Portugal’s Healthcare System [For Those Considering a Move]

For most people, navigating the healthcare system in their own country is a challenge. So, you can imagine how much harder it is when you move to a new country, where you don’t know the language, and you are dealing with both public and private healthcare. The good news is that if you are moving to Portugal, you will find a country with a high standard of care that is both modern and accessible. With a well-established structure of public and private services, it endeavors to provide the kind of service you probably already receive, but at little to no cost to you.

The Portuguese National Health Service, known as Serviço Nacional de Saúde (SNS), provides comprehensive coverage for Portuguese citizens and legal residents. This also includes expatriates who have completed the necessary registration procedures. Boasting high vaccination rates and a notable life expectancy, the SNS reflects the country’s commitment to promoting the health and well-being of its population.

No matter your age, you must sign up for the Portuguese healthcare system as soon as possible. For expatriates planning to live in Portugal, understanding the healthcare system is also crucial. The country provides a mix of public and private healthcare options, and the quality of services is generally on a par with other Western European countries. Registration with the SNS grants access to subsidized healthcare, while many expats also opt for private health insurance to extend their access to services, reduce waiting times, and increase the ability of English-speaking medical professionals.

Of course, adjusting to a new healthcare system can be a complex process, but Portugal strives to make this transition smooth for the growing expat community. In addition to the public services, there are numerous private healthcare providers offering competitive rates for a range of medical services, from routine check-ups to specialized treatments. This blend of public and private options ensures that residents can find the care they need with relative ease, allowing expatriates to live in Portugal with peace of mind regarding their health and wellness.

What you might find is that not only is it easier to obtain healthcare coverage via the public sector, but signing up for private (supplemental) healthcare is also simple to obtain and very affordable.

Overview of Portugal’s Healthcare System

Overview of Portugal’s Healthcare System

Like most European countries, the public healthcare system is up-to-date, well-staffed, and utilized by almost everyone. Portugal offers a comprehensive healthcare system, characterized by a mix of public and private services. The cornerstone of public healthcare is the Serviço Nacional de Saúde (SNS), which provides a wide range of services to residents, including access to general practitioners, specialists, hospitals, and pharmacies. In most cases, this level of healthcare will be all that you need.

Public Healthcare System:

  • The SNS is free for residents and funded through taxation. In other words, there is no deductible and you will not be required to pay anything when you visit an emergency room or doctor.
  • It ensures access to quality healthcare for all, regardless of socioeconomic status. The people of Portugal believe that by providing quality healthcare for everyone, they are better able to maintain a healthy, stable, and happy population.
  • Administration and planning are managed by the Ministry of Health at a central level, with five regional health administrations operating locally.

Private Healthcare:

  • Complements the public system, often with shorter wait times. In most cases, longer wait times usually only occur when it comes to elective surgeries, so if you are planning on having one, obtaining private coverage may help you.
  • Provides an option for those willing to pay for insurance or out-of-pocket expenses.
  • Private insurance can be purchased by residents for additional coverage though it is by no means mandatory.

Healthcare Access for Expats:

  • Legal residents, including expatriates, can access the SNS upon registration and coverage is available immediately.
  • International and expat communities may opt for private insurance for broader service options, especially if travel throughout Europe is expected.

The United States has a life expectancy of 77.28; the United Kingdom is 80.90 years. With a life expectancy averaging 82.65 years, Portugal’s healthcare outcomes are above the European Union average. The people of Portugal are able to achieve this through the operation of a high-quality healthcare system designed to maintain public well-being. This established framework ensures that both legal residents and expats in Portugal have healthcare options that cater to varying needs and circumstances. Proper healthcare is not just for the rich in Portugal.

Navigating the SNS: Public Healthcare in Portugal

Navigating the SNS: Public Healthcare in Portugal

When you first get to Portugal, you will be required to sign up for the healthcare system. Portugal’s public healthcare system, the Serviço Nacional de Saúde (SNS), is a cornerstone of state-provided healthcare, offering comprehensive coverage to residents. For expatriates, the SNS represents a reliable and accessible healthcare option and one that is often more comprehensive than their country of origin.

Registration and Access

  • Legal Residents: Once you become a legal resident, you can obtain a user number that grants you full access to SNS services.
  • European Union Visitors: If you are a holder of the  European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), you will receive necessary healthcare for up to 90 days.

