Down to the Wire: How We Renewed Our Portuguese Residence Permits – My wife and I have been happy residents of Porto, Portugal since November 2019. However, despite it being the favorite place we’ve ever lived, our journey has been fraught with all sorts of bureaucracy. First, I had no choice but to abandon my three years of EU residency when applying for my Portuguese residence permit. Then, we battled the shifting of policies and lack of communication as the COVID-19 Pandemic began. After two years, we relocated to a new apartment in downtown Porto and battled outdated banking policies and disorganized utility companies to get settled in our new place. Even though we’ve had to overcome all of these struggles to get to this point, we’re still so happy to be living in Portugal.
As we progress on our path to Portuguese citizenship, we’ve already crossed some of the biggest hurdles. Yet, we know full well by this point that nothing comes easy. Judging by our two recent experiences renewing our Portuguese residence permits, we can say that our impression of Portuguese bureaucracy hasn’t improved very much. We can only hope that others attempting the same processes as us will learn something from our story.
Pandemic-Related Changes to Portugal’s Residency Policies
Portugal’s residency program changed slightly in early 2020. The policy before the COVID-19 Pandemic had the initial temporary residence permit being valid for one year, followed by two two-year renewal periods. Due to the chaos caused by the pandemic, the Portuguese government announced in March 2020 that forthcoming residence permits would instead be issued for two years, followed by one three-year renewal.
My initial residence permit appointment was in January 2020, before these new policies came into effect, so my initial residence permit was initially valid for one year. Due to the pandemic, my wife’s appointment was moved from March to May 2020. Since her appointment came after the immigration policy change, her initial residence permit was valid for two years. As a result, I was due to renew my permit first in January 2021, and then she would need to renew hers in May 2022.
Two other big policy changes that happened as a result of the pandemic also affected us. Firstly, the residence permit renewal process changed for most visa types into a new online automated system in place of the old process requiring in-person appointments. Secondly, throughout the pandemic, but most recently in February 2022, the Portuguese government extended the validity of all residence permits and visas until June 30, 2022, to ensure that everyone physically present in Portugal was able to remain there throughout the duration of the pandemic.
Round One Portuguese Residence Permits: Struggling with the Automatic Renewal System
I started attempting to use the new automatic renewal online process several weeks before my permit expired in January 2021. According to the site’s FAQ, it should have been quite simple. I would need to go to the SEF online portal (Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras/Ministry of Foreigners and Borders), log in with my credentials, click on a few different selections, and input my updated postal address. After paying the government fees for the renewal, the renewed permit should have arrived at my address within four weeks.
However, each time I tried to begin the automatic renewal process, the website kept displaying error messages. After several days of trying, I eventually called the support line and, as I’d learned to expect from the Portuguese government at this point, it was quite difficult to get through to somebody. Every time I called, it would just ring in perpetuity or play a busy tone. There was no directory, no waiting room, no callback option, and no answer. I just had to call again and again, hoping that somebody would just pick up.
Thankfully, I managed to get someone on the other end of the phone line a few times, but unfortunately, I received different information each time I spoke to someone. Most officials explained that I should be able to use the new online automatic renewal process, but it wasn’t working because I had to wait until closer to the permit’s expiration date. Another person said that if the system was still providing an error message, that meant that I would have to schedule an in-person appointment and could not use the automatic online renewal system.
With these conflicting messages, I didn’t know what to do except to contact the immigration lawyer I had worked with to get my initial residence permit. She told me to keep trying to access the automatic renewal system while she tried to track down someone who could tell us what was going on. In early January, with only a few weeks left until my permit expired, she emailed me to let me know that the automatic system should finally work for permits expiring during that month and that I should give the website another try. I ran to my computer, pulled up the SEF website, and was amazed to find that I could progress past the error messages that had been haunting me for weeks.
Just as initially promised, all I had to do was confirm my address and some personal details. I paid the fee and they sent a confirmation that my permit was renewed. The new card arrived at my home in less than four weeks. Luckily, my renewal fell under the newer guidelines, so I was provided with a three-year period before my permit would expire again.
All of this confusion provided my wife and me with a great deal of stress. I had no idea when the online renewal portal would open for me or even if it would at all. In the end, it worked out, but it wasn’t without a massive amount of ultimately unnecessary worry and frustration.
Round Two Portuguese Residence Permits: Another Uphill Battle with the Renewal Process
We were comfortable enjoying our residence permits for the next year, but my wife’s residence permit expiration date started to creep up on us by the next spring. She started checking on the SEF online portal before her permit’s expiration date of May 7th, 2022. Once April came around, we started trying every day, sometimes multiple times a day. Just like when I tried to renew my residence permit, we received error messages indicating that she could not renew it through the automatic renewal system and that she would need to have an in-person appointment instead.
Confused by this news, we started calling the support line every day as well but were only greeted with busy signals. By the end of April, we still had not been able to speak to anyone, and we were getting really close to the wire. Our minds racing, we started to wonder if she would even be able to use the automatic renewal system at all.
Given that my January 2021 renewal wasn’t possible until we were in the month of the expiration, I thought maybe the system would open up for her at the beginning of May. Unfortunately, May 1st came and went, but we still saw the same frustrating error message every time she logged into the platform.
With her residence permit technically expiring in less than a week, we contacted two immigration firms to get their feedback. Both lawyers we spoke to said that we would indeed have to schedule an in-person appointment. Therefore, we engaged the same firm as before and got our lawyer to start calling SEF every day on our behalf to schedule an appointment.
In the meantime, we did the only thing we could do: wait. We did feel a little better remembering that the Portuguese government had extended the validity of all permits and visas through the end of June, so we still weren’t in a dire situation quite yet, but the date loomed in the back of our minds as it grew closer every day.
In the last week of June, we finally got a call from our lawyer saying that she had successfully contacted someone at SEF, and they had finally opened up the in-person appointment system again. However, when the immigration official looked into my wife’s file, she discovered something even more surprising: the automatic renewal system had been re-engaged for her at some point in the intervening weeks after her permit expired! This meant that she should be able to use the automatic renewal system, so we rushed to check the SEF website and indeed found that everything was working as expected.
After weeks of worrying and frantically looking for solutions as the expiration date approached, suddenly, like the flip of a switch, we were able to solve the most pressing issue facing our life in Portugal. We could finally rest easy knowing that my wife would not get stranded trying to return to our home or be deported back to her country of origin.
Soldiering Through and Focusing on What Matters – Portuguese Residence Permits
My wife and I have found out just how frequent this sort of confusion can happen whenever dealing with government officials, banks, or other authority figures in Portugal. Sometimes no matter how hard you try, progress slows to a crawl and the path forward becomes unclear. As in the case of my wife’s residence permit renewal, even immigration lawyers may not know exactly what you need to do in some cases, though it was great to be able to rely on them to help you to find the best way forward.
Despite these frequent frustrations, Portugal remains the best place we’ve ever lived. Between the friendliness of the people, the weather, the cuisine, the arts scene, the low cost of living, and the laid-back attitudes, we’ve realized that dealing with these bureaucratic challenges is just the price you have to pay to be able to live in such an amazing place.
I started Expat Empire in 2018 to help people achieve their dreams of living abroad. With our personal experiences and broader global network in many different countries, our team will provide you with personalized consultation services to help you get a realistic picture of what your life might look like in a different country. We can also recommend our wide network of partner law firms and relocation services in Portugal and worldwide. To get a great head start on your move abroad, don’t wait to schedule your free consulting call!