Little did we know that getting the car on to Portuguese soil was going to be the easy part…
Back in late July of 2019, when we were applying for our visas at the Portuguese Consulate in Newark New Jersey, we mentioned that we were thinking of shipping one of our cars. We asked the woman helping us if she thought it was worth it. She said that cars in Portugal were expensive, primarily because of taxes added to the purchase price. Then, she proactively informed us that if we do bring a car, we must be able to prove we have owned it for at least six months prior to arrival in Portugal and that we cannot sell it for a period of time after arrival (this is to deter using Portugal as an entry point to sell cars). And, finally, she told us that if we decided to ship it, we should get an official document from them allowing us to bring it into the country without having to pay customs taxes. Wow. Good to know.
We hemmed and hawed about the decision. Won tried to figure out what was involved in bringing a car and found very little that was helpful. Making the decision more difficult was that there was a lot going on in our lives. Our house had sold the day it was listed (kicking all our plans into high gear), we needed to fly back to California to see both our families now that we knew we were going to be leaving the country, we had to deal with all the attendant activities associated with the sale of the house (which almost included digging up and replacing the septic tank – a $40,000 expense!! – thankfully we dodged that bullet), we had to decide what to do with all our household goods, find a temporary place to live while we waited for our visas, learned we were going to have to fly back to Portugal to open a bank account and get our NIFs, and then move all our stuff into storage and us into our temporary apartment! Deciding what to do about the car was one of a gazillion things we were coordinating.
Complicating matters was that we were both leasing our cars. Won’s lease was set to expire at the end of the year – a plus given the timing of our move. If we chose to bring my car, however, we’d have to buy out the lease and factor that hefty expense into our financial calculations. Initially, Won wanted to bring his SUV, but I told him it would be too big by European standards and, while mine wasn’t super small (a 4-door sedan), I thought it would be a better choice.
In early August, and after completing a detailed cost analysis, we finally made the decision to ship my car. In addition to its size, we agreed to bring it because we liked the car, it was only two years old, had very low mileage, was an automatic transmission (most cars here are manual transmission), we estimated that it would be less expensive to ship than replace it, we could ship things to ourselves inside the car, and we thought we could handle most of the importation process on our own.
I covered everything we went through, including the costs, timeline, process, documents needed, experiences, etc. to ship the car in my posts To Bring or Not to Bring, That Is the Question, Holy Ship! and Holy Ship! – Epilogue.
On February 19, when we picked up the car in Portugal, we were super excited knowing that all we had to do was get it registered. Once that step was completed, we could get our Portuguese license plates, switch out our driver’s licenses, and finally change our insurance provider to a local company, which would drop the cost of insurance significantly (something I’ll cover in a future post). And, because we knew we had a year to complete these steps, we took a breather to focus on our upcoming appointments with SEF (Portuguese Immigration) which would result in getting our residence permits.
Then, BAM! COVID-19 shows up. On March 18 – the very date of our appointments with SEF and the last day our visas were valid – the entire country goes into a state of emergency and total lockdown.
Two months later, on May 18, Won and I slowly and cautiously emerged from our home – slightly dazed, unsteady on our feet, and squinting in the bright light. We shook off the mental cobwebs, took a deep breath of fresh air, and relished the warmth of the sunshine on our upturned faces. (OK…that was a bit apocalyptic, but when I look back on it, that’s kind of what if felt like!) We had spent two months worrying about how quickly we could convert our expired temporary visas into residence permits while simultaneously keeping ourselves sane by creating lists of places we wanted to visit and things we wanted to experience. We knew we needed to get the car registration process going, but we pushed that to the bottom of the to-do list – I mean, how hard could it be? We wanted to have some fun!
After checking off several items from our bucket list, enjoying the looks we we got from locals when they caught sight of our odd New Jersey license plates, and successfully securing our residence permits (which required a second trip to the north of the country), it was already late June. The registration process was put back at the top of the to-do list.
While we had taken the lead on getting the car shipped here, we knew early on that we were going to need help with the registration process. Through our own research we learned that the Automobile Club of Portugal (ACP) provided this service for an additional fee (on top of the annual membership fee) so in February we joined. In retrospect it was a good decision – I don’t think we would have been able to successfully navigate the process on our own, especially due to the language barrier and the tricky process that took place with Portuguese Customs regarding some of the requirements, which I’ll get to shortly. You really want to submit your paperwork to Customs only once.
During our first visit to ACP, we met with Paulo (yes…another Paulo!) who would become our dedicated point person. Paulo was serious, thoughtful, and thorough. He provided a list of documents we needed to pull together. The list included the following:
- Documento de Cancelamento de Residência (Cancelation of Residence Document) issued by the appropriate US administrative authority (which Paulo said would be the US Embassy) showing the date of the cancelation of our residency in the US.
- Unfortunately, the US Embassy does not issue such a document. It took us a bit of time to figure that out and explain it to Paulo. See next bullet point on how this need was resolved.
