I've been thinking A LONG TIME about how to answer the several emails and comments I've gotten over the last couple of years about people interested in moving to Portugal. I know in my blog and for those who know me on Facebook and Twitter, that I have created a beautiful picture of my life here through my photos and experiences here. And let me say for the record, I do like living here, but I went through hell and back to get to the point where I could enjoy all the lovely things this country has to offer. But life has not been and still is not always peaches and cream people. You can't move to a foreign country expecting everything will be perfect (obviously). As I said below, this is a seriously complicated issue for me and I haven't really been in the mood to address it at all, but the questions keep coming so I have to finally give you an answer. I hope this will be the last time I'll need to address this.....which hopefully after you read this you'll know why. And PLEASE don't ask me any more questions until you've read through this entire post!
First, a Warning: DO NOT ATTEMPT TO MOVE TO PORTUGAL AND GET LEGAL THE SAME WAY I DID. I am still here and legal only by sheer luck with timing and circumstances, this is not something you want to bet your life and money on people. I unknowingly made a big mistake trying to do it the way I did and luckily I was able to make it through in the end but now I know better. Read on and you'll know why.
If you haven't already read the first couple of posts I did on this blog, which explain why I came here in the beginning and how I initially got started, then please go back and read: "And What Do You Mean By That?" http://www.americaninportugal.blogspot.com/2009/02/and-what-do-you-mean-by-that.html
January 2008- So to summarize what I said in my earlier post, I moved to Europe on the idea I could get started by teaching English. I came only with my passport-which for US citizens here automatically puts you on a "tourist visa" for 90 days, however I bought a return ticket for exactly 90 days after I came, with the intention of finding a job that offered a contract because I had found more job postings for English teachers. But when I there and went on interviews, NONE of them were offering contract positions, only work on recibos verdes or "green receipts", which is Portugal's way of paying hourly, non-contract workers, essentially the legal form of paying "under the table". But in order to work on green receipts, you needed a NIF (numero identificação fiscal) which is like the equivalent to a Social Security number in the US (but not as important) and in order to get that, they told me I needed a residency or "be legal", which I had no idea how to do that without a contract!
February 2008-I went to talk to someone at SEF (Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras- "Foreigners & Borders Service" aka "The 5th Dimension of Hell") to which they just told me "No, you need a contract, go back to the US", which really disheartened me. Then one employer told me they heard that if you got a Portuguese citizen to sponsor you that you could get a NIF and iniciar actividade or "start working". This proved to be true when I went with my Portuguese boyfriend to the Finanças (Finance Office) and they gave me a NIF under his sponsorship. This was enough to allow me to start working, teaching English with a school, but I still needed to get green receipts so I could get paid at the end of the month! So we went back to the Finanças, but they said "no". This was the beginning of the realization that every person we would talk to at a govt. agency was going to tell us a different answer, even if it was the same person but on a different day. So we tried another Finanças branch, another "no". Finally, on the third one (a branch away from the downtown-this helps) the guy seemed to have been in a good mood and decided to give me the green receipts hooray! But he it told us this was because my sponsor was also working on green receipts, though if he changed to a contract job, I would have to go on them alone and be a resident. (He did a couple months later, but they didn't seem to care at that time when I went to change over on my own.....see a different answer each time!). Around this time I also managed to set up a bank account, using my boyfriends permanent home address (his parent's place) and presenting a signed "declaração" from my employer just stating I was currently working for them. (*Note: According to another American friend's recent experience, it's much harder to open a bank account here now, you need far more proofs of your residence and job). I also found an apartment to rent, again under the sponsorship/cosigning from my boyfriend, (this is basically required for all places to rent on your own, renting a room is easier).
April 2008- The date of my return ticket at the 90-day marked had arrived, but I already had a job, making money (legally), had my own bank account and my own apartment.....to me this seemed like I was on the right track and I could just apply for my residency in country with these things. So even though I was losing money from a non-refundable ticket, I decided to pass it up and continued on with my new life!
