Moving to Portugal from the US

Portugal was one of Europe’s earliest empires, a proud seafaring nation that conquered territories in the Americas and Africa long before the Spanish or British. The country’s long and colorful history gives its towns and cities real atmosphere and character. Culturally it’s a very different place to the USA. Living in Portugal, the pace of life is much slower, outside major cities attitudes are fairly conservative with the Catholic church still having considerable influence.

The cost of living in Portugal is relatively low compared with the rest of western Europe and the USA. Coupled with a pleasant climate, miles of sandy beaches, historic old towns and genuinely excellent food and wine, Portugal offers plenty for someone looking for an expat lifestyle that’s very different to back home.

Popular Portuguese cities vs US cities

Lisbon, Portugal’s capital located just over halfway down the country’s 340-mile Atlantic coastline and Porto an industrial powerhouse in the north, are the country’s two largest cities. If you’re moving to Portugal for work, it’s highly likely you’ll be living in or close to one of them. Both feel relatively small compared to US cities. Lisbon has just over half a million citizens – similar in size to Albuquerque whilst Porto is a little larger with over 2 million – the size of say, Houston.

Both cities offer a real contrast to any city in the USA with historic centers that are many centuries old – think narrow cobbled streets, independent shops and restaurants and ornate churches. Outside these historic zones there’s good quality modern living accommodation and efficient public transport networks. Coimbra and Braga are two other attractive cities that would make pleasant places to live for expats, but both are much smaller, offering  limited job opportunities.

Becoming a citizen of Portugal

You can obtain Portuguese citizenship if you’re descended from Portuguese parents or grandparents; by marriage or civil union, or by birth in Portuguese territory. If you’ve lived in the country on a work or residence visa for at least 6 years you can then apply for citizenship. Getting a residence visa in the first place is not that simple however. To obtain a work permit you must either be married to a local of have a confirmed job offer from an employer in Portugal. As Portugal is part of the EU, citizens of the European Union are given priority too.

Portugal allows dual citizenship so there is no need to renounce your US citizenship. You do however have to show proficiency in Portuguese. Bureaucracy moves slowly in Portugal. You may want to consider hiring a local specialist lawyer to help with your application.

Job market

Much of Portuguese industry is farming and manufacturing. The economic climate here as in much of southern Europe is currently not particularly good. Portugal has experienced sluggish growth rates in the last decade and wages are typically below the European average. The average wage is around $1173 a month, though you could easily earn double that working in technology or finance sectors in Lisbon or Porto.

One bright light is the alternative energy industry which is seeing significant growth. Portugal has one of the highest numbers of sunny days in Europe and it’s a world leader in renewable energy technologies.

Working in Portugal, you’ll find the work-life balance is better than in the USA. By law, the maximum working week is 40 hours and you’re entitled to 22 days of paid holiday each year. The working day is typically from 9am to 6pm with a long lunch break of at least an hour. People rarely work weekends unless in the retail or hospitality sectors.

House prices and renting

Whilst wages are low compared to the European average the cost of living in Portugal is also relatively low. This applies to housing as well – you’ll probably find you spend less than half of your net salary on rent and utilities. Typical rental costs for Lisbon are around $640 a month for a one bedroom apartment. Average rental costs in the US for comparable properties are closer to $1040 per month. Prices in Porto are around 30% cheaper still and further out from population centers you’ll easily pay half as much as you would in Lisbon.

Purchasing property can work out as great value option for long stay expats and there are no restrictions on foreigners owning property. The NHR (Non-Habitual Residents) and GRP (Golden Residence Permit) also both encourage non-Portuguese nationals to invest in the country’s real estate in return for residence or tax reduction incentives. Property is relatively cheap too, coming in at around 30% lower than comparable properties in the USA. In Lisbon you’d typically pay around $1920 per square meter but outside the capital property is far cheaper.


