You’ve probably been hearing tons of great things about Portugal and Lisbon in particular. You’ve heard about the great weather, prices, and if you have been following Madonna’s Instagram account (or mine), you know that it’s “the” place to live. Now you’re starting to research how to get your Portuguese residency and you’re really starting to think seriously about moving here. Suddenly you ask yourself, “do I need to speak Portuguese when I come to Lisbon?” The answer…not really, but it will help – a lot!
Do I Need to Speak Portuguese When I Come to Lisbon?
Before I give you the answer, I must tell you that I’m a huge fan of language learning. I encourage everyone to at least learn a bit of the language when visiting any country. Even if you sound like an idiot, locals will appreciate the fact that you tried. This small gesture of trying will open many doors in many countries whether you are a tourist or a soon to be expat. Seriously, take the time to learn some of the language. It is a beautiful sign of respect.
When you come to Lisbon as a tourist, it is not truly necessary to learn Portuguese. It is a very popular city. Most people under 40 will speak English incredibly well. When you ask them “fala ingles?” most people will answer with a humble “a little”. That means they’re pretty much fluent. Alfacinhos are super friendly and really nice, so don’t be shy to ask.
This is pretty much the truth if you are in the most popular neighborhoods in Lisbon. If you’re in Principe Real or Bairro Alto, pretty much every waiter in a restaurant will speak English. Once you head out to Benfica or Odivelas, not so much.
When Will I Need to Learn Portuguese?
I would highly recommend learning Portuguese if you’re coming here for the long term. For example, if you’re an Erasmus student and will be here for 6 months. Or if you’re a digital nomad and you’re spending your 3 months in the Schengen area in Portugal. Or, if like me, you’re here on an extended residency visa. Why?
Most older people don’t speak English. That means that communicating with the upholsterer in your neighborhood will be close to impossible unless you learn.
Public Services: If you have to go to any governmental office you need to speak Portuguese. You’d think that the SEF (The Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras – basically the immigration office) would be staffed with English speakers…it is not. It’s the same thing when you go to the EDP or EMMEL…you’ll have a better chance depending on what office you visit, but I would not chance it. If you don’t learn Portuguese, you’ll either have to hire a lawyer (I can recommend a very good one if you need one) or use a translation service (my Portuguese teacher is awesome – so if you need someone – ask me).
To get Permanent Residency: If you are applying for permanent residency in Portugal, you will need to take a test that shows you have a basic understanding of Portuguese. This can be fulfilled with a certificate that shows you have A2 level proficiency. If this is what your goal is, start early. I am an avid language learner and speak 4 languages. Portuguese is a complicated language to learn.
Can I Speak Spanish in Portugal?
Sure, you can. But you will come off like a complete jerk. Portuguese people understand Spanish better than Spanish speakers understand Portuguese. That being said, there’s a weird relationship between both countries and it just comes off as rude and insensitive. You’re better off speaking English in this case.