Understanding the System

The National Health Service provides a network of local and regional health centers. Primary care is the first point of contact—typically a family doctor who can then refer patients to specialized services when necessary. In this instance, it is much like the healthcare system in the United States – you will have your own GP (general practitioner) or other clinician for entering the system.

Covered Services and Costs

The SNS offers a wide range of services, which can include:

  • Primary healthcare – check-ups, vaccinations, emergency care
  • Hospital care – both long-term and short-term recovery from injuries, illnesses, and medical emergencies
  • Maternal health – available for prenatal and postnatal care
  • Child health – pediatrician care for your children
  • Disease prevention – vaccinations, addiction recovery, and treatment

While many services are free, some may have associated fees that are generally affordable. In all cases, they are considerably more affordable than in other countries.

Benefits of the SNS

When you sign up for the SNS, you will benefit from:

  • Equality of access, regardless of your socioeconomic status
  • Urgent care availability, even for non-residents with a visa
  • A healthcare system funded by general taxation, ensuring a broad service range

When entering an emergency room for example, what may surprise you is the complete lack of paperwork that is required. If you are relying on public healthcare only, there are no insurance forms to submit, no referrals, and no worry with regard to payment. It is all taken care of for you.

It goes without saying that the SNS stands as a testament to Portugal’s commitment to universal health coverage. This is considered by many to be one of the biggest perks of moving to Portugal. Expatriates looking to navigate the public healthcare landscape in Portugal will find the SNS to be a comprehensive and accessible system designed to cater to their health needs.

Eligibility and Access for Expats

Of course, in order to gain access to this level of healthcare you will need to meet certain requirements. For expatriates in Portugal, access to the healthcare system hinges on obtaining legal residency status. You will then need to file for a health number to access public healthcare services. These processes are essential for ensuring that expats can take full advantage of the healthcare services available and that the system is not abused by people without valid residency.

Legal Residency and Healthcare Rights

Legal residency is obviously very important in order to gain access to the level of healthcare that Portugal provides. Expatriates looking to settle in Portugal must first acquire legal residency status, often through a residence permit. Temporary visas will often allow you to take advantage of this service. Once this status is obtained, expats are entitled to access Portugal’s National Health Service (Serviço Nacional de Saúde or SNS) just like Portuguese citizens.

  • The first thing that you will need to do is apply for a residence permit, which involves submitting necessary documents and meeting certain requirements.
  • Once you have become a legal resident, you (and your family) are eligible for state healthcare coverage.

It’s important for expats to note, however, that Portugal has reciprocal health agreements with some countries, and expatriates from these countries may be entitled to some form of healthcare from day one of their residency.

Obtaining a User Number and Health Card

Once you have gotten your residency sorted out, you will need to register with the SNS and then find your local health center. You should register with their local health center (centro de saúde) to obtain a Número de Utente, which is a user number essential for public healthcare access. This number is different from your visa number and SNS number.

  1. Registration Process:
    • You will need to provide proof of legal residency, a passport, and a social security number.
    • Then, all you need to do is fill out the required forms at the health center to receive a user number.
  2. Health Card Issuance:
    • Once a user number has been assigned, you will receive a Cartão de Utente, a health card that provides access to subsidized or free healthcare services depending on your residency status. This number is the key to ensuring that you have access to healthcare during your residency in Portugal.

Having supplemental health insurance, whether private or via an employer, is also recommended for expatriates. This can complement the public healthcare system by covering services that might not be fully included under the SNS and provide quicker access to some medical services. Those who have required certain surgeries, such as having a stent implanted or a knee replaced have found that this additional insurance is invaluable.

Private Health Insurance Options

Private Health Insurance Options

When you begin your residency in Portugal, you will have the ability to choose from various private health insurance options, which can offer additional benefits and quicker access to healthcare services. Private health insurance in Portugal can be particularly advantageous for those seeking faster appointments and often broader access to specialists and medical facilities. In many ways, it is equivalent to the “concierge” type of medicine that is growing in popularity in the United States.

There are a lot of considerations when it comes to evaluating private health insurance. Typically, an insurance policy with a private provider includes services like general and specialist care, surgery, hospitalization, and sometimes even dental coverage—which is often excluded from public healthcare plans. Ideally, you should look for a company that is recognized in more than one company but also has offices in your country of origin. Several insurers are recognized for their comprehensive coverage options, including Allianz and Cigna Global, noted for their global reach and extensive networks of medical practitioners.