June 2008- By this point, I had settled in well and had been working steadily, so I decided start investigating how to apply for residency in Portugal. I was afraid to go back SEF at first, after what they told me before so I thought maybe the US Embassy in Portugal could give me some advice so I went there. Turns out, this is the last place (your native country's Embassy in general) you want to go for help in immigrating to another country (which kind of makes sense when you think about it) and of course they told me I had to back to the US (you think they wanted to be responsible for an illegal immigrant there?). I Started freaking out then ( like most Americans do at this point), trying to figure out how I was going to save myself from having to throw everything away that I had gotten in the last 4 months. But then it got worse: most of my classes stopped for summer vacation and I was left not being able to make enough money to pay rent....and since I had wasted my return ticket, I couldn't afford to even buy another ticket back home if I wanted to! Of course I could have always asked my parents to help lend me the money but that was the last thing I wanted to do, it felt like it would prove I was complete failure at this endeavor. So I spent a depressing summer of 2008 struggling to survive with the help of my boyfriend and "hiding" from the immigration police (just paranoia, the police here hardly ever do that stuff).
September-December 2008-Classes started up again and I looked for other schools that might possibly offer contracts....none of them really did, only quasi-contracts between you and the school, none of them govt. sponsored, which is what you need. By the end of the year, classes stopped again for Christmas holidays and I was left again almost broke and not being able to spend the holidays with my family and friends back home-this sucked. My parents told me to make an ultimatum, that if I didn't get a real job and a residency by the time a year past living here then to come home. So I remember crying one night before Christmas, pleading to Miguel to try to call SEF one more time and explain my situation to see if there was ANY way to get legal from here. He had really lost hope that I could stay here and reluctantly made the following Monday. To his surprise, he spoke to someone who told them there was a way. HALLELUJAH! I KNEW IT WOULD WORK! Well, or so I thought for the next year......
January 2009: SEF had told us that I could apply for residency as "trabalhador independente" which is essentially a "freelance worker" and to start, I needed to register with Social Security and start paying it every month. So I did, and I still pay a ridiculous amount to this day...ugh but this also gave me a chance to obtain a national healthcare number so I could use the health services (really good to have) and then I had my actual Social Security number (not used the same way as the US SS#) to use for my residency application. I turned in the application and they told me they would let me know when they were ready to interview me and complete the process. I waited 6 months......
June 2009: Finally got the notice, I had 2 weeks to get the rest of the necessary forms (original of birth certificate, notarized, copy of work declaration, copy of tax declaration-yes, you still have to pay taxes in Portugal whether you're legal or not! etc.) went to the SEF office and waited hours for my interview which my Miguel helped me out with, paid the expensive application fees PLUS the racked up penalty fee for living here illegally since my tourist visa ran out (so about €600-700 for a little over a year's worth of illegal living-don't let this happen to you!!!) and was told they would call me when they made a decision, which could be anywhere from 3-8 months.....
December 2009: I was desperate to be able to go home this year for the holidays to see my family, but still hadn't received a decision from SEF.....I had asked Miguel to call them back in October to see if I was allowed to leave the country since I was now in process but they told him no. This time though, after my parents' persuasion, a week before Christmasd I decided to make another trip out to the SEF office myself to try to talk to someone to see if they had made a decision. The receptionist there told me no they hadn't, maybe in January, and I started crying, telling him I had really wanted to visit my family for Christmas. But then he told me "well, you can travel outside the country if you want, as long as you bring your papers that say you're in process". I couldn't believe what I just heard, and I wasn't sure whether to jump for joy or to strangle someone there for telling me no before!!! But what mattered is my family got a happy surprise that year when I made it home the day after Christmas to spend the rest of the holidays with them.
