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Frustration, frustration, frustration
Our first real experience with Portuguese bureaucracy.
One of the first questions a Portuguese citizen will ask a newbie resident like me and Paul, is how long we have lived in Portugal and if we like it. The next thing they will mention is “the bureaucracy.” They say it with utter distaste as if it’s doggie poo on a shoe. When I mention that the United States has bureaucracy as well, they don’t believe it – it can’t be ANYTHING like Portuguese bureaucracy, they say. I’ve been thinking it’s just drama talking since bureaucracy in Portugal really hadn’t affected us. And yes, I know. We’ve been lucky so far, but now I believe we have run out of our lucky streak because we’ve had our first encounter with the bureaucracy in Portugal and it’s something we’ve never experienced before. I think the Portuguese people may be on to something when they say there’s nothing like it.
The driver’s license exchange.
If you already live in Portugal, most likely you know about the driver’s license exchange. If you’re not living in Portugal, but have plans to do so in the future, you may benefit from this somewhat long post. If you’re just a visitor to this country or you’re an armchair world traveler, you’ll be grateful this doesn’t affect you.
According to the U.S. Embassy & Consulate in Portugal, U.S. citizens are entitled to drive in Portugal with their U.S. issued driver’s license for a period not exceeding 185 days, provided they are not legal residents of Portugal.
After acquiring legal residency, U.S. citizens have 90 days in which to request the exchange of the driver’s license without being required to take a Portuguese driving test. During that period, U.S. citizens may continue to drive in Portugal with their U.S. driver’s license.1
After the 90 days, if the request has not been made, U.S. citizens will not be allowed to continue driving in Portugal, but they will still be allowed to request the driver’s license exchange without being subject to completion of a driving test. The deadline is two years counting from the date of residency to make the request.
A series of documents must be submitted to the IMT (Portuguese department of motor vehicles) and you must pass a physical exam in order to begin the process of obtaining a Portuguese driver’s license.
I’m not going into all the details of how to do this in this post, but if you’re curious, the Americans & Friends in Portugal Facebook Group has a comprehensive step-by-step members-only file on how to request and obtain a Portuguese driver’s license.
It is not a difficult process, but if you continue reading, you’ll see from our personal experience, it can be a frustrating one.
How it all started.
We became members of the Auto Club Portugal (ACP) primarily because we wanted support if we ever had questions or concerns about exchanging our U.S. driver’s licenses. Plus, we had considered purchasing a car, and thought the ACP would help with vehicle insurance and emergency roadside assistance. We even made appointments to have our license exchange physical exams right at our local ACP office, which was convenient, especially because we hadn’t yet established a primary doctor in Portugal.
The exams were quick – less than 5 minutes each – with a few basic medical questions asked, a simple eye exam, repeating a few sentences (in English), following a pencil with our eyes, etc. Once those were completed, the customer representative at the ACP office said that they would send the reports to the IMT on our behalf and would also send us emails with a copy of the exam as well as instructions on how to complete the application online (you can only do the driver’s license exchange application online – they don’t like walk-ins). So far, easy peasy.
About a week later, both Paul and I received the ACP email with copies of our exams and the instructions on how to fill out the application and submit the required documents. We did this with minimal effort and sent them electronically to IMT. Now, all we had to do was wait to hear from IMT with further instructions.
A few weeks after submitting the application and documents, Paul and I received emails notifying us that an appointment had been scheduled for each of us. Paul’s appointment was for August 1st at 4:45 pm and mine was for August 2nd at 4:45 pm. Both were set for the location of the Saldanha Citizen Shop (these are local facilities operated by the government for citizens and residents to conduct a variety of business including driver’s licenses). The problem was, we live no where near Saldanha. But no worries! We have friends who live in this part of Lisbon, so we decided to explore Saldanha with them, have some fun, and stay for a couple of nights at a hotel.
Our hotel was directly across the street from the Saldanha Citizen Shop, so we arrived a little early just to try to figure out where to go and what to do.
Even in the late afternoon, the place was buzzing with citizens. We figured out how to take a number at the machine, and then we sat in a large waiting room and watched a computer monitor for the number and Paul’s name to be called. At exactly 4:45 pm, the number appeared on the screen, and off we went to the customer service person assigned to Paul.
She was clearly overworked.
