Expat Essentials

Sarah Nagaty: Five big mistakes I made when I moved to Lisbon … and how to avoid them

Looking back at when I first moved to Lisbon two and half years ago, it does not take me so long before I come up with several sentences like: ‘I “should have done this differently” or “It would have great if I’d known about that,” etc. I suppose it is human nature. There is always something for us to fix when looking back at the past.

It is also the nature of moving abroad, anyway. When you move to a new place, naturally you are partly blinded by all the things you do not know yet. And that is OK. Again, very normal.

However, this does not mean that I do not cease every opportunity to let a newcomer learn from those mistakes.

Some of them sound plain stupid and I am aware that the weird way in which my brain functions is the sole thing I can blame here. But others are objectively tricky, very specific to Portugal and they are also easy to avoid.

So, let’s begin my public self-roast

Mistake No. 1 – Don’t apartment-hunt virtually


Do not flat-hunt before you are physically in Lisbon unless you know a trusted person who can help out with contacts or viewings before you arrive in Lisbon.

Do not do it.

I have not seen a single positive experience coming out of that. A friend of mine found out that the room which he paid so much for was in an Airbnb apartment and he was the only permanent tenant. He, supposedly, rented out his room from a property which claims to be exclusively for students. He had to deal with new tourists coming every single day, stag parties, noisy teenagers, and old couples who found him too noisy.

As for my own experience, it is even more embarrassing. My husband and I found a great apartment at an amazing price in a perfect location (all this should have been alarming). We asked to book a viewing for when we come. However, the person who claimed to be the landlady said that she does not live in Lisbon anymore. She said we could pay the rent of the first
month plus deposit through Airbnb as this way it is secure for both of us.

She sent us the link of her property on Airbnb and we paid. Afterwards, the lady disappeared and the property disappeared from Airbnb. As it turns out, a replica of the Airbnb website was created specifically for these kinds of scams.

We thought we lost the money for good. However, we disputed the payment with the bank and we got our money back.

It will not always be a scam. It will not always be noisy stag parties. But, it will be something.

Wait till you are in Lisbon and do it yourself.

Mistake No. 2 – Be aware of what you need to do in terms of taxes

Apparently, my husband and I were entitled to a goodly sum of money as a tax rebate, but we did not take the steps needed to receive it during our first year in Lisbon. You need to register in the government’s online finance portal. Then, you need to make sure that all your e-receipts are correctly registered by the end of January or mid- February each year.

This will entitle you to a VAT refund on anything from your weekly groceries shop to your monthly travel card to your rent.

By the way, make sure that you obtain your NIF (fiscal number) as soon as possible after you arrive in Portugal as you will need to provide this for any transaction from which you would like to obtain a tax rebate, for example: when paying for groceries at the supermarket, you can provide your fiscal number to the cashier and a receipt is issued with that number on it. It automatically registers on the online portal.

You may hear that you are not entitled to a tax rebate. Go and find out for yourself. We missed out on the first year’s rebate because we listened to one of those random opinions here and there.

Mistake 3: Letting fitting in, logistics and initial loneliness get in the way

There is something overwhelming about moving to a new place. If you do not have a job, then it is job hunting in a context you are not quite familiar with. If you have a job, then finding out all the bureaucracy related to your stay in that new country ranging from residency permits, to tax systems, to
health insurance options, to property owning or rental terms, etc. Add to that attempts to learn the language; trying to adapt to a different culture and the inevitable initial feeling of loneliness associated with the expat experience.

All of this is too much and honestly quite stressful. My mistake, though, is that I allowed this to consume me: I stopped exercising the first few months. I was not going out as much as I usually do. I was not pursuing any of my hobbies such as dancing.

Had I attempted to sustain some of my habits, I would have been probably less stressed and I would have shortened the loneliness period. It is hard. However, keep up the little things which bring you joy. Do not get too overwhelmed.

Things really will sort themselves out eventually.

Mistake 4: Choosing restaurants entirely based on online ratings

I see why we all do that and it does work. I cannot deny it. However, experiencing the real gastronomic culture of a place does not happen when you go for restaurants with top ratings. It happens when we, for example, discover the local options in our neighborhood.

Especially in Lisbon, there are many hidden gems of small family run businesses, which have no ratings anywhere, but are 10-times better, and definitely cheaper, than many popular options online. To be honest, it did not take me long to find out about that. I think choosing places to eat based on Google searching was something I have done only in my first few weeks in Lisbon.

Also, always ask locals where they eat. They usually have their own quite interesting experiences.

Mistake 5: Not joining expat groups

I really cannot explain why I have not done that. I joined the first online expat group a year after arriving in Lisbon. I would have probably avoided most of the mistakes mentioned above had I done that earlier. I found out that expat groups are quite useful. People get immediate advice about housing, taxes, residency permits, and even get to make friends.

Imagine you like surfing. You go on one of those groups and you ask: “Who is up for surfing?” And you would get at least five people up for joining you. I have seen people receive important legal advice, sell their stuff and even find jobs through these groups.

Do not let your obsession with immersing yourself in the local culture and avoiding living like a “typical expat” make you forget that expat communities provide each other with a much needed support system.

Anyway, we all make some mistakes when first moving to a new place. It is more than normal. However, always check out experiences of other expats first, maybe you can avoid some annoying detail here or there.

Enjoy Lisbon. It is worth the mistakes you might initially make.

About the author:

Sarah Nagaty is a PhD researcher of cultural studies in Lisbon. She’s lived in Portugal for two years.

As a student of cultural studies, Sarah is drawn to what connects people from different backgrounds to new cultures and places, how they relate to their new surroundings and what kind of activities they could engage with in their new hometowns.

See all of Sarah’s Dispatches posts here.

See Dispatches’s Lisbon story archive here.

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