You don’t know what you don’t know.
As mentioned in my post To Bring Or Not To Bring, That Is The Question, we decided to ship our car, a 2017 BMW 330ix. We went back and forth for weeks trying to determine if we should bring it at all and once we made that decision we had to decide on what method. There were many different shipping options and each option had an associated cost. It was dizzying. Won contacted several companies to get quotes. Some of the companies allowed items inside the car and others didn’t. In the end, we chose to ship it in a container with things in the car. The limitations were that no liquids were allowed and nothing could be in the front seat so we took full advantage and packed the trunk and back seat to the gunnels.
For those yearning for specific details, here is the breakdown:
- $3715 USD to Schumacher Cargo Logistics – Schumacher coordinated getting our car through US customs, into a container, and onto a ship. Their fee also included insurance while the car was in transit ($800 USD). We were required to prepare a manifest of everything inside the car. The Portuguese Consulate provided us with a document that allowed us to bring the car and other household items into the country without having to pay taxes. They also put us in contact with a company who could help us with the importation process once it arrived in Portugal.
- 1450€ to Galamos Import Specialists – Their fees included retrieving the car from the ship, pier fees, physical inspection fees, coordinating customs clearance, and moving the car to their warehouse where we could pick it up. There were many documents required to get the car through customs and we took care of as many as we could in advance. However, there were three we could not get before we moved to Portugal: a Certificate of Residency, updated NIF documents with our local address, and a Certificate of No Debt (this document states that we do not owe taxes to the State or have liens against us). More on the hoops we had to jump through to get those last three coming momentarily.
- Each document we procured, in both the US and in Portugal, cost a fee. We estimate that we spent an additional ~$250 USD on documents.
- Before leaving the US, we also changed our automobile insurance coverage with USAA, our provider, so that we could drive in Portugal. The annual premium is pretty pricey though, $3000 USD, so we are currently evaluating insurance options in Portugal. We also received a document from the Portuguese Consulate that allowed us to exchange our New Jersey driver’s licenses for Portuguese driver’s licenses without having to take a test.
- Car rental fees in Portugal, which includes toll fees, will be approximately 1000€ (we’ll be driving a rental until next week when we pick up our car).
- In terms of the time frame; it took nearly two months to learn what to do, find a shipping company, make decisions related to how and what we would ship, and secure all the necessary documents. We dropped the car off at Schumacher in Newark, New Jersey on December 12, 2019. It took one full month to clear US customs and was loaded on a ship on January 11, 2020. It arrived in Portugal on Monday, February 3, 2020. It took an additional week for us to get the three documents we did not have and then another week to clear customs (we are scheduled to pick up the car on February 14, 2020). From start to finish the entire process, including the learning and decision making, took four and a half months.
As mentioned earlier, our experience in getting the three additional documents that Galamos required turned into an odyssey all its own. Happily, the Certificate of Residency was a breeze. We located the right municipal office in Monte Estoril where we live and stopped in. No one was in line and we waltzed out with the certificate. Awesome! Feeling completely emboldened, and wondering why others seemed to have such a hard time with Portuguese bureaucracy, we made our way to the Finance Services office in Cascais, the closest to our home, for the Certificate of No Debt and to update our NIFs.
I spoke too soon…hello bureaucracy.
It was a Friday and when we arrived we learned that the Finance Services employees were on strike. [Finance Services offices enable citizens to handle tax-related matters such as getting a NIF (national identification number similar to a Social Security number in the US), making various types of payments, securing documents needed by government agencies, etc.] Undeterred, we drove to the Galamos office to report that we were successful in securing the Certificate of Residency, but that the Finance office was on strike. They told us, no problem, that is not unusual and to go back on Monday.
We arrived at the Cascais Finance office nine minutes after it opened Monday morning to find a line out the door and down the street. The line was to get a ticket for the specific financial service needed. Ours was #38. Three. Hours. Later. our number was called. We bolted to the counter where the agent informed us that she does not handle Certificates of No Debt, because it was the “C” counter and we needed the “F” counter for that service (head explosion), but we pivoted seamlessly and told her we also needed our NIF documents updated with our new address. She said that wasn’t possible because only SEF (Portuguese immigration) could update an NIF. We told her our sob story – car arriving – had to get it out of customs – interviews with SEF were not scheduled until March 18! Didn’t matter. She said she couldn’t do anything. We stood there stunned. We had wasted three hours and walked out with nothing but a headache.
