Troubleshooting and Bad-Vibe Busting in Portugal ~ Midlife Expat Learning

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.


Not so fast…

“Good afternoon Natalie, we inform you that the package was returned to SEF Espinho. This action cannot be undone.”

This is a translation of the email and chat messages I received from CTT, the postal carrier in Portugal. I’d inquired about the whereabouts of my resident card, which I expected to arrive in the mail within 60 days from my successful SEF immigration appointment in January.

After meeting an American expat from Tennessee who’d arrived in my seaside farming village with her husband in July 2022 and then received resident cards in the mail only one week after their October 2022 SEF appointment, I began to worry about my own card.

I emailed directly the SEF office in Espinho, where I’d had my immigration appointment, inquiring about the status of my resident card. I included the date of my appointment, the “Process Number” I’d been assigned, and a photo of the paper I’d been given at the conclusion of the appointment. I also copied the main SEF Contact Center email address on the correspondence. Surprisingly, I heard back from the main SEF Contact Center the next morning, with a CTT tracking number. Impressive.

Then I went to CTT’s Website and entered the tracking number. Imagine my surprise when the words “Delivery success. Delivered January 23, 2023” popped up. Umm…nope.

A quick search on any expat forum will turn up many stories of missing, failed, and returned CTT deliveries of important documents such as resident cards and drivers licenses. Notices of impending deliveries are not sent to waiting recipients, nor are notices of returned packages. Notices of attempted deliveries aren’t reliably given either.

The CTT Website is also available in English.

If you’re into complaining and the misery-loves-company mindset, then expat forums can be great. Yes, it can be comforting to know your particular problem isn’t uncommon. And, yes, you can make helpful connections and find suggestions for useful resources on the many expat forums out there. Just be aware that you may have to wade through a pool of negativity, false information, and solutions that simply don’t work for everybody. Like I’ve always said here, everyone’s experience can be different when immigrating to a new country. It depends on your particular circumstance, where you are, and what individual person you end up dealing with on a given day. So take what you read — including what I write here — under advisement, with the understanding you might not have the same outcome.

For me, problem-solving in writing is always my first choice, and I always go directly to the official source. While still in the United States trying to figure out my D7 Residency Visa application, I read so much conflicting information in online forums. I emailed my questions directly to the appropriate embassy and quickly got reliable answers.

Now, I needed to find out where my resident card was. I never received it. Had it been delivered to the wrong address? That was a common occurrence with my mail carrier in the U.S. I went online to CTT’s main site and found the Help Contact Form and Chat page.

I did not expect much from this help request. I explained I had not received the package marked as delivered on their tracking site. I included the tracking number and a screen shot of the “delivered” notice. I wrote everything in Portuguese, as I always do here. I always include an English translation after my Portuguese inquiry. I believe this is a crucial show of respect. From my observations, Portuguese people are formal in written communication. I always begin my inquiries with the salutation “Cara Senhora/Senhor…” (Dear Madam/Sir…).

I sent this inquiry via the contact form and also via the chat icon on the same page. I was shocked when I received same-day answers from both channels, explaining (in Portuguese) that my card had not actually been delivered, but had been returned to sender. When I pressed for more details and explanation, I again got answers quickly, including the name of the person in SEF’s Espinho office who had signed for my returned card.

At this point I again emailed the Espinho SEF office, and again copied the main office. This time I put “Atenção” (Attention) to the name of the person who had signed for my returned card. I put this in the email subject line so it wouldn’t be missed. I received a reply from that person (who turns out to be the head of that small office) at the end of the day, confirming that my card was there and informing me of options for getting it.

Here is where you’ll find email addresses for most of the SEF offices.

SEF has gotten so much negative feedback, but I have been impressed with the speedy response time I’ve experienced. Having my all-important resident card returned to sender for some reason (CTT told me it was due to an incorrect address but I confirmed that SEF has my correct address) is nerve-wracking and inconvenient, of course. There’s no shortage of process tweaks that could prevent this kind of thing from happening. Complaining about that, though, isn’t going to solve my problem. I didn’t expect the same-day and next-morning responses I received from two bureaucratic institutions such as SEF and CTT. And I didn’t get excuses. I received specific information and next steps to take to solve my problem. I’m grateful for that.

Of the options SEF gave me, I chose going back up north to the Espinho office to get my card myself. When I went for my appointment in January I rented a car and a friend drove me. But she’s still working and had to take the day off for our “girls trip.” I’m not asking her to do that again. If I don’t get a ride with some other friends, then I’ll take a train. The one downside of where I live is there is no train station, and no bus to a city that has a train station — except to Lisbon an hour south. It’s at least a half-day train trip, and if I miss the last train back I’ll have to spend the night there or take a different train through another city, which will have me getting home after 11PM. Oh yeah…there’s also a rolling train strike that’s slowing or stopping train travel throughout Portugal.

The roundtrip cost of going back to Espinho is approximately 90-130 euros, depending on which route I choose to take, plus another 60-80 euros if I stay overnight. Am I complaining about the extra 210 euros on top of the hundreds of euros I’ve already spent to get my resident card? Nope. Not one bit. I get $100 in wine for 20€. I get $780 in monthly health insurance premiums for 140€. I get $5,500+ in monthly living expenses for 1,940€. Uh, yeah, no. Not complaining.

