A Light at the End of the Tunnel

Perhaps I should have said, a light at the end of the car…

As mentioned in last week’s post, Won and I were super happy that we had finally come up with all the necessary documents to get our car through the customs and registration process in order to avoid paying a significant tax penalty (or having to return the car to the US!!). We were practically giddy with excitement thinking we were nearing the end of this odyssey.

As Paulo (our ACP agent) was preparing the final paperwork for me to sign, he handed us another piece of paper with explicit instructions to take the car to a “B” inspection center where they would tell us if it met European Union motor vehicle standards. Once they had inspected and certified the car, we were to bring the signed paperwork back to him, which is when he would submit everything together.

Through our own limited research, we had heard anecdotal evidence that we might have to do something with the lights on the car. We had no idea what that might mean, but we were about to find out. We used our Google Translate app to read what the list said:

  1. Speedometer in kilometers per hour.
    • Our BMW already had this in place. Check.
  2. A rear left fog light.
    • We did not have this in place. Our car has front fog lights, not rear. We were going to have to remedy this.
  3. Turn signals must be amber in color (front and back).
    • Our turn signals are red, but lighten a bit when turned on. We weren’t sure how “amber” the lights needed to be. Was a kind of burnt orangey-red acceptable? After we left the ACP office that day, we became obsessed looking at, and discussing at length, the color of the turn signals on all the cars we saw. There didn’t seem to be any consistency. Hmmm…
  4. Front headlamps must be white in color.
    • Our car headlamps were already white. Check.
  5. Medium light must point to the right.
    • We had no clue what this meant.

Knowing we didn’t meet the standards for the lights on the car, we decided to contact a local BMW dealership and schedule an appointment to see if they could make the necessary changes. It took two weeks before there was a service opening. After an initial assessment of the situation, the BMW mechanics said we would have to replace the front and rear light panels on the car (right and left), replace the interior control panel, and upgrade the software to European standards so the new light panels could communicate with the control system. However, even if we did all of that, the car would continuously show an error and told us they wouldn’t do the work. Really??!! Neither of us understood why they couldn’t just – at the very least – replace the existing red light covers with amber colored ones. Aren’t bulbs basically colorless??? They said, “No, it couldn’t be done.”

Unfortunately, “no, it couldn’t be done” was not an option. Undeterred, Won took the car to a local mechanic’s shop nearby to see if they could jerry-rig the light panels in some way to deal with the turn signal color and fog light requirement. Funny enough, that mechanic thought the color of our turn signals was just fine (go figure). Unfortunately, he said he wasn’t qualified to do the work on the fog light and recommended we take the car to a shop that specialized in car electronics and referred him to another mechanic.

The next mechanic only spoke French and Portuguese. Won only speaks English and Korean. I have no idea how they managed to communicate, but Won reported that he was able to tell him what was needed. The mechanic said he would research what could be done and would get back to him in a few days. Turns out the mechanic ended up contacting BMW and learned it couldn’t be done. Groan…we were caught in a loop.

Not knowing what else to do, Won took the car to the Inspection Center, explained the situation, and asked them what he should do. The inspector looked over the car and told Won the color of our turn signals was just fine. He went on to say we met all the other standards, including that weird last one (which still remains a mystery). The only thing we needed to address was the rear fog light and if BMW could not install one to manufacturer standards, we would be allowed to attach a “universal” fog light to the bumper.

We weren’t crazy about the esthetics of that option, but at this point, had they told us we would be required to install a giant searchlight on the top of the car, we would have done it. The inspector referred Won to a place that might be able to do the work. Won immediately jumped in the car and tried to follow the oblique directions, but failed so he ended up coming home and Googling local auto shops. He found one that looked promising and decided to drive over the next day.

Unfortunately, they told him they specialized in electronic upgrades for high performance cars, but not the kind of work he needed done. They recommended he try a local shop that specializes in bringing imported foreign vehicles up to EU standards. Off Won went to see them. They said they could do it. Yay!! They promised they would call the next day with a price once they had determined the cost of the work. One day passed, then two, then three, then four without a call. After the fifth day Won called them. They said they didn’t have the information yet and would call when they did.

