Lisbon is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, to the extent that visitors do fall in love with it and want to move there, or get put there on work placements. But can English speakers actually live in Lisbon long term without speaking any Portuguese? Can you get by there only speaking English?
It is entirely possible to live in Lisbon without speaking any Portuguese, since it is an international city and English is quite widely spoken there. However, as with moving to any foreign country, it is still recommended to learn at least a basic level of Portuguese to help with cultural assimilation and open up more work and social opportunities.
Therefore, while the easy answer is yes, it’s still advised to learn the local language if you are going to be living in Lisbon long term. And realistically, it’s very hard NOT to learn at least the basics of a language in a country if you stay there any length of time. It’s pretty much impossible not to pick up basic phrases as you go along interacting with people.
But the good news is that unless it’s a requirement for work, there’s no mad rush to learn Portuguese as soon as you move to Lisbon, and the pretty much universal, anecdotal feedback is that you can settle in and get used to the place fine just using English, and then branch out later learning Portuguese if you want.
How Widely Spoken Is English In Lisbon?
As a very popular tourist destination within Portugal, and a very international/multi-cultural city in it’s own right, English is quite widely spoken in Lisbon. Visitors never report any issues getting by there just using English, since it’s spoken by most people in the central areas.
Although the overall percentage of people in all of Portugal that speak English is low, this is only an average and of course covers remote areas where English is rare. Specifically for the capital Lisbon though, English is very common, because it receives so many American/UK/Canadian/Australian tourists each year (several million to be precise).
Therefore in all the places that tourists go, English will be widely spoken and you won’t need Portuguese:
- Restaurants (at least 1 or 2 people can speak English. Smaller cafes/eateries, can be a bit less common)
- Tourist attractions
- Tourist information centers
- Train stations
- Metro station (signs in English as well as Portuguese)
- Most taxi drivers (at least broken English)
- Most buses
- Younger people will also generally speak English as it’s now taught in schools. Some older people above 60 may struggle a bit.
There are also some English signs, and always English language leaflets/booklets in various attractions you go to.
Basically, the universal feedback of anyone who’s been there on holiday is that you definitely don’t need to speak any Portuguese for short stays there, and you can use English in most places you go, especially in the center. And even if you go a bit further outside the center, they can often still speak broken or basic English, even if it isn’t perfect.
Therefore, even though not a massive amount of people in Portugal overall speak English, a lot of them do in Lisbon, because it receives so many English speakers every year. For English proficiency, it compares much more favorably for example to most parts of neighboring Spain. Which is good news!
Can You Live In Lisbon Without Speaking Portuguese?
The even better news is that even though holidaying in Lisbon for one or two weeks, and living there permanently, are two very different things, some expats there report that they’ve even been able to live there long term only using English, and not speaking Portuguese.
Here’s a forum entry from an expat:
“Good english is spoken widely in Lisbon, pretty much everyone under thirty and of the whole population half or more. Those without good english often speak enough to get by.
I have lived here six years without difficulty and have no Portuguese.”
Anecdotal account from expat in Lisbon
This means you could theoretically treat living there just like an extended holiday, and just get by using English, without learning any Portuguese (or just a few words).
This makes Lisbon an even more attractive option for expats thinking of moving there, since it belongs in that small category of places in Portugal, along with perhaps Porto and The Algarve, where you can technically live there only speaking English if you want.
However, as with moving to any country, it still is better long term to learn at least the basics of the local language, as the locals always appreciate even a small effort, plus it can make “dealing with the system” easier over time. We’ll cover this further below.
But the bottom line answer is, yes, you can live in Lisbon without speaking any Portuguese if you want to.
Can You Work in Lisbon Without Speaking Portuguese?
Living in Lisbon and working there are two different things, so could you also work there without needing any Portuguese if you wanted to?
This is a more tricky answer, because it depends on what kind of work you’re doing, and who for.
If you are working for an international company in Lisbon that conducts most of it’s business in English, then you could work there without speaking Portuguese. Most other jobs, including tourism/retail plus local companies, Portuguese will almost always be required.
Since Lisbon is more of an international city, there are opportunities available at large global companies. Deloitte, PwC, Microsoft, Siemens, Teleperformance and KPMG are just some multi-national companies based in Lisbon (see here for full list).
Working for any local Portuguese company however, they are almost always going to require the local language, since in most cases you will be interacting with local people who can’t speak English.
With setting up your own business, you could possibly do this only speaking English, as long as you have a strong English speaking client base, but it would open up more opportunities if you could speak Portuguese. Plus, it would help with the paperwork involved in setting up the business there, plus admin, taxes etc.