The clerk looked like she had been at her desk for months without a break. She was tired and barely looked up at us and I noticed that she had a tray with a massive pile of applications with driver’s licenses attached (not a good sign). But…she spoke English, so we were grateful! Once she realized that Paul’s driver’s license was from Arizona, she smiled and started to talk about Arizona and a friend who lives there and wants her to visit sometime. From that point on, the process was easy. She took his documents, his U.S. license, and took a photo of him. Paul paid her the 30 euros, and he received a paper temporary license good for the next 6 months. She said that Paul would receive his actual plastic license in the mail. Then, when she realized that I had an appointment the following day, she took my information as well. We were done with this part – time for wine!
Where the frustration began.
We had heard from other expats that getting that plastic license in the mail could take less than 3 weeks and up to 3 years! And if you had moved, you might have to start the process all over again because the license would not get forwarded to your new address.
We weren’t planning on moving so we assumed with any luck we’d get our licenses within a month or so (wishful thinking). We initially went to our mailbox several times a week. Nada. In the meantime, we purchased a car using our temporary paper licenses, and tried to remember to take these bulky multi-folded paper documents with us whenever we drove the car.
Weeks turned into months and still, no plastic licenses. With an upcoming trip back to the U.S. in December and our need to rent a car while we were there, I started to wonder if in fact, we could even use those temporary paper licenses to rent a car if we didn’t receive the plastic ones in time for our trip. Someone in one of the expat Facebook groups suggested that I contact the car rental company to ask if a temporary foreign license would be acceptable. I contacted the rental company via their online contact us page with my question. After about a week, I was informed by email that a temporary foreign license was acceptable. I kept that email and printed it out to take with us on the trip. With one last check of our mailbox on our way out to Lisbon airport, we were resigned to the fact that we would have to use the temporary paper ones to rent a car. At this point in time, it had been over 3 months since we had been at the IMT in Saldanha.
The car rental process went smoothly – until it didn’t.
We arrived at the Miami, Florida airport car rental building and headed to the counter. The clerk was very friendly and knowledgeable. We showed her our temporary Portuguese licenses and explained to her that we had not yet received our actual plastic ones. She then asked us for our passports. She processed our payment, had us sign some papers, and then said we were good to go. She directed us to the garage where the rental cars are kept. Whew! That was easy and we were relieved.
This rental company lets you select a vehicle from a line of cars available in your vehicle category. In this instance, we paid for a full-sized car rental. Paul (being the car guy he is), saw a brand-new Dodge Charger with about 8 miles on it in our line, and chose it. So far so good.
We got settled in the car and headed to the booth and security gate where again they checked our paperwork including our paper licenses. This is where it got sticky. The attendant at the booth politely asked us for the plastic licenses. Paul politely explained that we didn’t have them yet and that we were told that these paper licenses would suffice. We even showed the attendant the copy of the email we received. Nope. He was not going to open that gate to let us through.
He called over to a few other attendants. And now, there’s a line of cars waiting behind us to get through the gate and a group of attendants converging at the booth. Paul’s frustration was beginning to show. He’s normally a mild-mannered man, but once he’s reached his frustration limit, watch out.
We both pointed out that we had already been cleared at the rental service desk, so we couldn’t understand why there was a problem. And the email only seemed to confuse them more. So finally, Paul said that he wanted to speak with a manager. But to do this, Paul had to back the car out of the line (and so did several other cars that were waiting behind us).
After a few minutes, a manager was called, and Paul explained why we still had paper temporary driving licenses through no fault of our own. He offered to show the manager the email. And he pointed out that the clerk at the rental desk had looked at the licenses and our passports with no issues or questions. The manager again asked to see our passports. He glanced at them and said, “No problem. Your valid passport can be used as a second form of identification. You’re good to go.” It took over 30 minutes to get this resolved.
Our U.S. trip was about as we expected, and we returned to Portugal, hoping that our licenses would be waiting for us in the mail. There was nothing in there but junk mail…
The 6-month expiration date fast approaches.
It is now nearly February, and our 6-month temporary licenses are about to expire. So, one afternoon, we went to our local ACP office to ask for their assistance. We took a number at the machine and waited our turn. We asked the customer representative what we should do with our nearly expired temporary licenses. He made a call (to whom I do not know – the conversation was entirely in Portuguese) and then told us that we had two options. The first was to go to IMT ourselves and try to renew our temporary licenses, or for 10 euros each, someone from the ACP would take our paper licenses and get them renewed. Obviously, we said that we preferred the ACP to do this for us. We were told it would take about a week, but it could take longer. I asked what we were supposed to do for a license in the meantime, and the representative said, “Well, you shouldn’t drive your car.” I politely told him that our car was parked right outside the ACP door (where you pay for parking), and we couldn’t leave it there for a week or longer. Then he said that they would make photocopies of our temporary licenses for us to hold onto, stamp them with the official ACP stamp, and hopefully, he said with a shrug, we wouldn’t get fined if we were stopped by the police. Comforting thought…
I was mad.
