What it’s really like… to move to a new country with a child in tow?
Many families will move to a new house at some stage and some do it more often than others. And they say moving to a new house and getting married are the two most stressful times in a person’s life. Well, what if your move involved not only a house move, but a move from one country to another. In 2017 Cath – from one of my favourite family travel blogs Passports and Adventures – decided to move to a new country with a child in tow and it was both an exciting time in their lives and also extremely stressful. Here she shares their story as well as some helpful tips and advice based on their experience for anyone looking to do the same.
We had been living in Wales for over 10 years and our son was born in Abergavenny. We had a lovely big house on the edge of the Brecon Beacons and a comfortable life. So why sell up and not only move, but move to a new country you might ask? Well, we realised that for more than two thirds of his life our son had been stuck indoors because of the weather. While Wales is a very lovely country it is also extremely wet and often cold. A bit like Ireland which is where I am from. Too often we heard ourselves saying “no you can’t because it’s raining” when our son asked to go outside to play or ride his bike.
In September 2016, my parents bought a holiday home in Portugal with the intention of retiring there. We planned to visit as often as we could, and we started making plans to buy our own holiday home to use. However, during a Christmas break to Tenerife, we decided to make the move a permanent one when watching our son enjoy carefree time in the sun.
Despite having never visited Portugal my husband was well up for the move. He’d been saying for years he wanted to live somewhere warm. And it would be a chance to let our son have both an outdoor life and to spend more time with his grandparents who he only saw a few times a year. And so began the process of packing up our lives in the UK and making plans to start our new one in the sun.
Selling our home and leaving our jobs
The first thing we needed to do was sell our rental house and also our own home. Selling our rental house was an easy thing to do. We didn’t have a tenant in it at the time, so it went on the market and it didn’t take long for an offer to come in that we accepted. However, selling our own house was going to be a very different story. Alongside getting it ready to put on the market, we were also trying to sort through our belongings and everything that went into a six-bedroom house. The bigger the house, the more stuff you accumulate. We also couldn’t convert it to a buy-to-let as we needed the equity to start our new life in Portugal.
Then came the task of giving my notice into work. That went without a hitch and my finish date was agreed on. However, my boss took a very long time to get his act together where my replacement was concerned and my handover lasted seven days out of two weeks, right before I left. They didn’t plan things very well, despite having three months’ notice. My colleagues were also very shocked to hear I was going, if a little jealous as well.
My husband was lucky in that he changed clients shortly after we made the decision and started working fully remote with very little travel for work. So, work-wise things didn’t really change for him. I was also effectively retiring as I didn’t speak Portuguese so getting a job was out of the question for me. We’re lucky that my husband is very well paid and the cost of living in Portugal is lower than that in the UK.
What to do with all our belongings?
Once work was informed of my leaving and the houses put on the market, then next task was to pare down our belongings. Every room needed to be sorted and we had to decide on what to keep, store, sell, give to charity and what to dump. And all this while I was still working 9-3pm and doing all the other normal day-to-day things. I spent most of my evenings going through one room at a time, making piles, photographing things to sell on eBay or local Facebook groups and boxing things up.
Thankfully, my son’s nursery was more than happy to take any of his toys and books that we weren’t going to be bringing with us. However, I did have to make sure he didn’t see me taking his toys out of the house. Nursery also agreed to leave them a few weeks before introducing them into the different rooms. To be honest, he hardly noticed. I also found a local lady that was working with a local refuge centre for women, children and men and she was happy to take anything I wasn’t selling. In fact, I ended giving most of our clothes, baby things and other items to her for the centre and those residing in it as it felt better to be giving our unwanted items to those who really needed it.
The clothes that were not really suitable for selling or giving to the refuge were bagged up and brought to our local Cash-4-Clothes centre, the money going into our son’s saving account. It was a long and thankless task and alongside the sorting, I was also packing away things I knew we wanted to take with us but were happy to keep in storage.
Finding a place to live in Portugal
Soon after notifying work and placing our houses on the market we started looking out our accommodation options in Portugal. We soon found out that renting a property in the Algarve wasn’t going to be as easy as we thought. While there is an abundance of properties available during the months of October to April, the long-term lets suddenly become short-term lets as people try to capitalise on the summer months. Unbelievably, we read horror stories of people being turfed out of homes and apartments, so the landlord could use the property for short-term holiday lets. We also needed somewhere that was pet-friendly as we were bringing our dog with us.