January 2010- Not soon after I returned to Portugal from my holiday vacation, sure enough I got a letter from SEF telling me to come to their office for their decision. I waited 3 hours just to have some lady sit me down in her office and tell me that my application had been rejected. They told me my English teaching job didn't qualify enough for their "highly/special skilled worker" exception, to which apparently this whole "trabalhador independente" application is based on and most people get rejected in the end. She told me I had 2 options: Apply for an appeal, which she even advised me that this is usually just rejected as well in the end but it buys me more time for option 2- try to secure a contract job. I had 20 days from then to do either of these things or get out of Portugal. When I heard this news, surprisingly I wasn't sad or upset, I was actually angry and determined, I had been living, working, paying bills and taxes, essentially doing everything in Portugal that citizens do for almost 2 years yet they still wouldn't consider me legal?!?! Talk about confusing as hell. Well, finding a contract job in that short amount of time was impossible, I had been applying to both teaching jobs as well as hotel/restaurant jobs or any job I thought I could do off and on throughout the time I had been living there and the only ones who ever responded were for teaching and of course none offered a contract. The appeal just seemed as well, I didn't want to go through the whole process again knowing I was already terminal! I talked everything over with Miguel and a third option came up that we had thrown out before: being recognized in a "união de facto" or a civil union which would then make me eligible to apply for residency under "Familiar de Cidadão da União Europeia, Nacional de Estado Terceiro" or "Family of a European Union Citizen". The thing is, we couldn't use that before since you had to have been living with that person for at least 2 years.....but now that 2 years was approaching in less than 2 months! So within my 20 days time granted, I returned to SEF and re-applied under this type of residency!
June 2010- After applying for a "civil union" residency, we had to prove we had been living together for 2 years of course, this meant tons of papers showing our address being the same (which we used Miguel's parents' permanent address from my NIF as a backup), bills in our name, all of the same proofs of identity I needed the first time around, re-notarized and photocopied again....and finally filing taxes together for the first time. This last one was crucial, if the IRS accepted us as a civil union then is was almost inevitable that SEF would have to follow suit. And we were right, thankfully at the same time we were getting our tax return, I got a letter saying I had been granted residency FINALLY!!!! Though it took SEF another two months to make my crappy folded paper residency card (which I had to pay another fee for), I was officially legal after 2 1/2 years of living here and have a residency valid for 5 years before I have to renew.
Conclusion: So as you have just read, you now see that the only reason I am legal and still living here today was by sheer circumstantial luck. Words cannot describe the amount of stress and anxiety I lived with during that whole time, which seemed to have fueled some chronic health problems that I have spent a lot of money recovering from. I have been eligible for citizenship since I passed 3 years in a civil union, but I've been quite hesitant to start the whole painstaking process all over again just yet. So please understand when I repeat, do not attempt to go about living in Portugal this way, though I'm happy to have gotten through it and glad I'm still here, if I had known a quicker and better way to have done it then I would!!!
Not to long ago a friend came a across a video clip from a documentary about the legalization process in Spain, which is just as long and complicated as in Portugal. Check out this amusing clip, which is basically a summary of what I went through in my story above:
To this day, I still teach English as my main "day job", still on green receipts without a contract. I teach both for schools and privately but schools are the worst because they NEVER pay you on time. I still struggle to make decent money and have no job stability. Fortunately though, there has been another hope and motivation that helped me to survive throughout this time, thanks to Gabriella and Ryan Opaz of Catavino, in which I've had the opportunity put my food and wine education into a new outlet by starting to write about Portuguese food, wine and travel over the last 3 1/2 years on their website. It has opened up a world of opportunities, including a temp. contract job last year with Fodor's Travel to update their Portugal 9th Edition guidebook, which produced my first published writing work! Now that Catavino has ended, I will continue to write on this blog (as you see) and continue to look into new opportunities, which I hope to post about here :)
Now, back to YOU. You've read my story and hopefully you'll heed my warning, but if you don't, then at least take the time to ask yourself these questions below. Assuming those who have asked me about moving to Portugal are not of Portuguese decent, let's start by narrowing things down and going from there. Here is my questionnaire to you: answer these with either a "yes" or a "no" about yourself and please be as honest and as realistic as possible:
MY QUESTIONS TO YOU:
1. Have you ever been to Portugal? More than once? (just passing through the airport doesn't count)
2. Have you ever heard of the IMF? Are you aware of the current state of the Portuguese economy?
3. Do you currently speak or know any Portuguese? Are you willing to learn it?
4. Do you currently speak or know any other Latin languages (ie. Spanish, French, Italian, Catalan, Romanian)?
5. Do you know anyone (preferably native Portuguese) who lives here? (I don't count)
6. Do you plan to live in Portugal more than 6 months to a year?
7. Are you fluent in more than one language? (German, Dutch,Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Norwegian etc.)