State schooling is free of charge to all residents and Portuguese nationals up to the age of 18. There is a developed private education sector too where the standard of tuition tends to be higher and class sizes smaller. In the major cities, you can also pay for your children to have English language education in international schools. Children in the state system who don’t speak Portuguese are eligible for extra support until they are proficient in speaking and writing it.

Top schools in Portugal

According to Correio da Manhã one of Portugal’s main newspapers the top five schools in Portugal in 2016 were:

  1. Academia de Música de Santa Cecília in Lisbon
  2. Colégio Nossa Senhora do Rosário in Porto
  3. Colégio Cedros in Vila Nova de Gaia
  4. Colégio St. Peter’s School in Palmela
  5. Escola Cascais in Estoril

Higher education courses are widely available in universities in major cities across the country. Five of Portugal’s universities are ranked in the QS World Universities top 700. These are the University of Porto, the Lisbon New University, the University of Coimbra, the University of Lisbon and the Lisbon Catholic University. Tuition fees are low compared to the USA, with some courses costing less than 1,070 Dollars.

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Unlike the USA, Portugal has a comprehensive state healthcare system which is free to all who have the right to reside in the country. In recent years there has been considerable investment in hospitals in particular, and care is generally of high quality. Expats need to register for the first time at their local healthcare center. Private healthcare is also available and can prove an effective way of avoiding waiting lists which can be long for some types of specialist treatment.


Portugal’s historic towns are a major draw for tourists and locals alike. You can explore the capital Lisbon by hopping on one of the ancient trams that wind through the old town, sample the wines at historic port wine cellars in Porto or wander the ancient alleyways of the university town of Coimbra with its exceptional Baroque library. Further afield, Guimaraes, birthplace of modern Portugal has a fine castle and unusual museums, and Obidos is a picturesque walled village and Sintra boasts ornate palaces.

Portugal has impressive natural scenery too – from the craggy coves of the Vila Nova de Milfontes to the vineyard-clad Douro river valley. The Mediterranean coast is a playground for families and golfers. The Algarve is the center of the Portugal’s busy tourism industry with sandy beaches and a huge number of world-class golf courses. If you’re thinking of retiring in Portugal, this part of the country is highly recommended.

Food and drink

Portuguese food is hearty stuff. Given the country’s long coastline, it’s no surprise that seafood is features strongly on most menus with soups and stews as well as bakes and barbecues. Cheeses and smoked meats are also of high quality and the pastries truly excellent – particularly custard tarts and marzipan cakes.

Portuguese beers are served ice-cold and locally produced wine is great value. Try Vinho verde which is young and slightly sparkling, white wine. Portugal also lays claim to two of the world’s most famous fortified wines – Madeira and Port. Portuguese are big coffee drinkers too. Coffee here is served in European style – strong and black in small espresso cups.

Vegetarians will get on fine in larger cities, but may struggle elsewhere as Portuguese cuisine is based heavily around meat. Places to sample traditional Portuguese food in Lisbon include A Taberna da Rua das Flores, whilst famous Portuguese chef José Avillez turns out more modern interpretations at Michelin-starred Belcanto. In Porto the place to try is the wonderfully atmospheric Michelin-starred Pedro Lemos.


Lisbon and Porto both offer buzzing nightlife with nightclubs and bars open until the very early hours at weekends. Large student populations in both cities mean there’s a really vibrant social scene. On the Algarve coast places like Albufeira offer friendly bars and clubs – many of which are very popular with the large expat communities of retired British and Germans here. For something traditionally Portuguese try a fado club. Fado is a typically Portuguese lament usually featuring a woman singing romantic songs accompanied by a lone guitar.

Lisbon and Porto both have welcoming LGBT scenes. Principe Real is the area of town to head for in Lisbon with clubs, drag shows and gay bars aplenty. In Porto the area around Galaria de Paris, called The Galleries, is where you’ll find the highest concentration of cafes, bars and lounges.