Bad-Vibe Busting

Can’t say it enough:
Good vibes only!

It is easy to let yourself get sucked into negativity by complainers and doubters when you choose to immigrate to another country. Moving alone to a new country where you don’t know anyone is scary. Things will go wrong. You will feel vulnerable and unsettled. Frustration may get mixed in with your unbelievable joy and gratitude. That’s called living and growing and discovering. What never helps is the negativity of others. Fellow expats, local folks, friends, and family members can be real downers if they are feeling unhappy, stuck, or even envious. Avoid that shit like the plague. It is a necessary act of self-care and self-love when you remove yourself from contact with negative people and their toxins, which can poison your experience and outlook in your new home.

My Problem-Solving Pointers

  • Start by going directly to the official source, following their recommended channels.
  • Avoid getting answers only from non-experts on miscellaneous online forums.
  • Do everything in writing, and keep copies/take screen shots. Others advise just walking into a local office and being insistent. That did not work for me at the tax office, my bank, or the electric utility company. Communicating in writing has worked for me every time.
  • Write in Portuguese, using more than one translation app to ensure accuracy if needed.
  • Be polite, respectful, and formal. Stay calm and positive. Don’t rant.
  • Be concise and clear, presenting just the facts and a reasonable call to action.
  • Avoid getting sucked in by negativity. Ignore constant complainers.
  • Remind yourself to stay grateful for all the good stuff.

Stay Tuned

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!

Welcome to my good vibin’, soul shinin’ circle!

Midlife Expat Learning Posts

January/February: SEF appointment

March/April: SEF troubleshooting

May/June: Language classes

July/August: Accountants, doctors, & handymen, oh my!

September/October: One year in Portugal

November/December: Travel as an expat

The Hot Goddess

Instagram: retired_rewired_inspired

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  1. Natalie, I love everything about your approach and your attitude. And it’s worth it. You’re proving that being polite and having patience while being proactive isn’t just being “nice”, it’s being effective. I would have chosen to go directly to the office to get my card as well. You’re almost there!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You offer some great wisdom. Yes, we can complain about life’s challenges or we can choose to deal with them the best we can and move on. You’re so right, complaining doesn’t make them any easier. Thanks for the great reminder and sharing your love of adventure!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Love your attitude, Natalie! The amount of online negativity in forums is staggering. Only once in a wee while have I noticed people posting an actual useful nugget of information. 🤷‍♀️ That’s the only reason I still follow some groups. People?! WTF.


    Liked by 1 person

  4. Glad to read that you received quick responses and will have this nerve wracking issue resolved soon. Communicating directly with the source preferably in black and white, keeping + attaching copies of all documents, and remaining patient but exercising diligence are key takeaways! It’s also important to stay grateful!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Natali! Good to see you here, and thank you for your supportive words. I need to catch up with you. My online habits have changed dramatically since I moved here, and I’m missing Natali Martinez.


  5. Many hoops to jump through, as it goes with life, but living in a foreign country adds a whole other element to the experience. You’re doing great, Natalie, and your Problem-Solving Pointers are solid advice. Best wishes and thanks for sharing your journey!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh Natalie I’m so happy you were able to track down your resident card! That would’ve given me so much anxiety!!! It’s amazing the response you get when you communicate with people in their preferred language and style (formal, written). It’s a lost art!!! And as I said on IG… very wise words regarding negativity: “avoid that shit like the plague”😊❤

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh wow, it all sounds very confusing, but it sounds like you’re handling the situation well. I’m a great believer that everything is always working out, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time. It all works out in the end, and until then, you have all that great wine, food, and beautiful beaches to enjoy.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hey Natalie,
    I’m not surprised you got results.
    That’s the organized to the hilt teacher/boss lady I know.
    So happy to see that you are flourishing in your new garden : )

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I love everything about your post, and attitude, Natalie! I relate so much, and especially like this, “Fellow expats, local folks, friends, and family members can be real downers if they are feeling unhappy, stuck, or even envious. Avoid that shit like the plague. ” This “good vibes only” is brilliant advice that can be applied to different situations.

    Once again, congrats on your resident card. Keep smiling, and enjoy all the good your new home country affords you! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  10. “Moving alone to a new country where you don’t know anyone is scary. Things will go wrong. You will feel vulnerable and unsettled. Frustration may get mixed in with your unbelievable joy and gratitude. That’s called living and growing and discovering. What never helps is the negativity of others.” RIGHT ON! You can replace new country to new location too! You can focus on the negative or the positive. I try to find the joy even when it is hard! Sending good vibes to you Nat, from the east coast of US, meandering while house is being put back together.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Love this post. Especially your ability to push through problems, show respect to everyone involved, and repel the bad vibes. The “This action cannot be undone.” sentence cracked me up! And the heads up about forums “Just be aware that you may have to wade through a pool of negativity, false information, and solutions that simply don’t work for everybody. ” Right – that could work for all social media!

    But this summary takes the cake, “Moving alone to a new country where you don’t know anyone is scary. Things will go wrong. You will feel vulnerable and unsettled. Frustration may get mixed in with your unbelievable joy and gratitude. That’s called living and growing and discovering. What never helps is the negativity of others.”

    Living and growing and discovering – so quintessentially you. Love seeing how you do it in a new country!! Sending lots of love to you, Natalie! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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