8. Do you have at least €5,000+ in savings to use for "survival" money? (not counting the money you would need for flight to move here)
9. Are you willing to be away from all of your family and friends for a long period of time? (not being able to go home to the US for at least year or two)
10. Are you willing to wait in extremely long lines, humiliate yourself trying to communicate with people, go to whatever agency they tell you to go and return as many times as they tell you to, obtain, fill out, make copies, get notarizations and possibly pay several hundreds of euros in fees to do whatever it takes to make it here and be a legal resident?
So... I think you know how this questionnaire evaluation works, basically, if you answered most of the questions with a "no", then I seriously think you'll be wasting a lot of time, money and energy moving here. And of course if you answered most of them or even certain ones with a "yes", then I think at least you have your head in the right place for starters. Now let me explain why I asked you each of these questions:
1. Well, this one should be obvious, but I've actually met someone who decided they wanted to move to Portugal without ever having visited the country! Which I thought and still think that it's just absolutely nuts to move to another city or state, let alone a foreign country that you've never been to before! But they did, and to no surprise, after about 3 weeks living here they decided that they they didn't really like it (well except the food & wine, which they loved, but that's a normal reaction ;) ). But surprisingly they didn't return home to the US, they moved to Madrid instead and have been there for almost two years now and loves it. So actually a happy ending to that crazy idea but that doesn't mean it will turn out the same way for you! I think they'll agree with me in the end that this is not a good way to go about it.
Ok now let's say you're like me, you've visited Portugal before, maybe even more than once....that still doesn't mean you should move here. I had been to Portugal before, took two vacations here before and absolutely loved it. This is usually the way it starts......but have you ever heard the saying "Don't crap where you eat?" Well I got one like that from what I've learned: "Don't live where you vacation". Because living in Portugal, living in another country or even another city in the US is always going to be different than what you see and feel when you vacation there. Think about it, when you go on vacation, the stress of your job, bills to pay, rent or mortgage etc, is left back at home and everything of course seems great in a place where you don't have a care in the world. But then if you MOVE there, you'll be bringing those things with you, and they might even be worse! I had already done this once before, in 2006 I decided to move to Miami Beach (South Beach) after taking an awesome vacation there with my friends in college. And even though after moving there I still tried to get my share of the beach and nightclubs and fun that I had on vacation, I also had to deal with the stress of maintaining a job, a place to live, paying bills etc. A year and a half later I was broke, jobless and miserable after struggling with the failing Florida economy and restaurant industry at the time and I just couldn't take it anymore. You would think I would have learned from that but I decided to try my luck again, in a foreign country of all places! :p And as you just read above, it hasn't been easy here as well.....but every situation is different, take this as a cautionary reminder, love at first sight doesn't always last!
2. So if you do know about the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and how BAD the Portuguese economy currently is then you know what I mean when I said the stress factors like maintaining a job, a place to live, paying bills etc, could be worse. Worse than when I came 4 years ago. Not only does Portugal have the IMF here now, but they got the whole "troika" as they call it, which also includes the European Commission and the European Central Bank. Why? Because Portugal IS IN DEBT UP TO THEIR EYEBALLS. And now due to this, taxes are going up, prices in general are going up, unemployment is going up and salaries are going down etc......yea you get the point. Ask yourself now, if this really a good time to move to Portugal?
