Essentials for a Year Abroad in Portugal - from one survivor to another

Essentials for a Year Abroad in Portugal - from one survivor to another by franciscoantunes

This article was written by Lewis Blakey, published on 4th March 2015 and has been read 7819 times.

Lewis Blakey is a student of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Southampton and is doing a voluntary work placement in Lisbon, Portugal with an organisation that works with education and training within the EU, facilitating and co-ordinating Erasmus+ placements for students in countries with fewer opportunities for training such as Romania, Poland and Slovenia. In this article, he passes on his tips for surviving life in Lisbon. For more on a year abroad in Portugal, have a read of Lewis' blog or follow him on Twitter.

Asking any Year Abroad student about how living in their chosen destination compares to being a tourist will result in a rather surprising consensus answer-wise; like Merkel and the Mediterranean: the two have very different agendas. It is like comparing having a ready-made lasagne for dinner to cooking your own from scratch. In the case of Portugal, this analogy would stipulate you even having to roll out your own pasta for the lasagne sheets – oh the wholly middle-class horror of not owning a pasta-rolling machine! So, if your appetite has been wetted for a nine-month stint in Lisbon, let me give you a head start on how to survive as a rooky resident in Europe’s sunniest capital city.

One survival tip that somewhat supersedes all others is: get to grips with Portuguese and specifically the European variety. Make sure you have at least removed your Gramática Ativa 2 from its cellophane and have started distinguishing your future subjunctives from your personal infinitives.

Believe me, it will be worth it.

Lewis -1

Vamos lá embora!…Let’s go!

1. Finding accommodation

Perhaps the most immediate of challenges you face when arriving in a new destination is finding somewhere to live. In my experience it is much easier to do this upon arrival rather than beforehand, so book yourself into a hostel for a few days (have a look on Hostel Bookers for the best deal) and get hunting! Although competition for housing in Lisbon is not as competitive or as mind-numbingly expensive as most other capital cities, be prepared to shop around and act decisively. To give you a rough idea, around €240-300 per month for a double room (often including bills) is the standard cost.

My top tip when it comes to accommodation is always call the person who has placed the ad, if possible. Do not rely solely on sending messages or emails; you may well be the fifth or sixth person interested in that one place at one time. Although your first few phone conversations in Portuguese will be slightly soul-destroying and will result in you questioning your concept of vowel sounds, persevere and with each call your ear will become more accustomed to that mumbling, slinky Slavic sounding voice on the other end of the line.

First of all, how do you go about finding people to call? As with most tasks nowadays the Internet is your best friend, and even though this may seem ludicrous to our parents’ generation, when done cautiously it is the most effective way of sourcing a room.

Before you begin searching it is worth having a look at a metro map of Lisbon and familiarising yourself with the different areas of the city. Look at where your University or workplace is situated and learn the names of the three or four nearest metro stops. Lisbon, however, is not a large city and has an excellent transport system so do not panic if your search for rooms within your four metro stops area is not proving fruitful; be flexible and expand your search area.

As I said in the introduction, Portuguese will be essential here. To give you some help, T+ a number refers to the number of bedrooms in the apartment, with T0 being a studio flat and T4 a flat with 4 bedrooms. It will be your first test for your vocabulary, so do you know your cozinha from your sala de jantar?

If, like I was, you are very resolute on living with locals and not fellow international students, then it is best to avoid the traditional Erasmus endorsed venues and worth trying these three options:

