Back in 2020 we had a dream of converting a van, developing ‘passive’ income streams and travelling around Europe for a year or longer. That dream is now very much in progress, and beyond; we are now residents of Portugal!
This gives us a lot of freedom and the ability to travel mainland Europe more easily and long-term (certainly much more accessible and affordable than travelling from Belfast, Northern Ireland!).
The Schengen Shuffle
I’m not going to cover the “Schengen Shuffle” in detail as others have already done a great job. But, alongside living in one of the most north-western areas of Europe and being surrounded by water (ie. every time we leave / return our details are recorded), the ‘freedom of movement’ Schengen issue was one of the main reasons we chose to move abroad.
For those who don’t know, the ‘Schengen Shuffle’ is the process of moving from one non-Schengen region to another in order to bypass the limitations imposed by agreement —or rather, being outside of the agreement— that would mean you have to return and remain in the UK every 90 days for 90 days (expensive if yer halfway across Europe!) because you do not have an EU passport.
We have dual citizenship of Ireland and the UK, so as Irish passport holders (ie. EU passport holders), we are fortunate to have this freedom of movement. However, I'm touching on the Schengen issue as many readers will not be EU passport holders.
“All EU citizens can stay in another EU country as a tourist for up to three months with a valid passport or identity card. Also they can live in another member state for work, with the right to be treated in the same way as nationals of that country.”European Parliament website article
One important thing to note is that for EU citizens, nowhere does it say what period that “three months” is within. Even the EU commission site it is vague and gives no indication of any required period of absence.
You can find an interesting conversation here, which semi-concludes that this is a directive that can be interpreted differently by each EU country and no one is likely to be bothered unless you are taking the piss — ie. you are practically living in that other country….which should't really apply to those on a travel mission!
The Schengen name is based on the name of the agreement between many EU countries that permit this ‘borderless’ freedom of movements for EU residents (zero or minimal border and passport controls); The Schengen Agreement….and, as you can see in the map below, the large majority of Europe is part of the Schengen Agreement.
EU citizens can travel within the Schengen area without visa and without restrictions on the amount of time they spend in each Schengen country, so long as it does not exceed three months. Non-EU citizens are restricted.
Even though Ireland opted out of the Schengen agreement, this does not effect their citizens right to freedom of movement…however they will need to show their passport when entering or leaving Ireland, just like every other non-Schengen country. More details here.
Very briefly, non-EU residents can only stay 90 days in the Schengen region within a rolling 180 days – yes; dipping in and out of Schengen countries has zero effect.
And one of the many cock-ups of Brexit is that the UK is now subject to these restrictions and thus have to plan long journeys accordingly.
And it’s a royal pain in the arse.
If you are thinking of a long trip and a bit of a shuffle, I recommend setting aside some focused time to read https://motoroaming.com/the-schengen-shuffle-for-motorhome-travellers. Another good article is https://cibtvisas.co.uk/The-Schengen-Areas-90/180-Day-Rule-Made-Easy.
Why choose Portugal?
Back in 2020 we first thought about travelling for around a year, then discovered Shengan and other restrictions and started thinking of the prospect of moving abroad with Spain or Portugal being the likely candidates due to accessibility, weather and language.
Upon further reading, there were many positives for Portugal; the friendliness of the people, the Atlantic ocean (feels like home!), beautiful and diverse country, good (but mixed) weather, being extremely LGBT-friendly/safe, having three airports that fly to Ireland regularly, and, as our ‘passive’ income developments progressed, two other major advantages sealed the deal — Portugal is extremely crypto-friendly in terms of taxes and tracking (if you’ve ever done a lot of DeFi, tracking is almost a full-time job!) and they have a scheme called the NHR ‘non-habitual residency’ programme which is a tax-efficient scheme for people who generate their earnings from outside of Portugal.
Anyway, after travelling throughout Spain and Portugal December-February and decided to make the move to Portugal long-term…or at least give it a go and see how things went.
The things we wish we knew…
I’ll outline below the things we wish we knew beforehand regarding vehicles and include a few other bits that may be useful.
Most of this is in relation to becoming a Portuguese resident. The exception is insurance…
Foreign vehicle insurance
The first thing we initially struggled with was long-term vehicle insurance, especially when our address would no longer be in the UK. Fortunately, this was easily sorted out by Abbeygate.pt — very painless process once we found them; essentially they specialise in expat situations and were happy to insure us from any Portugal address (they also cover Spain), resident or not.
We thought that was us sorted.
And it was.
Until we became a Portugal resident…
Vehicle rules change when you become a resident of Portugal
In a nutshell; when you become a resident of Portugal, you are no longer permitted to drive a foreign vehicle unless it is in the process of matriculation (official importation).
You must start the matriculation process immediately
Hey, that’s easy you may think; start the matriculation process.
Not so easy; what marks the beginning of the matriculation process?
Answer = unclear.
Either way, there's a ‘Catch 22’…
The UK matriculation process ‘catch 22’
To begin the matriculation process form the UK (although it still remains unclear if this constitutes ‘starting' from a legal standpoint), the importer needs to provide a ‘Car Importation Certificate’.