- Certificado Consular (Consulate Certificate)
- This is the magic document that the consulate in Newark said we needed to avoid paying import taxes on our car. It stated we had “canceled our residency” in the US and included the date of our flight to leave the country. However, because it was all in Portuguese we didn’t realize what it was at the time. When we brought it in as a possible option, Paulo was happy we had it. If we hadn’t mentioned that we were going to ship our car when we were at the consulate to get our visas, we would not have it and I don’t know that we would have been able to get it after the fact.
- Atestado de Residência (Certificate of Residency)
- This document was required as a part of our application process to get our residence permits so we already had it in hand. It was issued by the local municipality where we live, called the Junta de Freguesia de Cascais Estoril.
- Autorização de Residência (residence permit card issued by SEF, Portuguese Immigration) which we had already applied for and received
- US passport
- Since the car was in my name, we only needed to provide mine.
- Número de Identificação Fiscal (Fiscal Number)
- If you don’t know what a NIF is, refer to my post called We Need What?!
- US driver’s license
- It is really critical that all documents you provide have the same home address and name as the car owner, otherwise things get very difficult. For this reason, we were informed not to exchange my US driver’s license for my Portuguese driver’s license before the car registration was complete. By the way, when we were still in the US and working with the Portuguese Consulate, they proactively suggested we have them issue documents for us that would allow us to exchange our driver’s licenses so we didn’t have to take the Portuguese Driver’s License test – which we did.
- Original title to the car
- This was a sticking point for us. While we had paid off the lease within the six month timeframe, the lien holder, BMW Financial, sent the original 2017 title that still had their name on it, even though they had stamped that it had been fully paid for. This meant we had to take it to the local Department of Motor Vehicles in New Jersey and have them issue a new title for the car under my name. Unfortunately, the date of the new title was no longer within the six month timeframe. Groan. In the end, we brought Paulo the original lease agreement, which, thankfully, we had brought with us to Portugal. It showed that we had been financially responsible for the car since June of 2017. Paulo had to call the Customs people to discuss the issue and determine if they would accept that. Mercifully, they did.
- Bill of Lading
- Schumacher Cargo, the shipping company we used, had already provided this to us so we had it in hand.
- Engine number and tire size
- The engine number is different from the VIN. It can be found on the engine block, but isn’t easily seen so we took the car to a local BMW dealership and asked them to find it for us. They told us it would take one day and cost €90,00. I found this hard to believe so I quickly did a Google search and found what was needed (grrrrrrr…). The tire size was listed on a sticker inside the driver’s side door frame.
- Certificate of Conformity (COC)
- We did know, from our early research, that we would need this and, even though we found a copy online, printed the full document, and lugged it to Portugal in Won’s backpack, it wasn’t the right one. Paulo said he could reach out to BMW in Germany to get what he needed and that this was typically what they did for most of their clients anyway.
- Instruction manual for the car
- Paulo made a copy of some of it and then returned it to us.
- Proof of residence for the last six consecutive months where the owner of the car lived immediately prior to departure
- This last requirement really tripped us up and had us pulling our hair out. Here’s why…
They want copies of utility bills with the car owner’s name and home address listed to easily demonstrate that you lived at that address. Unfortunately, our cars were under our own names and because Won had retired when we moved to New Jersey in 2012 he had taken on full responsibility for our finances and household accounts. This meant they were all under his name. We went back and forth with Paulo to explain this saying that we are married and the reasons why we didn’t have utility invoices under my name. Paulo was truly sympathetic, but in the end it didn’t matter. He said this is what Customs wants.
We were in a tizzy trying to think of something we could get our hands on. If we couldn’t come up with acceptable documents we were faced with two choices: 1) ship the car back to the US and sell it (nightmare!!!), or 2) pay the exorbitant taxes required to keep it here (nightmare!!!). Needless, to say, we kept at it.
We scoured our email history, hoping to find something that would work and found nothing. We went back to Paulo and asked if monthly payroll statements might be accepted in conjunction with a few dentist invoices. He said that might work, but all the originals were in storage back in New Jersey. At one point, Won thought about flying back to get the paperwork we needed. However, with the pandemic raging, that became our “nuclear option.”
Finally, on Wednesday, September 30, after consulting with Paulo who, in turn, consulted with Customs on the documents it had taken weeks to cobble together, he said we had a good representation showing the necessary consistency. I nearly cried with relief. Now, all we were waiting on was the conformity document to be sent from BMW in Germany. That finally came through the week of October 26. Paulo asked us to stop by so I could sign a few documents. I thought, this is great! We’re finally done!
Ha! No such luck. He handed us a new list of things to get done; this time to ensure the car would pass a motor vehicle inspection (here is where I cue the ominous music). It was now November and that one year countdown clock was ticking away toward February.
I don’t know about you, but I need a break! I’ll pick up the story next time on what we had to do to ensure the car met European standards.
Until then, please stay safe, stay healthy, and stay in touch!
From Portugal with love,