Portugal continues to be at the top of best-places-to-retire-abroad lists. This 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 possibility of being able to afford to live on the ocean as a single retiree. The month I spent living in Portugal in 2019 convinced me it was the country for me to move to in retirement. After returning home, I planned to save money and move to Portugal at 65. But when my house sold unexpectedly in late 2021, I realized I could move three years ahead of plan. I’ve been living in Portugal since October 1, 2022, and will continue to share a Midlife Expat Learning post here every other month as I navigate the complex process of immigrating to Portugal.
On day 105 of living the midlife expat life in Portugal I had my first interview with SEF agents. SEF, or Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras, is Portugal’s immigration authority.
After entering the country on a residency visa that allows a stay of four months, expats must meet with immigration agents in person to apply for a residency permit. The permit is good for two years and is renewable. After five years permit-holders can take a language test and apply for citizenship.
The process of preparing for the first SEF meeting was anxiety-provoking, but it needn’t have been. Here I will explain how I prepared, what I actually had to provide, and how the meeting went step by step.
How I Prepared
The most important thing was to make sure I had all the documents I needed for the appointment. I used the same color-coding I used for my visa application. Yellow folder for personal data, because of my sunshine-y personality. Blue folder for address info, because I live by the sea. Green folder for financial docs, because…duh, money. Orange folder for health insurance, because…well…the insurance company’s logo is orange. Welcome to my brain folks, an exhausting place to be, where no detail is too small to overthink.
First, I needed to buy an ink jet printer and paper. I used up all the paper and black ink printing the documents I thought I’d need, based on my research and what I’d been required to submit for my D7 visa application. My visa application documents supposedly were scanned by SEF when they approved my visa back in August, but I also took a copy of my complete visa application packet with me to my SEF immigration appointment. Just in case.
The additional documents I brought to my January appointment were:
- Passport, with residency visa stamp
- Residency permit application, downloaded from SEF website. I completed the one-page form but didn’t sign it, in case my signature needed to be witnessed by SEF.
- Appointment confirmation, printed from SEF website. When I received my visa back in August there was a URL printed on it in tiny type. That URL went to a web page containing my SEF appointment day, time, and location.
- NIF certificate
- Tax registration of lease (I asked for this explicitly in my lease, and the listing agent emailed it to me once my landlord registered the lease. I also included this in my visa application packet.)
- Certificate of residency signed by my village mayor (I got this months ago when I wanted to change my address at my bank, but the bank wouldn’t accept it without my SEF permit. I brought it along just in case.)
- Copies of mobile phone and utility bills in my name with my local address.
- Three most recent months of bank/financial statements, from each of my Portugal and US accounts.
- Letters from official entities verifying retirement income
- Health insurance policy and letter of coverage. This is not the travel medical insurance needed for the visa, but private Portuguese health insurance that I purchased through an insurance broker. SEF requires expats to have private health insurance by the time of our first interview for the residency permit.
Getting to SEF
My appointment was scheduled for a SEF office in Espinho, near Porto, two-and-a-half hours from where I live. A Portuguese friend here suggested we make it a “girls trip,” and she drove the sporty, electric-blue Nissan Juke I rented for the occasion. Buses and trains would’ve taken six or more hours, with timetables that would’ve required me to spend a night in Espinho. I ended up spending 45€ for the car, 65€ for gas, plus tolls to be determined (tolls were automatically charged to my friend’s credit card each time the car passed through a toll point). It was worth the expense for me to get there faster, have moral support, and not worry about transit connections and schedules.
We first went to Vila Nova da Gaia, across the Douro River from Porto, to view property for sale. We then arrived in Espinho 90 minutes early, and had lunch at a cute cafe across the boulevard from the SEF office. Espinho is beautiful and I will be going back to explore more.
What I Needed
I walked into the SEF office 15 minutes early and was greeted at the door by a friendly security guard. He asked for my printed appointment confirmation, which he checked against an appointment list, then told me to take a seat in a small, open waiting area. There were three agents seeing people with scheduled appointments. Their desks were right there in the same room as the waiting area, so I could hear and see everything that was going on. I waited only five minutes before the security guard motioned for me to go to the first available agent. She did not speak English and was very friendly and patient. After I sat down and said, “Boa tarde. Tudo bem?” (Good afternoon. Is all well?), she asked me for, in order:
- “Morada” (address). I handed her my blue folder. She took only the Tax Authority registration of my lease and the certificate of residency from the village council. She didn’t look at the lease document.
