a surplus housing stock. Those days are over (in Berlin and Lisbon alike), so expect to have to hustle to find an apartment or room that you like.
My advice is to pick up the phone and call people! Most people can speak English and calling them will get your foot in the door, but emails will often be ignored as they just get so many.
Landlords often require a fiador (financial guarantee) which is impossible to give unless you are Portuguese. They may show some flexibility to internationals, or may ask you to pay a bigger deposit or rent upfront.
Some people just live out of a hostel or airbnb for a while until they’ve got something more permanent. The situation is really pretty dire, and you need a lot of perseverance to find a place.
A company called Uniplaces spams seemingly every classifieds site and FB group using seductively photoshopped images, but I don’t recommend them unless you’re truly desperate. Too many people (both students and non-students) have had issues with them. I rented a place with them for my first month and was mistakenly charged twice, which took endless phone calls (and harassing their CMO on LinkedIn) to get back. You can’t view a property on Uniplaces before renting it, and the contracts are very limiting.
2018 Update: it seems the housing situation has gotten even worse. Do not come to Lisbon expecting an easy time finding a place to live. It’s truly like a Hunger Games style deathmatch right now with everyone fighting for even the crappiest apartments. You can still find something if you’re determined (or have much more than the usual budget) but I’m just saying that it’s probably not going to be easy!
2. Local jobs don’t pay well
I work online while living in Lisbon, so I’m unaffected by the local salary levels. But if you’re looking for a job in Lisbon, just know that you’d be lucky to earn over 1000 EUR a month for a skilled job.
Portuguese salaries are low by Western European standards, with around 500 EUR a month being the minimum wage.
Many international residents end up working for call centers such as Teleperformance, which employ thousands of foreign language workers. There seems to be decent demand for ESL teachers as well.
There is a growing startup, remote worker, and digital nomad scene in Lisbon, with many co-working spaces and startup incubators around. If you have an income independent of Portugal, you’ll be in an ideal position.
3. Cost of living is low
Salaries may be low but cost of living is comparatively very cheap as well, especially if you’re used to northern European prices. Numbeo has a great cost of living overview.
Central Lisbon is getting pricier as it’s getting more popular with tourists, but as a local you can easily get around this. While things such as food and drinks and transportation are cheap, rents are increasing and you’ll have to properly factor this into your budget.
Also, for some weird reason, sun lotion is really expensive here. You can get 300ml in rainy UK for £4, but in Lisbon it will easily cost €12. A cruel joke given Portugal’s constant sunshine. Maybe there is a secret sun lotion cartel? Other than that, Lisbon can be quite affordable.
4. There is bureaucracy
Not everything in Portugal exactly operates with German efficiency.
To do anything in Portugal (like rent a place or open a bank account) you need a tax number called a NIF. If you’re lucky, this can be a fairly painless process. But public servants are entirely unmotivated, can give you conflicting information, and will help or not help you entirely based on their mood. The government service desks bizarrely all close at 3.30pm.
I’ve had a lot of frustrating situations. It’s telling that when I went to consult with an expat tax consultant when I first came to Portugal, they actually advised me to stay out of the Portuguese system as much as possible.
Getting a gas contract for my apartment turned into a Kafkaesque nightmare from which I still bear the mental scars. Things are often needlessly complicated or uncoordinated; opening a bank account required me to sign a dozen different agreements.
You’ll also often find conflicting advice on forums about rules or paperwork, and that’s because it often depends entirely on the individual who is dealing with you. Again, you might be lucky and everything will be done in 10 minutes.
The Portuguese healthcare system seems to be of good quality, but it can be very slow. Multiple friends of mine described spending many hours at a clinic or hospital just for a basic checkup. Getting some private medical insurance (such as from Medis) will get you much faster treatment and I highly recommend it, especially given the relatively low cost compared to many other European countries.
That’s not saying these are insurmountable issues, of course. But know that you occasionally might need a good dose of patience.
5. It’s worth learning some Portuguese
The Portuguese are excellent English speakers, so you’ll rarely have any trouble communicating, especially with the younger generations who learned English from an early age. Movies and TV shows are subtitled instead of dubbed.
Do try to learn some basic Portuguese as it will still help you out a ton! While the pronunciation can be challenging to foreign ears, knowing at least some basic stuff will aid in your everyday life.
6. Portuguese are reserved (but super friendly)
It is true that Portuguese are friendly, relaxed, and tolerant people. The claims made by those promoting Portugal abroad are totally correct. I love the Portuguese and their very down-to-Earth and no-nonsense attitude.
What’s not often said is that Portuguese can also be a bit quiet or stoic. The temperament may at times seem closer to Norwegians and Fins than Spaniards or Italians. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but some expats do talk about the Portuguese being a bit more reserved or private, and that connections take a bit longer to develop.
Someone once told me, “some cultures are like coconuts, and others are like peaches — either hard on the outside, or hard on the inside”. Brazilians might be the quintessential peaches, while the Portuguese are much more like coconuts. But once you are through the outer shell, they’ll be your best friends.
7. Winter is weird
Most apartments don’t bother having central heating as this would just sit unused for most of the year. But that does mean that December and January get cold AF. Bizarrely, it’s often colder inside than it is outside.
During the winter months, you may just have to keep under the blankets or stay near an electric heater.
This is, of course, a very small price to pay for the ten months of good weather you get during the rest of the year.
8. Quality of life is superb
I’m not gonna lie: living in Lisbon is pretty amazing.
The climate is possibly the best in Europe, with about 9 or 10 months of good weather, and without the summer ever getting too hot.
I’m getting a lot of mileage out of my picnic gear, and with plenty of beaches within 30 to 60 minutes of Lisbon, you can have a pretty crazy sun-and-surf lifestyle. There is always something to do in the city, with tons of little festivals and cultural events.
Lisbon is big enough to have all the big city things, but still small enough to have a great sense of community. I lived in London before which I came to really hate, but in Lisbon you can easily reach most places within 30 minutes, and can often bump into people you know by accident.
9. Groups and meetups help you settle in
There are a ton of Lisbon specific Facebook groups where you can get answers to many questions or find other internationals. Various groups focus on specific nationalities, but a good general one is the Lisbon International Friends group. Whatever question you have, people there will be able to answer it.
A very active group are the Lisbon Digital Nomads, which organizes weekly meetups in Lisbon and Cascais as well as comedy nights and other fun activities. I’m a co-organizer of Lisbon Digital Nomads these days so maybe you’ll see me there!
Couchsurfing has a weekly meetup on Wednesdays in Cais do Sodre that is attended by internationals, travelers, and some locals. I think the meet-up is in a poor location (the bar is a bit odd), but it’s not too shabby for getting to know a few people when you’re new to the city. A bunch of my Lisbon friends I met through CS. Events also get regularly posted on Meetup.com.
Older expats and career professionals seem to connect via platforms like Internations.
It doesn’t have to take long to build up a social circle in Lisbon!
While there are a few things to be aware of before moving to Lisbon — in particular, the difficulties with finding a place to live — the challenges can be more than worth it.