Getting Our Portugal Visas: How I Lost Three Years of Progress Toward EU Permanent Residency

This is a two-part series on how my wife and I got our Portuguese residence permits. This is the first part about my appointment as it needed to be first in the application process, and then Part 2 is about my wife’s visa appointment in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

My wife and I moved to Porto, Portugal in November 2019, and we were just able to finally acquire the second of our two Portuguese residence permits in mid-May 2020. While a six-month process might not sound too bad to some of you out there, the entire process ended up being a long string of increasingly difficult challenges for us to overcome, so when my wife’s residence permit arrived in the mail last month, we both felt extremely relieved that the process was finally over. 

However, before I get into the difficulties that we had to overcome, let me provide a bit more context on our situation.

How We Ended Up in Porto, Portugal

As a little background about us, I am an American citizen and my wife is a Japanese citizen, but we met each other in Berlin, Germany in 2017. I moved from Tokyo to Berlin in 2016 and my wife had already been living in Germany for a few years by the time we met – first in Frankfurt and then in Berlin. The fact that each of us is from different countries and yet met in another country that was foreign to both of us says a lot about our desire to live our lives in new and interesting locations around the world! 

While we enjoyed our time living in Berlin, we could feel that it was getting to be the right time to think about our next location going into 2019. At the start of the year, we decided to consider our destination options throughout the year but actually make the move in 2020 because we already had our marriage approaching in June. However, life has a way of moving things forward when you least expect it! I was informed that I would be laid off from my Berlin job in April so we needed to decide if we would stay in Germany or search for greener pastures elsewhere. My wife’s German bakery training program was finishing up in August, so we knew that the timing was too opportune for us to pass up, so I quickly started looking for new product management roles in cities around Europe. I eventually got the offer to work for InterNations GO! in Porto, Portugal in September, and so we made our one-way flight to the western edge of Europe in November.

Comparing the EU Blue Card to a Normal Work Visa

Now that you know our background, I think this is a good time to take a quick break on the story and explain a bit more about the EU Blue Card that I had been living on in Germany up until that point. In 2009, 25 European Union member states agreed to follow the EU Blue Card directive, creating a new way for highly skilled workers to get a visa within the European Union. While the requirements to get the EU Blue Card are a bit higher than a typical normal working visa, the main benefits of getting it are that 1) some countries allow EU Blue Card holders to get permanent residence within their borders more quickly than a normal work visa and 2) they can add the years that they work in member states together toward the five years that are required to apply for permanent residence. The second benefit of the EU Blue Card was more important to me as I had already accumulated three years toward the five years that I needed to apply for permanent residence in EU member states supporting the EU Blue Card directive.

Booking Our Visa Appointments in Portugal

As my wife and I have lived in a few countries by now, we know firsthand the difficulties of going through the visa application process on our own. While my experience getting my visa for Japan was relatively painless as it was handled mostly by my new Japanese employer while I was still in the United States, I had plenty of issues getting my visa in Germany. My wife had also been required to visit the Ausländerbehörde foreigner’s office several times during her tenure in Germany based on the various jobs that she held over that period.

This is all to say that we have gone through the painful process of trying to get our own visas many times before, and so we knew better than to go down that route by ourselves again. Instead, we found a lawyer to help us to navigate this complicated bureaucratic process in a new country, culture, and language. The first thing that our lawyer helped us with was to book our SEF (Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras, or the foreigners’ office) appointments to get our residence permits. The original plan was for both of us to try to go to the same appointment and get our visas immediately one after another. I would be brought in with the EU Blue Card that I had been using while I was in Germany through my employer’s sponsorship, and then my wife would be brought in through the Family Reunification Visa based on the fact that I had just been approved for the EU Blue Card. 

While our lawyer said that this strategy had worked for her clients in the past, she double-checked with the Lisbon SEF and was told that they would not allow families to use the same appointment to get multiple visas in that way anymore. Therefore, we had to get separate appointments, so the only question was where and when. Our lawyer recommended that we go to my appointment in the Lisbon SEF office for the EU Blue Card because they know the most about that type of visa. She warned me that it would be difficult to get the Blue Card in Portugal and that not many people that she had worked with had decided to get it in the end, but I wanted to make use of the three years I had accumulated on it in Germany as I described above, so I pushed forward.