Time was ticking and we were both getting annoyed and anxious. Won went back to Google and, out of complete frustration, typed in “the best car electrician” and the following business popped up, “The Best Car Electrician.” I’m not kidding, that’s the name of their business. He took the car in the next day and spoke to Daniel who said they could do it. Daniel estimated it would take about a day to complete, but they were really busy and asked Won to bring the car back on Tuesday of the following week.

The day Won left the car with them, he took an Uber to go play golf. When he called later that day to check on the status, there was good news and bad news. The good news was they could install the light into the existing panel and make it look like it had been there all along. This meant we didn’t need to attach a universal fog light to the bumper. Awesome!! Bad news. It would take longer because they were waiting on BMW to send a schematic of the car’s electronic system and would need to order a new interior switch. They thought they would have these by the end of the next day. OK…not so bad. We felt like we were finally going to get this done.

They received the schematic and completed most of the work in those two days, but the switch had not arrived and the country was about to go into a long holiday weekend that included virus-related curfews for everyone, including businesses. They told Won to come get the car and, once the part came in, to bring it back so they could finish the work. Won offered to pay for what had already been completed, but they declined and said he could pay once it was all done. Amazing! This is what I love about Portugal. Had this been the US, the car would have sat in the repair shop’s lot until that part arrived.

The switch finally came in on December 30. Due to another long holiday weekend lockdown, Won wasn’t able to get the car back to the shop until January 5. Daniel offered to take the car to the inspection center on our behalf in case there were any questions about the upgrade they had done. We were delighted with the idea and heartily agreed. It took two more days to complete the inspection because they had difficulty assessing the pollution road tax based on the engine number (which is different from the VIN and very difficult to get to). It’s a good thing the mechanics took the car in, because they helped resolve this problem.

On January 7, 2021 we finally received our inspection certification! I practically skipped all the way to the ACP offices and proudly handed them to Paulo. Once again, he methodically reviewed the documents, accessed information on his computer, and then turned to me and asked if I had the paperwork he had given to us on September 30. I blanched. I didn’t have it with me. I told him it was at home. Fearing that this might delay the process by yet another day, I offered to immediately drive home to get them. He said not to worry. They weren’t required for the submission process, only that we needed to keep them in the car at all times now that the original title was being sent to Customs. Oh…whew!!! I wiped the sweat from my brow, took a deep breath, relaxed my shoulders, smiled back, and asked, “How long before it’s finally registered and we get our new plates?” He replied, “Four to six months.” What?!?!

Once I regained consciousness, Paulo explained that before the virus-induced lockdowns, it would typically take four to six months to complete. He had no idea how long it would take now. It might be a bit longer, or a bit shorter, he simply wasn’t sure.

He went on to tell me he would be submitting the paperwork to Customs, then to IMT (the motor vehicle licensing body for Portugal), then go through the registration process on our behalf and request our license plates, and once all that was done he would submit the proper paperwork to the local fiscal authority. He said he would call us when our plates arrived so we could come get them. At that time, he would give us the temporary registration document to hold on to until the final registration card was sent directly to us by IMT. Only then could we could drop our US insurance provider and sign up for local car insurance. Geez!! Oh well, I guess there is nothing to do, but wait.


What. A. Process.

We initiated the registration process on July 16, 2020. It took us just shy of six months to finally get all the documentation and the inspection-related work completed so that it could be submitted. So far, shipping our car to Portugal has cost us $12,595 (€10.496 using the current conversion rate). That amount includes shipping and importing the car, insurance (transit and standard), rental car fees until it arrived, upgrading to EU standards, and processing and documentation fees, in addition to buying the car outright.

