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Let’s face it: nowhere is perfect. There are lots of pros to living in Portugal – the weather is great, the cost of living is more affordable than in other countries, and the beaches are beautiful – but there are, unsurprisingly, one or two cons as well.
Most articles online focus on the upsides rather than the downsides. But it’s important to get the full picture before you move somewhere new. Hence this list. As mentioned, there are lots of upsides to living in Portugal, but this website wouldn’t be doing its job if it didn’t give you appropriate expectations.
It’s also important to point out that this is a list of the downsides of Portugal primarily from the point of view of an outsider (although Portuguese people often agree with some of the things on this list). It’s also not a list of things that Portuguese should change, and it’s definitely not a list of things that Portugal will change – no matter how sensible that change might seem to you. Portugal is Portugal, and you shouldn’t come here hoping for change or expecting change. Instead, weigh up the pros against the cons and then, being honest with yourself, decide if Portugal is right for you.
In no particular order, here are some of the downsides to living in Portugal.
Paperwork & Bureaucracy
Try to get anything done in Portugal, whether it’s starting a business or applying for planning permission, and you’ll run into a little thing called bureaucracy. There’s a lot of it in Portugal.
It isn’t so much that there’s a lot of paperwork. That in itself would be manageable. It’s that:
Yes, there’s a lot of paperwork and lots of hoops to jump through
Every government department seems to have a different opinion on which pieces of paper are required
Departments are understaffed so getting an appointment, if you need one, can often takes months
It’s messy and frustrating, and it’s also just something you’ll have to get used to if you live in Portugal.
You can avoid a lot of the headaches if you use a lawyer or accountant rather than trying to tackle these challenges yourself. You’ll still have the challenge, and it’ll probably take a while for it to get resolved, but at least you’ll avoid the majority of headaches. Having a lawyer double check a rental contract, for example, might feel like an unnecessary cost but could save you money and a lot of headaches in the long run.
As well as lawyers and accountants, there are also companies that will:
Bureaucracy isn’t unique to Portugal, and it’s something you’ll come across in many European countries like Spain, Italy, and Germany, but Portugal does take bureaucracy to new levels.
Although most people associate Portugal with beaches and sunshine, a lot of Portugal, particularly the north, can be very damp and wet in the winter. Even in the south where it’s often t-shirt weather outside (for foreigners), it can be freezing cold inside due to the lack of heating and insulation in many houses. It’s possible to avoid cold winters somewhat, but you need to pick the right location and the right property.
Internal heating aside, winters in the south of Portugal are definitely easier than in the north. Although there’s usually at least a few weeks of solid rain, it does rain a lot less and the skies are generally blue and the weather pleasant. Madeira, similarly, benefits from pleasant winters. If warm winters are a priority, these are two locations to prioritise.
This isn’t unique to Portugal. You’ll come across similar houses in nearby countries like Spain, and of course, anywhere in the North of Europe is going to be cold in the winter months.
Portuguese houses can be cold in the winter – fridge levels of cold. However, it varies considerably from property to property. Some simply require you to put on a sweater while others demand a jacket, gloves, and three or four pairs of socks.
Two identical properties next door to each other could be different due to the ability of one to catch the sun during the day. Some properties also have central heating or another heating system while others have better energy ratings. Finding the right lottery is part knowing what to look for and part lottery.
However, just because you’ve purchased a cold house, that doesn’t mean you’re going to be cold forever. You can improve the insulation or install something like gas central heating or an effective pellet heater. All of that costs money, obviously, but it’s almost definitely worth it.
In Portugal, the Portuguese and non-Portuguese typically run in different circles. Even people who have lived in Portugal for years will usually be able to count the number of close Portuguese friends they have on one hand.
It takes two to tango though. While the Portuguese can be a little closed, even to each other sometimes, very few expats make the required effort to integrate – at least after a few months of trying. Integrating is a marathon rather than a sprint, and one that requires you to learn Portuguese to a very good level. And it’s much harder if you don’t work in an office, attend university, or do something else that puts you in close contact with people for many hours every week.
This isn’t unique to Portugal. People who’ve moved to other Southern European countries like Spain and Italy, to Scandinavia, or to Eastern Europe often report the same challenges in integrating.
Portuguese is nowhere near as difficult as Chinese, Arabic, or maybe even German, but many consider it harder than other romance languages and less appealing. That said, it doesn’t take too long to learn enough Portuguese to get by in daily life, and even in more difficult bureaucratic situations. However, it does take a long time to learn enough Portuguese to really integrate – but that’s true of all languages.
Learning European Portuguese is becoming a little easier thanks to all the new apps, websites, and YouTube channels that teach it (in the past there were only dry, boring textbooks). There are lots of great courses, particularly for beginner’s level Portuguese, that’ll teach you the essentials and help you pass those exams, should you decide to apply for citizenship or permanent residency.
This is obviously unique to Portugal in that Portuguese is seen as harder than some other European languages, particularly Spanish. That said, it’s probably not any more difficult than German.
