Getting Our Portugal Visas: How We Navigated the Coronavirus Crisis

This is a two-part series on how my wife and I got our Portuguese residence permits. Please read Part 1 first and then read this post 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 finally acquired the second of our two Portuguese residence permits in May 2020. While a six-month process may not sound too bad to some of you out there (and may sound very long to others!), the entire experience was a long string of increasingly difficult challenges for us to overcome, so when the second residence permit arrived in the mail, we both felt extremely relieved that the ordeal was finally over. 

Part 1 of our story ended with the conclusion of our first visa appointment, where I had to make the difficult decision between trying to get my EU Blue Card in Portugal and keep the years I had accumulated toward permanent residence or start the clock over again with a new Portugal-specific work visa. I decided to reset my progress towards permanent residence and go for a normal work visa so that we could more quickly get out of the legal limbo we were in. Our story picks up again in February 2020 as we prepare for my wife’s visa appointment.

Preparing for the Second Portugal Visa Appointment

When our immigration lawyer booked our appointments when we arrived in Portugal, she booked them at the same time but for different days. While I had the earliest appointment that we could get, we had to include a two-month break after my appointment until my wife’s visa appointment so that I could be sure to receive my physical residence permit card in the mail by the second appointment date to take it with us. With my appointment scheduled for January 23 in the city of Viseu, my wife’s appointment was booked for March 27 in Braga, another town around one hour from Porto. 

Soon after we returned home from my appointment, we prepared the final few extra documents required for my wife’s visa appointment. She would be applying for the Family Reunification visa based on the fact that I had received a work visa and we had gotten married the previous year while traveling in Japan. By mid-February, we had gathered all the documents and had them translated, notarized, apostille’d, and ready to go for the appointment day, so all we had left to do was wait… and soon we found out that we would have to wait much longer than expected!

The Coronavirus Pandemic Hits Portugal 

Though we had everything ready to go, something unexpected came up before we were able to make it to the March 27th appointment. A little thing you may have heard of called COVID-19 hit Portugal in early March, and by March 18, a state of emergency was declared across the country. The streets were empty and almost all restaurants and cafes across the city were closed for an indeterminate period of time. Pharmacies and supermarkets were some of the only stores open in the city and usually had long lines stretching around the block with people standing at least 1 meter apart between them.

Due to the quarantine situation, the SEF immigration offices closed immediately, causing my wife’s appointment to be postponed indefinitely. While the Portuguese immigration system is normally quite congested with new appointments like ours having to be made months in advance, the pandemic increased the congestion many times over. Our lawyer told us that all the postponed appointments would have to be rescheduled to a later date, likely in July at the earliest, and, until all the postponed appointments were sorted, the SEF offices were not accepting new appointment bookings.

Unfortunately, this new development forced my wife into a legal grey area. Her tourist visa had already expired but she was allowed to stay in the country based on the fact that she was waiting for her visa appointment. Thankfully, Portugal was quite progressive in its handling of foreigners in the country during the crisis and we were temporarily being treated as though we were citizens, so the overall legal situation was relatively comfortable for us. However, the real issue was the difficulty that she could face if she had to leave Portugal for some reason during this crisis. Naturally, we did not have intentions to travel during the quarantine time, but if something had happened to her family in Japan during this crisis, for example, then she would have faced a difficult decision. If she had decided to return to Japan, she would have probably had to remain outside of the European Union for a long time before re-entering the region, and when she would return to Portugal, she would have had to book a brand new visa appointment as her first one would have been nullified due to her initial exit from Portugal. As you can imagine, this challenging situation put some uncomfortable anxiety on us and our families, but all we could do was wait and see how things played out.

An Urgent New Visa Appointment and a Rush to the Bus Station

I started working from home on March 16 and the days quickly started to blend together, at least until my birthday on May 4. We received a belated birthday present the next morning when our lawyer called us to explain that she had been phoning the SEF offices every single day since they closed to try to get some insight into when my wife would be able to get a rescheduled appointment date. After weeks of daily pestering, the immigration official finally offered us a last-minute appointment for the following day, May 6, at 6 pm. We could suddenly see a light shining at the end of the long, dark immigration tunnel! 

Light showing from the end of a tunnel
The light at the end of our Portuguese immigration tunnel.

Our lawyer agreed to the appointment as soon as the official offered it and then immediately called us to see if we would even be able to get to another city for the appointment by the next evening. While the original appointment was in Braga, this new appointment was set for Viseu, the same city that my appointment had been in only a few months prior. However, we did not know how we would be able to get to the city in the middle of the COVID pandemic. Some of the options we initially considered were:

  • We could drive ourselves there, but we do not own a car in Porto. My US driver’s license has already expired, and my wife’s German license is valid but she does not feel comfortable driving in Portugal yet, so renting a car was not an option for us.
  • We could have tried to find some friends to take us there, but, on top of not wanting to impose on any new contacts we made in the first few months we had been living in Portugal, we did not want to take the chance to expose anyone or get exposed to the virus in the event that someone in the car had already contracted it. 
  • Our lawyer offered to pick us up, but this would have created quite a challenge for her. She would already be driving a few hours north from Lisbon to Viseu the next day for the appointment, but Porto is even further north than Viseu, so picking us up and dropping us off in Porto would have added many hours to her trip.