  • Searching online room advertisement sites
    The following sites proved especially useful when I was searching: Olx, Easy Quarto and bquarto. Easy quarto, in particular, allows you to create a profile complete with your requirements and then you are sent daily emails with recommendations for properties that match what you have entered. Some of these services do charge a small fee for you to access the contact details of the advertiser. Although the links I have listed take you to pages dedicated to Lisbon advertisements, these sites also operate in many other cities in Portugal.
  • Looking on Groups on Facebook
    Social media can also prove to be an excellent resource for finding rooms, in particular the groups on Facebook such as this one, this other and this final one. Try searching any of the following terms for groups, “Lisboa+quartos”, “Lisboa+casas+arrendar”, “Lisboa+aluguer+casas”. If you see a room that takes your fancy, send the person a message but make sure you leave a comment under the post saying something along the lines of “enviei MP + link to the person’s name”, to tell the advertiser you have sent them a message. This is because your message may go straight to their “Others” folder and the person will not receive a notification. In your message express your interest, leave them your contact number and ask them to give you a call. Remember my top tip!
  • University quadros de anúncios:
    I had to include this one, after all, as this is how I found my own room. These quadros are located in the communal areas of the Universities and are simply noticeboards where fellow students can place ads looking for roommates. Even if you are not a student, like me, spend an afternoon going round the various Universities, Nova, IST, Católica and take a pen and a piece of paper with you. Note down as many numbers as you can stomach. The advantage here is you will not have to act as quickly so can mentally plan your dialogue before dialling the number and pressing that call button.

Although I have slightly discounted the Erasmus endorsed options, if you are in dire need of assistance you can always head along to the Erasmus Life Lisboa office located here in Bairro Alto and they can help you out. Just be aware that they do tend to provide for the more standard, non-language learning Erasmus experience.

Lewis -2

2. Getting a Portuguese Mobile Number

While in the beginning stages of your house search, it will become apparent how essential it is to have a Portuguese number. If you are planning on using your British mobile phone, remember you may have to unlock (or desbloquear) it, meaning releasing it from your previous UK network. This is especially the case with contract phones, but even ancient iPhones on a pay-as-you go plan, as I found out, are susceptible to this. This can often be done online via your original network’s website for a charge; with O2 it was £15. The process takes a few days, so if you are keen to hit the ground running with regards to your house search, you can get around the problem by using Skype to make calls over the Internet for a very small charge (around 5p a minute, slightly more to mobiles). Once your phone is unlocked you can then place a Portuguese sim-card into it and you are good to go!

A particularly good network to opt for is the Nos student brand WTF, which gives you unlimited texts, 500 minutes to any Portuguese network, 500MB of internet as well as unlimited use of messaging apps such as Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Skype and Snapchat, all for €7.50 per month. I know the Snapchat element really tempted you there. You will have to place your tail between your legs and succumb to the traditional Erasmus lifestyle by heading along to the Erasmus Life Lisboa office and there they will give you a sim-card for free. Then go to any Nos shop and ask to top-up (recarregar) your phone by telling them your number (learn it as three sets of three digits) and the amount you wish to load onto it. Ask about any special promotions such as extra balance when topping up €20 or more in one go.

The only slight downside of this network is that you cannot top-up online; it must be done in one of the shops each month. WTF say that you can top-up at cash points but this relies on you having a Portuguese bankcard, otherwise you will not be offered this service. On the plus side you will master your “phone top-up” dialogue, your numbers and the pronunciation of recarregar in no time by having a monthly test on it! Huzzah.

Lewis -3

3. Getting to grips with Lisbon transport

As I said previously, Lisbon is not a particularly large city, nonetheless it still boasts a modern, efficient and relatively clean transport system composing of a metro, public buses and the quintessential yellow electric trams.

The metro is by far the quickest and cheapest way of getting around the city. It comprises of four lines, each colour-coded accordingly: red, yellow, green and blue.

Each trip will cost you €1.40 and you must buy a paper Viva Viagem card (costing €0.50) before your first journey. This card can then be topped up and reused, very much like an Oyster card, either in multiples of €1.40 or in €5 or €10 chunks. This allows you to simply “zap” each journey and have the money deducted from your card. You can also use your Viagem card on the busses and the trams, which are slightly more expensive at €1.80 and €2.85 per trip respectively. These amounts are similarly deducted from your card’s balance accordingly.

