Driving in Portugal for Foreign Residents
Licenses, age limits and other concerns
After reading my post about our car buying experience in Portugal, Teresa, an Our Portugal Journey subscriber, asked me questions regarding age limits and requirements for foreign residents driving in Portugal. Her questions and concerns were valid, so I thought I’d do some research and write a post on this topic. The focus is on U.S. foreign residents moving to or living in Portugal, but I have included resource links throughout this post if you want further information or are coming from another country.
Keep in mind that I’m not an expert on this, but Paul and I have experienced the driver’s license exchange process, so this post is a combination of personal experience and research. There are often conflicting stories online about changes to the license exchange process as well as confusion, as rules and regulations can change at any time. This post is a high-level overview and written to the best of my ability using only official resources and personal experience as references. It is not legal advice. Always check the resource links I have used in this post - and do your own due diligence - for any updated information.
Although I do not rely on Facebook or other social media sites for factual information for my articles, I do respect much of the documentation work done by the admins of Americans and Friends in Portugal Facebook group. If you’re a member of this group (you must first be approved to join), there is a document in their files on Driver’s License Exchanges that may also be helpful to you. Please do not contact me to ask me to provide this document to you as it is for members of the group only.
The legal driving age in Portugal (for citizens and foreign residents alike) is 18 years old. If you’re 16 years old, you can obtain a limited use license for vehicles such as mopeds and motorbikes. Generally, anyone who has lived in Portugal for at least 185 days and has no physical or mental impairment can obtain a driver’s license. There is no limit to the age in which you are no longer allowed to drive in Portugal as long as your health and mental cognition are in good order. This resource from ePortugal.gov breaks down the different license categories and age requirements.
Tourists, foreign residents, and driver’s licenses.
Portugal has a bi-lateral and/or reciprocity agreement with many countries including the U.S. regarding the exchange of driver’s licenses.
You can drive in Portugal as a tourist with your driving license issued by any country (including the U.S.) that is covered by the bi-lateral/reciprocity agreement for a period of 185 days following your entry into Portugal provided that your intent is to be only a tourist and not a resident.
If your intent is to establish residency in Portugal, you may continue to drive using your country of origin’s license for up to 90 days from the date of issue of your residence permit but only if you start the driver’s license exchange process during this 90-day period.
You cannot drive in Portugal using your country of origin’s license if before the 90-day rule as described above, you have not started the driver’s license exchange process. However, you have up to two years from the start date of your residence permit to apply for the driver’s license exchange without having to submit to a practical driving test in Portugal.
In our case, we did not apply for the Driver’s License Exchange program within the 90-day period, so we could not drive a car (including rental cars) after 90 days in Portugal until we applied for the exchange and received our licenses.
If you have not applied for the driver’s license exchange before the two-year mark, you may still apply but will also be required to take a practical driving test.
Author updated notation November 17, 2022: Although not yet cited in any official document that I can find, it appears that Portugal has modified their driver’s license exchange requirements for individuals under the age of 60. Here is an excerpt from The Portugal Resident: “According to an amendment to the current law, published today in State gazette Diário da República, driving licence exchanges are now dispensed with, “making it possible to drive in the country with driving licences issued in those states, through the recognition of foreign driving licences”.
This recognition applies to driving licences in which the issuing state is a signatory to a bilateral agreement with Portugal, provided that no more than 15 years have elapsed since the issue or last renewal and provided that the holder is under 60 years of age”.
My opinion only: this is still too unclear (normal for Portugal) as it does not address if/when you will need to go through the license exchange after your existing license has expired for those under the age of 60. In our case, both Paul and I are over 6o so this ruling would never have applied to us. As always, be sure to do your own due diligence when it comes to any rules and regulations for Portugal.
Applying for the Driver’s License Exchange.
To be clear: If your intent is to become a foreign resident in Portugal, you cannot start the driver’s license exchange process until you have your actual residency card (this is the card you receive in the mail after your appointment with SEF).
You will be required to submit your application and supporting documents online via the IMT website (Institute for Mobility and Transport). Walk-ins are not accepted to the best of my knowledge. This means that you will have to scan your documents as PDFs and upload them onto the IMT web portal.
Documents needed to apply for a Driver’s License Exchange - be sure that you have all the documents required before applying.
Medical exam – don’t worry – it’s not a big deal. No bloodwork or stress tests required. It’s basically an exam to make sure you’re mentally competent, with no physical or visual impairments that would prevent you from safely operating a motorized vehicle.
If you have already established a relationship with a physician in Portugal, you can also ask them to conduct the medical exam. Just be sure that your physician is registered with the IMT - otherwise your exam results will not be accepted.
