Living in Portugal - my expat life

Living in Portugal - my expat life

We interview James Cave the co-founder and owner of Portugalist, a website full of great information on travelling and living in Portugal.  James tells us his story of how he ended up living in Lisbon and his life today in this fabulous city.  You can follow Portugalist on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

WCIL: Where do you originally come from?

Although I lived in Portugal for a few years as a child, I mainly grew up in Ireland. After finishing school, I moved to the UK and lived there for about 5 or 6 years before heading off and travelling the world for a few years. I spent time living in France, Spain, Germany, and South Africa, and travelled through parts of Asia and North America.

Where are you living now?

I’m currently living in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal.

What led you to making the decision to leave your home country?

I’d had itchy feet for a long time, and really wanted to see a bit of the world, but I wanted to set up my own business so that I could work remotely while travelling first. I’d only just gotten out of bar and call centre work, and wanted to keep working in the industry that I was in which was online marketing.

I kept working in the industry for a few years and then eventually bit the bullet and became a freelance marketing consultant. I did that for several years, before moving towards content creation and later starting Portugalist.

James, expat living in Portugal against tiles

What visas did you arrive on and was it difficult or easy to sort your visas out?

As an EU citizen, moving to Portugal is very straight-forward. You do need to register, and you probably will need to get an NIF (VAT identification number) and to sort out a few other documents, but it’s fairly easy for EU residents.

If you are not from the EU and need help with visas, click here to speak to our immigration partner in Lisbon. 

What was the first impression of your new home?

I first moved to Lisbon in 2013, having visited it a few times before that. I remember being struck by how beautiful it was: it truly is one of the most photogenic cities in the world.  Lisbon is very interesting to look at from up on a hill or somewhere high up. Because the city is so old, the layout of the city is sporadic and disorganized. I love that about Lisbon.

Did you know many people in your new country when you moved there?  How did you settle in at the beginning?

I lived in Lisbon in 2013, and have been coming back here a lot since then, so I did already know a few people here. It wasn’t quite enough people to start a new life here, so I’ve had to make a lot of effort to make friends here.

It’s a lot easier now than it was back in 2013. There are now a lot more meetup groups and events happening, particularly for internationals living in Lisbon.

Largo de Graca Living in Portugal

How do you support yourself abroad?

I work for myself. At the moment I’m mainly running Portugalist, and that pays most of the bills, but I also do sporadic marketing work for clients.

What made you start Portugalist?

I started Portugalist while I was living in the Algarve in the South of Portugal. By then, I’d already lived in Lisbon and other parts of Portugal. My parents were also living in Portugal and had been for several years, and I felt like I knew Portugal pretty well – for a foreigner at least.

A lot of what was getting written about Portugal was very top-level and usually by people who were only spending a few days or weeks at a time here. I decided that I wanted to really get to know the country, and to write something that was a lot more in-depth than anything else that was out there.

You may also be interested in The Portugal Golden Visa - an insider's perspective

How do you spend your free time?

Being a freelancer doesn’t give me a lot of free time, but I spend most of it getting out and meeting people, going to the gym or playing sports, and exploring the rest of Portugal.

What do you miss from your old life?

I miss the ease of being in your own country and knowing how everything works. I also realize now that I didn’t really appreciate the ease of being an employee rather than being self-employed. Those are two things you never appreciate at the time, though.

Living in Portugal at LX Factory

What do you have in your new life that you never had in your home country?

There are a lot of things that you get in Portugal that you don’t get in the UK or Ireland like sunshine and a lower cost of living. Here, I’m able to freelance and build up Portugalist. If I ran “Irelandist” or “UKist”, I wouldn’t be able to afford to work on it full-time.

If you could go back in time to before you became an expat and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?

Property prices in Lisbon have doubled and even tripled since I lived here in 2013. If I could go back in time, I would take out as many mortgages as I could.

What have you learned about yourself in this new life?

Living abroad, I’m constantly faced with new challenges. Getting through each of those challenges builds confidence, and it also teaches you what your strengths and weaknesses are.  Overall, I’ve learned that I’m good in a crisis. When something big happens, I can think calmly and work through it. The little things, however, buildup and can overwhelm me.

Lisbon square Rossio

Tell us about some of your highs and lows of being an expat in a new country

Being an expat is a constant mix of highs and lows – often on a daily basis. Some of the highs are when you manage to have an entire conversation in your second language and understand all of it, and when locals start to invite you to things and you feel like you’re integrating.

The lows are often when you forget the reasons that you moved here and you focus on the downsides instead. There are a lot of upsides to living in Portugal like great weather and a lower cost of living, but there definitely are downsides as well (which I’ve written about in more detail). Sometimes, though, you just need to remind yourself why you moved here.

What do you miss most about home?

I haven’t lived in Ireland for around 14 years, so I’m very used to not living there now. I do miss the sense of humour and friendliness of Ireland and occasionally I get a craving for Irish soda bread as well.

One thing I do miss, from both the UK and Ireland, is being able to go out and see things like theatre and standup comedy. Unfortunately, my Portuguese isn’t quite good enough to really enjoy these.

James at the Mercio in Portugal

Is there anything else you'd like to share about your experience?

Overall, it has been extremely positive. Portugal is a friendly and welcoming country and a great place for people to move to. It’s definitely somewhere that I recommend.

What would you say to anyone considering an international move?

I think everyone should live abroad at least once in their lives. It’s a unique and transformational experience, and I think it’s important to see how another part of the world lives.  


5 of the worst mistakes people make when planning a trip

So you're about to embark on a travel adventure, exploring the world and fully immersing yourse...

Three habits of regular travellers

It can be daunting to head out on your first travel adventure, especially if you're doing it by...

Moving back home from abroad

Melissa Parks from Intentional Expat has her PhD in Clinical and Health Psychology and works as a m...

Author image

Alison Johnson

Alison is a travel junkie, digital nomad and the co-founder of She has lived in 7 countries on 4 continents and is passionate about opening the world up for others.

Start the Smart Wizard!