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What's Different about living in Portugal? Part 2

People who are unfamiliar with Portugal often ask us what's it like to live in here vs the US. As recent transplants now residing in Portugal, we'll share our experiences so far.

We have found it important and helpful to understand the Culture of communities that we live in to better adapt to the flow of daily life. So many people we engage with want to change things so they are more similar and familiar with experiences in their home country. That's not why we are here, we are here to experience and enjoy Portugal and the culture and lifestyle it has to offer, the way it is. For me, culture is the way of life, the way things are done. Passed on through generations, updated by new generations, and influenced by outside sources including immigration and demographic changes. Culture is achieved by learning the way things are done and in most cases adding or updating nuances with each generation. With that in mind, we'll explore our view of the Portuguese "Culture" from the perspective of new arrivals.

Family is the cornerstone of Portuguese culture, family comes first as it should be. Sundays are reserved for family gatherings and you'll often see large groups gathering at restaurants, parks, or homes for Sunday lunch or dinner. It can be difficult to find an available restaurant on Sundays as everyone goes out with their families for lunch after church. I love seeing the large family gatherings, tables full of great food, laughing, and loud conversations where it appears that everyone is talking at the same time and no one is listening but somehow communication is happening. It makes me happy.

Education - Grade school students at the minimum are required to learn English. Most people here are at the minimum bilingual although it's not uncommon especially for younger generations to speak multiple languages. I think part of this is the vast diversity in Portugal that provides children from young ages the appreciation of differences in culture and language. The universities are free (paid for by your taxes) as long as you apply yourself and are able to progress, if not you are not allowed to continue. Going to college is a very prized endeavor and taken extremely seriously.

Eating and drinking are social activities in Portugal. Cafes and Patisseries are spots for morning pastries and coffee while contemplating the day's work or other activities, a small beer may also accompany your morning stop. A mid-morning pastry and coffee are a must, then lunch from about 1:00-3:00 pm. Some shops and businesses still close in the afternoon for a few hours so check their schedules before visiting. Dinner is usually around 8:00 pm, some as early as 7:00 pm. There is no reason to hurry through a meal, take as much time as needed to enjoy the conversation, your meal, wine, dessert, and coffee. We have found that few restaurants take reservations but those that do only plan on one seating due to the slow pace of Portuguese dining. Portuguese consume the highest amount of wine per capita than any other country in the world, followed by France in second place. Not surprising since wine is plentiful and relatively inexpensive. I don't see many Portuguese drinking liquor or mixed drinks. Beer and wine are most always on the table at a portuguese meal.

Laundry - Sun drying of clothes in Portugal is a ritual not often observed in the US. Most homes here don’t have a clothes dryer, they hang their clothes out to dry instead. Most likely a combination of culture and the high cost of energy keep this free use of the sun as a first option for drying clothes. Most of us foreigners adapt, I actually enjoy using the energy of the sun instead of a dryer. some newer more expensive homes have a condensation dryer but it takes forever to dry clothes, and yes, if you really want a clothes dryer you can get one here. Something about the ritual of hanging the laundry out on the drying rack on a sunny day, It’s a “zen” thing. A typical part of the urban and rural landscape here is seeing laundry hanging everywhere, on balconies, decks, and windows. With so many days of sunshine, it’s an energy efficient and simple way to dry your clothes.

Trash collection - In most cities in Portugal, there is no trash service as we are used to in the US. Instead, there are "Eco" stations or dumpsters located a short distance away. Most "Eco" stations consist of large underground waste containers that have a tube that sticks up above ground for each type of trash you are disposing; General trash, paper and cardboard, glass, and plastic and metal. You often see neighbors walking down the street with small bags of trash heading to the disposal area, some walking, some use their mopeds as a form of trash transportation, occasionally cars stop at the stations to unload into the tubes as well. The municipality regularly empties and sanitizes the containers and stations so they are generally clean and well maintained. We rarely see them doing this and it's a much quieter process than the clatter and clanking of the trash truck stopping at each house to pick up and bang around the neighborhood trash cans, not to mention you don't see trash cans all over the street on trash day.

Additionally, the Portuguese people have a system where they put anything that they believe someone else might need or want, on top of the "Eco station" instead of in it. If you see an item next to the dumpster its generally not that the container is full or because someone was too lazy to lift the lid and put their garbage inside. Items that are not selected by someone else for their use get picked up by the waste collectors during their normal rounds. The epitome of the saying one person's trash is another's treasure.

Money and how money works is an important aspect of life. Portugal is part of the EU so the common currency is the Euro. Lately, and a big plus for us, the valuation of the euro has fallen to the dollar to a current point of parity 1:1. That's a huge bonus for us as we had planned on taking a hit when converting cash from US dollars to Euros. The 52-week high was around 1.18 dollars to 1 Euro so that was a big point in our planning to move abroad. For now, were converting cash faster to take advantage of the lower rate thus reducing our overall cost of living here. By chance, good timing, divine intervention, or whatever you call it we are very blessed in this respect.