In our case, Paul and I joined the ACP (Auto Club of Portugal) and scheduled our medical exams to be conducted at a local ACP office (I think an English-speaking doctor comes in once a month to do them). It cost us 25 euros each for the exams and it included the necessary exam paperwork that was required. Our exams took less than 5 minutes each.
To be clear: In order to have a medical exam for the Driver’s License Exchange, you must already be a foreign resident in Portugal and you must already have your national health service number (número de utente) issued by SNS.
Once our exams were completed, we received PDF versions of our medical certificates via email from ACP within a few days with a link to the IMT website to complete the application and attach the medical certificate to it. Although I believe the ACP submits the medical exam directly to IMT, we were also required to attach a copy to our applications.
U.S. Driving Record – This is probably the most difficult and confusing part of the exchange process for most people (including Paul and I). According to the U.S. Embassy & Consulate in Portugal, U.S. citizens must present an abstract of their driving record (certified driving record) from the issuing authority in the last state of residence in the United States, as part of the Driver’s License application to the Portuguese IMT.
To do this, request a certified copy of your driving record from the state department of motor vehicles in which you have a current driver’s license. The document in most cases must be Apostilled from the respective office of Secretary of State. The U.S. Embassy & Consulate in Portugal has a resource for contacting your state DMV as well as a link to the U.S. States designated authorities for authentications.
Then, request a Certificate of Authentication of Driving License (Certificado de Autenticação da Carta de Condução) from the Portuguese consulate (not the U.S. consulate) that has jurisdiction over the state in which your driver’s license was issued. Please remember that VFS Global is not a consulate so do not request this document from them.
For all Portuguese consulates - with the exception of the Portuguese consulate in San Francisco - you will in most circumstances be asked to submit a certified or a notarized copy of your current U.S. driver’s license (front and back) and an Apostilled copy of your driving record, along with a fee (changes frequently so be sure to check current fees) along with your request for the Certificado de Autenticação da Carta de Conduçã. In most cases, you must include a postage-paid return envelope to have your documents and the certificate returned to you.
The Portuguese consulate in San Francisco which has jurisdiction over several states (including Arizona where we resided and where our driver’s licenses were issued), does not require that your driving record be Apostilled. The consulate will stamp the driving record, and this satisfies the Apostille requirement. To my knowledge, San Francisco is the only Portuguese consulate that does this. All the other consulates require the driving record to be Apostilled.
The Portuguese consulates in the various jurisdictions throughout the U.S. may have different and specific requirements for submitting your request – unfortunately, nothing appears to be standardized. Frustrating, yes, but not insurmountable. If you’re confused, contact the consulate in your jurisdiction by email to request the specific requirements and the current fee as well as the method of payment accepted.
To be clear – the Certificate of Authentication of Driving License (Certificado de Autenticação da Carta de Conduçã) is a document you keep with you once it has been Apostilled/stamped and returned to you. You scan and upload the document (if applicable) to your application with IMT. When you attend your in-person meeting with IMT, please bring this document as you may be asked for it.
Residence Card – Scan both sides of the card.
Your home state driver’s license – Scan both sides of the card. Please note that your driver’s license must still be current and not expired.
Certified translation of your driver’s license – only if it’s not in Portuguese, English, Spanish, or French. If you’re coming from the U.S. and have a U.S. license, you won’t need to do this step.
Psychological assessment certificate – only if you’re applying for a license to operate vehicles in certain categories like heavy-duty vehicles (and not passenger cars).
Also have on hand:
NIF (fiscal number).
National health service number (número de utente). This is different than the NIF and is issued by SNS once you have applied for the number.
Foreign resident card number and expiration date.
Country of citizenship driver’s license number and issuing date (the date your current license was issued – it’s on the front of your state driver’s license).
Prior to leaving the U.S. – get your state driving record, have it Apostilled if applicable, and request the Certificate of Authentication of Driving License.
The IMT application will ask which vehicle categories you wish to apply for. The application has a chart that you can refer to. Don’t check off a box if you’re unsure. In both of our cases, we chose “B” and “B1” for private passenger vehicles.
Most of the online application is in both Portuguese and English. I printed out a copy of the application and reviewed it in its entirety to be sure I understood everything before actually applying online.
Be sure that each document is individually labeled with different names (example: Paul’s AZ License, Carol’s AZ License, Paul’s medical exam, Carol’s medical exam). Do not use the same document name twice. You will be uploading the documents individually and not as one big file.
If more than one family member is applying, use separate email addresses (and phone numbers if possible) to avoid the possibility of IMT assuming that there’s a duplicate application in the system.
