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 moving there, I took this as my cue to share some advice for anyone thinking of doing so.
1. It can be hard to find a place!
This is the first thing you absolutely must know about moving to Lisbon. The city has many houses for sale, but relatively few places to rent (at least for the medium or long-term).
The issue is that the Portuguese tend to buy houses and not rent them, so the availability of rentals is already fairly low.
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 desperate. Many people (both students and non-students) have had issues with them.
Even if you’re planning to buy property in Lisbon, you will find that pressure from tourism (especially Airbnbs) and property speculation makes it very hard to find reasonably priced apartments anymore.
As I update this article in 2022, I should mention that housing prices have actually gone up to a ridiculous degree.
The driving key factor has been the remote work revolution. It was recently in the Portuguese news that just the number of Americans seeking property in Lisbon has exploded by 10X since the pandemic. Foreigners often hugely overpay causing prices to further inflate.
To be a bit more clear: Lisbon is no longer cheap. And if you decide to relocate to Lisbon now (at least long term) you’re arguably too late. Expats who have been in Lisbon for a few years are actively wondering if Lisbon got overhyped. It’s possible that, like Berlin or Barcelona before it, Lisbon will lose some of its original appeal.
If you look around more broadly in Portugal there are definitely still more interesting opportunities to lower your cost of life and enjoy the Portuguese lifestyle.
2. Local jobs don’t pay so 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 675 EUR a month now being the minimum wage (when calculated on a 12-month basis).
Many international residents end up working for call centers such as Teleperformance, which employ thousands of foreign language workers. There seems to be a decent demand for ESL teachers as well.
If you have an income independent of Portugal, you’ll be in an ideal position. There is a growing startup, remote worker, and digital nomad scene in Lisbon, with tons of co-working spaces and startup incubators around.
There are also some attractive tax and visa schemes for foreigners with certain skills basing themselves in Portugal, creating startups, or investing in areas like cleantech.
3. General cost of living is still low
Local salaries may be low and rents and property prices may have skyrocketed, but it’s true that other aspects of life in Lisbon remain highly affordable. This is especially the case if you’re used to northern European prices. Numbeo has a great cost of living overview.
Central Lisbon has gotten a lot pricier due to the tourism boom, but as a local resident you can still easily get around this. Things such as food and drinks and transportation are cheap, though housing prices are ever-increasing and you’ll have to properly factor this into your budget.
The cost of living in Lisbon does remain attractive when considering costs such as restaurant meals, transportation, etc.
4. There is significant bureaucracy
Not everything in Portugal exactly operates with perfect efficiency, to say the least.
Many expats are not at all prepared for the sheer headache that is Portuguese bureaucracy.
Public servants can be quite unmotivated, can give you highly conflicting information, and will help or not help you entirely based on their mood. The government service desks bizarrely all close at 3.30pm. Things are often needlessly complicated or uncoordinated; opening a bank account required me to sign a dozen different agreements.
It’s telling that when I went to consult with an expat tax consultant when I first came to Portugal, they advised me to stay out of the Portuguese system as much as possible. “Don’t give yourself a headache,” they said.
I’ve had a few frustrating situations while setting up here. I once got caught in a loop where I needed Document A to get Document B, but to get Document A you already needed B. My Portuguese residency papers say I’m of British nationality even though I’m Dutch because, as the public servant told me, the drop-down menu in the registration program didn’t work properly that day. I was told not to worry about it. (I should have worried about it as it messed up all my other registrations.)
Just simple issues can turn into crazy labyrinths. I recently had to get some shots before traveling to a tropical country and this sent me into mind-bending loops between various entities with no clear way to make an appointment. Under the NHS in the UK, this would have taken 5 minutes.
The authority that deals with immigration in Portugal will not even pick up the phone as they are so overworked. In my home country The Netherlands I can call the tax authority hotline and have a question answered within 10 minutes; in Portugal, you’ll probably end up on an epic quest taking 10 days.
