Living in Portugal VS the UK: What’s Different & What’s the Same?

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Every year, thousands of people move from the UK to Portugal, especially to the coastal Algarve region in the south. It’s easy to see why: Portugal has great weather, an interesting culture and history, English is widely spoken, and there’s already a large British expat community. Oh, and let’s not forget the affordable wine as well. 

Although most people do a lot of research about Portugal before moving here, and many will have spent a lot of time here on holidays, most aren’t aware of what it’s like to live here. In particular, most aren’t aware of how life in Portugal is different to life in the UK. 

In this article, we look at some of those differences as well as the similarities. 

Weather

The weather in Portugal is obviously much better than the UK. Not only does Portugal have better weather, but it has some of the world’s most beautiful beaches where you can enjoy it, along with beautiful lakes, mountains, and other spots of immense nature beauty. 

This isn’t to say that the weather found in Portugal is the same all over. Portugal has a variety of different climates, including cooler weather up North and a subtropical oceanic climate on the Azores Islands and Madeira. There’s something for everyone, but if it’s fair to say that, overall, the weather is warmer in Portugal than it is in the UK. 

However, even though Portugal has much warmer weather, it’s worth noting that it does get cold winters. Not so much outside – although the North of Portugal can be very damp and grey in winter – but inside. Portuguese houses typically have no heating and very little insulation, so most people spend the winter months wearing multiple layers, gloves, and doing star jumps just to stay warm.

Obviously this can be fixed – from pellet burners to central heating, there are lots of ways to improve houses – and it doesn’t matter so much if you’re retired and able to spend the majority of the day outside. It is something to be aware of, though, particularly if you work from home. 

Food & Drink

Portugal is a fantastic country for food and drink. Restaurants and cafes are very affordable and the quality of products in the supermarket and local markets is high. Portuguese cuisine is a great cuisine to have on your doorstep and with so many regional dishes, there’s always a new dish to try. 

British food will never beat Portuguese food, but what the UK has is international variety. Supermarkets are stocked with products from all over the world, whether that’s pre-made food or the ingredients to make them yourself. Most towns and especially cities will have a plethora of international restaurants to choose from. 

If you don’t live in a small town or the countryside in Portugal, you’ll be limited to Portuguese food or…Portuguese food: the selection of international products in your supermarket will be limited as will the types of cuisine available at local restaurants. If you want Indian, Thai, Middle Eastern, Mexican, or anything else, you’ll just have to learn to make it.

If you do decide to cook these dishes yourself, you’ll be spoilt for choice with local ingredients – especially fish and seafood. Visit the fish section of your local Portuguese market or supermarket and you’ll find just about everything from under the sea whereas UK fishmongers and especially the fish section of the supermarket are much more limited. 

The quality of fruit and vegetables, similarly, is much better. They’re also often seasonal and grown in Portugal whereas in the UK, they’re smaller, often picked before they’re fully ripe, and transported from the other side of the world. 

Moving onto wine, there’s obviously no comparison. You can find a very drinkable bottle of Portuguese wine for €3-5 and it gets even better if you’re willing to spend a little more. Again, the difference is selection: in the UK you’ll find wine from all over the world whereas in Portugal you’ll just find wine from Portugal. If you decide you fancy an Argentian Malbec or want a bottle of Bollinger to give someone for their birthday, you’ll probably have to rethink and come up with a Portuguese alternative. 

Portuguese beer is traditionally limited to light lagers like Super Bock and Sagres, but there has been a boom in craft beer production in the past few years. You still won’t find these in most cafes and restaurants, but some brands can be found in garrafeiras (off licences) and even in some supermarkets. 

Cost of Living

It’s difficult to compare the cost of living in both countries, especially as this often varies from person to person. Obviously, it’s cheaper to live just about anywhere in Portugal than it is in London, but the cost of renting in Lisbon, Cascais, Ericeira, or Lagos is often on par if not more expensive than many cities in the UK. Even outside of Lisbon, Portugal often isn’t that much cheaper than parts of the UK like the North or Wales. 

Some things are cheaper in Portugal and some things are cheaper in the UK. Portugal is definitely cheaper in some areas, like eating out, alcohol, train travel, and health insurance. Nights out, whether to a restaurant or bar, are definitely much cheaper. However, Portugal is more expensive when it comes to cars, utilities, toiletries, books, reading glasses, electronics, and anything imported. 

