If you’ve ever dreamed of moving abroad after retirement, Veronica Ondrejech has advice for you: do it now, and don’t wait for the perfect moment. Tomorrow is not promised.
Veronica and her husband, Ray, an Air Force retiree, shared a dream of living in Europe. Barely 50 years old, in 2017 they decided to retire early and take the leap. They found their ideal retirement destination in Portugal and were preparing to move there from the U.S. when Ray passed away unexpectedly.
Veronica made the difficult decision to continue pursuing their dream, and she moved to Vila Real de Santo Antonio, one of the smaller towns in the Algarve region. Her experience has proven that she made the right choice, because expat life in Portugal is everything they hoped it would be.
In this personal interview, part of our Expat Retiree series, read what Veronica has to say about retiring in Portugal and her valuable advice for others contemplating a move overseas.
Contents (click to expand)
What gave you the idea to retire early and move abroad?
Since the military allows you to retire at 20 years’ active duty (with benefits), we knew we wanted to retire earlier than most.
My husband really never found that perfect fit of a second career after retiring from the Air Force, but I was still working and making good money.
In 2007 my company put me on retainer (they paid me not to work, because the markets were unstable, but as a top account executive, they wanted to keep me on the payroll). My husband wasn’t working, so it was easy to travel.
We spent over a month in Italy learning to make wine and touring around. We went to Australia and New Zealand, to China and around the United States.
We knew then that traveling would be our retirement dream. It was just a matter of when.
It wasn’t until California continued to add more taxes, and our local community decided to add more to our ever-increasing property taxes, that we realized if we waited until 72 to retire, we would be working just to pay taxes.
My last career included working as a vendor to real estate agents, so I was aware that the market spiked in our area in 2016-2017. We decided to go for it: sell the house and start our travels abroad.
To be fair, I also got an inheritance I wasn’t expecting from my grandmother (not a huge amount, but enough to buy a house abroad with the equity in our home with the trust as a supplement). We would fund our travels with a travel blog and marketing consultant work.
So the short answer was that we knew we wanted to do it young, but taxes and an increase in the property values, plus a little unexpected income to supplement our savings, prompted us to take action.
Why did you choose to retire in Portugal?
We searched through online information and books to find the best retirement destinations in Europe. We’d been to Europe many times, but Portugal hadn’t really been on our radar.
A friend visited Portugal for the amazing waves, and he raved about the beautiful beaches, friendly people and history. This confirmed that Portugal should be on our list to check out.
We flew there in early 2017 and explored many areas in Portugal, north to south. We decided that Portugal was the European country for us and that the Algarve region of Portugal would be our retirement destination.
Meanwhile, we had decided to sell our home when the market in California was hot, and we listed it while we were gone so that it was easy for realtors to view. Our house sold in less than a week for $50K over the asking price, and we signed docs virtually. The house was closed within a week of returning home, and we had an agreement to rent back.
Unfortunately, my husband passed away a few months after our visit to Portugal. I had to decide whether to continue with the move or to stay home, and I decided to stick with our plans. I moved to Portugal in October 2017.
How did you pick Vila Real de Santo Antonio?
When my husband and I visited Portugal to see if it could be a match for us, we visited many Portuguese cities.
We visited Porto in north Portugal, which is an amazing city with the river and port houses, but it was just too cold for me (a Southern California native).
Lisbon was vibrant and full of life but was just too big for us. We’d moved from LA to San Luis Obispo, CA after my husband retired from the Air Force in 2005 (his last duty station was the Los Angeles Space and Missile Center) and we like the feel of smaller communities.
Vila Real de Santo Antonio (VRSA) has everything we were looking for. It has a beach, river, town square and easy access to tour around Europe.
Faro International Airport is only a 45-minute drive, Seville is only 1.5 hours away, and the Rota Naval Base is only 3 hours away by car. There is a Costco in Seville where we can buy some of the items we miss and appliances that are more American in style.
