Portugal VS Spain: Where Should Expats Choose to Live?

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Last updated on June 14, 2024 | Est. Reading Time: 11 minutes

A lot of people think about moving to Spain or Portugal. Both have a similar climate, they have shared histories, and are located right next to each other, so it’s understandable why so many people lump the two together. 

Regardless of which country you choose to live in, you’ll be right next to the other one and so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to travel around both. But travel is one thing and living somewhere is very different, so it’s important to choose the country that’s best for you to live in. Both have their pros and cons for living, which this article will explore. 

Residency visas

If you aren’t the lucky owner of an EU passport, you’ll most likely need a residency visa in order to move to either Spain or Portugal. 

Both Portugal and Spain offer visas aimed at attracting retirees, but Spain requires an annual income (typically from a pension) of €33,893 for a couple [source]. In comparison, Portugal’s D7 visa requires the main applicant to have at least the equivalent of the Portuguese minimum wage (around €820 per month as of 2024) and another 50% for the partner. In practice, this works out at €14,760 for a couple, which is much less than what Spain requires.

As of 2023, both Spain and Portugal have digital nomad visas as well, which are aimed at remote workers and freelancers. There are pros and cons to both, and this article looks at two benefits of each in a little more detail.

Another popular visa that Portugal offers is the D2 or entrepreneur visa, which offers residency in return for starting a business in Portugal. Entrepreneur visas are common across Europe, but the Portuguese entrepreneur visa is appealing but it requires a lower amount of seed capital than many other countries.

Then there’s the golden visa, which offers residency in return for investing in Portugal, including buying a property here. It’s something that both Spain and Portugal offer, but there are a few pros to the Portuguese version. Firstly, a citizenship application can be made after five in Portugal rather than 10 years in Spain.

As of 2023, the most popular investment route for most people interested in Portugal’s golden visa is likely to be investing in funds.

Winner: Portugal

Citizenship Possibilities 

Both Spain and Portugal allow you to apply for citizenship (and that coveted “EU passport”) after a period of living there, a process known as naturalisation. In Portugal, that period is five years [source] whereas in Spain it’s generally 10 years [source]. Spain has a few exceptions and it’s faster if you’re a refugee (five years) or two years if you’re from Portugal, the Philippines, Andorra, Equatorial Guinea, or any Latin-American country [source].

Both Spain and Portugal offer citizenship via marriage. In Portugal, you have to have been married for three years or in a long-term relationship or “stable union,” but don’t have to have lived in Portugal. In Spain, you can apply for citizenship through marriage after one year of being married and living in Spain [source].

Portugal allows dual citizenship. Spain does, but only with specific countries and in limited circumstances. This fact alone could make Portugal the winner as most people will want to hold onto their other passport.

Winner: Portugal

The language

Deciding which country is better when it comes to language is a difficult question to answer, but Spanish is definitely more practical for travel as it’s spoken throughout most of Latin America. Portuguese is spoken in other countries besides Portugal, but most people are more likely to visit Mexico or Chile rather than Guinea-Bissau or Angola. The difference between European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese is also much greater than the difference between European Spanish and Latin American Spanish. 

It’s debatable whether one language is harder than the other, but most people will say Spanish is easier, especially when compared to “European Portuguese” (as opposed to “Brazilian Portuguese”). Spoken Portuguese is very hard to understand and there are many more TV shows and films to learn from in Spanish. 

English tends to be more spoken in Portugal, but that’s not always a good thing and it can make it very easy to be lazy and just try to get by in English. In Spain, you can hold a conversation in broken Spanish whereas many Portuguese, frustrated at the slow speed and the way you’re butchering their language, will quickly switch to English. 

Winner: Spain

Taxes

If you’re planning to move to a country with low taxes, neither Spain nor Portugal should really be considerations. There are many places with much lower taxes. 