Benefits of Private InsuranceConsiderations
Faster access to doctors and hospitalsMonthly premiums
Coverage for a range of medical servicesPossible co-payments
Access to private hospitals and clinicsPolicy coverage limits

Not all private insurance policies are going to work for everyone of course. When choosing a private insurance plan, you should consider factors such as the scope of coverage, the flexibility of visiting various hospitals and clinics, and the potential for direct billing services.Obviously, taking the time to review different plans carefully will ensure that they align with individual healthcare needs and budget constraints.

It’s also essential to note that while private health insurance can provide a sense of security and comfort with its features, individuals must assess the coverage details, exclusions, and waiting periods. Typically, private insurers offer various policies to suit different requirements, from basic coverage to more comprehensive plans that cater to a more extensive range of medical services. Much like the policy that you probably already have at home, there will be different deductibles, requirements for referral, and limitations on procedures and treatments that you might want to consider.

Selecting private health insurance in Portugal is an important decision for anyone who is moving to this country. Thoroughly comparing policies and understanding the terms and conditions will aid in finding the most suitable option for your healthcare needs as well as your budget.

Comparing Public and Private Sectors

As mentioned above, Portugal offers both public and private healthcare options to its residents, including expatriates. The public healthcare system is widely accessible, while the private sector is known for more rapid service and amenities.In many cases, you will see the same doctors and be served in the same facilities, but many people purchase private insurance simply to be seen quicker in emergencies or for planned procedures.

Quality of Care

In Portugal, the public healthcare system is recognized worldwide for providing a good standard of care. The Serviço Nacional de Saúde (SNS) is the cornerstone of public healthcare, ensuring comprehensive care across the country. The public sector is staffed by qualified doctors and healthcare specialists committed to delivering quality treatment. In the private healthcare realm, facilities are noted for their modern amenities and advanced technologies. Patients at private clinics often encounter a more personalized healthcare experience with a strong focus on comfort and convenience. Depending on what you are used to back home, you may find that doctors spend more time with you and have a more personal interaction with you in Portugal.

Waiting Times and Access to Specialists

One of the most significant differences between the public and private sectors is waiting times. The public system can experience long waiting periods for non-urgent care and access to specialists. For example, while one may have to wait for weeks or even months to see a specialist in the public sector, the private sector typically offers faster access. This swift service is a key reason why some individuals opt for private healthcare despite the associated costs. The efficiency of private healthcare often extends to treatments as well, with private hospitals and clinics providing timely interventions that are attractive to those seeking immediate care. However, it should be noted that the majority of the population of Portugal relies solely on public insurance.

Primary Care Services and Family Doctors

We all know primary care to be the doctor or other provider that you see first in most instances. They check in with you regularly, they know your medical background, and they can be proactive in preventing illness and injury. They are also integral in dealing with the issues related to aging.

In Portugal, primary care services are a fundamental element of the healthcare system, serving as the first point of contact for individuals seeking medical attention. Each resident typically registers with a family doctor, known in Portuguese as “médico de família.” These general practitioners (GPs) operate within the Serviço Nacional de Saúde (SNS), the nation’s public health service, or in private practice. You will be assigned to a family doctor though you can change your provider at any time.

Local Health Centers: These types of facilities are similar to small medical offices in other countries. They are your first point of contact for any aspect of your health. They cater to community health needs, encompassing a spectrum of services from preventive care to treatment and ongoing management of chronic conditions. Securing a family doctor at these centers is crucial, and it is their responsibility to:

  • Provide you with comprehensive medical care
  • Coordinate with specialists
  • Issue all types of referrals
  • Administer immunizations and vaccinations
  • Manage chronic diseases

Accessibility to GPs: Patients can schedule appointments directly with their registered family doctor. In the public system, this may require some waiting time, whereas the private sector typically offers expedited access. Of course, you will always have access to emergency facilities if needed as well.

List of Services by GPs:

  • Consultations: Routine health check-ups and medical counseling.
  • Preventive Care: Advice on maintaining a healthy lifestyle and helping with disease prevention.
  • Diagnosis: Identifying health issues based on symptoms and medical history.
  • Treatment Plans: Designing tailored treatment strategies for various ailments.

Your family doctor is an integral part of maintaining your health, being both a gatekeeper to specialized services and a personal health advocate within Portugal’s healthcare system. It is important to remember, however, that you will need a healthcare user number (Número de Utente) in order to access these primary care services.

Hospital Care: Public and Private Hospitals

Portugal’s hospital care framework is a hybrid of public and private institutions, with distinct services and treatment options. As a new resident in Portugal, you should understand the differences between these two branches concerning services, quality of care, and access to emergency facilities.

