Portugal again made the news last week, this time in US News & World Report, as the number-one retirement destination for expatriates. Portugal is routinely included in these tops-for-retirement lists, which got my attention when I retired in 2019 as a midlife woman of 59. I was intrigued by the thought of lowering my living expenses, and the possiblity of being able to afford living on the ocean as a single retiree.
After returning home from a 70-day trip around the world as a first-time solo traveler in 2019, I planned to save money and move to Portugal at 65. But when my house sold unexpectedly late last year, I realized I could move now, three years ahead of plan.
The month I spent living in Portugal at the start of my solo trip convinced me that it was the country for me to move to in retirement. It checks off all my boxes in addition to the obvious requirements of affordability, safety, and quality healthcare:
Diversity. I saw more people who looked like me in Lisbon than any other place I visited over my two-and-a-half months of travel. Looking like me, a Black woman, doesn’t mean you’re going to be a friendly person. Not looking like me doesn’t mean you’re going to be unfriendly. It’s just important to me to live where there are multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-racial communities. My son is biracial; my family is multi-racial. Diversity has always been a top criterion when evaluating local communities here in the US. It’s no different overseas.
Accessibility. I am a daughter, a mother, a friend, a lover, a partner. Among other things, I am a mother choosing to leave behind her adult son/only child/love of her life; but worse, I’m a first-born daughter leaving her 90-year-old mother. Just the act of typing these words makes me feel like a terrible person, even though I have two siblings who have been freely living their lives for decades. I cannot adequately put into words the emotions involved here. It’s messy.
That said, I must be able to get back to the US quickly in a family emergency. I need frequent, direct flights that are relatively inexpensive and easy. Portugal is the westernmost country in Europe. Direct flights from Lisbon to New York City are around 6+ hours and can cost under $300 for an economy ticket.
No hurricanes. Oceanfront property on the US east coast comes with hurricanes; the west coast sees fires, earthquakes, and/or months of drizzle. It’s also prohibitively expensive. Island properties can be more affordable, but still battered by hurricanes and tropical storms. If evacuation orders are a thing, it’s not the place for me.
No rainy seasons/monsoons. Many tropical locales are paradise until rainy season, when flooded roads, mudslides, power outages, and home-invading snakes and other critters take the fun away. Nope. Not for me.
No tropical climate. We’ve already established I’m weird, so just add this to the list. Unlike 99.9 percent of people, I am not a tropical climate fan. I dislike high heat and humidity. And don’t get me started on bugs as big as hamsters. My most uncomfortable stay during my RTW trip was in a gorgeous jungle complex. Absolutely stunning property, but I didn’t get a wink of sleep thanks to reptile and insect sleepover guests. I bathed myself with 100-percent DEET bug spray due to the area’s man-eating mosquitos. The toxic spray melted my flip-flops but was quite effective. I didn’t get a single bite, while other guests walked around with plum-sized, inflamed knots all over their bodies from the gangster bloodsuckers. No way. I know this is an expat’s dream life, but it’s a hard pass on living in the tropics for me.
No monkeys. For some folks it’s clowns, but my irrational fear is monkeys. They were EVERYWHERE during portions of my trip, and aggressive as hell. I made and canceled dozens of hotel reservations after uncovering guest reviews mentioning monkeys in the guest rooms. “Be sure to latch your windows securely otherwise monkeys will come into your room,” read one review. Oh. Hell. No. As breathtakingly stunning as everything was, I cannot live around rogue, thieving, wild-ass monkeys. I know it’s crazy. I just can’t.
So, given my kinda nutty list of requirements, many wonderful countries on the top retirement lists are just a no-can-do for me as far as living there full time. But visit? Of course! And it will be cheaper to get there from Portugal.
What My Visa Options Are
People leave their home countries to live in foreign countries in many different ways, and requirements vary by country. In Portugal, my options for residency as a retiree and native of a non-European Union country are Portugal’s Golden Visa or a D7 Residency Visa.
The Golden Visa has investment requirements, targets higher net worth persons, and requires a stay of only 7 days a year in Portugal. The D7 Residency Visa has income requirements, is an affordable option for retirees who don’t want to invest in higher-priced property, and requires a stay of at least six consecutive months a year in Portugal. Both visas offer the opportunity to apply for tax advantages through Portugal’s Non-Habitual Residency Program. I’ll talk more about the NHR program and taxes in a future post, Counting Coin in Portugal.