Neither Won nor I believed her. NIFs are issued by the Finance office, for Pete’s sake. We regrouped, did a bit of online research while sitting in the car and found an SEF office in Cascais not too far away. I told Won I would try to walk in and see if I could ask a simple question. Our gamble paid off. SEF told us the Finance office is the right entity to make changes to NIFs. Instead of going back to the Cascais Finance office we decided we would drive into Lisbon the next morning and go to the office location that issued our NIFs in October.
We arrived at the Finance office in Lisbon somewhat harried and later than we had hoped due to traffic, but ready to do battle. We had our paperwork in hand, sob story at the ready, and the information we learned the day before about the roles of the Finance office and SEF. Now we knew we had to see two different people to get what we needed. Thankfully, that location wasn’t as busy as the Cascais office and we didn’t have to wait long. First up, the Certificate of No Debt. While the counter was right, unfortunately, the gentleman manning it told us he could not issue the certificate because we had to go to the Finance office of our sponsor, Paulo. They were the only ones who could issue it. Don’t try to understand, just take a deep breath and stay with me. (For anyone who needs background on how Paulo became our sponsor refer to my post titled, We Need What?!) I asked if Paulo needed to be with us, and thankfully, he did not. We were irritated, but we knew we were closing in on the elusive certificate.
Next up, the tricky change of address challenge to the NIF. We got back in line and when it was our turn we got yet another curve ball. The very nice lady informed us that she would be happy to change the address, however, the system was showing our landlord (who lives in Hong Kong) as the owner of the condo we are renting. In other words, we are not in the system as being financially responsible for the property at that address and therefore, cannot use that address on our NIFs. Apparently, when you buy or rent a property in Portugal the owner of the property, or their legal representative, must go to a Finance office and update the records to show a new owner or a lessee. Guess what? It had not been done yet. We fired off a desperate email to the attorney who represented the owner during the signing of the lease on January 23 explaining our predicament. He quickly replied and told us that a property owner typically has 30 days to update the Finance office, but he would see what could be done.
We jumped in the car and headed across Lisbon to Paulo’s Finance office. With a bit of sleuthing and some help from a local police officer we found the right location. We took our number (5!) and were called immediately. The lovely lady behind the desk spoke nearly no English, but thanks to Google Translate, we were able to tell her what we needed. She could do it! Hallelujah!! 6.50€ later and we had the Certificate of No Debt. I would like to say that we skipped hand in hand back to the car, but by that time we were both so frustrated, it took the entire drive home before we could say a civil word to each other.
Happily, we got a note the next day from the attorney who told us that the lease agreement had been registered in the Finance system. This meant we could go back to Lisbon and get the NIFs updated with our current address. Won made the trek back on his own the following day because I had to stay home and wait for a FedEx delivery. You’ll understand why that was so important shortly. Won returned home to report that he could only get his NIF updated because a signature is required. Another trip to Lisbon was in our immediate future. On the plus side, we had cracked the process and the car would soon be ours.
You would think that is the end of the story and we lived happily ever after. You’d think! But no. Once we pick up the car next week, we will still need to get it legalized to drive in Portugal. We have a year to complete this step which will involve local registration, providing a Certificate of Conformity, a new license plate, potentially changing out the headlamps, and purchasing an emergency roadside kit (required in Portugal). ACP, the Automotive Club of Portugal, provides legalization services and can also help us with the driver’s license swap, so we joined at the end of January for an annual fee of 60€.
Intermission…(this is where you can get a beverage of choice, grab a snack, take a Valium, and return for the second part of our shipping odyssey)
While we were going through our household goods and personal effects prior to our move and making decisions on what to sell, give away, donate, ditch, or store, we did the best we could. As we were drowning in boxes, stuff, and decision making, we agreed to send ourselves things we wanted to bring but that would not fit in our suitcases or could not be packed in the car because we were still using them.
We ended up with two boxes of additional miscellaneous household goods and one more box that included a portrait of Sweet Pea which I had just commissioned for Won as a Christmas present (see below). There was no way we were going to put that in storage and it was too big to put in a suitcase so it had to be shipped.
We left those three boxes with my son, Matthew, and off we flew to Lisbon. As soon as we had our new permanent address here, we told Matt to go ahead and ship them to us. We had done a bit of quick research before we left and thought it would cost about $250 USD. When Matt asked us which carrier to use we were busy and distracted moving into our apartment and quickly told him FedEx thinking they would be a good choice. Matt did as instructed and shipped the boxes. He then forwarded the receipt and included a note to tell us the lowest price he could get came to $847.57 USD.
Won needed to be revived.
Once we both got over the shock and realization that we could have flown Matthew here to deliver them personally for less, we focused on the fact that the boxes would be delivered the following week on Tuesday, February 4.
