The process for getting residency in Portugal is: you do a bunch of prep work, you apply for your visa, you come to Portugal, you go to your SEF appointment, you wait, you get your Residence Card. That card means you can come and go at will. It means you can sign up for the national health insurance (SNS). It literally means you can rent a car for cheaper! You can renew it relatively easily, for two years at a pop (though the first card you get is only good for one).
How it happened
We have plenty of articles about how we got to the point of arriving in Portugal. But this is how it went once we got here –
We arrived in Portugal on May 30 or 31, if memory serves. Our appointment at SEF (Serviço do Estranheiros e Fronteiras, the Portuguese version of the USCIS/INS/whatever) was the literal next day – June 1. We gave them most of the documentation needed – and that process would’ve been easier if they had told us that they had changed our visa from a D7 to a D8, because we could’ve brought that additional documentation over as well, quite easily. But they didn’t. So we had to email them some updates. But, no big deal. (The D7 is the ‘passive income’ visa, which we definitely do not have. D8 is the ‘digital nomad’ visa, which we definitely are. But when we applied, the D8 didn’t yet exist, and our lawyer wanted us to stick with the D7, but, well, things change, and this visa is certainly more appropriate, so I’m not even mad). Next up is to wait for the residence card to show up, via signature-required mail.
Without that card, you can only enter the country two times. So I was holding on to that second re-entry for dear life. I would’ve loved to have gone to visit my friend who was on a cruise in Italy! I would’ve loved to visit my other friends who went to Spain! Those are just 1 or 2 hour flights from here – easy-peasy! But I needed to hold on to that exit, which, as I’m getting older, anyone can easily imagine what sad purpose I would’ve probably have had to use it for. Turns out, I never did use it.
The problem is that our visas were set to expire late July. And, with them, the prospect of that “second re-entry.” And it was not looking likely that we would get their final decision to grant us “residence” before that date. So what do you do when your visa is expired? Do you have to leave? No, you are allowed to just “hang out.” It felt weird. Am I “illegal” now? No, you’re allowed to stay. Well, what about other European countries? Nope. What if I have to leave? Well, don’t. But what I if I really have to? Well, you can try it, and maybe you can come back? Maybe you can’t. Maybe you get banned and fined? Maybe you don’t. It depends on which border agent you get – some might let you in, some might not. Our lawyer advised us not to try it.
So, that’s what you get. Anxiety. It’s weird. You can’t leave. You need to stay. You are here because you want to stay, so that’s not a big deal! But you couldn’t leave if you wanted to. Part of the way my head works is that if you tell me I can’t do a thing, then I want to do that thing.
So this makes you anxious. We sold our house, we have moved here, to live. We love this country and want to stay here. But I also do want to go hop on a quick plane to visit Barcelona, or wherever. I like having that option. Did I mention it’s literally an hour-and-a-half flight to Casablanca, for 169€? I think I might want to try that.
It’s hard enough to leave the country you lived nearly 50 years of your life in. What’s harder, still, is to not really “have” the new country you’ve moved to. And there is so much that hangs off of the residency permit, like I mentioned. National health insurance, lower mortgage rates if you buy a house, different rates for renting spots in a parking garage, all kinds of stuff. Probably some stuff I haven’t even thought of.
So there is constantly this feeling of not being “grounded” anywhere, and it’s draining. It’s constant. I do not recommend it.
And, as we’ve probably mentioned before, Portugal has a lot of wonderful things – delicious wines, wonderful food, great pastries, delightfully warm people – but also has some drawbacks. And the most infamous ones are “red tape” and “bureaucracy.” So by the time September was ending, neither I nor Alison had our residence cards and we were definitely starting to get antsy. What if, for some weird reason, they rejected us? What would we do then? How would we pick up our life and take it somewhere else? It weighed on us. I had multiple opportunities to go and visit my friends on the East Coast, and had to pass. How many more would I have to pass on?
My residence card showed up, rather inauspiciously, on a normal Thursday. We had no notification that we needed to stay home, or that something was on its way. But the CTT guy (Portuguese post office) made me sign for the letter he handed me. That was weird. My glasses were fogged up (it was raining), so I’m not even sure I typed my name into his mobile device correctly to sign for it, but I hope I did. I felt the envelope and felt that there might be a card inside. I had to hand it to Alison to open – I couldn’t see.
And there it was. My official residence card. It says ‘temporária” – temporary – but it’s good for two years and renewable. (And Portugal knows that Portugal sucks at paperwork and bureaucracy so they regularly let people travel with expired residence permits, knowing that their own bureaucracy is going to fuck this type of thing up).
I was over the moon.
I even showed it to some of the locals. It felt good. The sense of relief – it felt like weights I was carrying were washing off of me.
Alison’s still isn’t here, so that anxiety is by no means “gone” – but let’s say, for example, she somehow got herself deported. I would be able to collect together our stuff, transport our animals, finalize our situation here. It feels so much less ephemeral. I am pretty sure (okay, 60%?) that if our situations were reversed I would still feel the same way.
I started looking at flights to New Jersey the same day I got my card (to meet up with my East Coast friends). They’re not too bad. I can show up in Newark around 1pm, which should be almost perfect. I’m excited to do that and bring them all kinds of weird tinned fish from here.
But, human emotions can get a little bit weird.
(Back to) Anxiety
So I had two or three absolutely wonderful days of feeling just spectacular – a weight having been lifted.
And Monday rolls around and suddenly I feel awful. Like, not sick or anything, but emotionally, a level of anxiety I haven’t felt since we were finalizing our trip details back in San Diego. I literally threw up. I was just filled with all kinds of formless, nameless anxiety – I couldn’t even figure out what it was. Alison and I both come up with the same conclusion – “could it be that you just got your residence card?”
And the reason why is that it meant the country I’ve lived in for half a century is officially in the rear-view mirror. It means I now am a resident in a new country where I am not yet fluent in the language, and fluency can really matter here. It meant that I really do live in the world of the unknown. And that is terrifying.
But I guess instead of embracing the terror, I just transmogrified it into anxiety. Yay! My superpower.
As soon as I named it, the anxiety started to lift – but it didn’t go away.
I don’t know how to end this. I have my residence card. Alison doesn’t have hers. I still have more to do – handle my driver’s license, my national insurance, my Portuguese social security…figuring out taxes. Countless more things. I’ve handled signing up for our self-storage, and that’s all set-up. Great! But there’s still more to go. And I guess that’s life; there’s always one more piece of paperwork to file…
Maybe the “end” is when I get my Portuguese citizenship? I don’t even know if we’re going to do that! But, the way I’m feeling about things now, I do want that. I think the government fucks a lot of things up here, but does a lot of other things right, and I want to be able to have a voice in it.
Or maybe the real truth is that there is no end. You’re always going to be filing paperwork, you’re never going to be feeling like you’re completely at home wherever you might be? That sounds a little disconcerting, but maybe it’s true – and maybe it might be a relief to think that other people might feel the same way?