“D7, also known as passive income visa, is aimed mostly at retirees and persons who rely on their own passive income and desire to reside in Portugal full-time. Portugal Golden Visa, on the other hand, is an investment-based road to residency that does not need you to live in Portugal for the majority of the year.”The Portugal News
Portugal changed the Golden Visa Program in 2020, making it more costly to obtain. Currently, I’d have to buy a property in Portugal for at least 500,000 euros, or make a capital transfer of at least 1 million euros. That will not be happening unless I win the lottery.
I’m applying for D7 Residency, which is a two-part process. I first apply for a Residency Visa here in the US, at the Portuguese consulate that has jurisdiction over my state. That visa is good for 120 days from the date of issuance and allows me to enter Portugal. Once I arrive in Portugal I then must schedule an appointment with Portuguese Immigration (SEF) to apply for my Residency Permit, which is good for two years and renewable up to five years. After five years I can then apply for permanent residency.
There are many professional service firms and immigration attorneys who will guide you through this process, at a total cost of around $2,000 or more in consulting fees. I’ve chosen to handle this on my own, consulting free resources.
What I’ve Learned About the Visa Process
There is no shortage of anecdotal information on the Internet. Much of it is out of date, incorrect, or not applicable. All of it will keep you up at night worrying.
You must apply for the Residency Visa in your home country, at the correct consulate office for your home state. Any papers that need to be notarized must be notarized in your home state, as verified by your official home address, which better be on everything else. When I first began this process, I thought I would go to the consulate office in New York City while I was there on a trip I’d planned, and have my friend notarize any papers. Nope. My state falls under the jurisdiction of the Portuguese consulate in Washington, DC, so I am going to have to pay for a separate roundtrip flight to DC, along with ground transport and possibly a hotel room for one night, in addition to the cost of the application.
The consulate offices in DC, New York City, and San Francisco serve most, but not all, US states and territories. These three offices contract with an organization called VFS Global to handle Residency Visa applications. Other consulates, such as the one in New Jersey (which you would think would use the NYC office but no, it has its own office in Newark) do not use VFS Global.
Every consulate office operates differently, as does VFS. Requirements change without notice, and can be interpreted differently depending on the employee you get on any different day. Therefore, individual experiences can vary greatly. I think this is just the nature of the beast when dealing with any organization. Think the BMV, or cable company, or post office. Stay positive, polite, and calm.
Timing is tricky. Certain things have to be done sequentially as far as I can tell, and you don’t want to wait too late as it will impact the next step. But if you do one thing too early, it could expire before it’s time for the next step.
Application fees change on the first of every month. Yes. Every month. As of Feb. 1, the consulate fee for a Residency Visa application is 90 euros, plus the VFS Global fee of approximately 40 euros.
You can mail in your application materials, but you will still need to make an appointment for an in-person visit. Or, you can just make the appointment and bring your application materials with you. I can’t find the upside to mailing everything first and then going in person anyway. It does not appear to speed up the process.
If your consulate uses VFS, you make your consulate appointment via VFS Global’s online portal. I’m going with three months before my fall departure. Otherwise, there’s a chance I could get my 120-day visa and it would expire before I even leave for Portugal, or not give me enough time to get my SEF meeting there.
The portal only shows available appointments for the next four weeks, and they fill up quickly. It’s too soon for my window to show online, but I check every day anyway. I am obsessed. Getting shut out of an appointment would be bad because…
You have to show a rental agreement or housing verification that proves you have a place to stay in Portugal — for at least SIX MONTHS — at the time you submit your application. This is a big expense and bigger gamble, which I’ll get into more in a future post, Picking My Pad in Portugal. I secured and paid for my flat on the sea last month and I am thrilled to have completed that step.
According to the application form, but not the VFS checklist, you have to buy a roundtrip flight (why roundtrip when you’re moving there?) and show proof of your tickets with your application. This is all before you even get approved for the visa, so you see how critical your guesses at timing are. Attempt to pinpoint and coordinate reasonable timing guesses, while trying to ensure maximum flexibility for potentially necessary changes or cancellations to housing and flights.