You can find cheap properties for sale in both countries, but if it’s a tossup between living in the North of England or the North of Portugal, Portugal wins hands down. But although there are plenty of great affordable properties to be found in Portugal, it’s important to realise that life can be quite isolated and integrating will be hard. Living on a budget on any country is difficult, but maybe it’s easier to do in a country where you know the language, culture, and have something of a support network.  

Taxes

Tax-wise, it also varies from person to person and it can depend on whether you’re paying standard Portuguese taxes or if you’ve qualified for the NHR tax regime

The NHR flat-rates offered can be particularly beneficial for those on high incomes, whether that’s from employment or a pension, but seems to be less beneficial for those on lower incomes. Pensions, for example, are taxed at 10% and many other forms of income, such as employment or self-employment in certain qualifying professions, are taxed at 20%. This is the basic-rate tax bracket in the UK so to earn €100,000 or more and be taxed at that level can offer decent savings. At the lower level the Portuguese NHR rates aren’t always as beneficial, particularly as the UK has a larger tax-free personal allowance than Portugal. 

Taxes aside, for those who are still working, and especially running a business, the biggest issue isn’t so much the taxes and social security payments but the bureaucracy. 

Bureaucracy

One of the biggest downsides of life in Portugal is bureaucracy. The problem isn’t so much the amount of paperwork, but that the whole system is very confusing, contradictory, and nobody really seems to know what’s going on. 

The UK isn’t without it’s problems, of course, but it does seem more straightforward in comparison. You’re able to use most government services online and there’s usually plenty of helpful information on government websites as well.

Portugal is becoming more digital, but progress has been much slower here. Emails often aren’t answered and to get anything done you typically have to grab a senha (ticket), queue, and speak to someone face-to-face. 

Jobs

In comparison to the UK, the job market in Portugal is quite limited. The most obvious downside is wages: Portugal has the lowest wages in Western Europe[1]https://www.reuters.com/article/us-portugal-government-wages-idUSKBN1XN1LS. Although the cost of living is higher in the UK, it does seem like you’re potentially able to save more there. 

The majority of people who move to Portugal, particularly from countries like the UK, don’t come to work in a salaried job. Most either move with a pension, a remote job, or start a business here. The most common is something to do with tourism or property. 

There are some jobs, but for those that don’t speak Portuguese they’re usually limited to work in call centres, tourism, or property. If you do speak Portuguese, you have more options open to you. However, career progression seems to be harder and more based on who you know rather than merit. 

These days, the trick is to get a job with a remote company in a country like the UK, US, or Germany but live in Portugal and enjoy the best of both worlds. 

Shopping

Non-grocery shopping is probably better in the UK. Many things, whether it’s electronics or reading glasses, are cheaper and there’s more selection in just about every category. Online shopping is also easy and many things can be delivered next-day, if not the same day with Amazon Prime. 

It’s also easier when it comes to buying gifts. Christmas shopping in Portugal is hard and many people end up doing most of their shopping at Continente or Pingo Doce. This is less the case in Lisbon or Porto, both of which have plenty of boutique shops, and more the case in the countryside or small towns and villages.

Although the UK wins in terms of variety and ease, the quality of products isn’t always great, especially if it’s imported from China. While Portugal imports plenty of products from Asia as well, products that are made locally – whether it’s bespoke furniture or linens – are often of very good quality. 

Safety & Acceptance

Crime does happen, but Portugal feels like a much safer country than the UK – especially when you’re walking around at night. The crimes that do happen – to tourists and expats at least – tend to be more of the pickpocketing and break-in variety rather than violent crimes (those that happen between Portuguese are different).  Overall, Portugal definitely feels safer. 

Racism and acceptance is much more difficult to measure. Although the UK will always be remembered as the country that voted for Brexit, it does seem to be the less racist of the two. Most people will never encounter any racism in Portugal, but some of the things that are said about (or to) Africans, Brazilians, or siganos would never be said in the UK. Perhaps that’s just good old British political correctness, though, and these things are thought even though they’re never said. 

Healthcare

Both Portugal and the UK have public healthcare systems and the Portuguese SNS (Servico Nacional de Saude) was actually based off of the British NHS. Both are good in an emergency, but it can take a long time if you need to get referred to a specialist (although Portugal is perhaps worse on this point). 