(Some) Things are Expensive
A lot of people think that just because food and wine are cheap in Portugal, everything else is. Unfortunately, that’s not true.
Electricity and petrol are two good examples of things that are really expensive in Portugal. Per kilowatt, Portugal is one of the most expensive countries in Europe. It’s also one of the most expensive countries for fuel. Rent, particularly in somewhere like Lisbon, can be as expensive as a major Northern European city. Then there are cars, furniture, electronic appliances, books, branded international foods, cosmetics, and toiletries, all of which are typically more expensive than elsewhere.
It can be frustrating paying double or triple what you’re used to paying for something, but it’s often offset by the lower prices for other things (eating out, for example) and the fact that you get to live in Portugal.
Portugal doesn’t have the highest taxes in Europe, but it definitely doesn’t have the lowest taxes either. Portuguese taxes, particularly when combined with social security, are high – at least in their simplest form. They can also be a little complicated, and requiring an accountant does add a cost that you might not have if you lived elsewhere.
The Portuguese government does have several tax regimes and schemes which are designed to simplify tax payments and to make Portugal more appealing to outsiders. The most famous is the NHR tax regime, which is designed to reduce the amount of tax you pay in Portugal for the first 10 years and, in some cases, allows you to be taxed elsewhere. Despite its apparent simplicity, it can still be complicated and it’s recommended that you speak to an accountant to get an accurate overview of what your tax obligations are likely to be.
Sexism, micromanaging, not being allowed to show any initiative – talk to a Portuguese person about the downsides of living in Portugal and one of the main things they’ll mention is workplace culture. It’s not every company, obviously, but it is something that gets mentioned frequently.
Thankfully, it’s a downside that many foreigners moving to Portugal get to avoid as many bring their own jobs here, work for a foreign company, or move to Portugal for retirement.
Besides being cold, another problem caused by a lack of insulation is the way noise travels. This is more a problem in apartments rather than houses, but even houses aren’t immune from noise problems – the sound of barking dogs, which can sometimes go through the night, is a problem in rural areas.
Generally speaking, however, most noise problems are with apartments. The most noise seems to come from the apartment above, but depending on the way the property is built, may come from the apartment below or to the side as well. As with the cold, noise problems can vary considerably from property to property, depending on when it was built, what floor the apartment is on, and who the neighbours are. In some apartments, you won’t hear anything. In others, you can hear the neighbour’s conversations almost word-for-word.
As with the cold, these problems are somewhat fixable and can be avoided entirely if you spend enough money.
Noise problems aren’t unique to Portugal and are common in some neighbouring countries like Spain.
Whether it’s the blue skies or the tiled walls, there are lots of beautiful things to look at in Portugal. Don’t look up too long, however. Doing so could mean you step in something you didn’t want to. Similarly, it’s always a good idea to really inspect the grass before sitting down for a picnic.
Dog poop is one of those minor downsides that you get used to with time, and it may not even be that noticable if you’ve lived in other European countries where it’s also a problem.
Ask a Portuguese person what the biggest downside to life in Portugal is and almost all will say corruption. According to Transparency International’s 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index, Portugal was ranked 32nd out of 198 countries for corruptionhttps://www.transparency.org/en/cpi/2021. Backhanders can permeate every area of life, from your local council right up to the higher echelons of government. It’s just seen as a part of life or a tax for getting around the bureaucracy.
While corruption doesn’t affect most people’s lives on a day to day basis – you won’t have to bribe the police to get home – it does affect whether money is properly invested into the country and that can make a difference.
The Slow Pace of Life
The slow pace of life is one of the main reasons that people move to Portugal, but that slow pace of life can also be a downside. When you have something that needs doing, suddenly you find yourself wishing that the slow pace of life wasn’t a thing in Portugal.
Even in simple tasks like going to the supermarket, you’ll find yourself queuing for a lot longer than you would in countries that don’t have a slow pace of life. It all depends on which you value more: the slow pace of life (for when you do want it) or constant efficiency.
This isn’t unique to Portugal, but common across most Southern European or Mediterranean countries.
The “Glass Half Empty” Mentality
The Portuguese mentality can be frustrating for a lot of people, particularly for entrepreneurs and go-getters who see opportunities around every corner. In Portugal, people often look at the world in less optimistic terms. This is changing somewhat, and younger generations and those who have lived abroad tend to look at the world in more of a glass-half-full-sort-of-way but it a can’t do attitude is something you’ll come across from time to time.
This isn’t completely unique to Portugal, but it does seem to be more common in Portugal than in neighbouring European countries.
In Portugal, it can sometimes feel like the customer is never right. Getting a problem resolved is often a battle of wills, and problems can take hours and hours of your time to get resolved. There is the complaints book (Livro de Reclamações) for when you can’t seem to get a resolution, but even that isn’t a threat to some companies (utility and communications companies particularly). Then there’s SEF (immigration), Finanças (tax department), and other government departments, all of which aren’t particularly popular in Portugal.