- “Dineiro” (money). I gave her my green folder. She only looked at and took the Portugal bank statements. She asked where was December’s statement, which she had in the stack, and I also pointed out the screen print I’d provided of January’s in-process statement. She handed back everything else. I said, “Precisa disto?” (“Do you need this,” but probably not grammatically correct), and held up my retirement income verification letters. “Nao,” she replied.
- “Seguro de saúde” (health insurance). This was the only thing I didn’t understand in Portuguese. She repeated it slowly but I still couldn’t figure out what she was asking for. I turned to look back at my friend who was sitting in the waiting area behind me, and she simply said, “health insurance.” Like I said, everyone can hear and see everything in that small space. Good thing. I gave the SEF agent my orange folder and she scrutinized the insurance policy for what seemed like a long time. Then she said…
- “NIF.” I gave her my NIF form from my sunshine-yellow folder.
That was it. She scanned the documents she’d pulled aside and then returned them to me as well. She then handed me a blank application form. I said, “Tenho” (I have), and pulled my completed form out of the yellow folder. I signed it, then she signed and stamped it, keeping it for her file.
After the paperwork was completed she said “fotografia,” and motioned to a couple of camera gadgets behind me. This part of the process took longer than anything because the cameras were malfunctioning. The security guard came over and tried to help, joking, “Deve ficar nervoso ao tirar fotografias de mulheres bonitas” (It must be nervous taking pictures of pretty women). After five or six attempts at different cameras with different agents trying, my photo finally was captured and transmitted to my agent’s computer. I also had my fingerprints (index fingers only) digitally transmitted.
In all my crazy color-coding prep, I forgot about payment. We were nearly finished when I remembered. I started sweating and felt lightheaded (caffeine and sugar, thank you) as it dawned on me that I didn’t research the permit fee or payment method. I’d been required to send money orders for my visa application. Shit, I thought. How could I have forgotten this? What if they only take cash and I don’t have enough? I later discovered that each SEF office can be different. Some do only take cash. Lucky for me, the Espinho office takes cash or debit card, because the cash I had on me was short of the 158,15€ fee. Whew! Not cheap. All in all, with transportation, getting my residency permit cost me a total of more than 270€, plus the cost of a printer, ink, and paper. Check out this post for details on expenses for the residency visa.
I left with two pieces of paper from SEF: (1) a receipt for the 158,15€ I paid for the permit; and (2) a certificate of proof of my application for residency, which has my photo on it and is stamped and signed by the SEF agent. I will get my resident card in the mail within 60 days, per SEF. Contrary to what I initially thought, the paper certificate is NOT an interim residency permit and it does not have my resident number on it. However, I was able to use the certificate to accomplish what I wanted with the Portugal Tax Authority.
What I Did Next
The next business day I was able to upload to the Tax Authority site a PDF of my certificate of proof (not jpg — I used a free image-to-PDF app). This allowed me to officially change my address, remove the fiscal representative required by the Tax Authority for non-local addresses, and register for the NHR tax-relief program. Find more information on the Não Habitação Residência program here.
I received an electronic copy of my updated NIF certificate (same NIF number, updated address, fiscal rep removed) the next day. Fast and efficient. I used this link from Bordr.io to do this online, otherwise I would have had to go to the local tax office to schedule an appointment to meet with an employee to change my address. My local office was scheduling appointments for March back in December. Without this link from Bordr.io, I never would’ve been able to navigate the Tax Authority website. When I searched for “mudar morada” (change address) on the website, it took me to a notice that said I’d need to go into my local office.
After downloading my new NIF I then emailed it to Bordr.io customer support to request they cease their fiscal representation and stop future billing for that service. These are the “little” things that are easy to forget during the shell-shocked first months as an expat here. I made a calendar with alerts on my phone before I even left the U.S. because I knew I would never remember this stuff. You cannot do any of the things I just described until you’ve had your SEF immigration meeting. Some expats have posted they were able to get the Tax Authority to change their address by going to their local office with just their lease and/or a certificate of residency from their village municipal office. I tried that and it did not work.
Moving to another country is a complex process, and information can change quickly without notice. Everyone’s experience can be different. I’m remembering to take it all in stride, stay flexible, prepared, pivot-ready, and positive. Stay tuned. Thank you for reading!
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