The Portuguese Places Where English Is Spoken Most

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Written by: | Last updated on February 8, 2024 | Est. Reading Time: 6 minutes

One of the most frequently asked questions on Portugalist is: how widely is English spoken in Portugal? Can I get by with English or do I really need to learn Portuguese? 

You may have travelled or lived in other European countries like France or Spain where English isn’t always spoken. Portugal’s not like that. When it comes to speaking English as a second language, Portugal is the 9th most proficient country in the world, according to the EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) 2022 report. In 2021, it ranked 7th. Although this is a slight drop, it is still within the top category of “Very High” English proficiency, alongside countries like Finland, Sweden, and Belgium.

My wife Anita and I have just returned from our first trip to Portugal. We had wanted to visit for years but obligations kept us from making the trip. We spent 3 nights in Braga, 4 in Coimbra, and 6 in Lisbon. The language was not a problem. Getting from place to place was a breeze. The food was consistently wonderful and the people were incredibly welcoming and kind. Not a single exception.

Jay

However, that doesn’t mean English is spoken everywhere. While you’ll never struggle to find an English speaker in most of Portugal, English is spoken more in some regions than others (e.g. the Algarve and Lisbon). If you’re planning on moving to a small town or village, you should put extra work into learning Portuguese before getting to Portugal (there are plenty of online courses to help with that).

I bought an apartment in Entroncamento (45-50 minutes with the fast train to Lisbon) after thinking in Portugal they speak good English but apparently almost nobody spoke English in that town or was not willing to speak it. I heard they had the opportunity to take French instead of English as a second language for instance and even people in their 20s some of them could not speak English!

I am in the process of selling my apartment because I could not live in a city where almost nobody speaks English. It will take me at least a year to learn Portuguese. At least I have a real estate agent that speaks English with me and a hotel receptionist. I have to take the water company, electricity and the bank and pay him an enticing sum of money for doing that. All the bills and internet banking is only in Portuguese.

Portugalist reader

Our main issue is with the language. We (+65) find it difficult to learn. We could cope with face to face contacts (when in difficulty, we can always revert to sign language or English) and even written correspondence (with help from good ole google). What we find difficult is making phone calls, which invariably ask in Portuguese to select option 1, 2 or 3 and there is no English option. We end up hanging up and having no alternative step.

Choy Wong

Top Places for English Speakers to Live

Officially, the best places for English speakers changes for year to year, according to the EF English Proficiency Index. For many years Porto was the top city, but this changed to Braga in 2022.

There is a constant shuffling of which cities are the best and Portugal moves up and down the rankings by a couple of places every year, but overall the results are more or less the same: stick to cities and coastal places that get a lot of tourists and expats and that’s where you’ll find the most English speakers, both in terms of expats and proficient Portuguese speakers.

Anywhere blue has a “very high” level of English proficiency. The regions in grey, like the Alentejo, don’t seem to have been analysed.

The Algarve

The Algarve has long been a very touristy and expat-y place, and it’s one of the main regions where English is spoken. This doesn’t mean everyone speaks English here, but as a large percentage of the population have contact with either tourists or expats, English is used a lot. This is especially the case on the coast. If you venture inland, you are more likely to find people that don’t speak English.

Lisbon

English is widely spoken in Lisbon and many of the surrounding towns like Cascais, Costa da Caparica, and Ericeira. Although it often gets beaten by other cities in the English Proficiency Index, English is essentially a second language here.

Porto

Porto’s second city is never one to be outdone by Lisbon, and for a number of years has been the city where the most English is spoken in Portugal.

Braga

In 2022, Braga made it to the top of the English Proficiency Index.

Coimbra

Coimbra is Portugal’s most famous university city, so it isn’t surprising that it’s also one of the main places where English is spoken in Portugal.

Aveiro

Meeting the criteria of being both touristy and close to the coast, it isn’t surprising that English is spoken to a good level in Aveiro.

