How a young California family of four moved to Olhão Portugal in less than a year

Americans and healthcare professionals Yelena Wheeler and her husband Josh were very gracious to share their exciting and funny story of moving to Olhão, Portugal from Burbank, California, United States with two young children, 22 bags and a whole lot of humor — in just ten months.

Here’s their thrilling journey of moving abroad to Portugal, in Yelena’s own words: 

Our back story

We are a family of 4. Two kids ages 7 and 10. My husband and I have been married for 12 years. I was born in Ukraine and raised in Los Angeles, California, while my husband is a New Yorker, we met in Central California while we were both there for work and the rest is history. 

In our life in Los Angeles, we were healthcare workers (he was an operating room Registered Nurse and I was a clinical nutrition manager/registered dietitian). We owned a little cute house under the flight path of the Burbank Airport, close enough to see the pilots’ eyes.

We had two vehicles, our kids were in a great elementary school that we can walk to, we were friends with all of our neighbors and lived in a nice little town. We took the typical one week vacation a year and were secure enough to save for retirement and afford food at the same time! So why leave this glorious life, one might ask? 

Why we decided to move to Portugal

I started dabbling in the FIRE movement in 2019 (Financial Independence, Retire Early). Many of the young retirees (in their 30’s) do geo-arbitrage meaning that they look to live in places where your retirement money would go further. Portugal continued to come up in conversation over and over again in the community. I told my husband about it…he looked at me as if I had 3 heads and could not wrap his head around it.

Then March 2020 hits and with both of us being in healthcare, we were very very busy. The two years of the pandemic felt like 20. Being in a country where half of the country did not even believe that the virus is real, while we continued to walk into the place with all the dying and sick bearing witness to it all on a daily basis was draining. Not only did our bodies wear down, but our souls.

But we persisted. We had the American dream after all. Two kids, a house, a neighborhood, job security (and never ending work)… what more can anyone want? 

Our oldest will be turning 10 years old soon and honestly I cannot remember the last 10 years of her life. I remember giving birth to her and then dropping her off at daycare when she was only 4 months old. Everything was a blur because life was on a hyper-speed. Kids school, demanding work, household chores of never-ending laundry and on and on it went.

For those who believe that families function well with two working parents are delusional. It was never supposed to be like this. That has always played into it, we wanted the freedom to do what we wanted with our time and spend that time raising our kids. 

So fast forward to Summer of 2022, to our first vacation in what seemed like forever. We were going to Hawaii, we were leaving a few days after the kids were finishing school. That same time, 19 children were gunned down in their elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. Even though we were all the way in California, those kids were the same age as mine, they are completed their school year the same week as ours. The pain of that community and those parents reverberated through the nation and for us it was the final straw.

We spent that week enjoying Hawaii, even looking at what it would cost to purchase a home there. However, in the end it was still the United States. We could never retire early in the U.S. even if we can cut our budget to the bare minimum, since healthcare is tied to employment and to continue the same level of healthcare coverage that we had would take a significant amount of our retirement. 

Our first visit to Portugal

So, we returned from Hawaii and made a plan to at least visit Portugal that year. In order to take another week off of work, we promised our first born and a kidney, but we made it happen. 

November 2022: We came to visit Tavira. We stayed at an airbnb in Cabanas de Tavira and were very busy bees when we were there. We met with local parents, spent 3 hours opening a bank account with Santander, toured two private schools and toured some areas of Tavira where there are usual rentals and my husband even got a Tattoo of the Rooster of Barcelos (no turning back now, it is permanently inked on his body…we are moving to Portugal). 

Obtaining our Portugal visas

Therefore, we began our journey. We planned for the D7 under my husband’s VA benefits and a small rental income. 

December 2022 – booked VFS appointment for March. 

March 6th 2023 – VFS appointment in SF, Ace was our guy. The appointment was for 1 PM, our flight was for 6 pm. Surely, we would finish everything up at a 1 pm appointment… Oh boy we were wrong! They got back there at around 2:30 and with computer glitches we got out at 5:15 pm, took an Uber to the airport thinking we are never going to make it back.

But the airport gods were shining down on us, because we made it through security in 10 minutes and made it to our flight back to LA by the skin of our teeth (this will be a recurring theme of ours through this entire process). 

June 20, 2023 – 106 days later, we received our Visas! No SEF appointment scheduled on the visa. 

The move to Portugal

July 10, 2023 – Found a realtor (you will notice that there is a procrastinating theme with us… everything has been by the skin of our teeth)

July 13, 2023 – Put our house on the market

July 17, 2023 – Got two offers on our house, one backed out and one went through

July 26, 2023 – My last day of work

August 1, 2023 – Husband’s last day of work

Mind you, this entire time, nothing is packed up, 3/4 of our house is still full of things. We have had yard sales, estate sales and even a weekend free sale where we invited all of the “garage sale folks” to come and take all we own. We sold our cars and continued packing…but we procrastinated…it was too late. Handing over the keys came quickly and we were not even close to being done. 