Although both the SNS and NHS hospitals run on similar systems, they’re slightly different culturally. Hospitals in Portugal can feel more rushed, there’s less of a sense of privacy, and, even if you speak Portuguese, it can still be quite confusing.  

On the plus side, private health insurance and use of private hospitals is much more affordable in Portugal. Most expats and an increasing number of Portuguese have private health insurance and the average cost is probably somewhere between €50 and €100 per month. The cost of seeing a private doctor if you pay yourself without insurance is usually between €70 and €100. And, even though you sometimes have a long wait to get seen by a specialist on the public system, when you do get seen, the quality of care is very good. 

In both Portugal and the UK, healthcare quality and the size of waiting lists can vary considerably from area to area. 

Transportation

The UK is probably the winner in terms of public transport, at least locally. While Portugal is great on long-distance public transport, it can be very hard to rely on local buses. If you live in the countryside, you typically need a car to get around. In the UK, on the other hand, it’s much easier to live without a car. 

Both countries have good roads, but perhaps the UK fairs better here. Portugal has good toll roads, but the secondary roads, and especially the country roads, aren’t always very well-maintained. The toll roads are, however, quite expensive by Portuguese standards. Obviously, both countries drive on different sides as well; Portugal on the right and the UK on the left.

Driving in Portugal is also much riskier than in the UK and speeding, tailgating, and drunk driving are all quite common. 

Portugal, as mentioned, has good long-distance public transport, especially trains. Although Portuguese trains are old and slow, they’re very affordable: a one-way ticket from Lisbon to the Algarve could cost less than €10 if booked in advance. 

Hobbies & Activities

One difference with life in Portugal versus life in the UK is what you do with your spare time. Eating out and going for coffee are popular in both countries, perhaps more so in Portugal, whereas the UK puts more of an emphasis on going to the pub. So far so similar, but once you move past these similarities you start to see some differences. 

One difference is evening classes and hobbies. In most of the UK, it’s very easy to join a pottery class, a walking group, or start just about any hobby, either by yourself or with a group of other enthusiasts. These types of activities are much less common in Portugal where the focus is more on spending time with people you know (friends and family), whether that’s at home, the restaurant, the beach, or over a picnic in nature. 

Theatre and standup comedy are also something that people who move to Portugal often miss. For those that speak good Portuguese, there is some Portuguese theatre, particularly around Christmas, but it’s much less common. Portuguese stand-up is becoming a thing, and there is some English-language standup in Lisbon, but stand-up is still a very new concept in Portugal. 

Culture

There are similarities between Portuguese and British culture. Both are very polite, for example, and social, although for Brits socialising usually focuses on alcohol whereas for the Portuguese the focus is on food. Both have a history of empire and exploration and both love to complain. With so much in common, it isn’t surprising that the UK and Portugal have the oldest political alliance, The Anglo-Portuguese Alliance, which was ratified in 1386 at the Treaty of Windsor[2]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Portuguese_Alliance

However, even though there are lots of similarities, there are also big differences. Portuguese culture is much more family-orientated, for example, and people tend to stick within their circles and are much more wary of strangers. While the Portuguese warm up once they know you, and can then be warmer than Brits, the UK has much more of an open culture to strangers and newcomers. 

This can mean it’s hard to make Portuguese friends, especially in the countryside where people really stick to their circles, although that would be the case in the British countryside to some degree as well. 

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Article originally published on 27 August, 2021

2 thoughts on “Living in Portugal VS the UK: What’s Different & What’s the Same?”

  1. Very good article. I enjoyed it a lot.
    One other topic which would make a good comparison is the treatment of dogs and cats. Living in Portugal, I am often shocked at the wild dogs and feral cats which are totally uncared for, and the caged dogs which are owned and sort of cared for. Also the noise of barking dogs, either the neighbour’s or someone more distant, is a constant reminder that you are not in the UK (though you do get barking dogs in the UK, they don’t bark all day and all night unless someone wants a visit from the RSPCA).
    I always enjoy your articles as it is the only place where people can find the truth rather than the rose tinted version pedaled by other web sites.

    Reply
    • Thanks Christine!

      Yes, that is a big difference. Not to say there aren’t very well looked after dogs in Portugal or badly looked after dog in the UK, but there’s definitely a difference when it comes to animals.

      Reply

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