Not at ACP, but in the bureaucratic process in general. Here we were, trying to adhere to the law, patiently waiting for our licenses to miraculously come in the mail, and now that our temporary licenses were about to expire, we must pay 10 euros each (or risk more frustration by going to the IMT ourselves) to get them legally renewed. What a joke! How long does it take to make plastic licenses???
Exactly a week later, ACP informed us that our temporary licenses had been renewed and we could go to the office to pick them up.
We arrived at the ACP office, took a number again, and waited our turn. The clerk handed our paper licenses back to us. Paul asked how long they were good for this time. She said they were good for another 6 months after which time if we still hadn’t received the plastic licenses, we could come back to get them renewed again (she said with a smirk and a laugh).
More time went by.
By April, I was starting to become obsessed with getting our plastic Portuguese licenses. I couldn’t comprehend why this process would take so long! In the state of Arizona, getting your plastic license in the mail takes about a week. Now, I understand that with Covid, things could be backlogged and delayed – but we were over the Covid hump, and I simply could not wrap my head around this bureaucracy thing.
Knowing that another U.S. trip was on the horizon and desperately not wanting to go through the car rental issue again, I decided to try to get to the bottom of this. So, I found an IMT email address on their website (I wasn’t sure who this would go to, but it was worth a try), and politely wrote an email – both in English and in Portuguese with the help of DeepL Translate - using Paul’s information (since he drives our car the most) to inquire as to when he could expect his actual plastic driver’s license to come in the mail. I mentioned that his temporary license had already expired once, and he had renewed it. I provided the license number and our address.
About a week later, I received an email response from IMT informing me that Paul’s email would be forwarded to the correct department. I was surprised that I got an answer at all. So, we waited…again…
And about three weeks later, both Paul and I received separate emails informing us that our licenses had been processed and would be mailed to us.
Could it be the coveted plastic licenses?
A couple of more weeks went by, and I started to wonder if our plastic licenses were somehow lost in the mail. Then one day, our doorbell rang, and our friendly mail carrier was standing at the door with an official IMT envelope addressed to me. Could it be the coveted license? Paul took the envelope and looked at me and said, “It’s the license! I can feel it through the envelope!” Then Paul asked the mail carrier if he could check the rest of the mail in his hand to see if there was one for him. And yes…there was! We’ve never been so happy and grateful to receive a couple of pieces of plastic!
Did my email to IMT help?
Who knows? But it seemed coincidental that soon after that we received emails saying the licenses were on their way.
The licenses were mailed by IMT on May 1st, and we received them a few days later. So, bottom line, from August 1st to May 1st means that it took exactly nine months to get our official plastic Portuguese driver’s licenses.
It’s much easier to request a certified and notarized driving record from your state motor vehicle department (and in most cases, an Apostille) prior to moving to Portugal. You will need this document for a driver’s license exchange.
Be sure that your state/country driver’s license is current and not set to expire before you apply for a Portuguese driver’s license. Only a current driver’s license is acceptable for an exchange.
You cannot initiate the driver’s license exchange until you become an official resident of Portugal. This means that you must have already had your in-person appointment with SEF and have received your plastic Portuguese resident card.
If you’re not already a member of Americans & Friends in Portugal Facebook group, consider joining (this is a free membership, but you must request to become a member and agree to adhere to their membership rules). They have a comprehensive file on the step-by-step process of obtaining a Portuguese driver’s license. The file is updated regularly to reflect any changes.
Also consider joining the Auto Club Portugal (ACP). They can be very helpful with driver’s license physical exams, renewals, discounts, and insurance (not only for vehicles). Please note that the physical exams for the license exchange cost us 25 euros each.
Portuguese bureaucracy: there’s nothing like it. I can now speak from experience!
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Until next time…
If you’re a foreign resident under the age of 60, this article states that you may continue to use your home country’s driver’s license. However, as of this writing, I have not seen a reference to this on any official document which is the reason why I did not include this in the body of my article. - CW