Let’s start with the yak shaving, since one wouldn’t expect to hear about that long-haired mammal in a blog post about Portugal. Sometimes large projects are so complex, have so many interconnected steps, that you feel like one of those stages must entail hiking to the Himalayas and shaving a yak just to make a bit of progress. With all the various requirements and paperwork, obtaining a residence visa is just such a journey.
So let's dig in . .
To obtain our residence visas, the first step to moving to Portugal, it is necessary to have a health insurance policy. We’d planned on buying travel insurance to cover that gap, then regular health insurance through a bank in Porto once we were onsite. Instead, our legal team suggested that we buy the health insurance right up front, as it would be cheaper, and we’d secure better coverage.
This, unfortunately, added a complication as we hadn’t established a bank account yet, something we’d intended to do once we there in person. But hey, we need one, right? so let's get it done. Sadly, opening a foreign bank account requires a lot of steps. (On the plus side, having the bank account made our apartment rental process SO much easier. There's always a trade-off).
Why do you need a bank account? To start with, the health insurance application asks for your IBAN (International Bank Account Number) because the payment will be made via direct debit. Also on the health insurance app is a space for your Número de Identificação Fiscal, (NIF). This is your Portuguese tax ID number and you’ll use it for all sorts of transactions. To obtain this number you’ll need a Fiscal Representative, which is one of the services that was provided by our lawyer. We’ll talk more about the NIF in a future blog, and while you will be using it more often than you anticipate.
The bank also required a copy of our U.S. Social Security cards. Mine wasn’t an issue, but during a name change Jana’s card ended up with a typo. Knowing it was just going to confuse matters further, she trudged down to our local Social Security office, requested the card be made right (after providing the proper documents to prove her identity.) She received the corrected card in about ten days.
The insurance form also requested our residence ID (which you obtain when you receive your residence permit, the next step after acquiring your visas). Since we didn’t have those IDs yet, our lawyer had us use our passport numbers instead. So now, after gathering all this info we’re ready to apply for that bank account, which you will recall is needed to obtain our health insurance for those visas.
Right off we receive an e-mail with 6 PDF attachments. Fortunately, they are in English because one of the attachments is 24 pages long. There are Customer Information forms, Signature forms, Account Information forms, Depositor Information forms, and a General Conditions form.
It’s at this point we start thinking of shaving those yaks.
This process took MUCH LONGER than we anticipated because we had about a hundred questions as to what responses went in what box. The form assumes you live in Portugal, so the postcode has a box with 4 squares, a space, and then 3 more squares, which meant our U.S. zip code wasn’t going to fit. To work around this issue, we just used the address of our law firm, which necessitated us changing that address with the bank down the line.
And then there’s the issue of names. I’m named after my father, so I’m a Junior. The Portuguese usually have 2 first names and 2 or 3 last names, but they have no provision for a Junior anywhere in the automated systems. The lawyer recommended we get rid of the Jr., although now the name on the bank account no longer matches my passport. Jana does not have middle name, only a middle initial. The workaround was that we dropped that initial, which means in a country where most people have 4 or 5 parts to their name, Jana is only going to have 2.
After struggling through the forms, these needed to be signed, notarized and then Apostilled, since we are not opening the account in person. The notary step wasn’t difficult because our local bank offered that service for free. But what is an Apostille?!?
Turns out the Apostille is a form of a notary, and this is done by your state officials. It verifies that the U.S. notary who certified your document was legally allowed to perform that certification in the eyes of The Hague.
In Georgia, this service is performed by the Georgia Superior Court, and the cost is quite reasonable at $3.00 per document. You can deliver the documents by mail or there is a walk-in service. Fortunately for us the office was only about 15 minutes away. To find out who can provide an Apostille service in your area, check the following link from The Hague:
Watch out for scammers. I contacted one party who said they’d be happy to do this for me, at $100 per document. I’m pretty sure they were going to take the documents to the court and pay the $3 and pocket the other $97. Using the above link to find your state agency is probably the best way to go because the documents must be certified in the state where they were originally notarized. For instance, our marriage license went to Iowa for Apostille. Of course, if the country you are relocating to is not part of The Hague Convention, your steps may be different, or may not be needed at all. Do your homework to save yourself time, money and hassles.
After filing the proper paperwork, and waiting a few weeks, we received our shiny new Multibanco cards. These cards allow us online access, plus the opportunity to use a very cool iPhone app which mirrors the kinds of transactions you usually do at an ATM. On top of all that, we can now apply for our health insurance, which oddly enough took less time to acquire than setting up the bank account.
One thing to note: the Portuguese are very open about sharing their bank account numbers. The way they have the system set up, you can send money to another party’s account, but not pull money out. For instance, Jana lodged at a local guest house for a few days after arrival, and rather than paying for the stay using our credit card, the only option was by a bank transfer. Part of this is to avoid the merchant fees for the guesthouse, but it’s also part of the culture. We still wince when we see a bank account number displayed openly, but that’s how they move money here.
The bottom line is that everything takes more time than expected, so pad your departure date accordingly. And expect that names and other information don’t easily transfer from one country to the next. What should have been relatively quick—applying for health insurance so we could apply for our visas—required a number of steps. However, if you retain your cool, supply what is required and know it’s going to take time, you’re good to go. Hopefully you don’t have to do any yak shaving, but if you do, know it’s all for a good cause: living the life in Portugal.
Harold is a former software engineer. Jana is an author. Together they're exploring their new life in Portugal.