You can only apply for the Car Import Certificate AFTER gaining residency, and there are often weeks of delays between applying and getting the interview at the UK High Commission, which you need to get said certificate.
Basically, you are probably going to be without a vehicle for at least a few weeks as this is the earliest the process can ‘start’.
Vehicle import tax is really high
Vehicle import tax in Portugal is extremely high which is why it is one of the most expensive places in Europe to buy a vehicle despite being one of the less wealthy countries.
Import tax is generally based on age of vehicle, engine size and emissions, which can be quite large for campers (although ‘proper’ motorhomes can be cheaper). Here is more info on how the ISV (Imposto Sobre Veículos) tax works – the import tax required to get a Portuguese registration and license plate.
There are various online vehicle import tax calculators (eg. https://impostosobreveiculos.info/iuc/simulador-iuc/) but at time of writing they were all down – do a Google search for other calculators if that's not working or visit the calculation tables page on the ISV website.
How to qualify for zero-tax vehicle import to Portugal
Each new resident qualifies for one tax-free vehicle import. However, they must have owned that vehicle for at least six months in their previous residence.
If you qualify and import a vehicle you cannot sell it for one year….unless you pay the importation tax.
Modified vehicles are much more difficult to import
Anything that has been adapted from manufacture is much more complex to import. A ‘Certificate of Conformity’ is required. Usually this is easy to get from the manufacturer and can often be sourced online with your vehicle VIN.
If the vehicle is non-standard, you will require various documentation on the modifications.
Self-converted camper vans can rarely be imported
Firstly, they are seen as modified vehicles. Secondly, Portugal has very different rules on vehicle classifications and the process to legalize an ‘Autocaravana’ – see legalization process below.
We returned our self-build van to UK and sold it 😢
We looked into the import option a lot and sadly decided to return our van to the UK and sell it. Not only based on the process or costs, but the stories of others — we did not find anyone with a positive story to tell. 😢😢😢
It was a sad moment and, much as we knew we would likely be changing the van at some point in the nearish future, it was too soon. She went to a good home though :).
Legalization process for van conversion is OTT
Unlike the UK and most other European countries (as far as I'm aware!), Portugal have extremely strict rules on modified vehicles and DIY van conversions / campervans. It is a process that takes several months.
Full architect-style projects need to be submitted and approved by the IMT (Instituto da Mobilidade e dos Transportes – these are also the guys that do the inspections, similar to UK MOT).
Totally over the top! And a real pain in the ass when you find yourself vanless.😢
There are also different classifications such as ‘Dormitório Especial’ (special dormitory) whereby certain fixtures and features are not permitted and the process is less costly and detailed.
This article provides good insight to the costs and process for ‘autocaravana': https://worldonmyway.com/en/van-conversion-11-legalization/
And if you're really serious, these guys have a 15 Euro ebook on van conversion AND legalization process in Portugal which sounds great value. I have not yet purchased it as we already know it is a very long process — our first step is to source an interim van that is already legalized (main classified ads site in Portugal we found useful is olx.pt alongside Facebook Marketplace), after we do that, we can start thinking about our own van conversion and build.
Exchanging your drivers licence (updated 2022!)
This information is currently being updated: you may no longer have to exchange your drivers license when you become a resident!
As of August 2022, Portugal are accepting various foreign licences, even if you are a resident: https://www.portugalresident.com/driving-licence-rule-changes-do-away-with-need-to-exchange/ and https://eportugal.gov.pt/en/servicos/trocar-carta-de-conducao-estrangeira-por-portuguesa – new information. Please follow the news for updates.
At this time, I am undecided if to submit my license for exchange. I've heard many reports of people waiting 18+ months…and during that time, the temporary license you are provided with only permits you to drive in Portugal.
Things we may have done differently
Had we known all this (and the above is only an overview – there are other considerations and details such as deadlines), we might have done some things differently….or at least there may be some things YOU could consider doing differently.
When do you need to become a Portuguese resident?
We thought we were being organised and getting our ducks in order by submitting for residency. With hindsight, we could have put this off and had our van for a few more months as a tourist.
Consider a different vehicle (six-month rule!)
If your van is a self-build AND you have at least six months before you want/need to become a Portugal resident, it may be worth your while considering selling it in the UK and buying a ‘factory’ camper….even if it’s not what you want long-term.
That way, you should be able to import it to Portugal without too much difficulty and have a vehicle.
Sell your van before you leave
Then buy in Portugal – but expect to pay a lot more for similar spec. Prices for all vehicles here are high.
Understand what is involved when importing
Remember that there will likely be a gap when you cannot drive your vehicle in Portugal even if you do decide to import.
Where to find out more
The British Expats in Portugal group on Facebook is an excellent resource — not only for Brits.
I wish I had found it sooner.
Steve puts together lots of useful files, including those on vehicles, drivers licence exchanges etc. Check it out here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/265570920476558/ (search the group and read the files before asking questions).