According to Tax Foundation, Portugal is worse than Spain when it comes to taxes[source]. However, this chart only compares “normal” rates of income tax and doesn’t take into account regimes like the new NHR tax regime, which is open to newcomers to Portugal. Although definitely not a “tax holiday” as it’s often marketed as, this can definitely soften the blow of Portuguese taxes and may even work out a better deal than what you’re currently getting. Another blow to Spain in this category is Spain’s wealth tax. According to Tax Foundation, “Spain’s net wealth tax is a progressive tax ranging from 0.2 percent to 3.75 percent on wealth stocks above €700,000 ($784,000; lower in some regions), with rates varying substantially across Spain’s autonomous regions (Madrid offers a 100 percent relief)” [source].

Winner: Portugal

The weather

Portugal and Spain both have incredibly similar weather: both have incredibly hot parts such as the Alentejo in Portugal and Andalucia in Spain and both have greener areas like the North of Portugal and Galicia in Spain. Both also have their own islands, which have their own climates which are separate to the mainland. 

Overall, however, Spain probably wins when it comes to weather as it has more areas with mild winter weather than Portugal. In Portugal, the mild winter weather is limited to anywhere south of Lisbon and especially around the Algarve. Spain, in comparison, has a much larger area of good weather that covers the South Coast and up to areas like the Costa Blanca. In this area, you’ll find several cities like Valencia, Murcia, and Malaga, whereas the only large city Portugal has that gets winter sun is Lisbon. 

The sea is also much warmer in Spain than it is in Portugal: Spain has the Mediteranean whereas Portugal has the Atlantic. However, Portugal is a better destination for surfers with several great surf spots like Nazaré, Sagres, and Ericeira. 

Island-wise, the Canaries are a better bet for weather, although Madeira has other charms. 

Unfortunately, apartments in both Spain and Portugal tend to be very cold in winter due to a lack of central heating. The lack of insulation means noise is also an issue in both, but Portugal probably does slightly better here. 

Winner: Spain

Cost of living

It’s difficult to compare the cost of living across both Spain and Portugal as Spain, in particular, is quite varied. Madrid and Barcelona both have a slightly prohibitive cost of living, even more so than Lisbon, which is now very expensive to live in. Most people will want to compare the cost of living in somewhere like the Alentejo versus Andalucia and not have the higher prices of Lisbon and Madrid taken into consideration. 

Many people look at the minimum wage and conclude that Portugal must be cheaper since it has a lower minimum wage: around €775 per month versus around €950 per month [source]. Or, they look at websites like Numbeo which, while helpful, aren’t always accurate. Many blog posts are now out of date as property rental and purchase prices in Portugal have increased significantly. 

Comparing food and drink prices also isn’t particularly helpful and can be quite misleading. Despite the lower purchasing power, Portugal is actually more expensive than Spain for a lot of things including essentials like cars, electricity, and fuel. Walk through a Spanish town and you’ll see air con units on all of the apartment balconies. Not so in Portugal as it’s more expensive to run them. 

Which is cheaper? It’s hard to say. 

Winner: Undecided

Food

Which country has the better food is really a matter of preference? This website is obviously biased and so will say Portuguese food is better, but…it’s also true. 

Spain does have some fantastic dishes and the tapas culture is great. Portugal may have petiscos, which are like a Portuguese version of tapas, but they’re just not as exciting and most petiscos bars are aimed at tourists anyway. 

But Spanish food, particularly in the South of Spain, is fried and beige. Portuguese food, in comparison, is often grilled and uses a lot more fresh fish. There are good foodie regions of Spain – San Sebastian and the whole region of Galicia is fantastic – but Portugal is much better overall. 

Both Spain and Portugal produce fantastic and affordable wines, and it really will come down to a matter of preference. Portugal has port wine, vinho verde, and is very good for reds, particularly from the Douro and Alentejo, but Spain produces much better sparkling wine (cava) and some fantastic whites, particularly albarinos. The Rioja region is also as good if not better than the Douro. 

Neither, unfortunately, is great for vegetarians or vegans, but Spain actually has several tapas that are authentically vegetarian, so it’s slightly easier to get by. 