Should You Learn Portuguese When Living In Lisbon Anyway?
This is an interesting question, since while the clear answer is that you could live in Lisbon without speaking any Portuguese, the real question is should you.
If you’re really planning on living in Lisbon (or Portugal in general) for a long time, even though it’s not required initially, it is still recommended to learn Portuguese over time. It will help you assimilate with daily life better, plus open up more opportunities in work and social circles.
It’s pretty much the same answer for any foreign country you move to – it’s usually better to learn the language anyway, and people that do are usually glad they did.
Plus, there’s just that daily “stuff”, those problems, that you’ll run into regardless of where you live, where you may have to deal with people that don’t speak much or any English, and having some basic Portuguese will help.
- Opening up bank accounts
- Possibly getting loans, mortgages, credit cards (contracts likely only in Portuguese)
- Setting up mobile phone/internet contracts (only in Portuguese)
- Setting up utilities contracts (gas/electric/water).
- Getting your car fixed if you drive
- Getting broken AC fixed (especially in summer)
- Dealing with residence visas/permits if applicable
- Buying property
- Signing long term rental agreements
- Opening up businesses
For all of these things plus getting other daily life things done, it’s better long term if you have some Portuguese. We’ll cover some phrases and options for learning further below.
For sure, it’s less of a problem in Lisbon than other cities or countries, because at least basic English is widespread. And the Portuguese state/legal system is not as bad as neighboring Spain for corruption and slow-moving paperwork, but it’s still there.
But it still helps to learn the local language, even if just for opening up more social networks and making Portuguese friends.
Learning Some Basic Portuguese Phrases
See the video below covering some basic Portuguese phrases to help you get by for a shorter tourist visit, and also as a starting point for learning the language in more depth if you want to stay longer term. We also have a table below for people that prefer text to video. Even though some words are similar to Spanish (and Italian), pronunciation does differ in many cases.
Moreover Portuguese people can get a little prickly about the perceived invasion of Spanish language into their culture, and do see Portuguese as a very distinct language, and not a closely related variant. In short, Portuguese and Spanish can look similar on paper but sound very different when spoken. Here are some basic European Portuguese phrases.
|English||European Portuguese||Pronounced As|
|See you soon||Até breve!||atay brey-veh|
|Excuse me||Com licença||com li-sayn-sa|
|Please||Por favor||Poor favoor|
|Thank you||Obrigado/a||Obri-gardo/a (m/f)|
|Good morning||Bom dia||bome dee-a|
|Good afternoon||Boa tarde||Boa tar-dt|
|Good night||Boa noite||Boa-noy-t|
|How are you?||Como você está||como voh-see eshtar|
|Do you speak English?||Fala inglês?||Farla-in-glaish?|
|My name is.......||Meu nome é||mey-oo nohme eh.......|
|The bill, please||A conta, por favor||Ah conta poor favoor|
|How much is it?||Quanto custa?||Kwantoh coosta?|
|I have a reservation||Tenho uma reserva||Tenyo ooma reh-serva|
m/f in the table indicates that the ending of the word changes depending on whether a male or female is saying it
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The pronunciation of Portuguese is often very unique and not as the words appear on the page. It does therefore require some practice to get it sounding right so you will be understood to a Portuguese native, as you learn which vowels and consonants need to be dropped or softened for certain words.
Useful Resources For People Living in Lisbon
Here are links to some other resources to help with common daily life issues living as an expat/worker in Lisbon or Portugal in general:
- Vlog/blog channels – Viola Helen has a YouTube channel on living in Lisbon as an expat. For written blogs/forums, check out here, and also interviews here and here.
- Visas – If you are quite wealthy and would like an easier path to living in Portugal, without as much paperwork, check out Portugal’s Golden Visa program. Requires a sizeable investment into Portugal, but offers very generous visa conditions if you can get it. Nomad Capitalist has some good videos on it as well.
- Schools/Kids – See here for a good guide for international schools in Lisbon. Plenty of choice, but fees are not cheap.
- Banking – If you’re using a foreign bank card to draw out euros at an ATM in Portugal, you’re likely to get stung with high fees. See our guide on some good multi-currency card options to spend in euros for free, and also withdraw money from ATMs cheaply in Euro-using countries.
- Phones/SIM Cards – Many phones are locked and won’t accept foreign SIM cards. For getting a working local SIM card and number in Spain without spending loads of money, see this article.