Also, Algarve has a very temperate climate, and it’s sunny year-round, even in January!
What residence permit do you have that allows you to live in Portugal as an American?
I am also a German citizen, which allows me to live and work anywhere in the European Union. My father was German, and my mother was American, so I was born with dual citizenship.
I wasn’t aware of this until my sister worked in Holland and explained that her firm didn’t need to get a work visa for her, as she was just considered a citizen by birth. So I looked up the requirements and made an appointment with the German Embassy.
I showed my father’s passport, my parents’ marriage certificate, and my birth certificate, and I gave them the passport fee along with two photos. They mailed me a German passport. Easy. With a German passport I can live and work anywhere in the EU.
Research your heritage. If you want to live abroad, it is important that you check all your genealogy and potential citizenships. It’s the fastest and best way to move overseas. If you served in the military, it can void other citizenships, however, your spouse may be eligible, and then you go in as a dependent.
Many of my American friends are applying for the D7 visa (the Portugal retirement visa). It’s best for US citizens to do your visa application from the States at your local Portuguese Embassy. It takes some time, but Portugal is one of the more generous countries with residence visas.
Another option for retiring to Portugal is through the “Golden Visa” program (aka Residence Permit for Investment Activities). If you purchase a property over 500K Euros, then you’re eligible for the Golden Visa program, but make sure to hire an attorney before you purchase, as the rules are specific.
Notes from Poppin’ Smoke:
There are several different investment options to obtain a Portugal Golden Visa. This website has more details, including the government’s recommendation to discontinue the Portuguese Golden Visa program.
Portugal’s immigration website lists all of the Portuguese visas available for foreign citizens. In general, after five consecutive years of legal residence in Portugal, you can apply to become a permanent resident.
Did you get any pushback from your kids about your decision to move to Portugal?
We have four kids: two boys and two girls. They are all travelers, as we trained them young to see the world. They were excited for us and, of course, have visited.
Two of our kids joined the military, and our family ended up scattered around the USA (Florida, Georgia, Maryland, and California), so it’s not like we were all neighbors. Visiting required a long flight or drive to see each other, so living in Portugal is not that much different.
Do you speak Portuguese? If not, is it difficult to navigate daily life?
I’m trying, but it is a difficult language.
It’s super easy to get around, as 90% of the population here in the Algarve speaks English. This is a HUGE tourist destination for the British, and many expats living in Algarve are British, so English is widely spoken.
There is a global English-speaking report you can find online, and Portugal scores in the highest percentile of English proficiency every year.
I do recommend learning Portuguese, as it’s polite to speak the language, and some of the older Portuguese people don’t speak much English.
How does the cost of living in Portugal compare to the U.S.?
The average salary for locals is about 800-1000 Euros per month (minimum wage in Portugal is about 700 Euros). You can live comfortably on 3K Euros per month (check the money conversion, as it’s a big moving target right now).
You can easily rent a nice two-bedroom apartment in Portugal for 750-1,500 Euros, depending on where you choose to live.
I purchased a two-bedroom two-bathroom condo/apartment with views of the river and ocean for 150,000 Euros in 2018. For an additional 10K I got a garage under my apartment (very rare . . . if you find a garage, snag it quick).
It’s super inexpensive to eat and drink in the East Algarve. Beers are 1-2 Euros, wine 2-3 Euros and most “tourist menus” are 11-12 Euros. A tourist menu includes a starter, drink (beer and wine also), main course, dessert and coffee. Don’t forget to ask for the plate of the day, as those can be as low as 5-7 Euros.
I’m shocked every time I get my bill by the low prices in restaurants. It’s easier to go out than dine in and about the same price by the time you buy all the necessary ingredients.
Many days, my friends and I sit at a snack bar (my favorite overlooks the marina and the river) and we will snack and drink for hours. The bill is under 20 Euros.