Winner: Undecided (but probably Portugal)

Culture

It would take multiple articles to discuss both Spanish and Portuguese culture. Spain and Portugal definitely have a lot in common culturally, more so than Portugal and Thailand for example, but the differences are significant as well. 

I have lived and worked in both Portugal and Spain. While Portugal is slower paced and people more reserved and introverted, Spain is more dynamic and vitalistic, more modern in many ways. Spaniards are outspoken and a lively folk who seem to have energy for everything. – Grupsen (Portugalist commenter)

Both are laid-back, very family-focused, and quite closed to outsiders, but Spanish people are much louder and more confident whereas the Portuguese are shier and more reserved (although a few beers can change that). The Portuguese are a little more introspective, and reserved, and, through their love of saudade, can often come across as having quite a negative view of life, whereas the Spanish come across as more jovial and vibrant. 

Both are patriotic, both the Portuguese are perhaps much more so, and focus a lot more on their colonial past than the Spanish. In Spain, the country is much more divided and people tend to be more proud of their region than Spain as a whole. In fact, several regions want independence from Madrid whereas this struggle for independence isn’t an issue in Portugal. 

Winner: depends

Size

Size isn’t everything, but it does come with certain benefits. Spain is much bigger than Portugal and that means it’s home to large cities whereas Portugal really only has Lisbon and Porto. Spain, in comparison, has Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Sevilla, Zaragoza, Málaga, Murcia, Palma, and Las Palmas. If you want to live in or near a city, Spain has more options. 

Bigger also means better flights: Spain is just better for international flights, particularly from Madrid and Barcelona, and often you’ll have to fly from Portugal to Spain to get an affordable international flight. Both are quite far from the rest of Europe for driving, but Portugal much more so.

Bigger also means better online shopping – Portuguese shoppers have to shop at Amazon Spain, for example – which may not seem important now, but may become important once you move somewhere. 

Winner: Spain

Conclusion

It’s difficult to say which country is better for expats to live in, Spain or Portugal. Ultimately, it’ll come down to two things: practicalities like visas and citizenship and which one you fall in love with. 

This site is biased, but thinks that’ll be Portugal. 

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy our comparison of living in Portugal vs Italy.

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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.

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There are 18 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. We,too, found Portugal in our 20’s, riding a Yamaha 650ES twin from the UK down to the coast, via France, Spain, etc.

    We prefer Portugal to Spain for many reasons. The warmth of these people is palpable.

    The food is terrific. The beauty is surprising. And the food and wine are affordable, and the Veg is clearly superior to anything we find in America, even California, where we spend part of our lives, as Full-time travelers/RV-ers.

    RV-ing here is not as good as America, but do-able. We have considered it.

    Reply
  2. Thanks for this!

    According to the article, “Spain’s net wealth tax is a progressive tax ranging from 0.2 percent to 3.75 percent on wealth stocks above €700,000 ($784,000; lower in some regions), with rates varying substantially across Spain’s autonomous regions (Madrid offers a 100 percent relief).”

    This sounds like it won’t affect a lot of people deciding between Spain/Portugal, but could be the clincher for wealthier people deciding between the two countries.

    Reply
  3. If you are so wealthy a tax topping out at 3.75% for the wealthiest of wealthy means absolutely nothing. Stop being a greedy hog.

    Reply
  4. Yes, it surprised us, too, that the wealth tax was not mentioned.
    And NO, it does not just affect the ‘wealthy’. Just because $700,000 – 800,000 seems like a lot to someone in Spain, it is not much for someone living in many parts of the US. If you try to retire with that you will be in very bad shape. It is very expensive to live in the US – and it is getting worse.
    So it depends on where you live and what your cost of living is.
    Spain is notorious for taxing its middle class to death, and it is not the only European country to do this.

    Reply
  5. Is it true that getting money out of your host country bank account costs a lot if you don’t open a Spain/ Portugal bank account?

    Reply
  6. Is it true that getting money out of your host country bank account costs a lot if you don’t open a Spain/ Portugal bank account?

