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Moving to Lisbon: 9 Things You Should Realistically Know

July 18, 2017

Lisbon is getting a lot of buzz lately thanks to its economic revival and its growing creative and startup scene. The city has risen rapidly in various Quality of Life indices such as those by The Economist and Monocle. Understandably, there’s a lot of interest in the city.

I moved to Lisbon a year ago and it’s been a fantastic change, though I also noticed how some of the information about Lisbon out there 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 research, 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.

Follow sites like SAPO, IMO Virtual or Bquarto. Check out the Portuguese classifieds site OLX as well.

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.

Some people just live out of a hostel or airbnb for a while until they’ve got something more permanent.

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 double, which took endless phone calls (and harassing their CMO on LinkedIn) to get back.

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.

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 good 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 rent, food, transportation… it’s comparatively all very cheap. Numbeo has a great cost of living overview.

Bizarrely, only two things are much more expensive:

  1. Sun lotion. 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?
  2. Mushrooms. Wait, why the hell am I paying €7 for a packet of mushrooms? This ain’t right.

Other than that, prices in Lisbon are very low, especially if you’re used to northern European prices.

4. Bureaucracy isn’t that bad

I’ve found that getting your tax number (NIF) and your residency permit (as an EU citizen) is actually fairly painless. It takes just 10 minutes each. That’s nothing like the horror stories I’ve heard from expats in Spain, for instance.

Still, not everything in Portugal exactly operates with German efficiency.

For example, 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 public servant who is dealing with you. Some are strict, some are more flexible.

The Portuguese healthcare system is apparently of good quality, but it can be very slow. Multiple friends of mine described spending hours and hours at a clinic or hospital just for a basic checkup. Getting some private medical insurance (such as from Medis) might get you faster treatment.

5. It’s worth learning some Portuguese

The Portuguese are fantastic 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, humble, and tolerant people. The claims made by those promoting Portugal abroad are totally correct! I love the Portuguese and their no-nonsense attitude.

What’s not often said is that Portuguese can also be a bit quiet and stoic. The temperament seems to me more similar to Norwegians and Fins than Spaniards or Italians. Expats sometimes complain that Portuguese are more reserved or private than they’re used to in their home country, or that friendships with locals take more time to develop. This is just something to expect.

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. You just have to get through that outer shell first.

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, without the summer ever getting too hot.

(It usually stays around 30 degrees C, while southern Spain will easily reach 40 in July and August.)

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 my favorite general one is the Lisbon International Friends group. Whatever question you have, people there will be able to answer it.

Couchsurfing has a weekly meetup on Wednesdays in Cais do Sodre that is attended by internationals, travellers, 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 get regularly posted on Meetup.com, of which I can heartily recommend the smoked salmon Sunday brunch.

Older expats and career professionals connect via platforms via Internations.

In my subjective experience, it doesn’t 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.

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3 comments

  1. Rebecca Reply October 9, 2017 at 3:39 am

    Hi There. Really helpful article! I am moving to Lisbon for work next month and need to find an apartment as soon as I get there, any recommendations on agents or people to speak to that can help finding somewhere quickly?
    All tips greatly appreciated!
    Thanks.

    • Marek Reply October 9, 2017 at 1:03 pm

      I think a good way is to go to sites like SAPO (linked above) and see who’s posting the listings. Usually there’s a logo of an agency… googling and contacting them directly might help.

  2. April Reply July 19, 2017 at 2:50 pm

    Wonderful article full of great tips – thank you! I was Lisbon earlier this year and feel head over heels in love with it. And I know what you mean, I was there in January and the outside was a perfect temperature but my accommodation was quite chilly and the plug in heater did little to aid in warmth. And it moved into my top 5 places I’d like to move to so the tips you gave are something I am certainly going to look into more.

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