For those unfamiliar with the euro currency there is a bit of getting used to here as well. Similar to the US the smaller denomination coins are becoming less useful. I do love the €1 and €2 coins though, they seem much more efficient than a $1 bill. I am a bit annoyed that the folding money is sized differently, starting with the €5 bill being the smallest, €10 the next size up, the €20, and €50 slightly increasing in size. I haven't held anything larger yet so I don't know if the size growth continues in larger bills. All bills are slightly taller than a $ bill but noticeably shorter in length

Credit and Debit cards are readily accepted in most establishments, just look for the symbols for "MultiBanco" or "Visa/Mastercard". Very few will accept American Express, Diners or other cards. You will find some that are "Cash Only", mostly smaller establishments and signs are usually clearly posted

Taxes on goods and services in Portugal - Businesses are required to include all taxes in the price posted for an item. If you see an item priced at €20 the price that you pay at checkout is €20. No longer do we have to factor in the "sales tax" added to an item because what you see is what you are charged. The length of the printed receipts are a bit annoying as they will itemize the breakdown of the different tax rates applied. The tax is called "VAT" in Portugal (Imposto Sobre o Valor Agregado, or IVA for short), and is levied in three chargeable bands:

  • General rate: 23% on taxable goods and services

  • Intermediate rate: 13% on food and drink goods and services

  • Reduced rate: 6% on certain essential necessities including certain foods (e.g., meat, fruit, vegetables, cereal), books, newspapers, medicines, transport, and hotel accommodation

  • Separate IVA rates apply in the islands of Madeira (22%/12%/5%) and the Azores (18%/9%/4%).

Banking Most Portuguese use their debit cards or cash for daily purchases. Rarely will you see credit cards used by residents except for travel and other purchases that may require them, even though credit cards and debit cards are widely accepted throughout the country. Banks are not hounding you to open a credit account but most banks have them. The Banking systems are very progressive and have virtually eliminated check writing by allowing you to provide a code to your Utility companies as an example so they may direct debit payment from your account (with your approval of course). You can also pay bills through some ATM's. Very few offer a traditional interest-bearing savings account, instead investment vehicles are used such as treasuries and bonds but often at significantly lower interest rates than in the US.

Credit There is not a system-wide Point based credit scoring system, the EU is very big on personal privacy and does not allow creditors to have direct access to your information. Creditors don't look at or care about your score outside of the EU. A system called CCR, a report that can only be requested by you is used by lenders to determine your credit viability. This report is generated by the Banco de Portugal, the central bank of the Portuguese Republic. It lists what you have outstanding in debt, what you have borrowed, and what you have backed (co-signed, called fiador). The report also provides detailed info on all your existing credit contracts, when they started and/or finished, and whether your payments are on time or late. This information is provided to the Banco de Portugal by the credit agency with which you have a contract. You can be put on the "Black list" by writing bad checks or not meeting financial obligations.

Mortgages usually require a 20-30% contribution by the buyer, often as a result of very conservative property valuations by the bank. This is especially precarious in a fast-rising market like what we're experiencing now. Mortgage loans generally are not given past the age of 70 so if you are 60 and buying a home, a 10-year mortgage is all you can get. 90% of Portuguese who have mortgages are using what we call "variable rates" for interest calculations. This has been a plus for the past few years as the "Euribor" that determines rates have been very low. With the economic challenges of today, the Euribor rates are increasing causing higher monthly payments and some pain for those with these types of loans.

Roundabouts - Driving in Europe can be frustrating at first. Part of the frustration is why do they do things so different here. Roundabouts were one of my the greatest initial frustrations. They are everywhere, seemingly slowing you down at every intersection and in some rural cases in the middle of nowhere. Once you understand the rules and how to navigate them you grow to appreciate their purpose and function. The Portuguese and others who have come to accustom to the roundabouts appreciate how they keep the traffic flows going and seem to be a lot safer than the traditional red lights and four-way stops. Everyone gets to where they are going a whole lot faster and safer. Studies have shown the safety advantages of roundabouts vs. 4-way stops and lights. Accidents, when they happen tend to be fender benders rather than serious ones. Yes, you’ve got to slow down a bit but in the long run you get where you’re going a whole lot faster.

Take a number - Businesses like Banks, Rental Car Counters, IMT (Portugal's DMV), Post Office, Pharmacy, etc... practically anywhere you would expect to find a line of people queued up for their turn, have been replaced in portugal with an electronic "take a number" system. Look for the kiosk and pull a ticket, sit back and relax until your number appears on the monitor.

Time changes - I had initially thought that by moving here we avoided one of the rituals in the US. Portugal does participate in "daylight savings" time changes. Late October clocks are set back one hour, then again in late March they are moved ahead by an hour

* This post is based on our experiences as haphazard bloggers, at this moment in time and may not reflect current or accurate depictions based on your experiences. Always seek professional advice, especially regarding legal, financial, or safety matters.

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