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