Hospital Services and Treatment Options

It may surprise you to learn that Portugal boasts a network of 241 hospitals, These include public and private facilities offering a broad scope of healthcare services. Public hospitals provide comprehensive treatment options, which are often free or low-cost for those covered by the national health system. Services typically include:

  • General medicine
  • Surgery
  • Obstetrics
  • Emergency care
  • Specialty consultations and procedures

On the other hand, private hospitals are known for their reduced waiting times and tend to have more luxurious facilities. They offer similar services to public hospitals, but the cost without private insurance can be substantial. Many expatriates opt for private health insurance to access this tier of healthcare. It is by no means necessary, but if you can afford it, it is definitely a good idea to buy it.

Emergency and Urgent Care

Most of us have spent a few hours in an emergency room – broken bones, cuts, scrapes, or sudden illnesses happen all the time. Portugal’s hospital system is equipped to handle emergency and urgent care through a nationwide network of emergency medical services (EMS). Public hospitals are the primary providers of emergency services, available to all residents and visitors. Please remember that the national emergency number is 112, which can be dialed for immediate assistance.

  • Public hospitals: These typically handle a higher volume of emergencies and are fully prepared to provide urgent care around the clock. If you have an emergency situation such as an injury, suspected heart attack, a concussion, or a severe cut, then this is where you need to be.
  • Private hospitals: While they also offer emergency services, they might not handle as many emergency situations as public hospitals. However, for non-life-threatening conditions, private hospitals offer urgent care with the benefit of shorter wait times. Especially during flu season when everyone is cramming into the emergency rooms, having private insurance is very helpful.

It is vital for you to have your health insurance details at hand for admittance to private hospital emergency services. It is also advisable that you know where the nearest hospital is in your area, be it public or private, to ensure prompt access to care when required.

Dental, Maternity, and Mental Health Services

Dental care is something that is not commonly included in healthcare coverage in other countries. However, in Portugal, you will have access to a comprehensive range of healthcare services, including dental care, maternity services, and mental health facilities. These are all designed to be integral to the well-being of individuals and families. These services are part of the country’s robust healthcare system, which ensures quality and accessibility for all.

Dental Care and Costs

It may seem remarkable to many that dental care in Portugal is available through both public and private sectors. While basic dental services are covered by the public healthcare system, many residents opt for private care to access a wider range of treatments. Costs in the private sector vary, with more complex procedures being more expensive, but are generally considered affordable compared to other European countries. In fact, many people pursue long-term residency in Portugal simply for this type of coverage.

  • Public: Basic treatments free or at a low cost – cleaning, fillings, emergency treatments.
  • Private: Wide range of treatments at varying costs but all significantly lower than in the United States.

Maternity Services and Prenatal Classes

High-quality maternal care is vitally important so if you anticipate having children during your time in Portugal, you should feel at ease. Portugal offers extensive maternity services and supports expectant mothers through both public and private facilities. Pregnant expats can expect comprehensive prenatal care, including access to prenatal classes that prepare them for childbirth. The national health service (Serviço Nacional de Saúde) ensures that giving birth in Portugal is safe and well-managed, with skilled medical teams available.

  • Prenatal Classes: Offered by hospitals and clinics, often free of charge
  • Giving Birth: You will receive a high standard of care in public and private hospitals

Mental Health Facilities and Care

Mental health is an essential part of Portugal’s healthcare system, with services available to address various needs. This category of healthcare is always changing, and much like in other countries, it is getting better all the time. Mental healthcare in Portugal has seen improvements and expansion, allowing residents to receive quality care. Various facilities provide treatments and support for a range of mental health conditions, often integrating services into the general healthcare network.

  • Public and Private Care: Counseling, therapy, and psychiatric services for everyone
  • Accessibility: Available throughout Portugal in various healthcare settings

Expat Considerations: Language and Culture

For many new residents, the Portuguese language is the biggest barrier of all. Ideally, you should work on your language skills before arriving, but nothing really takes the place of being fully immersed in the language. Expatriates often face unique challenges when navigating the healthcare system in Portugal, particularly concerning the language barrier and understanding local healthcare practices.

Communication with Medical Professionals

Surprisingly, medical professionals in Portugal are generally proficient in English, especially in larger cities and private healthcare facilities. However, in public hospitals and rural areas, English may not be as commonly spoken. In these cases, taking someone with you who speaks Portuguese can be very helpful.

