Expat Essentials

Liina Edun in Lisbon: An expat gives you the REAL story on fabulous, flawed Portugal

Portugal —it’s the country that, in the past few years, has been filling up your media feed, ranked as one of the most beautiful and affordable countries in Europe to visit.

The small cobblestone streets, the delicious custard-filled pastries, and the mild Mediterranean weather do indeed make this place charming enough for people to want to move here. However, it’s important to give a more balanced perspective, so that you have a better idea of what to expect.

Let’s start with the most challenging part of living in Portugal: the bureaucracy

As with everywhere else, there are always bureaucratic things to deal with when moving to a new country, and it’s not always pleasant or straightforward. Portugal is no different. However, Portugal does take the prize for being one of the most challenging countries when it comes to dealing with administrative tasks and paperwork. The most frustrating part is that the way things work often does not make sense.

For instance, let’s look at the process of applying for a social security number, which you have to do if you plan to undertake any kind of job here in Portugal. Your company has applied for the social security number for you, but you need to receive an official letter confirming your number, and you have not received it because for some reason the address they have is wrong.

To rectify the problem, you can create an account online and do the change of address on the website. But in order to create an online account, you need a verification code. The only option for a non-Portuguese person is to receive the code is via a letter, and they will send the letter only to the address on the file, which is what you were trying to change in the first place.

Your only other option is to take a half-day and go wait for hours at the office (Loja de Cidadão) where they deal with this sort of things, or go to an official social security office, where you will be dealt with immediately with less waiting time.

However, with the latter option, you can only do it via an appointment, which can only be scheduled via your online account, to which you don’t have access yet. This is just one simple example of how flawed the system is.

Have I lost you yet?

Unmotivated bureaucrats

Aside from the actual system, the other part of the problem is the people working in those entities. Most of the staff tend to be unmotivated, to put it mildly, and are not particularly interested in helping foreigners out. Even though Portuguese people are, in general, friendly and hospitable, dealing with staff anywhere is usually a headache, whether it’s at SEF (Serviço des Estrangeiors e Fronteiros, the immigration services), at the tax office, at the electricity company, at a private hospital, at the phone company, you name it.

There is a general lack of good customer service, but particularly in government services. It often seems like the staff is just generally unhappy people who take it out on foreigners.

Dealing with the language barrier

The third problem that comes with all of that is the language barrier. Yes as a foreigner moving to a new country, it is your duty to learn the language, the customs, and the culture. However, it’s not usually easy to become fluent within the first few weeks, or even months, despite regular language classes.

The majority of the Portuguese population are not comfortable speaking English, even in the capital city of Lisbon, which is of course not their fault, and it should be on the foreigner to make the effort to speak Portuguese.

However, people working in places where foreigners are expected, such as the social security office, the immigration office, private hospitals, etc., are also not usually super-fluent in English, and this can often be a source of frustration on both ends.

Frustration which can also lead to a whole lot of misunderstandings and mistakes.

Another major problem: the rising cost of living, especially rent

Anyone looking for a place near the major cities of Lisbon or Porto will tell you that finding a decent place to live is not easy because the rent prices have been increasing so much that more than half of your salary will probably go on rent.

People who live and work in Lisbon, for instance, either need to have a second job to be able to afford a decent life, or live paycheck-to-paycheck without any savings. Unfortunately, landlords increase the rents because they know there is such ahigh demand, and it’s quite competitive. There are the lucky few of course, who work remotely from countries with much higher salaries and can afford the rent, or students on scholarships. But surviving with a Portuguese salary is not easy.

The streets of Lisbon

The cobblestone streets and hilly neighbourhoods are charming and historical, but during the winter when it rains, walking up and down those streets are actually quite dangerous.

It is in your best interest to invest in practical walking shoes, or carefully avoid the sidewalks and walk directly on the street when needed.

Let’s focus on the good things about Portugal, starting with its natural beauty


Portugal is undeniably a beautiful country to live in. The most coveted parts of Portugal are, of course, its beaches and coastal towns. Algarve is a major tourist and expat destination, due to its sunny warm summers and mild winters. The beaches are so white and the sea so blue and beautiful, it almost feels tropical.

Porto is one of the most beautiful cities to live in – just take a drive from the beach in Matosinhos along the Ribeira towards downtown, and you will see what I mean.

Nazare is well-known for its huge waves that attract surfers from all around the world. There are quite a few national parks as well, that provide excellent spots for hiking, camping, kayaking, and even skiing during the winter months.


The cuisine

Fresh fish all year round? Flaky pastries filled with a sweet custard? Delicious and affordable wine?

Those are excellent reasons to move to Portugal. During the summertime, the smell of grilled sardines will fill up the air as you walk around, and they are indeed very tasty. Grilled fish and octopus are a favourite, as well as panado de frango (breaded chicken), or grilled chicken served with rice, salad, and fries, all at a very affordable price.

Port wine is made in Porto, and many people travel to Portugal just for a trip around the Douro valley to taste all the different kinds of port wine.

Pastries are a thing here, but the most famous and arguably the most exquisite one is the Pastel de Nata, or Portuguese custard tart. It’s well-known around the world, and in Portugal you will find many institutions competing for the title of “best Pastel de Nata.”

The general friendliness of people and feeling of safety

Portugal is a safe country. Walking around alone at night is normal and completely safe, and there is no cause for concern. Of course, due diligence is required, as in every other country, and it is important to always be aware of your surroundings, especially depending on the neighbourhood.

But in general, there is a sense of safety and security in Portugal, which is another excellent reason to move here. People are also quite friendly and willing to help, especially in smaller cities and towns. They are polite, will always apologise if they bump into you, regardless of whether it was your fault or not, and usually smile back if you smile at them. This helps a lot in making one feel welcome in a new host country.

All in all, Portugal is a beautiful and safe country with excellent food and generally friendly people. However, there are many other things to consider as well, such as the nightmare of its bureaucratic system, and the rising cost of living while salaries stay among the lowest in Western Europe.

About the author:

A graduate of Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif. Liina Edun has a background in psychology and a career in writing and content management.

Having lived most of her life as an expat, she is currently located in Lisbon. 

See more on Dispatches here about Portugal.

See our Lisbon archive here.

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