Also not on the VFS checklist but required per consulate materials: You need a NIF (Portuguese I.D. number) and a funded Portuguese bank account with, at the very least, 8500 euros in it. This is the equivalent of the Portuguese minimum wage for a year. You must have the NIF before you can open a bank account, and you must have a local person vouch for you as your fiscal representative. Proof of all this must be included in the Residency Visa application, so it all needs to get done before I apply for the visa.
I’m using the services of a well-known and highly regarded private agency to get this done without me having to take an interim trip to Portugal. The agency will also serve as my required local representative there. Their fee for obtaining the NIF and opening the bank account includes 12 months of fiscal representation. Again, I don’t want to get this done too early and have the representation period expire soon after I get there, and then have to pay more for a renewal. But I need to apply for both in time to get everything finalized before my VFS appointment date. I’ve heard the NIF can take just a few weeks to get, but the bank account can take months.
The “health insurance” requirement is actually travel insurance with medical coverage when applying in the US for the Residency Visa. Once you get the Residency Permit after arriving in Portugal, then you must get health insurance. As a resident, you can apply for public health insurance or buy very affordable private insurance at a fraction of what it costs here in the US. This will be another future blog post.
The required FBI background check and fingerprinting can be applied for and paid online. Then, you just go to a post office here with the payment receipt and have your fingerprints taken electronically and submitted instantly. A paper report is mailed to your US residence, and MUST NOT be opened. The SEALED envelope containing the background check report must be included with your visa application. Do not open it to make a copy of the report. If the envelope is not sealed or is torn, the entire application will be rejected.
You must include two color passport photos and a notarized color copy of your current valid passport with your application. You will need to eventually submit your actual passport to SEF. The copy of the passport needs to be notarized in your home state. The UPS Store here handles all of this. They have a notary public, and they want to make the color copy of the passport themselves. They won’t notarize the color copy (copies) I made before my RTW trip in 2019.
Make multiple sets of copies of everything so there are duplicates of the complete application packet, just in case. This is normal teacher mode. I will bring originals of everything to show the agent at my appointment in DC, but will only have to submit copies. Again, the important exception to this is the FBI report, which must remain in its original unopened envelope.
I should include references to my Portuguese lessons, online Portuguese newspaper subscription, and online Portuguese conversation immersion experience in the Personal Statement required as part of the application packet. Here’s where I write about why I want to move to Portugal and why I’d make a fabulous resident. Please, please, please don’t let them quiz me on any Portuguese vocabulary. Unless it’s about fruit cake.
Stay Flexible, Ask Questions, Be Careful
As you can see, none of this stuff is hard. It’s just figuring out the timing, and a Plan B (and C) if requirements or deadlines change. I think I have a workable schedule drafted and am just trying to be flexible and go with the flow. NOT my default setting. I’m trying hard not to become a vexpat.
I’ve been lucky enough to connect with knowledgeable and encouraging sources. Beth, of the blog From Portugal With Love, has been a great source of information — and confirmation that visa requirements vary and change without warning. She and her husband moved to Portugal from New Jersey in 2019 and only needed a three-week hotel reservation as acceptable accommodation. Beth was kind enough to connect me with a couple who recently moved to Portugal from my home state, and they’ve suggested additional resources that have already been helpful.
There are crazy people everywhere, though, and I’m naturally a suspicious person. Someone reached out to me on an online expat forum with an unsolicited offer of housing to satisfy visa requirements. This person claimed he was getting his Golden Visa (read: “I’m rich”) and owned a villa on a large parcel of farmland “of beautiful position in the mountains,” with several smaller houses that I could come live in. “I can give you a place to stay.” Are you kidding me? Yeah, dude, let me run right over to your remote plantation in the hills. Now, maybe this person was legit. Maybe, but it didn’t feel right so no thank you.
This guy notwithstanding, I have noticed that most midlife expats who post content online are couples. Most solo women expats who post are younger than 40. I’ve not been able to find content by solo, over-60, retired women expats from the US. If you know of anyone, especially a woman of color, I would love to read about their experiences in Portugal. There are several great YouTube channels by younger single Black women expats and by expat couples in Portugal, but those are not quite the same perspective as someone in my situation. If you know a source, feel free to email me via my website’s contact form.
In the meantime, stay tuned. And please keep your fingers (and toes) crossed for me as I try not to xanifest this thing.
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