I’m not complaining of course. I chose to live here and this is simply how things work. I’m just trying to sketch an accurate portrait of Portugal. Even though this country does try to portray itself as a startup hub and innovator, it’s still extremely old school when it comes to government functions, customer support, etc.
That said, the basic things you need to do are usually not too complicated. Your first step after moving is to get a tax identification number called a NIF. You need this to do anything like renting a place or opening a bank account. Unless you’re unlucky, getting a NIF takes just 10 minutes at the Financas office.
The Portuguese healthcare system seems to be of good overall quality, but it’s known to be slow and understaffed. Getting some private medical insurance (such as from Medis) can get you faster treatment. The insurance packages are also very cheap compared to other parts of Europe, and extremely cheap compared to the US.
Expect to sometimes need a bit of patience to navigate the Portuguese systems. You’ll also sometimes get several different answers from people (or even the authorities) on how things are supposed to work. It’s best to just shrug this off, not think about it too much, and just get things done in any way that seems to work.
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.
It’s nevertheless worth learning some basic Portuguese as it will still help you out a ton! It’s not known as an easy language to learn, but knowing at least some basics will aid in your everyday life. I think it’s also an important part of living somewhere and trying to integrate, regardless of how long you intend to stay.
Starting to learn Portuguese can feel a bit overwhelming, but this blog has some great advice for how to self-teach, take classes, or immerse yourself in the language.
6. Portuguese are reserved but very friendly
It is true that Portuguese are friendly, relaxed, and tolerant people. The claims made by those promoting Portugal abroad I found to be totally true. I love the Portuguese and their down-to-Earth 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 — or at least, that’s my impression.
That could be a generalization, but some expats do talk about the Portuguese being a bit more reserved and that local connections take a bit longer than expected to develop. Then again, I’ve heard the same said from foreigners about living in my home country of the Netherlands, so maybe it’s just something that all immigrants deal with.
Still, 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 a bit more like coconuts. Once you are through the outer shell, you can get to know them much better.
A huge number of Portuguese have worked abroad, especially in the UK and in Luxembourg. It’s often these international Portuguese you’ll be first to meet, as they like to mix with other cultures in the same way they did when living abroad themselves.
7. Winter is a bit weird
Winters have a different feel to them in Portugal than they do in the north of Europe.
That’s in part because many apartments don’t bother having central heating as this would just sit unused for most of the year (this is especially true for the charming older houses that many foreigners like to live in).
That does mean that December and January get cold AF at times. Bizarrely, it’s often colder inside than it is outside.
Winters are less cozy than in northern Europe and more just… well, cold? During the winter months, you may just have to keep under the blankets or stay near an electric heater.
This is, of course, a 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: the quality of life in Lisbon is pretty great.
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. (Unlike, say, southern Spain where you’ll be burned alive in August.)
While living here, 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 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 dislike mostly due to its sheer size, but in Lisbon you can easily reach most places within 30 minutes and will often bump into people you know by accident.
Although the rental and real estate market is becoming a major challenge, the outdoor lifestyle in Lisbon is objectively amazing.
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 is the Lisbon Digital Nomads, which organizes weekly meetups in Lisbon 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 at one of our regular Thursday drink events.
Couchsurfing has a weekly meetup on Wednesdays in Cais do Sodre that is attended by internationals, travelers, and some locals. The bar where it’s held isn’t Lisbon’s best, but it’s a nice event for meeting people when you’ve just arrived. A bunch of my Lisbon friends I met through CS. Older expats and career professionals seem to connect via platforms like Internations. Other events get regularly posted on Meetup.com, to the point where you can have something to do virtually every day.
Basically, 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 initial challenges are more than worth it.
P.S. Wondering what neighborhoods to look at? Peter Faber of Surf Office did a great survey of Lisbon neighborhoods among expats/nomads. He’s also created the site Hoodpicker, which has more useful data on Lisbon’s neighborhoods.
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