Exchanging your driver’s license is never a fun. I mean, who wants to spend an afternoon at the DMV? Still, it’s a simple enough chore and the whole thing is over in one (long) afternoon. Ah. Those were the days. Here in Portugal the biggest problem is that you don’t know what you don’t know! While researching this process I was told that the IMT (Portuguese DMV) required a plethora documents that were nearly impossible to obtain. In truth it wasn’t the documents themselves, but rather the time period in which we could gather them. Rather than bore you with my horror stories, I will tell you what DID work.
Remember… this story is by US Citizens for US Citizens. Those of you from the EU and other countries will have your own stories and different rules. And it does not matter what your visa status, D-2, D-7 or Golden, if you want your PT license, this is how you do it.
I must credit our friends, Jen & Mohammad. They were the real trail blazers. Thanks to there copious notes, my wife and I were able to navigate the red-tape infested waters with relative ease. Also, this is based on information from the San Francisco embassy. But given that they are (typically) the most strict, I’ll wager that the others will do the same.
TIMING: Everything starts with your residency PERMIT. Not the four-month visa that got you into the country. I mean your permit that is good for a year. It’s issued after your SEF (immigration) meeting. As soon as you have that meeting, you will be issued a number. Never mind the card. That will come in the mail later. For now, you have the number and the clock is ticking. You now have 90 WORKING days to get you license. To be clear, weekends and holidays do not count. If you miss this window, you will need to take the driving test (both written and driving) in Portuguese, and (from what I’m told) it will cost you several hundred euros.
The following is a list of possible documents that you may need. In other words, if you have all of these, you likely will be good to go even though your particular IMT agent may not ask for all of them.
STEP 1: PRIOR DRIVING RECORD: The first thing that you will need is proof that you know how to drive and that you are not a menace on the road. In other words, a copy of your driving record. You have a couple of options here.
Option 1: While in the States, you can obtain a copy of your record from your local DMV and then have it apostilled by your state’s Secretary of State. Different states may have different protocols for this so check with their web site. This is a fine plan, but keep in mind that frequently (albeit not always) the Portuguese government does not like documents that are older than 6 months (sometimes no more than 90 days). So you could arrive in country and by the time you have your SEF appointment, your apostilled driving record is out of date. What do you do now? Getting another record and having it apostilled is difficult, if not impossible.
Option 2. You can request a certificate from the Portuguese embassy in the US verifying your driver’s license. To get the certification letter, you will send (via post from Portugal back to the States – not electronic) the following:
- Copy of driver’s license; (The copy does not need to be notarized)
- Your Driver’s record (Available from most DMV’s online) – obviously it need not be certified or apostilled.
- Cover letter explaining the service you require and your contacts (email and cellphone number). “I need a letter certifying my driving record in order to exchange my US license for one from Portugal”.
- Self-addressed postmarked envelope (we included the prepaid label from UPS – pay for fastest service available)
- Check payable to “Portuguese Consulate”. Our’s was $46.80. You should verify that this has not changed.
Now, while you are waiting for that, get going on the rest of the stuff that you will need.
STEP 2: LOCAL RESIDENCY: You will need your Atestado de Residencia (literally your residency certificate). You will get this from your local Junta da Freguesia. Technically, this is the office of your local council (neighborhood/parish). In the States, it would be similar your local city hall. You will need:
- Your passport
- Rental/purchase contract.
- Residency card or paperwork from SEF
You may also need a copy of a utility bill also. We did not, but we were ready. We opted to have our Atestado de Residencia with BOTH our names on it (you must ask, otherwise you will get two), so obviously we needed both passports. The cost was around €10 and you must return the following day to retrieve the document (don’t ask me why).
STEP 3: SOCIAL HEALTH NUMBER: Next, you will need you Número de Utente (your social health number –it shows that you are in the public health system). To get this, you will go to the Centro de Saude (Central Health Office). You will need the following:
- Your passport
- Your SEF receipt or the card
- The Atestado de Residencia from the Junta da Freguesia
- Your NIF paper (or something with your NIF on it. Just knowing the number will not suffice).
There was no fee for this.
STEP 4: MEDICAL EXAM: Next, you will need a medical exam. This is a very basic physical, and you can get it done at most of the driving schools and some medical offices(1). It is called Atestado Médico para Carta de Condução. You will need the following:
- Your Número de Utente
- Your US driver’s license
- Your SEF residence card
The cost is around €35. The exam ensures that there is no physical impairment to prevent you driving, and it lists the category of vehicles you are licensed to drive (cars, trucks, and/or motorcycles). Be sure to verify this before you leave the office.
For special driving categories, there may be a psych test, but since this didn’t apply to us, we can’t help with that.
STEP 5: GO TO IMT
Take all of your documents, to the IMT (DMV):
- Your certified driving record and/or the certificate from the embassy/consulate.
- Your Atestado de Residencia.
- Your Número de Utente.
- Your physical (completed).
- Your US driver’s license (you will need to surrender this – although your Portuguese license will be honored by the US).
- Residency card of SEF paperwork.
Arrive early, and be prepared to wait. We went to our local IMT in a small town and even though we arrived 45 minutes before they opened, there were still 6 people ahead of us. In Lisbon (the first time we tried this), we arrived an hour early and there were over a hundred!
This is were having a local advocate comes in handy. The people at the IMT generally do not speak English and they are not familiar with US customs. For example, my wife had her middle initial on her US license but her middle name on her passport. Also, the IMT agent wanted to know when her license was FIRST issued. We told her, “when she turned 16”. Naturally, this was not reflected on her US license, so that had to be explained. We had a representative from Prisco Business Group with us (they have been such a blessing through our whole immigration) to explain these little issues.
In the end, all went well. They have a camera there so there is no need to bring a picture. The cost was around €30. The biggest hurdle was simple getting the CORRECT paperwork together and together in a timely manner.
Now that you have the plan, make it happen.
(1)One sample location where you can get your physical is Medical One in Lisbon. A quick check of their website will show you what to look for when you search for a location in your own town.