We decided then to buy a static holiday home on a residential park in the Algarve while we decided if Portugal was right for us and before we bought a house. We figured people in the UK live in caravans while they build their houses, so this wouldn’t be any different, except we’d be in a warmer country. Luckily, we found a park just 10 minutes from my parents with a plot that was well suited to our needs and we started coordinating with the park to get our home sited.
With jobs notified, houses on the market, accommodation sorted and the reducing our belongings underway, the next item on the moving agenda was to find storage for the things we were bringing but that wouldn’t be going into the home. This wasn’t as easy as we first imagined. Doing a Google search at the time for storage in the Algarve, we found one which sounded great. Except it was over an hour and half from where we lived, not ideal if we realised we needed to get anything out of storage or put things in. With the help of expat Facebook groups, we found one just 30 minutes from where we now live run by a British man. He had availability and price-matched the other storage for us.
What about our cars?
Another consideration was whether to bring our cars and my husband’s motorbike. And the decision was soon made when we discovered that cars, both new and second-hand, were extremely expensive in Portugal. But we had to start a process of matriculation as soon as we arrived and that required an agent who could speak Portuguese. And finding an agent to do this for us was tricky.
We also had to think long and hard about whether we wanted to bring both cars with us. The matriculation process allows each adult to bring in one car import duty-free. So, we decided to sell my husbands beloved Audi S5 and bring my Land Rover and put it through matriculation. Then came the decision of whether we shipped my car and the bike or whether we drove them there ourselves.
We also needed to factor in how our dog was going to get from the UK to Portugal. In the end, we decided to drive the car, ship the bike and bring the dog with us. And this would involve either driving through the tunnel and then both France or Spain. Or taking the ferry to northern Spain and driving down. We chose to do the ferry.
We also needed to find a removals company that would pick up our things in Wales and ship it directly to Portugal with two stops; one to our storage unit and one to our mobile home. We got several quotes before deciding which one to go with. Then came the task of choosing a moving date, booking the ferry, coordinating with the movers and getting the dog checked at the vets for his “fit to travel” certification. We also got advice from the vets about diseases we needed to be aware of that were prevalent in Portugal but not in the UK.
We were lucky that we didn’t need to investigate anything like visas or schools, as I discovered that children don’t start school in Portugal until the age of 6. So, we had a few years before that would become a consideration.
Once we decided on our date, we were kindly offered lodgings by my parents until our home was ready to move into. In the end we stayed with them for four weeks.
Preparing our son for his new life
Throughout all this planning we did our best to keep things as normal at home for our son, who was three at the time, while also trying to prepare him for the move. We asked him if he’d like to live near his Nanna and Lolo (my parents) so he could see them more often. We asked if he’d like to live near a beach and be in the sunshine. We tried to make it sound as exciting as we could to him so that when the day came, he’d know what was happening.
Before the movers came, we talked to him about the men coming to box our things up and bring them to our new house. When it came to him leaving nursery, we explained he would go to a new school (that’s what we ended up referring to nursery as), where he would get some new friends. Of course, we answered his questions as honestly as we could, and he seemed to take things in his stride. It was no big surprise when the movers arrived as we’d prepared him for it. Our road trip to reach the Algarve was turned into an adventure after which time we’d be seeing Nanna and Lolo. We did everything we could to prepare him for the move and to make it go as smoothly as we could for him.
It was a huge decision to make and one I have a feeling we’ll be repeating in the future. While Portugal is a lovely country with some of the friendliest people we’ve encountered, I don’t feel like it’s our forever home. But that’s a story for another day. If some one was to ask me what advice I would give anyone contemplating a move like this or getting ready for one, here’s what I’d remind them to remember.
Things you need to consider when moving to a new country with children
Where are you going to live? Will you rent a property first or can you afford to buy something straight away? If renting, can you secure a long-term rental with no risk to the landlord terminating your contract early so they can avail of holiday lets. If buying a property, what amount of a deposit do you need to secure a mortgage. In Portugal, foreign residents require a deposit of 30% plus fees before a bank will consider them.
2 Your current home
Are you going to sell your home, or can you convert it to a buy-to-let and rent it out to ensure your move is right for your family before you sell it? If selling it, do you need to have it sold before you can move? Will you use an estate agent or sell it yourself? If renting your house out, will you use an estate agent to manage any problems that might occur with your tenants?