If you become a frequent user of public transport I would advise getting a Lisboa Viva card, which functions much like a monthly-season ticket, costing €35.65 per month and gives you unlimited travel on all forms of public transport, including over-ground trains within the urban area. The card costs €7, although you can pay €12 for an express service if you are clambering to get your hands on one within 24 hours. The cards can be obtained from the ticket offices in Marques de Pombâl metro station; make sure you have a colour photograph on hand as your card is a personalised one. Now if that does not scream local resident, I don’t know what will.

Lewis -4

4. Sourcing out the right supermarket

In reality, your newly issued travel pass may not be enough to convince the locals you are one of them; you will also need to know your Portuguese supermarkets. Food in Portugal is incredibly reasonably priced, so in reality, you do not need to be as faithful to Iceland or Aldi as you would have to be in the UK if you wish to stick to a budget. It costs around €25-30 for a weekly shop.

Here in Lisbon, Continente, easily recognised by its red logos, is one of the only supermarkets with large hypermarket-size stores. These are located in Centro Comercial de Vasco de Gama and Colombo, allowing you to shop in a familiar ‘all under one roof’ setting and with the best choice of products. Frequently cited as the cheapest by the Portuguese is Pingo Doce, which also seems to have the greatest number of stores here in Lisbon. Mini-preço, as the name suggests, is another option for those wishing to find the lowest of low prices, and, as my fellow Year Abroaders have informed me, is particularly good for frozen fish fingers. If you are looking for a gentle reminder of life back home, or are simply wishing to live out your continental fantasies, Lidl also has stores here in Portugal.

Since becoming a vegetarian at the turn of this year, one final store that I have found particularly useful is Celeiro, a health store selling biological produce as well as a good range of vegetarian products. It is also the only place I have been able to buy orange sweet potatoes, batata doce laranja – an essential veggie ingredient! The Portuguese conception of batata doce is more of a cross between a potato and a turnip. They weren’t the most pleasant tatey wedgies I’ve ever eaten… Although it is more challenging to eat out in restaurants, it is more than feasible to lead a vegetarian lifestyle here in Portugal, and in fact is becoming increasingly popular amongst the locals, the Lisboetas. It just requires a positive attitude, creativity and open mindedness.

Lewis -5

5. Dealing with money

Without insulting your intelligence too much, remember that Portugal’s currency is the euro and this means each transaction made using your UK bankcard will incur a small charge. Although some cash machines may not charge you, a more reliable way of avoiding these fees is to apply online for a Caxton FX card before you leave the UK. (Here's more about the benefits of currency cards.) This is especially useful if you don’t intend to open a Portuguese bank account and obtaining a Portuguese bankcard (further post to follow on this). Your CaxtonFx card works as a cash passport, allowing you to transfer money from your UK account at a highly desirable rate onto the card and then take out money or pay for purchases without suffering the pesky overseas charges.

Amongst the other benefits, Caxton also allow you to set up a monthly top-up, allowing you to organise your money effectively and not over-spend. They also have developed an app, which lets you manage your money straight from your smartphone. An absolute life-saver! Be aware, however, that the minimum top-up is €150 and that in several critical situations only a Portuguese bank card may work for certain payments, such as mobile phone top-ups, metro ticket payments and paying for McDonald’s in the middle of a monsoon in Braga (don’t ask).

This final point concludes my guide to the essentials for surviving a Year Abroad in Portugal, which I hope you have enjoyed and found useful! As for upcoming posts, stay tuned for some language related posts, my Lisbon weekend on a student budget, which will hopefully inspire you even more to spend a long weekend here, as well as a round-up of some of my highlights from 2015 in Lisbon so far!

I leave you with the inspiration for this post, assuming you hadn’t guessed it already from the title...

Beijinhos e até a próxima

If you're preparing to spend time abroad, it's worth considering a Fair FX currency card instead of setting up a foreign bank account. Find out more!

For 20% off the booking fee for your accommodation abroad, visit and use code THIRDYEARABROAD :)

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