Tipping is about 10 percent in Portugal, and in snack bars and cafes you just round up to the next dollar. As an American, I still tip 10-20 percent, and they are always happy.
Grocery stores are about the same as America, but you can go to farmers markets and fish markets for a better deal. Fresh fish and local food are in abundance, as the Portuguese are a nation of fisherman and farmers. Local items will be lower cost than imported items, of course.
Where do you get your health care? Do you have a local insurance plan?
This is a great question for military members, as I was debating a health care plan.
I have TRICARE and called to switch to TRICARE Overseas, but you still have to pay the provider first and then get reimbursed. (Note from Poppin’ Smoke: TRICARE reimburses 75% of the cost).
I’ve learned how low-cost private health insurance is in Portugal, and I decided to purchase a plan with Allianz insurance through my local expat organization. I’m 53 and it’s only about 1,000 Euros per year for full coverage (also includes travel insurance for 2 months travel at a time).
I am registered with the Portuguese healthcare system, so I can get free medical care, but I don’t want to be a burden on their system. Plus, I’m a PPO girl, not an HMO girl.
There is a beautiful private health center just down the street that takes same-day appointments, and it’s only 50 Euros for a visit. I’ve popped down for an allergic reaction and bug bites, but I didn’t even bother to send the claim to TRICARE, as it’s so low-cost.
(Watch this video to learn about Veronica’s experience having emergency surgery at a private hospital, including details on the cost of private health insurance.)
For other Americans retiring in Portugal, if you have a condition that could be expensive, then I would recommend just buying the health coverage. If you can prove that you’re currently covered when you buy the insurance, then all pre-existing conditions are covered immediately.
They only accept new clients until you’re age 70, so if you’re close to that age and want to retire to Portugal, get in while you can (once covered, they continue to cover).
What income tax do you pay as an American expat in Portugal?
In short, I pay income taxes on my American earnings in America and my Portuguese earnings in Portugal. American living in Portugal must file tax returns in both countries.
I recommend researching the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion. If you qualify for the exclusion, you can earn up to $112,000 per person (for the 2022 tax year) in foreign earned income without incurring U.S. taxes.
Also, I signed up for Non-Habitual Resident (NHR) status. It’s an easy process, and NHR status means that Portugal will only tax you at a flat rate of 20% on any income earned in Portugal for your first 10 years of residence.
Having said all that, I’m not a lawyer or accountant. You should consult a CPA or financial advisor about your personal situation.
Is there anything you wish you had known or done differently prior to moving to Portugal from the U.S.?
I wish I would have known NOT to bring my car and to have sold it in the States and then purchased one here. (Note from Poppin’ Smoke: learn more about bringing a car to Portugal vs. buying in Veronica’s video here – 20:45).
When you become a resident of Portugal, you only have 3 months to switch out your license, so do that quickly.
Look up the process, because you need to get certified copies of your DMV history apostilled at your local Portuguese Consulate. I didn’t do this, and now I get to take Portuguese driving lessons and the test as if I’ve never driven before.
Tell us about life in VRSA!
I love to travel, so I use my location in Portugal (right on the Spanish border — my apartment overlooks the river to Spain) as a base to travel around Europe.
I’m walking distance to the city center of VRSA. My town is full of great shops, and many Spanish travel here for the wonderful linens, pottery, boutique clothing shops, and cork products (cork is like a fabric here, with beautiful purses, hats, bags, etc).
There is a ferry to Spain right outside my home. It only takes nine minutes to get to Spain and costs less than two Euros. I can drive, but it’s so fun to get out on the water!
So, I have access to two countries, a river, the Atlantic ocean, and many preserves and trails. I ride my bike to the beach or in the pine tree forest preserves along the beach to Monte Gordo, a beachfront town just a few kilometers southwest of VRSA.
Monte Gordo has about 15 cafes on a raised boardwalk overlooking the ocean. It’s a big tourist town, so it’s alive and busy in summer and shuttered in during the winter months.