That basically left us with one option – taking the bus. We were not strangers to using the buses to go between cities in Portugal as we had already done that many times before. The issue was more that there were only a few buses departing from Porto in total on any given day during the pandemic. As for the Porto-Viseu route, there were only two buses running per day – one going to Viseu at 8:15 pm and another coming back to Porto at noon. Given that the new appointment was at 6 pm the next evening, that meant that we had to take the bus from Porto to Viseu later in the same day at 8:15 pm, stay the night in Viseu after the appointment the next day, and then return to Porto on the following day at noon. With this as our only feasible option to get to Viseu in time for the appointment, we hurriedly booked our tickets, packed our bags for a two-night hotel stay, and headed to the bus station a couple of hours later.

What It’s Like to Visit the Portugal SEF Immigration Office During the COVID Crisis

We arrived in Viseu late at night on May 5 and headed to the hotel to get some sleep. The next day, we walked around the mostly empty city to fill the time until the 6 pm appointment. We were relaxing in our hotel when I got a call from our lawyer at around 4:15 pm. She told me that she had just received a call from the official handling our appointment at the SEF office telling her that they were running ahead of schedule and wanted us to come there immediately. While we could leave the hotel and walk over to the SEF office right away, our lawyer was still in her car driving to Viseu as she had planned to arrive by 6 pm! She was driving as fast as she could but told us to go directly to the SEF office and that she would meet us there as soon as possible. 

Car driving quickly through city streets
How I pictured our immigration lawyer speeding down the Portuguese highway from Lisbon to Viseu to get to our appointment as quickly as possible!

After hanging up the phone, we gathered the folder full of visa documentation and quickly made our way over to the immigration office. Because my visa appointment in Viseu had only been a little over three months prior, my memory of our experience at the office was still fresh in my mind. I remembered that we entered the building and found seats next to the dozens of people waiting to be called for their appointments. It was a busy but welcoming office and we had naively expected a similar experience this time around.

This time, when I pulled the front door handle to go inside, I was surprised to find the door to be locked. After trying to force it open a few more times, I peered into the building through the glass door to an empty lobby. Eventually, a gentleman inside passed by, saw us waiting, and came to the door. He called the SEF immigration official over to verify our documentation as we stood outside the building. She started asking us rapid-fire questions in Portuguese, and, despite our best efforts, eventually, we had to simply repeat the fact that our lawyer was on the way and that she needed to wait for her arrival to start the appointment. She was not happy to be left waiting (despite the fact that the appointment was scheduled to be 1.5 hours later!) but she eventually agreed to wait and closed the door, leaving us to pace anxiously outside the SEF building until our lawyer’s arrival about thirty minutes later.

New Coronavirus Policies at the Portugal SEF Immigration Office

With our lawyer next to us, we waved down the official again. When she came to the door and discussed the situation with our lawyer, our lawyer told us that, due to the coronavirus, the new SEF policy only allowed one person to enter the building for a given visa appointment at a time. Therefore, our lawyer went in with our folder full of documents in hand while both of us waited outside and prayed everything would work out alright.

Over the next hour, our lawyer periodically came back outside to get us to fill out or sign several sets of documents. About 45 minutes into the appointment, my wife was brought inside to get her picture taken while our lawyer and I waited outside. After the final document was stamped and approved, the official brought out the credit card terminal, we paid the government fee for the visa, and then received a temporary paper visa to last my wife until the card arrived in the mail. The appointment had taken around one hour from start to finish. After saying our goodbyes, our lawyer left for Lisbon and we took the night to relax before catching the return bus to Porto at noon the next day.

The End to Our Portugal Visa Saga

My wife’s residence card arrived in our mailbox about 2 weeks later. On top of the relief we felt at being finished with this process, we were happy to discover that the Portuguese law was recently updated to make residence permits initially expire in 2 years instead of 1 year and renew for 3 years instead of 2 years. This means that my wife’s new visa expires in 2 years, and when I renew my one-year visa next January, then I should be able to extend its expiration for another 3 years. Furthermore, the visa renewal process has recently moved online, at least during the crisis, so hopefully, the new online renewal process will be much less painful than these in-person appointments.

Taking a moment to reflect on our first six months in Portugal, my wife and I both felt a deep sense of accomplishment thinking about all the hurdles we managed to overcome. From starting a job at a brand new company to finding a long-term apartment that we could call home, from exploring unfamiliar surroundings to making several new friendships, and from navigating the new normal of life during the pandemic lockdown in a foreign country to completing our adventure to become legal residents in Portugal, we have a lot to be proud of and thankful for in our journey so far. We are excited to see what else Portugal has in store for us, both good and bad, over the coming years!

Why You Should Use an Immigration Lawyer

Much of our success in the immigration process was due to the fact that we worked with a great lawyer in Portugal. From our very first email exchange, I knew she was the right person 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 without having to resort to dozens of blogs with outdated visa information 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 losing my hair.

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 that you would never be able to find online, 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….

Share Your Experience

Did you have any immigration problems during the coronavirus pandemic? How have you been dealing with the COVID lockdown and quarantine while living abroad, away from friends and family? Please let us know about your experiences during this difficult time in the comments below!