Again, this is something that is improving but it’s something you will come across from time to time.
This isn’t unique to Portugal. Customer service isn’t always a big priority in Europe and government departments, particularly immigration, seem to be particularly unfriendly in most countries around the world.
Portugal traditionally attracts much older expats, particularly retirees. There’s a reason for that, and that’s that people don’t usually come to Portugal to work: salaries are low by European standards, and there are a limited number of jobs here.
The good news is that, even though salaries are still a long way from catching up with other Western European countries, there are an increasing number of job opportunities in Portugal. Many people also bring their work with them – either starting a business here or working remotely for clients outside of Portugal.
This isn’t totally unique to Portugal: Across Southern Europe, job opportunities are fewer and salaries are lower when compared to Northern Europe. That said, Portugal does have some of the lowest salaries in Western Europe.
It’s all about “Who You Know”
To get ahead in a lot of industries in Portugal, it’s all about who you know. This maxim is true in a lot of countries, of course, but it’s especially true in Portugal.
In a lot of English-speaking countries, like the UK and US, who you know opens doors but it doesn’t make it impossible to break into certain industries. In Portugal, not knowing the right people can make it impossible to do business in a lot of industries that you could break into in other countries.
This isn’t unique to Portugal and is quite common across most of Europe.
Whether it’s people flashing their lights because they’re desperate to overtake, drink driving, or tailgating, driving in Portugal can be challenging and sometimes scary. Indicators are rarely used, touch parking is common in the cities, and in rural parts of Portugal people often park diagonally across two or three spaces.
Unfortunately, it’s just one of those things about Portuguese life that you have to get used to.
This isn’t unique to Portugal. According to Statista, in 2018, there were more road accident fatalities in 10 other European countries like Romania, Greece, and Luxembourg. However, Portugal faired worse than neighbouring countries like Spain, France, and Italy. And although people often drive somewhat aggressively, it’s definitely milder than the road rage most Americans will be used to.
The Rising Cost of Living
The cost of living in Portugal is on the rise, particularly when it comes to property prices. This is obviously more of a downside for the Portuguese living in Portugal who typically have less buying power on average, but it’s still a downside for expats as well.
The Cold Ocean
A lot of people move to Portugal for the beaches and are surprised by just how cold the water is. Yes, it can be very cold because it’s not the Mediterranean Sea: it’s the Atlantic Ocean. It’s one of those small downsides, but something to consider if you’re planning on spending a lot of time in the water. If you’re a surfer, the quality of the waves may make up for the temperature of the water.
This is unique to Portugal. Other Southern European countries like Spain, Greece, Italy, and Cyprus are all on the Mediterranean Sea so typically have warmer waters.
In the past few years, tourism has boomed in Portugal. Lisbon, in particular, has become one of the hottest destinations to visit and it has attracted millions of tourists from all over the world. Porto, and the Algarve, likewise, have seen a huge increase in tourism as well.
Unfortunately, places like Lisbon and Porto are much too small to handle the sheer volume of tourists that are visiting. The streets are narrow, and the cities themselves are quite compact and small. Historical attractions like the Torre de Belém in Lisbon or the Clérigos Tower in Porto are often full to the brim and very uncomfortable to visit.
Tourism has also led to other problems in the local housing market and has put a strain on public transport and other services. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like over tourism is going to decrease anytime soon, particularly as the Portuguese economy is so focused on tourism – and doesn’t look like it’s going to dramatically shift to anything else anytime soon.
This isn’t completely unique to Portugal. Lots of other cities like Barcelona and Amsterdam are struggling with overtourism.
Many people who move to Portugal come from countries where online shopping is extremely developed, to the point where they can get their orders on the same day. That’s not the case in Portugal, especially as most online shopping is done with companies outside of Portugal. In fact, a huge percentage is likely with Amazon Spain.
The challenge of getting things delivered, whether an online shopping order or a letter from overseas, is a constant complaint amount expats. It is something you get used to, though, and, like many of the other things in this list, is a small price to pay for what you get in return.
While we’re on the subject of shopping, it’s worth mentioning Portuguese customs. Just about every country has a customs system which charges import fees on products purchased abroad. That’s annoying but reasonable. In Portugal, however, the fees charged for anything imported from outside the EU are so high that it’s not unusual for import charges to equal the value of the product purchased (and sometimes they’re even more). Even gifts that are clearly handmade by family members are stopped, valued at much more than they could ever be worth, and slapped with big import charges.
Even if you agree to pay these charges or they have been prepaid, it can take days, weeks, and even months to get your deliveries released from Portuguese customs. Basically, try to avoid shipping anything from outside the EU (excluding your belongings if you have a certificado de bagagem as these will be treated differently).
While smoking is on the way out in many countries, smoking is still reasonably common in Portugal. It’s something that you will get used to with time.
Portugal definitely isn’t the only European country where smoking is common. It’s similar in France, Spain, and Germany.
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