The issue with going for the Lisbon office was not just that it was far from Porto, but also that it would take at least an extra two months to get my appointment there compared to other offices in the country. With my wife’s appointment needing to follow mine by at least another two months so that I would be able to receive the residence permit and physically bring it to her appointment, taking the appointment there would have also pushed her timeline for getting the permit into the summer. Therefore, we decided to try our luck in another regional SEF office to get the earliest available appointment closer to us in Porto. She booked my appointment for January 23, 2020, in Viseu, Portugal, and then we began our preparations.

Pre-Visa Appointment Preparations in Portugal

Next, our lawyer sent a list of documents that we had to gather for the upcoming appointment date. As American and Japanese citizens that were legally married in Japan and are currently living outside our home countries, our situation is an especially complicated one for any immigration office! 

We soon discovered that we would need specific documents from all around the world such as our marriage certificate from Japan, criminal record certificates from Germany, my university diploma from the United States, and much more. Coordinating getting all of these documents from their home countries to us in Portugal was time-consuming and expensive. To provide a few examples:

  • Ordering my university diploma notarized and legalized ultimately cost more than 120 Euros to cover all of the shipping around the United States to get the proper legal certification and then its final shipment to Porto via FedEx. 
  • The Japanese criminal record certificate that my wife needed required us going in-person to the Japanese Embassy in Lisbon the weekend after we arrived in Porto to make sure that we had at least two months of lead time to get it back before her SEF appointment. When the certificate finally arrived back at the embassy, they emailed us and we had to make the 3.5 hour trip by bus back to Lisbon in February to pick it up.
  • We had to get my wife’s mother to send us a newly printed and marriage certificate from Japan with an apostille as the documents must be issued less than 6 months from the appointment date.

Once we finally received all the documents, I had to find a translation agency in town that could manage legal translations and notarizations from English, Japanese, and German into Portuguese. After asking around for a few quotes, thankfully we found a relatively inexpensive agency in downtown Porto that could manage the translation work for us. With the documents ready to go, we just had to wait for the appointment day.

The Day of the Portugal Visa Appointment

We traveled to Viseu on the night of January 22 so that we would be there in time for the 10:30 am appointment. We arrived at the SEF office around 9:45 am on the 23rd and our lawyer arrived soon after as she had to drive a few hours north from Lisbon. When she arrived, she went in to check with the officials on our status and came back to us with bad news – the office’s computer system was down!

To emphasize the depth of my bad luck, this was not a country-wide issue but rather just an issue in the Viseu SEF’s office on the very day that we were there. The system was down due to a thunderstorm the previous night. Lucky us! 

There had been no appointments that morning thus far, so the schedule was already backed up for over an hour. I started freaking out because I knew that if it would not come back online, then we would have to reschedule my appointment and likely my wife’s, which could have negative implications for many of the documents we had gathered. As I mentioned before, most of the documents had to be issued within 6 months from the appointment date, and so pushing back my wife’s appointment date from March to June would have invalidated them.

Our lawyer had never experienced something like this before, and there was nothing we could do but hope that the system would come back online. We took a walk to get a coffee to cool our nerves while the lawyer waited there for us to keep track of any updates. By the time we came back, I had talked myself into how we would make it through this and deal with the delays of a rescheduled appointment, but thankfully our lawyer told us that the computer system had just been fixed and that appointments would start shortly! 

Here is another smart thing that our lawyer did – she purposely scheduled an early morning appointment for me so that I would be alright if the appointments proceeded more slowly than expected. When the appointments started up again beginning with the earliest 9:00 am timeslot, she also ensured that I was the first to be seen for 10:30 am appointment time as we had arrived at 9:45 am, well before the others with the same appointment time. At long last, at 12:30 pm, my wife, our lawyer, and I finally sat down for our delayed appointment with the officials. I had no idea that I was about to need to make a huge decision that would affect my future in the European Union.

The Fateful Decision Between the EU Blue Card and the Portugal Work Visa

Shortly after sitting down in the chair opposite the immigration official, I discovered the full extent of the challenges related to applying for an EU Blue Card in Portugal. It turns out that despite the fact that the Blue Card is an EU-wide directive and Portugal is one of the 25 member states supporting it, each member state implements the directive in its own way. As our lawyer forewarned us, the regional immigration office was not very familiar with the process. The most problematic part was that the process in Portugal entails every regional office sending their Blue Card applications to the Lisbon SEF main office so that the head of the agency can personally review each application. As you might expect, this individual does not have much time available in his/her calendar to review applications, so wait times in Portugal for the EU Blue Card are usually at least 6 months long.

