Experiences in Portugal As An Expat: Struggles with Bureaucracy – As one of the best places for expats to call home, Portugal has attracted people from all over the world. The uniqueness of the geography, the excellent weather, the incredible food and drink culture, the laid-back feeling, and the friendliness to foreigners have all made Portugal a center of expat culture. When we began looking to relocate from Germany back in 2018, my wife and I traveled to Portugal and immediately fell in love with it. For almost three years, we have been happily living in Porto.
With all that said, not everything has been exactly perfect. The stereotype of government offices and banks in Southern Europe is that they have outdated practices and are reluctant to adopt new ones. Generally, Portugal fits this description. We’ve had our fair share of pulling our hair out for some tasks that should be far simpler. Some of Portugal’s cultural tendencies contribute to the frustrating challenges we’ve run into along the way, namely the very laid-back attitude and slow pace of getting things done. After living in Germany and Japan for several years each, the cultural differences can still be quite shocking.
My Personal Experiences with Portuguese Bureaucracy
Since arriving in Portugal in 2019, we’ve struggled to get our affairs sorted. In fact, I have written in detail about these frustrating experiences in three previous blog posts:
- Despite three years living in Germany on the EU Blue Card, I had to settle for a Portuguese work visa and give up the three years of progress I had toward EU-wide permanent residence.
- On our second appointment at the visa office, we were met with cold attitudes, rigid COVID restrictions, and an extreme lack of mutual understanding by the immigration official. In fact, we nearly lost the appointment altogether while our immigration lawyer was on the way from Lisbon! It all worked out in the end, but it was quite the headache!
- We moved from the quiet town of Matosinhos to a new apartment in downtown Porto after two years of living in the country. In dealing with the utility companies, we encountered a lack of communication between the dispatchers and the technicians, resulting in two weeks of freezing cold showers in the middle of December!
Many government systems in countries around the world are worse off than Portugal, with far lower budgets and potentially less training than their counterparts. Even the supposedly “efficient” countries have their problems as I’ve encountered plenty of issues with communication and minor technicalities that prevent things from proceeding at banks and government offices in Japan and Germany.
With that said, I have been asked by many of our clients to provide examples of how the frustrating Portuguese bureaucracy enters daily life in the country. This blog post is an attempt to give an example of how the culture and systems in Portugal can make completing even the most basic tasks a chore. This is not to say that Portugal isn’t a great place to live, but hopefully, this will help you understand some of the difficulties that you may face while living here.
Tragedy Strikes in the Last Steps of Moving Out
When we moved apartments in December 2021, we were almost all finished with the previous landlord and were in the process of getting our security deposit back. As anyone who has ever rented an apartment knows, the process of getting money back from landlords rarely goes smoothly. Once the landlord checked the state of the apartment, deducted some money for repainting, checked the electrical appliances, and found a new tenant to move in, we were finally ready to get our security deposit back.
Our progress came to a tragic halt when the landlord unexpectedly passed away. After sending our sympathy, we gave his family some time to grieve. We checked in with them again a few weeks later and found out that they still had to do a great deal of paperwork to get access to the landlord’s bank accounts. Given his sudden passing, it’s no surprise that the family’s affairs were initially in disarray.
Once his widow was able to access the company’s bank accounts, we discussed how I would be able to get the security deposit back from them. New to the process and relatively unfamiliar with financial technology, she was uncomfortable with sending me the money through a wire transfer even though that’s exactly how I had been sending our rent every month for the entire duration of the lease. When I saw that she wouldn’t budge on this point, we settled on an arrangement where I would come to her office, located nearly one hour away by metro from our new apartment, just to pick up the physical check so that we could complete the final step of the check-out process.
The Uphill Battle of Dealing with a Physical Check
After spending an hour riding the metro line and walking to her office, I picked up the check, signed a document saying I had received it, and left in a matter of minutes. Wanting to put the whole situation behind me, I decided to go straight to the closest branch of my bank to deposit it and move on.
For the last several years, I have used ActivoBank for my personal accounts. Unfortunately, there are not very many branches of this bank around Porto as it is primarily an online bank, but I found one on the way back from Matosinhos. When I entered the branch, the staff informed me that they did not accept checks for deposits at the ActivoBank locations and that I would need to go to their parent bank, Millennium Bank, instead. How could a bank not accept checks?, I probably groaned out loud. More ready than ever to have the money in my account, I found a Millennium Bank branch in downtown Porto and got on the metro once again.
Half an hour later, I arrived at the downtown Porto branch. While pondering the situation on the ride back into the city, I realized that I hadn’t used a physical check since moving to Portugal and had no idea what I would need to do to deposit one into my account. Based on my previous experience with checks in other countries, I figured I would probably just have to sign the back of the check. Unfortunately, I did not have a pen with me, so I grabbed my queue number to try to confirm what I needed to do to deposit the check.
After half an hour of waiting while the line of people waiting only got longer, I found an opportunity to quickly ask one of the staff how to deposit the check. He explained to me that I did not need to sign the check and could deposit it directly in one of the ATMs in front of the branch. I let out some exasperated thanks and gave it a try. My Portuguese still isn’t the best and there were no other language options at the ATM, so I used Google Translate on my phone to help me get through the menus. It took multiple tries to find the prompt that would open the check deposit slot on the machine. I put the check-in and the machine spit it right back out, explaining that it couldn’t read the check. I tried a few more times before defeatedly walking back to the chair to wait my turn.
My queue number was finally called almost another 30 minutes later, but the bank teller told me that they couldn’t accept checks at this branch either! My eyes rolled back in my head. How could this have happened at 2 branches in a row?! She told me that I could use the ATMs as the previous teller had indicated, but given the problems I had with them the first time around, I asked if she could help me. She also tried depositing the check a few times but had the same result. Without any other options at my disposal, I had to accept that I had lost the hour I spent at the second bank branch and try to deposit the check again somewhere else, so I finally called it a day.
Adapting to Portugal’s Slower Pace of Progression – Experiences in Portugal
Later that week, I visited another Millennium Bank branch that was closer to my apartment. Thankfully, after another 20 minutes of waiting, I was able to leave the check with the bank teller and get on with my day.
When all was said and done, I ended up wasting half a day with something that should have been instantaneous. I was stuck between an older generation that didn’t want to use modern banking practices and a younger generation of bank employees who didn’t know what to do with outdated solutions. Though this is a problem that definitely transcends national boundaries, I’ve found that it’s the norm here in Portugal. Nearly every encounter I’ve had with government and banking systems in Portugal has been a frustrating combination of reluctance to update systems with advances in technology and a general lack of knowledge of the older systems as well.
Even though these experiences are frustrating, they haven’t come anywhere close to persuading us to pack up and find somewhere else to live. Instead, we adapt and take each struggle as just another cost to be able to live in such a wonderful place.
I founded Expat Empire in 2018 to empower people to experience the joys of living abroad. Though each person will have a unique experience in each country they live in, we’ve been able to distil the most common problems that occur with every move. We offer several consulting services, which we personalize for your specific situation. If you’re looking to move to Portugal or anywhere else abroad, be sure to sign up for our Free Consulting Call so we can find out how to serve you best.