VRSA only has 3 hotels, so it’s more of a local town and just the right size to have everything you need without being too busy. There are no “clubs,” as it’s a family town.
People gather in the city square in the evening where many nights, there is a band or DJ. Families gather together with neighbors, and the kids run around the square as parents look on from a café table. It’s a safe and happy community spot, I love it!
Public transport is good. There is a train, ferry and bus system to get around, but I have a car. I have friends who don’t have a car, but I recommend getting one here.
The closest “major” city would be Faro, which is about a 35-45 minute drive. The airport is located in Faro, and there are plenty of low-cost airlines so you can hop around Europe and beyond. Africa is also an easy flight or ferry ride from other European countries.
Do you have many Portuguese friends, or do you primarily socialize with other expats?
I socialize with all types of people. I joined the International Rotary, which operates in English, and I’m the token American expat. There are members from all over Europe, and we have global visitors quite frequently.
When I moved into my home, I won the “neighbor lottery,” as my neighbor is one of my closest friends. She is Portuguese and has two children in college, and we are similar in age.
She is fun and active, teaches at the local school, and her sister is the President/Mayor of our county. She introduces me around, and I’m trying to learn Portuguese even though people speak English.
I’ve been included in a hiking group, a lunch group and have lifelong friends I’ve made from a Douro river cruise I took with our expat organization in the Algarve, the Association for Foreign Residents and Visitors (AFPOP is the acronym in Portuguese).
Do you feel “accepted” in the local community?
I think one of the best things about Portugal is the friendly people. It’s easy to fit in if you try. I’m guessing most people who are looking to integrate into a new society are fun and outgoing and happy to fit in. It’s easy here with a little effort.
I live in a small town, so it has been easy to integrate.
One day, I went for a quick bike ride and ran into my neighbor and we chatted for a few minutes, and then I said hello to the butcher under my building as I left my apartment.
Then I saw Lydia, who operates a computer store under my building, and she also collects my packages for me. Then I said hello to Antonio, who owns a café (yes, under my building again), and as I biked down the street, I waved hello to Telma, who is my banker, and then to her brother at the gas station. Then I heard a hello from Joao across the street as he walked his dog.
The café owners know me and I’ve met a German friend, who is also retired and willing to café hop with me.
You moved to Portugal from the U.S. to enjoy retirement, but you ended up taking a job – what happened?
I enjoy sharing my travels by creating travel videos and I have a travel blog called Traveling Queen. I posted a video for another website for female travelers and decided to post it on my FB page as well. I labeled it “why an American lives in Portugal,” and it was shared.
A team leader from the Lisbon Coldwell Banker (CB) office saw it on Facebook and contacted me. We spoke and he asked me to join his team. I was retired but figured since I had trained CB agents in California, I would give it a try.
It’s a Global Luxury Team so it’s fun to drive around to get to know the Algarve better and to see some of the beautiful historical homes. I figure I can help Americans expats in Portugal avoid some of the drama I experienced while purchasing my home, and I can just take a few luxury customers, as needed.
What do you like about living in Portugal, and specifically, about your city?
I love the culture, the history, the ease of traveling to other countries, and most importantly, the kind, friendly and humble Portuguese people.
My city is perfect for me. It’s the perfect size to have everything I want but none of the craziness of the big cities (if you want big city life retire in Lisbon).
The cost of living in Algarve compared to the U.S. is low, and there is a new little town or historical site around every corner.
The important thing to me is community, and my town square is the center of life and friendships. Strolling down the Riverwalk, biking to the ocean or to Castro Marim (Knights Templar Castle), or to Monte Gordo (tourist town), I feel I have it all.
VRSA is literally the most southeastern corner of Portugal, and the borders of my town include the beach, the river and preserves with flamingos and birdlife. It’s my perfect corner of paradise.
What are some of the challenges of living in Portugal as an expat?
Getting used to the slow pace of life. Since family and friends come first, things are slower and can take more time. What great priorities, right?