Where English Isn’t Spoken

You will find people who can speak English in almost all of Portugal, especially in restaurants and cafés, but where you’re likely to have difficulties is at your health centre (centro de saúde) or within any government department, such as the tax department (Finanças). This may seem surprising, but there’s much less incentive for someone working in Finanças to learn English than someone working in a restaurant or tourism.

Many people get around this by bringing a translator, using private hospitals where you can often select your doctor by language, or just praying that someone will speak English there.

The Downsides of Living in Such a Multilingual Country

A big problem people learning Portuguese face is getting opportunities to practice their Portuguese – most Portuguese will switch to English as soon as they see you don’t speak the language. Some do this because they want to rush the conversation, but many do this because they’re trying to be polite and want to make it easier for you. If you want to keep practicing your Portuguese, just politely say that. Most will happily oblige and may even correct you as well. 

Only being able to speak English means you’ll live in a bubble, socialising with English-speaking friends, watching English-speaking television, and never really integrating, but many people are okay with that. 

You’ll find it much easier to practice speaking Portuguese if you live in the North of Portugal compared with Lisbon or the Algarve. Although everything will be slightly harder initially, in the long run it’ll give you more motivation to learn Portuguese and you’ll have a better experience of Portugal for it. 

If you want to learn European Portuguese, take a look at this list of fantastic courses as well as all of this article about learning Portuguese.

Written by

James Cave is the founder of Portugalist and the author of the bestselling book, Moving to Portugal Made Simple. He has visited just about every part of Portugal, including Madeira and all nine islands of the Azores, and lived in several parts of Portugal including Lisbon, the Algarve, and Northern Portugal.

You can contact James by emailing james@portugalist.com or via the site's contact form.

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There are 3 comments on this article. Join the conversation and add your own thoughts, reviews, and stories of life in Portugal. However, please remember to be civil.

Comments

  1. After living in Aveiro for a year I can safely say that the level is VERY low compared to cities like Lisbon, Porto and Coimbra. I do enjoy testing people sometimes by asking if they speak English, even though I can more or less function in Portuguese/Portuñol. There are just times/certain situations where I just wish people knew a little a bit of English so I didn’t have to struggle through. I have now learned to study my vocab/terminology before getting into these situations again.

    The places in Aveiro where I had difficulty were at Unilabs, in various supermarkets, in the Aveiro train AND bus station. There were two Irish girls that came up to me in dire straits asking if I spoke English at the bus station. I got them to their destination (Costa Nova beach) by using my functional Portuguese. They were very grateful for my help, but shocked by the difficulties in getting a bus and train ticket in such a touristic city. They explained their situation to me, which sounded very similar to the one I had just had in the various parts of the stations so I was more than happy to help.

    Also, I had a Portuguese friend working at the Correos in Glicinias Mall (Aradas, Aveiro) and she was the ONLY one that spoke English there so her colleagues would always go out of their way to get her in front of the customers.

    In the surrounding villages of Aveiro and Mira, forget it. Hardly anyone speaks English.

    Reply
  2. The country plus its peoples sound Fantastically Superb to me!
    The mere thought of Emigrating Permanently is EXCITINGV to this retired Print Newsman who wrote news & features chiefly pertinent to western Canada for daily Canadian newspapers—after graduating from a Toronto Journalism college and reporting full-time for 4.5 Years in London, England.

    Reply
  3. It is difficult living in Central Portugal without speaking Portuguese but if you speak even a little French, you are more likely to find someone to help you. And they are very willing to do so! Or if you are lucky enough to rent a house from a landlady who speaks French and Portuguese then she will phone up the health centre and get your prescriptions for you!!! Portuguese are generally lovely people and will help you if they understand you, apart from civil servants.
    I feel that I underestimated the difficulties of living outside the Algarve and Lisbon without speaking much Portuguese. But after two years I am starting to pick up words in conversations. It can be done!

    Reply

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