People often say that moving is stressful.
People are not wrong.
No matter how we did this process, it was going to be a stressful endeavor, but Thor’s gold plated transport made everything that much more nerve wracking.
Once his flight was booked, we had a deadline we had to meet. If we didn’t get our visas in time, if our paperwork got lost, if his paperwork had an error, if any of us got sick or injured, we were out of luck. There was no way to reschedule his flight or switch to a different flight. A bunch of money would simply vanish and we’d be back to square one trying to figure out how to get him to Lisbon.
In order to avoid a disaster, we did our research, checked and double checked our understanding of the rules and requirements, reached out for expert advice when needed, and got everything done very, very early.
And none of that made a bit of difference.
It was still a remarkably trying process full of fits and starts, highs and lows.
The entire visa process is shrouded in uncertainty.
The Portuguese government says they will give you an answer within 45 days of receiving your application…but it could be 60 days…or possibly as much as 90.
And some people get stuck waiting weeks or even months beyond the outer 90 day limit.
Even worse, there is absolutely no discernible rhyme or reason to why some people speed through the process while others are left to languish.
Get on Facebook any day of the week and someone will happily announce that they were just approved with X, Y, and Z documents after waiting 30 days. Scroll down a few entries and someone will post a panicky entry saying they submitted the exact same X, Y, and Z documents 90 days prior and have heard nothing.
People sign 12 month leases or buy property in Portugal – which is a requirement for applying for the visa – sell their houses, pack up their belongings, and send their stuff across the ocean, not knowing if or when they’ll be approved. (The alternative of waiting until you have the visa in hand before doing all these things means you’ll be paying for housing in two countries even longer, and waiting 3-4 months after you arrive for your belongings to show up.)
The best you can do is make sure you meet or exceed all the listed requirements, quadruple check that all your paperwork is correct, and apply as early as possible – but no more than 90 days before your projected arrival date.
Knowing Thor’s flight was scheduled to arrive on September 13, we sent our applications in on June 14.
VFS – A Black Hole
One of the things newcomers to Portugal are often warned about is bureaucracy.
Portuguese bureaucracy is legendary.
But before we could even deal with actual Portuguese bureaucracy, we had to get through the bureaucratic cluster that is VFS Global.
VFS Global is a private company that many countries use to process visa applications. So, if you’re trying to get a student visa for France, a work permit for India, or a residency visa for New Zealand you will often submit your paperwork to an office of VFS Global who will do an initial assessment before forwarding your paperwork to your target country’s consulate for approval.
The only problem is VFS Global is a lousy company. They don’t pick up their phone, they don’t respond to email, the information on their website is oftentimes outdated or incorrect, and their personnel are known for being unhelpful. Just take a look at their online reviews and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
Another complication stems from the fact that there are multiple VFS offices – each associated with a different Portuguese consulate – and each location has different requirements and processes. Which VFS/consulate you apply to depends on what state you reside in.
For us, as Florida residents, we were required to apply through the D.C. office. That ended up being pretty convenient because D.C. allows applicants to mail in their applications. Had we been residents of Arizona or Nevada or Washington State, we would have applied through the San Francisco office. The San Francisco office requires you to snag a (hard to find) appointment on their (hard to use) website so you can (spend a bunch of money on a flight and hotel all so you can) enter the VFS office in person, and hand over those very same documents to a VFS staff member.
In any case, all of these differences in process and procedure, the tendency for things to change with no notice, and the near impossibility of getting anyone at VFS to pick up their phone and answer a question, is why people rely on the ‘Americans & Friends PT’ Facebook Group for guidance on how to handle this whole thing.
So, what was in this pile of documents we had to submit? The requirements are really pretty straightforward.
- A Shengen Application – a standard form containing biographical information. The form must be notarized.
- Color copies of your passport. Copies must be notarized.
- Your NIF – basically a Portuguese tax ID number
- Personal statement – a couple paragraphs explaining your interest in moving to Portugal.
- Financial information – bank/investment/pension information to prove you can support yourself.
- Proof of a funded Portuguese bank account
- Proof of housing – A 12 month lease or documents demonstrating property ownership in Portugal.
- Travel insurance – proof that someone will be paying your medical bills should you get sick during your initial (4 month) visa.
- Release for a criminal record check in Portugal
- FBI criminal record
- 2 passport sized photos
- Multiple money orders
While the list seems straightforward, it’s an exercise in hoop jumping and there is zero certainty on some items.
Because different VFS offices and Portuguese consulates require different things, and, sometimes, one office will suddenly adopt a requirement from another office, we were repeatedly faced with the question of whether to take an extra step to make sure we didn’t run into a snag.