It’s not fun when you’re waiting for the doorbell to ring so you can have the air or gas service turned on, but you learn not to plan more than one or two things in a day.
Also, the Portuguese people don’t like to give bad news. So if a contractor or service person can’t come as scheduled or can’t do a job in a specific period of time, you could potentially wait for them, and they never show up. They’d rather not arrive than give bad news.
You can stay proactive and explain that you need them to confirm and to share the bad news. Learn to ask specific and quantifiable questions and to relax. Things are slower here.
What advice would you give someone who is thinking of moving to Portugal?
Don’t bring your car to Portugal – it’s not a good idea. I brought my car and ended up selling it so I could buy one here.
Choosing Where to Live in Portugal
Make sure to rent apartments in a variety of towns and areas in Portugal so that you can find the right vibe for you.
Rent during the summer and in the off season. Most rentals are furnished, so it’s easy to try before you buy. Summer is crazy busy here, while winter can close down a tourist town.
Money & Banking
Get a Schwab brokerage and bank account so you can get the best exchange rates and pull money without fees from the cash machines here.
I love USAA and have used them for years, but the exchange rate is better with Schwab. If you’ve had a USAA investment account, they recently transferred it to Schwab anyway, so just call them and ask them to open a checking account with an ATM card for you.
And it’s always good to travel with more than one ATM card. You never know which one works best as you travel. In Iceland only one of my ATM cards worked (and I have four . . . . it’s overkill, but that’s me).
Get WhatsApp installed on your phone. Most people use it here since the calling/SMS/data plans are expensive (I haven’t found an unlimited one yet).
T-mobile One works around the world, so keep it until you find something else better. I had T-mobile and loved it but switched to a local plan, and I am now kicking myself.
I have a German SIM card and a local SIM card. I need two, as the Portuguese SIM doesn’t work outside of the country. Since I’m in Spain all the time, I need coverage, and the German card works great.
Assimilating to Life in Portugal for Expats
Learn to relax and focus on the important things, like family and friends. There are many times I meet my neighbors, and they are all willing to stop and chat (sometimes for quite a long time . . . and I’m in a rush). They are on their way to work, appointments or meetings, but they prioritize the face-to-face contact with neighbors and friends.
So then they are late . . . oh well . . . The good news is that everyone knows that “Portuguese time” is “late,” and no one worries or gets stressed. You just wait and find someone else to chat with. They are very kind and patient people, and that’s their way of life.
Be open and friendly, and absorb the good and bad. Enjoy each experience in the new culture as it comes your way.
Learn to live like a local and don’t expect things to be just as they are in America.
My American friend, Ray, said it best: “I moved here because I wanted to live here, not leave there.”
What are your longer-term plans? Do you intend to stay in Portugal for the foreseeable future?
Yes, I love it here. It’s a retirement home, and I will pass it to my children. It’s a gem. Views like this are hard to come by, and I’m in the perfect spot for me. Location, location, location.
Anything you would like to add to assist others in making a decision to move overseas?
My husband passed away as we were selling our house and packing up to move to Portugal. I was heartbroken, but it was easier to move forward with the plans already in motion than to figure out a different plan.
There are times when I think “what did I do?” but this year the hindsight points to a good decision. We never know what will be or what is perfect, we just have to take steps forward and try.
I think most people who have this “dream” of living abroad or retiring early are already in the right mental space; it’s just taking the steps to do what’s required.
You can always go home, but if you don’t try it when you can, you might always have the regret of not trying. It’s not always perfect, and you need to be flexible and open to different ways of doing things, but I think most military people are already far ahead in this regard.
Tomorrow isn’t promised (I speak from experience) so if the wanderlust excites you, and you can formulate a plan, then seize the day.
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Follow Veronica and learn more about life in Portugal on her YouTube channel, American in Portugal – Expat Life in Portugal!
You can also contact her if you are interested in purchasing a home in Portugal.