3. This should be another no-brainer, it's a good idea to know the language of the country you're living in or at least make a good effort in learning it! If you're searching for a job in Portugal, you're going to have to search on Portuguese job sites, which yes, they're going to be in Portuguese! And yes it's true, a lot of Portuguese speak, or at least understand English well, especially in Lisbon (I should know, I teach them), but that's also bad for you if you're competing with them for a job. Many companies here want their employees to know English, but speaking fluent Portuguese is a given. So if you can't do that but they can, and on top of that, you're a foreigner trying to get a job in a country where currently natives are struggling to get one, who do you think they're going to choose for the position? Also, you'll definitely have a hard time getting around outside of big cities if you don't know Portuguese, even some local neighborhoods like mine in Lisbon have very few people who can speak English well. And if you've never been very good at languages then (Portugal, not Brazilian) Portuguese is definitely not a good language for you to start with, I've said it already in early blog posts that it is HARD. This is coming from someone who's already studied French, Spanish, Italian and Catalan and believes to be good at learning languages AND I'm still telling that that Portuguese has been the hardest language to learn so far. Granted I've never had any formal Portuguese lessons but after 4 years of living here I'm nowhere near fluent. I thought I knew some Portuguese from reading books before I moved here but in reality, I couldn't understand almost a damn thing for at least a year of living here. And that in itself, is a very stressful thing to live with daily.
4. If you know any of these languages, especially if you're fluent, this should help you in the long run for learning Portuguese well, and maybe more quickly. If not, I think it's going to be really tough for you.
5. Having some friends here always helps, they can definitely help get you more accepted into society and knowledgeable in the culture, and of course introduce you to more people, hopefully people who speak English well for your sake to begin with haha. If you don't know anyone, it can be a lonely life....Portuguese people are friendly in general but are very hesitant in letting outsiders into their "circle", especially Lisboners. There are always exceptions but don't be surprised if you feel like people aren't really making an effort to be good friends with you.
6. If you answered no to this then I hope all you plan to do is study or vacation here, otherwise it's not worth the hassle of starting the residency process if you don't intend on living or working here for that long. The best thing to do is apply for a student visa or an internship with a company, these are normally a lot easier and quicker to get than a regular residency.
7. Ok so you may not know any Portuguese or another Latin-based language but you do happen to be fluent or at least conversational in let's say German or Dutch- this can be helpful in getting a job if you want to work in the hotel/restaurant/tourism industry. Portugal gets plenty of European tourists so to be knowledgeable in a European language that most Portuguese would not know may help you push out your competition for getting a position.
8. I think this is also a given, you always need to have some money saved up when moving to another place as you never know how long it will take you to get settled and making steady money, regardless if you have a position lined up already. Also, all the little fees for getting legal and such can really add up, and if you're still not officially legal after a year, YOU STILL HAVE TO PAY TAXES IN PORTUGAL. I ended up paying almost €800 Euros in taxes my first year here as an "illegal resident" so beware.
9./10. Portugal, and southern European countries in general are notoriously SLOW when it comes to processing.....well, anything. (Think of your experience when you have to go to the DMV, but times ten.) This is because most of their government systems, especially Portugal, are overrun with ridiculous bureaucracy that turns even the simplest of things into a complicated , drawn-out issue. I have spent hours and hours waiting in lines only to be told I was missing one little "fine-print" thing or a photocopy of something (which most won't make for you there) and had to come back another time and wait in line all over again. And don't assume that most of these govt. workers speak English (most of them don't or won't) so you either have to bring an interpreter or play the "monkey miming game" with them, which can obviously get very embarrassing as well as frustrating.
What it all comes down to is having enough patience and perseverance to get through all this crap so you can get that residency card. And according to what I was told at the time, if you stay in the country (or any EU country) over the 90-day time allowed on just a tourist visa (just coming on a passport), you are not allowed to leave the country until you are granted residency, otherwise you may be rejected or penalized with a large fee. (There is a similar rule for immigrants applying for residency in the US, with much harsher consequences I must add so nothing new) Now it's also true that to this day, I have never once been asked to see my residency papers in Lisbon airport when traveling to and from the US directly, and I know other people who have made trips back and forth while still "illegal" and they didn't have a problem. (*Note: if you have a stopover in another EU country in between, such as France or Germany, they may ask to see them or check your passport thoroughly to see if you have been stamped recently leaving the EU and if they have a problem, you might risk getting extra penalties from them as well). However, none of these people I knew ever completed the residency process here and when I finally did, they made photocopies of every page in my passport which was checked thoroughly to see if I had left the country, which I hadn't in the 2 years I had been here. I had decided it wasn't worth the risk of completely screwing my entire application process as well as pay a ton more fees (which I couldn't afford), and I guess it paid off.