    Reply
    • Hi Alistair

      It depends.

      The rates for getting money out of an ATM vary considerably. The best cards will give you a very reasonable exchange rate and not charge you a fee. The worst will give you a bad exchange rate, charge a fee, and often charge a percentage of the amount as well.

      I think if you’re going to live in Portugal, you’ll need a Portuguese bank account for paying bills. If you’re just visiting, you can survive on a travel friendly bank account and there won’t be a huge difference with having a PT bank account.

      Reply
  7. We looked at both countries and it was quite difficult to choose. Portugal is a little safer than Spain but that didn’t matter too much as we weren’t looking at living in a city like Barcelona or Madrid. I think the countryside in Spain and Portugal is probably comparable. Noise levels would be a consideration if we were living in a city. We found Spain much noisier and people seem more tolerant of noise there. Portugal can be noisy but not so much.

    We didn’t like the Spanish eating times. It seems too chaotic for us. Both lunch and dinner are too late. The Portuguese system seems more suitable for older expats.

    There were good and bad things about both but in the end it seemed that Portugal was better suited to expats particularly when it came to visas and taxes. We wanted to avoid a wealth tax and the NHR was appealing. Had Spain been different here it might have been a harder decision.

    Reply
  8. This article recognizes more than once that it’s biased toward Portugal. And it really is!
    They say Portuguese food is as good or better than Spain’s. This is simply not true. The variety is much greater in Spain and its food (and international chefs like Ferra Adriá and Carlos Arguiñano) and famous restaurants are recognized worldwide which is not the case for Portugal.
    The weather is also much more varied in Spain and if you enjoy snow skiing, for instance, there’s a huge difference between both countries.
    Another area where Spain beats Portugal by a large margin is night life (and all social life in general) and entertainment. Spain offers better options than Portugal across the board: much better bars, night clubs, rave (and many other kinds of) parties and cultural entertainment such as musical theater, opera, movie theaters, etc.
    Spain is 5 times bigger than Portugal so there’s a lot more to see: more history (more roman and earlier sites, more medieval cathedrals, castles, bridges, cities, etc). There’s no Roman Aqueduct of Segovia or Roman Amphitheater of Merida in Portugal…
    Modern architecture (like the 4 towers in Madrid) simply does not exist in Portugal.
    Sports wise the offer in Spain is miles ahead of Portugal’s both as a sportsman and as a spectator.
    Spain is also well ahead of Portugal in evolution and modern values. Portugal is now where Spain was 20 years ago. Remember Spain was the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. Whether you agree with it or not what’s important is the tolerance Spain shows to all kinds of different points of view. It’s a free society where you’ll be allowed to live your life on your own terms without being criticized or persecuted by old fashioned bigots.
    Spain’s economy is 7 times bigger than Portugal’s. There’s a lot more money and luxury around so even if you’re retired you have many more options to earn an income working from home if you choose to.
    Don’t get me wrong: I think Portugal is a very nice place to visit and live too. Spain is simply better, one of the 5 best places to live in the 21st century.

    Reply
  9. Spain is somewhere between 20 and 40 years ahead of Portugal. Salaries are better, infrastructure is better, services are better. There is no point lumping the two together unless you are comparing areas like Estremadura and possibly Galicia.

    Portugal is a beautiful country but you are going to take a step back in time. That’s perfect for some people but I am surprised it works for the younger crowd.

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  10. There are a lot of good things about Spain (people less reserved for example, property cheaper in places) however one thing you haven’t mention in squatter’s rights. In Spain if people see an empty apartment or house they move into it and are protected by the law. Most of your readers are likely to leave properties vacant for quite a few months so this means Spain is not very expat friendly.

    I think the bureaucracy is slightly better in Spain than Portugal but neither are fantastic. The Spanish tax office seems to have taken a person vendetta against British expats and is trying to make them all resident there and many are being taxed on income earned in the UK that should not be taxed in Spain. Portugal might be a pain but Spain seems to be more proactive in this regard as in proactively going after people’s money.

    Reply

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