Not only was it panic-inducing to think about having to wait for at least 6 months to be a fully legal resident in Portugal, but it would have also required my wife to reschedule her appointment and invalidate many of the documents that we had already gathered for her over the past months. She also would have remained in a legal gray area for even longer and would not have been able to work as she wanted to during the time that she waited.

On the other hand, if I decided to go for the more traditional work visa, then I would be able to get approved then and there with the residence permit card arriving by mail shortly thereafter. My wife could keep her appointment for the end of March, and then we would both be out of the legal grey area that we were stuck in. I would just have to restart the clock on my three years of residence toward permanent residence and go from 60% progress toward my goal back to 0%, which was very difficult to agree to.

There I was, sitting on an uncomfortable metal chair, facing an increasingly frustrated SEF official as she waited for me to make the decision between keeping my EU Blue Card or throwing it away for a standard work visa. I tried to carefully consider the pros and cons of each route, but the official sternly warned me that I had to make a decision quickly or go back out to the waiting room as they were already running far behind schedule. I had no choice but to make a choice.

In the end, I was unable to accept that choosing the EU Blue Card would put my wife and me in a prolonged, indefinite period of uncertainty. If I had known for sure that I would have the Blue Card in my hands within 6 months maximum, I may have gone for it. But, if all they can advise is that it takes 6 months minimum without a clear indication of a maximum timeframe, then I knew that I could not go down that route. 

The other important point for me is that I was already planning to stay in Portugal for at least five years even if I had permanent residence after two years because my ultimate goal is to get Portuguese dual citizenship so that I can more easily live and work throughout the European Union in the future. After five years of residency, you can apply for either permanent residence or citizenship, and I plan to take the dual citizenship route after five years anyway, meaning that starting the clock over would not have made a massive difference in my long-term plans.

Therefore, I decided to take the working visa instead of the EU Blue Card and completed the appointment in about one hour in total. We went for lunch and enjoyed the rest of the day in Viseu until the bus ride back to Porto that evening. The residence card arrived in the mail a few weeks later, and I did not regret the decision then and certainly do not now, especially seeing how the pandemic would have significantly delayed the original 6-month minimum wait time.

The Value of Working with an Immigration Lawyer

While this is only the first half of our Portuguese residence permit story, you can already see how our immigration lawyer came through for us time and time again. In fact, from our very first email exchange, I knew that she was the right choice for the job. She answered all of our questions promptly and succinctly, putting our minds at ease. Simply having a point person to answer all of our most pressing questions was a huge relief for us. My greatest fear when trying to get my visa is to wait for months for the appointment date, only to get there to find out that I do not have the proper documentation and must book another follow-up appointment for months later, leaving me in a legal grey area and thoroughly frustrated.

On top of answering every question that we had, booking our appointments, and attending the appointment in-person, she helped us out in so many other ways. She told us exactly what documents we needed from the US, Japan, and Germany and reviewed each of them as we gathered them to confirm that they met the requirements. She told us what had to be translated, notarized, and given an apostille. She knew all of the local office peculiarities, such as which offices required us to bring copies of our own documents and passport photos and which had cameras and scanners on-site so that they could manage that themselves. And of course, she did all of this in perfect English and native Portuguese. The list goes on and on….

She was a helpful guide throughout this entire laborious process and pushed for us with the authorities on many occasions to make sure that our applications were always at the top of the pile. She was affordable and certainly worth every cent that we paid, and I can strongly recommend her to others looking for help in all areas of Portuguese immigration.

Share Your Experience

Have you had any difficult experiences getting a visa in a foreign country? Have you had to jump through several hoops, find documents that were stashed away at the bottom of a box in your attic for the last decade, or persuade a particularly tough immigration official to give you the last stamp that you need to be legal in a new country? Please let us know your immigration horror stories in the comments below!

As the founder of Expat Empire, David McNeill is focused on inspiring people to move abroad and showing them how to do it. David started Expat Empire because he has a genuine passion for living abroad. He left the United States in 2014 and has since lived in Tokyo, Berlin, and Porto.