If you are working, how much notice do you need to give with your employer? Are you going to be able to secure work easily in your new country? Is your job one that can be done remotely like my husbands? If you will be securing work in your new country, what documentation do you need from previous employers? Do you need a working visa? If there is some time between your move and starting work, can you support yourself financially for that period?
Do you plan to bring your own car with you? Will you need to pay import duty on it? Will you drive it there yourself or do you need to find transport for it? If importing the car, what documentation do you need for the process? It’s better to get it before you leave rather than have to chase it afterwards like we did. Do you need an International Driving Licence, or can you use your current one?
If you are moving to a new country and taking up temporary accommodation like us, do you need storage for any of your belongings? If so, you need to check this out before you go. If you know your move is temporary would it be better to store your things in your home country rather than bring them with you. You’ll also need to factor in the cost of storage into your budget for every year you need it.
6 Physically moving you and your belongings
If you are bringing belongings with you, you’ll need to secure a removals company. How much is this going to cost? Do you want them to pack up for you or will you be doing this yourself? Be aware that their insurance might not cover items they haven’t packed themselves. Can your removals company pick up at your old home and drop off in your new home in your new country? Can they do two drop-offs if you need some things immediately, but the rest is going into storage, like us?
With regards to yourself and your family, how are you going to get to your new country? By plane, by road, by ferry? How much does each option cost? Will you be looking to bring lots of baggage to get you started, or can you coordinate your arrival at the same time as your removal company?
How are your pets going to get to your new country? Are you driving yourself like us, in which case are you taking your pets in the car? Will you need a kennel on a ferry? If not driving yourself, how are your pets going to get there? Do you need to find an airline that can carry live goods? What airport is near you that can handle pet carriage? Does your pet need a Pet Passport? Are their vaccinations up-to-date? Do they need any additional shots or special protection against local diseases?
If you are moving to a new country, one thing you should consider from early on is whether you need a visa to move to that country. As both the United Kingdom and Portugal are part of the EU (at the time of writing this post), we did not need visas. However, with Brexit imminent it is something to look into at the very early stages as visas can take months to apply for and to get approved.
If you have children of school ages, you’ll need to investigate schools. Firstly, when does the school year start? What is the process of enrolling your child in school in your new country? Is there an equivalent to Ofsted/Estyn for checking which schools are the best? Consider whether you want to put your children into local schools, to help learn the language if English is not the first language of the country, or are there international school option? Should you time your move to happen before the new school year to lessen disruption? Try to find out what documentation you’ll need for school. We enrolled our son in Portuguese preschool, so he could get to grips with the language quickly. To do so we needed to provide proof of his vaccinations, a requirement for all schools in Portugal. So, you might need to keep your Red Book handy. We didn’t, and it took a lot of effort to get the information we needed for the school.
These are all questions you will need to ask yourself, consider when making your final decision, or questions you might need to ask other people, such as expats already in the country you are moving to. The best way to do this is to join expat Facebook groups which are bound to have someone on there who has been through the whole process before. Yes, you will get the keyboard warriors, but most people will endeavour to help you and answer your questions.
Moving to a new country with children can be an exciting time and a life-changing one at that. But remember to include them in the process as best you can. Start talking to them about their new country and if they seem reluctant, try to encourage them with things that will make it seem more appealing. For us it was things like our son being able to ride his bike for most of the year, instead of being indoors all the time. Things like living near the beach. Seeing sunshine for most of the year instead of grey skies.
Talk them through each stage and warn them of things that are going to happen before they do. Things like men are going to pack up your room to bring to our new house. Things like we’re going to have an adventure driving to our new country. Things like we’re going to take the dog on a boat and sleep on it. By doing this you not only make them aware of what is going to happen, but you help prepare them, so when it does eventually come to pass, it’s not a surprise.
It’s a huge decision to make, and even bigger when there are children involved. But hopefully by reading our experience of the moving process, and considering the questions and advice I’ve given, you will be better armed to make your own decision for your family and that it will be as smooth as possible.
Cath is an Irish expat who now lives in Portugal with her husband and son. A former scientist, she gave up working when they emigrated south from the UK. She is a family travel and lifestyle blogger and hopes that, through her blog, they will inspire more families to travel, especially with the toddlers in tow. As a family they love travelling and have started working their way through their family travel bucket list. Cath writes about their family travels and experiences on her blog Passports and Adventures.
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