But yes, I had been stuck in Portugal for 2 years without ever leaving and yes, it was very tough not being able to come back home to visit all that time, but I had made a decision to move here and I was going to stick to it. My parents were able to come visit me in the first year which helped, as well as a couple of friends, but most of my family and friends just couldn't afford the time or the money to come visit ( and maybe some just didn't want to). But as I pointed out above, immigrants in the US have it far worse in the waiting process, I have friends who literally waited almost 10 years to get legal and they were stuck there the whole time without being able to leave to go back to their country to visit their families, so don't act like you're the only victim in this mess. There are a lot of people I know back home who still can't understand why I'm still here, no one believes an American would want to live outside of the US for a longer period of time.......but I'll have to leave that for another post, maybe with the title: "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly about Living or not Living in the US".
You are in charge of your own life and destiny. I can´t make huge decisions for you like whether to get married, have children, change careers etc, and I also can't be the one to make the huge decision for you about whether to move to another country or not. I can only give you my opinion, however you see it, based on my observations and the experience I've had here, which very likely wouldn't be quite the same experience you would have. At the end, you can take it or leave it, because sometimes no matter what you are told, I know some people (including myself) will still have to follow what their heart wants, regardless of the possible huge pile of shit they might end up under :)
And honestly, if you really want to do it, the simplest, correct way to move to Portugal (or any foreign country) is:
-Find a Contract Job. one that will offer you a govt. sponsored contract to come work there, which you have to take to their consulate in the US to get the residency permit BEFORE YOU MOVE THERE. I know people who have successfully done this here so it's possible!! Probably the best job sector to look into is the hotel/restaurant industry, there are plenty of international hotel chains that have locations both in the US and Portugal. I also know there are several US companies that work within Portugal because I've met people from them working here, (unfortunately I can't remember any company names though) but they're usually only for a 6-month to 1 year time period. However it's an option you might want to look into.
-DON'T move to another country without a job lined up, especially in the current world economy. Assuming that you'll find a decent job, let alone a job at all, before your time and/or money runs out is a big mistake. A compromise, like what I tried to do in the first place, is take a 90-day "holiday" there, apply for jobs and if you're lucky enough to get an interview then a job offer with a contract then return in time with that contract and submit it to their local consulate. It's all about doing it right the first time, and preventing the nightmare that I, as well as many others have been through!
THE BEST THING YOU CAN DO FOR PORTUGAL RIGHT NOW IS JUST BE A TOURIST! Portugal's economy is a big mess at the moment and the best thing they have to help boost their economy and start making more money is TOURISM. Come to Portugal and spend your money enjoying the delicious food, wine and country hospitality that I've praised so much about in my Catavino articles and Fodor's Portugal 9th Edition guidebook and that I will continue to praise and showcase here on my own blog! Stay in gorgeous boutique hotels in the mountains or along the endless coastline of beautiful beaches, wonder in awe at all the ancient castles and monuments scattered throughout the country and be amazed by the breathtaking vistas that their incredible geography has created! And you can come back to visit as often as you like! I encourage it! And I will be happy to help plan your itinerary to make the most out of your experience here! I already have 10 Delicious Reasons Why You Should Visit Portugal here, and you can come experience these things with me on my An American In Portugal Tours and if you're still not convinced, check out Portugal's awesome 2011 tourism video below:
If you have any other questions that I haven't addressed in this post then please please write a comment with
it below and I'll try to answer them as best as I can in a timely fashion. Whatever you decide to do, I hope
it's the right decision for you in the end :)