August 14, 2023 – handed over our house keys – filled a dumpster full of stuff and left a lot of “wheeler” droppings to unsuspecting friends and family members all through Los Angeles.

For the next 4 days, all we did was go through hundreds of boxes of things in order to par it down to 22 suitcases. 

August 18 – realized we don’t know where our passports are (because we packed everything up like a kid who is trying to clean their room to get ice cream). We spent a good 6 hours in a massive panic…then found them in a box within a box by a sleep deprived maniac (ME). 

August 19 – Flew out to New York to visited family and friends. With 22 bags mind you… Our poor Nana literally rented a Uhaul truck to collect us from the airport. 

August 26, 2023 – Husband’s 40th birthday, last birthday in the US

August 28, 2023 – New York to Amsterdam; Left our baggage in the baggage lockers in the airport

August 29, 2023 – Spent a day in Amsterdam

August 30, 2023 – Amsterdam to Faro, arrived in Portugal! 22 bags total!! We had the baggage certificate, no one asked for it in Faro and Amsterdam was so thrown off how we managed to get our little kids to push massive luggage around the airport that they literally had no questions for us on what was in our luggage.

We likely spent thousands on baggage due to having various legs of the flights. In hindsight either give all of it away or send it… the mental and physical gymnastics we all had to do in order to get all of our junk overseas was no easy feat. 

September 2, 2023-  We met our first American friend in Olhão and she is awesome! 

September 11, 2023 – Obtained SEF appointment

September 16, 2023 – We celebrated our first birthday in Portugal (mine) 

September 17, 2023 – We got internet! best birthday gift ever! 

September 18, 2023 – Kids started school in Portugal

Getting Portugal residency

September 20, 2023 – We finally obtained our Attestado (for sure one of the hardest parts of this process…asking strangers for favors). We had a kind parent of my kids classmate and his father go down to the Junta and profess that we indeed do live in town.

This took three attempts since we were really trying to just give them all of our info, phone bill, lease…nope…we had to make adult friends and ask them for favors. Now I know what my kids feel like when I take them to the playground and tell them to go make friends. 

September 25, 2023 – We rented a car in Faro, picked up the kids from school and spent 4 hours driving to Coimbra. Stayed the night.

September 26, 2023 – Our first SEF appointment attempt…in Coimbra. Rented a car in Faro and drove up. 2 PM appointment, computers shut down. Only my husband was processed. They wanted both pages of the NIFs, his name on the bank statement, which we didn’t, have but Santander sent us an email which we printed stating that he is on the joint account and that worked.

Also, our boarding pass and itinerary since we first went through Amsterdam. We had travel, Utente numbers and private health insurance. They took the lease and the attestado. 

But they only got him completed… Yay and Yikes! Drove back to Olhao. Waited for an email that never came. 

September 28, 2023 – New SEF appointment shows up in our portal (thank you husband for being on it at 2 am). This time it is scheduled in Lisbon on Oct 2nd. (Bright side… at least it’s not on an island!)

October 1, 2023 – We took the Flixbus to Lisbon and stayed overnight. 

October 2, 2023 – 2 pm appointment in Lisbon. They got us in at 4 pm. Took 1.5 hours to complete for myself and our 2 kids. They took the same things for me as my husband back in Coimbra, they didn’t need the bank account or lease/attestado for the kids, they did take a letter from their school stating that they were enrolled.

And we are all officially residents of Portugal! 

We ended up missing our flix bus back to Olhão due to the 3.5 appointment ordeal. Thanks to my husband’s quick phone skills, he ended up getting train tickets to Faro… which we also barely made it to due to Uber cancelling rides.

We made it to the Lisbon train station with 10 minutes to spare. We then attempted to figure out vending machines and purchased sandwiches since that will be our dinner all the way back to Faro. The travel gods were smiling on us once again, since the train pulled into Faro and the local for Olhao was just standing there…we ran to it and it brought us to Olhao. Made it home by midnight, before we all turn into pumpkins.

Things left on our to do list 

I need to learn how to drive stick shift (coming from LA, we mostly just sit in traffic, not much driving is done there)
We need to find an accountant that does not cost a million dollars
We want to learn the language more aggressively

Best suggestions for future expats

Start downsizing earlier than us… do it a year ahead of time…go… run… now!

Pack a great sense of humor and a positive outlook…because this stuff is not easy and it will beat you down if you let it. But if you survive…oh boy will you have so many stories to tell!


Yelena Wheeler is a clinical registered dietician. Check out her professional site Yes Nutrition Solutions.

The post How a young California family of four moved to Olhão Portugal in less than a year appeared first on Moving, living, retiring abroad.

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