Remember that whole thing I mentioned above about the car needing to go through customs once it arrived in Portugal? Yeah. Apparently, all packages entering Portugal go through that step. We received an email from a broker agent representing FedEx on February 1 informing us that we needed to provide a tax payer ID or copy of passport, invoice or receipt order for all the items (indicating quantity, unit value, shipping and total value) and proof of payment for the items. They told us there will be additional costs to complete the shipping process which included broker agent fees and fees for duties and taxes. Should we not provide the information requested and pay the fees within five days the items may be returned or considered abandoned and destroyed. Cripes!!
Now the scramble began to figure out how to deal with this new twist.
We fired an email back providing them a copy of the document from the Portuguese Consulate that allowed us to bring our car and other household items into Portugal within the first year without paying taxes. There was a lot of back and forth via emails and phone calls trying to sort out all the details. The broker even required a formal letter from my son, Matthew, stating that the items were not for commercial sale along with other details such as why they were being shipped, to whom, and the items in the boxes. All that didn’t matter, on February 5 we learned we were being taxed 416.56€ on the items (head explosion). On the plus side, this finally broke the log jam and Customs released the packages which were scheduled to be delivered the next day on February 6 sometime before 8PM. This is why I stayed home while Won went to get the NIFs updated. A few minutes after Won got back from that errand the packages arrived!! We were elated! They were right there at our door! As I am handing the delivery guy a 5€ tip, he shakes his head. What ensues next is a crazy exchange via Google Translate on our phones when we learn that we must pay 465.75€ (the above mentioned tax along with the other fees) to him before he can release the packages and he can only accept cash or a check. He can not accept a credit card.
We do not have that kind of cash on hand and when we opened our bank account we neither requested, nor were we asked if we wanted, checks. Who uses checks anymore anyway?! Earlier that morning, we had received an email from the agent with an invoice (all in Portuguese) summarizing the amount we were to pay. We had no idea we would have to pay the delivery guy to get our packages! And, even though he seemed like a nice enough person, I was not going to hand over that amount of cash to him. He said he could deliver them again tomorrow or we could pick them up after 5PM that afternoon at his company’s warehouse near the Lisbon airport. Sooooo….the packages returned with the delivery guy.
Won took off for the bank, invoice in hand, and returned about 30 mins later to let me know that even the bank employees could not determine who to make a check out to and suggested he withdraw cash from the ATM. It gets even more comical at this point…the ATM was out of money. Nothing was going to prevent us from getting those blasted boxes, though and Won found another ATM nearby. With cash in hand, we jumped in the car and headed back to Lisbon to take care of the final two outstanding steps, 1) change the address on my NIF, and 2) pick up the packages at the airport where they were being held hostage.
Five hours later and having successfully completed both tasks, we got home, poured ourselves each a of hefty glass of scotch, toasted ourselves for surviving Portuguese bureaucracy and opened the boxes. The painting was in great shape. Whew! Then we laughed ourselves silly over the rest of the items in the other two boxes. They were a miscellaneous amalgamation of “stuff” that we thought would be nice to have never dreaming getting it here would cost more than $1300!
Through this nutty journey we learned to:
- Stay calm. It would have been easy to lose our cool on so many occasions, but getting crazy was not going to solve any problems.
- Listen carefully to what people say. For the most part, people were trying to help us, but not everyone knew the entire process from start to finish so we needed to learn and adapt quickly.
- If it does not seem right, challenge it. We knew in our heart of hearts, that that woman at the Cascais Finance office should have been able to update our NIFs and we were right, but we did not know it at the time and did not feel comfortable challenging her with so many other people waiting to be served.
- Be organized. We created labeled files before we left the US with all our documents so we could keep them organized and pull them out of Won’s backpack at a moment’s notice when they were needed.
- Find ways to laugh. Honestly, we could have cried a river because the cost of those packages was insanely expensive, but it is what it is. So now we laugh about how expensive gum, a toothpick holder, an Amazon Echo Dot, a broken clock (it didn’t make it through the shipping process), dog bowls, and a bunch of miscellaneous other things are every time we use them.
- Be very nice to people and they will be nice to you. We smiled and tried to speak what minimal Portuguese we knew every time we interacted with folks and you could tell it was genuinely appreciated. We brought enthusiasm and a positive attitude to all interactions and it made a big difference.
My father always used to say, “Experience is the hardest teacher. It gives you the test first and then the lesson.” In this case, we learned a big lesson. DO NOT SHIP ANYTHING. Trust me, it is less expensive to buy it here or live without it.
From Portugal with love,