Of course, there have been a few offsetting issues at play here. One is that by shipping the car we were able to include personal and household items in the car, which means we didn’t have to buy them here, but if I’m truthful, most of it wasn’t that important. Also, had we purchased a car here, our insurance costs would have been much lower. We estimate we would have saved approximately ~$3,200.00 in that category. While we haven’t priced out car insurance in Portugal yet, we’ve heard from friends who just bought a brand new Tesla, that it is about 80% lower here. And, if we hadn’t shipped the car we would have a lot less gray hair. Live and learn.

In the end, though, we figure the cost difference was close to a wash assuming we replaced our car with one of a similar make, model and year. We might have paid a bit more by bringing the car with us, but the benefits were worth it to us. However, it was a real learning experience and at times, pretty stressful. Plus, we’re not completely done (i.e. we haven’t received our new plates yet).

So, should you bring a car from the US to Portugal? Unless, it is a collector’s item that you can’t live without, Won and I would advise you to just buy one here. It’s a lot easier.

Next up? I need to exchange my US driver’s license for a Portuguese license – and quick! Mine expires on February 28 of this year and the document the Portuguese Embassy gave me, which would allow me to swap one for the other, is tied to that date….yikes!! And, of course, the country is, once again, in a total lockdown. Nothing like another nail-biter to keep things exciting!! I’ll keep you posted on how this new task progresses.

Until then, stay safe, stay healthy, and please stay in touch.

From Portugal with love,


Published by Beth Thomas-Kim

After working in corporate America for companies like Mattel, Nestlé, and Johnson & Johnson, I retired and moved to Portugal in January of 2020 with my husband Won and our 12-year old wire fox terrier, Sweet Pea. We now live in Monte Estoril, a lovely seaside town just outside Lisbon. We spend our days happily exploring this beautiful country and learning about its fascinating history, engaging culture, warm and welcoming people, delicious food and wine, and stunning architecture. This blog was started primarily as a way to keep family and friends updated on our transition from the US to Portugal. Now, my subscribers include people from all over the world. Enjoy!

8 thoughts on “A Light at the End of the Tunnel

    1. HA!! Thanks! Unfortunately, the plates have to be returned to NJ. Otherwise, we could be fined and our information be added to a database preventing us from ever getting a driver’s license in NJ again. While it is unlikely we’d do that, we’re going to play it safe and send them back anyway. I’ll take pictures for posterity’s sake. 👍😁❤️


  1. Just a note to say how much this person who does not know you (Marchele Hardin recommended) is enjoying your posts and appreciating the flashes of lol humor.


    1. Hi Cassandra! It was so kind of Marchele to share my blog with you. I’m delighted to know you are enjoying it (and that you get my sense of humor…!). Hopefully, we will be able to meet in person some day. Until then, I hope we can stay in touch via my blog. Take good care.


  2. Hi Beth,
    Love the photos associated with the process. So buying a car in Portugal perhaps might cost the same as importing a car, given all the modifications, hassle and insurance costs? It also sounds if one buys a car locally, getting a local drivers license would also be simpler? Would buying a car in Europe but outside of Portugal be as much a hassle to register/license? What cars are popular there: VWs, BMWs, Peugeot, Renault?
    Enjoying all the details and so impressed with your patience.


    1. Hi Leslie, all the brands you listed are very popular here including Mercedes, Nissan, Citroën and Fiat. Even if you buy a car in another EU country, you still have to pay the exorbitant customs tax, so unless you get it for a steal, it’s better to buy one here. As for your driver’s license question; I don’t think the process would be any different if you bought locally or imported from inside or outside the EU. For us, the Portuguese Consulate prepared a document prior to our departure from the US, that is allowing us to literally swap out our US license for a Portuguese license without having to take a driver’s test (which is all in Portuguese). I’ll be covering those details in a future post (I am in the middle of the process now). I’m delighted you are enjoying the imagery I’m including. There are times when I feel like I need more than words to convey a specific reaction at times. LOL!! I hope you and your family are continuing to stay safe and healthy.


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