For example, at the time we applied, the SF office was requiring that applicants get their FBI criminal record apostilled before submitting it.
If you’re not familiar, an apostille is a fancy stamp like a notary stamp that says a document is what it says it is. You basically take your document (in this case, our criminal record from the FBI), attach a money order, add a prepaid FedEx return envelope, and FedEx the whole package to the State Department who opens your envelope, looks at your criminal record and says: “Yup! That’s an FBI criminal record!!”, puts their fancy stamp on it, and sends it back to you.
It’s a huge waste of time and money.
Technically, the D.C. office wasn’t requiring the apostille, but these offices are notorious for not requiring something right up until the moment they require it.
And we couldn’t afford to have our applications be rejected. So, we just did it anyway. Better to jump through the hoops unnecessarily than have our applications held up.
Things You Never Want to Say: “WHERE Are Our Passports?”
A couple weeks before we submitted our packets, Kevin noticed that the D.C. VFS website now said applicants should mail in their actual passport with their applications (not just a color copy). According to the new information, VFS would verify our passports and then immediately – within five business days – FedEx the passports back to us while continuing to process the rest of our applications.
The Facebook folks still deemed this step unnecessary.
What to do? Follow the instructions from the company that actually works with the consulate and processes the applications, or follow the instructions of a bunch of strangers on Facebook?
The correct answer is to follow the advice of a bunch of strangers on Facebook.
Unfortunately, we did not do that.
A couple days after we sent in our applications – including our actual passports – we got an email from VFS saying we had to pay a fee to have our passports FedExed back to us. The email included a link to pay the fee.
We thought we’d already paid that fee with a money order (you submit several different money orders for varying denominations with your application), so Kevin responded to the email and asked if this was a different fee or if we misunderstood the fees.
Never ask a question.
Just give them whatever they want.
They want money? Give it to them.
They want snacks? Give it to them.
They want your kidney? Give it to them.
Because if you ask questions or push back on any part of the process, what you will likely get is what we got: Silence.
Day after day. Silence.
Kevin went back, clicked on the link, and paid the fee.
5 days passed and we didn’t get our Passports back.
Kevin emailed again: “Hey – just to let you know, we paid the fee. Let us know if you need anything else…”
Kevin: “Hey there! Just checking in to see if we can get an update. We haven’t received our passports back and are not sure where they are”
Kevin: “Has anyone ever told you that you are a charismatic, intelligent, capable, and damned good looking person who others should strive to emulate in their personal and professional lives?”
In the meantime, other people who had applied during the same week we applied, were reporting that their documents had cleared VFS and been forwarded to the Portuguese consulate.
For us? Silence.
I imagined our envelopes sitting on the corner of some VFS staffer’s cubicle desk under a half eaten bag of Cheetos.
Not only was time being wasted, but we now didn’t know where our passports were.
Ya know what’s not good? That.
Eventually, I deployed the nuclear option (which is very strongly discouraged by the administrators of the Facebook group), and reached out directly to the Portuguese consulate to ask if they knew where our passports were.
I didn’t get a direct response, but the very next day, VFS sent us an email saying our paperwork was being forwarded to the consulate and our passports were being returned to us.
Sometimes it pays to speak with the manager.
The Big Moment That Wasn’t
For most people, getting the email from the consulate with their application results is momentous. Either they’re told their applications have been approved (“Break out the champagne and let’s post this shit on Facebook!!”), or they’re told their application has been rejected – which starts a 10 day clock during which they can appeal the results.
Either way, it’s a big moment.
Once we’d been assured our applications were moving along, we took a deep breath and relaxed for several weeks. But then we started seeing posts from the people who’d applied when we applied talking about their results.
Once again, we were getting nothing.
Recognizing that VFS had sat on our paperwork for several weeks, we maintained our calm and assumed we’d hear something soon.
So much silence.
In the meantime, one day I had to look at my passport for something else and I found, stuck inside the pages, one of the two passport photos that I had submitted with my visa application. VFS somehow managed to send one of my photos back to me instead of including it with the rest of my application when they forwarded it to the consulate.
Was that bad? I dunno. The application required 2 photos and mine now only had one.
Great… Thanks, VFS.
After waiting and worrying and waiting some more, I reached out – again – to the consulate and asked a) if they needed the missing photo, and b) if they had any idea what was happening with our applications.
“Oh, you were already approved.”
Apparently, they had sent us an email which we never received. Or they never sent it, but who knows?
More to the point, who cares?
We’d been approved.
Next Up… The race to the finish line.