Do not use a foreign phone number – Portuguese numbers only.
When you have finished your application, click Submit. You should receive an almost immediate acknowledgment email from IMT that looks something like this:
You may also receive another email (or in my case, 2 emails) advising you of the status of the application.
Going to the appointment.
About ten days after we submitted our applications online, we both received emails confirming our in-person appointments. These appointments were automatically scheduled for us by IMT.
The appointment is to complete the process, pay the fee, submit any physical documents they may ask for (even if you uploaded everything online) and have a photo taken. Please note that your waiting time may vary from a few days to much longer – it depends on the workload, I assume. You can change or cancel the appointment online if you choose (we didn’t). Our appointments were scheduled for different days at the Citizens Store (where all manner of citizen business is handled) in Saldanha (Lisbon), about 50 minutes away from where we live by car.
Here's what the in-person scheduling email looked like:
I am unclear if IMT schedules in-person appointments for everyone; or if there are circumstances where they request information to be sent to them by mail. I think that during Covid much of this process was conducted by mail, but my assumption is that IMT is attempting to streamline the process, so there may be some variations until the streamlining process is complete.
What to expect at the appointment
When we arrived at the Citizen’s Store in Saldanha, we went up to a kiosk to get a number (we were a little confused, but an attendant helped us). There are monitors that indicate when your number is up and which customer agent desk to go to.
Tip: Keep your appointment email - either on your phone or print it out in case you need help at the kiosk since there are many options on it to choose from. Not everyone at IMT speaks English. We found this helpful to have.
Paul’s appointment was first (my appointment was scheduled for the next day – same time, same place). The agent spoke English and we were grateful for that. She asked for copies of most of the documents we had already uploaded online. She also took Paul’s Arizona driver’s license and attached it all with staples and paper clips. She then asked Paul to pay the fee (we could do this via MBWay) using our Portuguese bank account. Then she asked Paul to sit in front of a little screen, and she took his picture.
She printed a receipt for payment as well as a temporary (but official) paper license imprinted with Paul’s picture and all the details of the license (like the license category, date of birth, Portuguese address, date of license issue, Paul’s signature, etc.) There was a 6-month expiration date on the paper license. The paper copy was officially stamped and signed by the agent.
I politely mentioned to the agent that I hoped I would get her the next day when my appointment was scheduled. (I was secretly hoping that she would take me after Paul, but I didn’t want to be rude and ask outright as all the IMT agents looked rather stressed and overworked). But she kindly said that she didn’t see the need for me to come back, and she would take my application right after Paul’s. (Sometimes it pays to be polite).
To be clear: Bring hard copies of all the documents you submitted online including the Certificado de Autenticação da Carta de Conduçã. Call me paranoid, but I’d rather be over-prepared than under-prepared. We were asked for hard copies of documents for our in-person appointments, and we were glad that we had brought everything with us.
How long does it take to get your Portuguese license?
The actual license cards are mailed back to you at the Portuguese address you provided on the application, via the Portuguese postal system, CTT.
Some people receive their license card within a week of submitting the application. Others (like me and Paul) have been waiting for over 3 months. I have heard in some instances it can take over 8 months.
Since our paper licenses expire in 6 months, we’re hopeful that we’ll receive them before they expire. If not, we’ll go to the ACP (Auto Club of Portugal) to ask for assistance.
When do Portuguese licenses expire?
It depends on your age and your ability to operate a motorized vehicle safely.
A first-time applicant must renew their license every 15 years until they reach the age of 60.
The renewal frequency increases beginning on the day before you turn 60. After 70 years of age, you are required to renew your license every two years. In all cases, you will be required to have a medical assessment each time. The ACP handles license renewals at their offices throughout Portugal as well as medical assessments.
This resource from IMT Portugal goes into detail about license renewals and ages.
It is up to you to know when your license renews as you may or may not receive an email or mailed notice (this happens not just in Portugal – we experienced the same thing in Arizona).
Can you rent a car if you return to the U.S. with a Portuguese driver’s license?
I hope so. Since Paul and I may be traveling to the U.S. soon and without our Portuguese driver’s license card – still having only the valid official license paper permit – I researched this question. I contacted by email the car rental company we’ll be using in the U.S. and asked specifically if there would be a problem with a paper license permit from Portugal. I was told the license was valid. I’m keeping a copy of the email with me in case there are questions when we arrive at the rental counter.
Should you renew your U.S. driver’s license?
If you’re a foreign resident in Portugal and you do not have a residence in any state in the U.S., you should not renew your U.S. driver’s license.
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Until next time…