  • Hospitals in Major Cities: The likelihood of finding English-speaking staff is high.
  • Public vs Private: Private healthcare providers are more likely to have multilingual staff.
  • Important Phrases: Expats should familiarize themselves with basic Portuguese health-related terms and customs.

Understanding Portuguese Healthcare Culture

The Portuguese healthcare system emphasizes holistic care and the importance of family involvement. Appointments may run differently than what expats are accustomed to, with a more personal approach that extends beyond strict professionalism. This can be shocking at first, but most likely you will appreciate the real personal contact you get.

  • Approach to Care: Holistic and family-centric.
  • Difference in Etiquette: More informal and personable interactions.
  • Residency Status: Access to public healthcare is linked to residency; foreigners should ensure they are properly registered.

Healthcare Costs and Taxation

Your access to Portugal’s healthcare system is dictated by your residency status. Those who are residents typically benefit from the public healthcare system, which is supported by taxation and generally free of charge. Certain services and prescriptions do require a user fee called ‘taxa moderadora’. These fees are modest in comparison to the total cost of the service provided.

For a heightened level of healthcare, some expatriates may choose private insurance. A basic private insurance package can start from €15-20 per month, while more comprehensive plans cost upward of €30, with coverage extending to €500,000 or more. When you compare these costs to the extravagant costs in the United States, you will see why more and more people are choosing to retire in Portugal!

Public Healthcare Funding:

  • Taxation: Healthcare services are financed through general taxation.
  • Co-payments: Small fees for specific services to mitigate misuse.
  • Free of Charge: Services such as emergency care and infectious disease treatment.

Private Healthcare Costs:

  • Basic Coverage: Starts roughly at €15-20/month.
  • Comprehensive Coverage: This may exceed €30/month.
  • Out-of-Pocket Expenses: Increasing for certain treatments and prescriptions not covered by the SNS (Serviço Nacional de Saúde).

Because of the way the Portuguese government manages and disperses tax revenues, this country spends less on healthcare than the EU average, while also delivering reliable services. Tax revenues are the primary source of funding for public healthcare, ensuring that essential services are accessible for residents at minimal or no cost. The rate of these taxes is progressive, in line with the individual’s income, thereby distributing the financial responsibility across society. If you earn more, you pay more in taxes, which is a fair way of collecting revenue.

Pharmacies, Prescriptions, and Vaccinations


Known as pharmacies, chemists, or drug stores in other countries, pharmacies in Portugal, are known as “farmácias,” and they are widely accessible. They are the go-to sources for medications. These pharmacies operate under strict regulations and are staffed by knowledgeable pharmacists capable of providing advice on minor health issues and over-the-counter medications. Most neighborhoods in urban and suburban areas have at least one pharmacy, with 24-hour services available in larger cities. You should never have a problem finding a pharmacy that has what you need.


Prescriptions in Portugal are mandatory for many medications, including antibiotics and other controlled substances. You should know that a local doctor’s prescription is typically required, which ensures that they receive correct and safe medication. Prescription costs are often reduced, and sometimes fully covered by the National Health Service (SNS) for residents, including expats who have registered. This is obviously a far cry from the exorbitant prescription prices in other countries.


Medications, or “medicamentos,” available in Portugal range from locally produced to international brands and generally cost less compared to North America. Expats can expect to find equivalents to most prescriptions needed. The brands you know back home may be named differently in Portugal, but they are still of the highest quality.


Being vaccinated is part of being a good citizen, protecting yourself and others from communicable diseases. Vaccinations are an integral part of the healthcare system, with schedules for standard vaccinations provided free of charge through the SNS. Expats and their families, once registered with the SNS, have access to vaccinations according to the national schedule. Information on additional vaccines for travel or specific health needs can typically be provided by local health centers and pharmacies.

For many people who are considering the move to Portugal, this type of affordable access to pharmacies and prescriptions is very important. Adhering to vaccination protocols is also a key aspect for expats to consider while living in Portugal to ensure a smooth and healthy experience.

Frequently Asked Questions

This section provides answers to common queries you may have regarding healthcare services in Portugal.

What are the qualifications for accessing healthcare services as an expat in Portugal?

You must register for a residence permit and then enroll with the local health center in Portugal to access public healthcare services. Upon successful enrollment, they will receive a Portuguese healthcare number (número de utente) to use public healthcare. This number is mandatory to obtain healthcare of any kind.

How does the quality of healthcare in Portugal compare to other European countries?

Portugal offers a high standard of healthcare comparable to other European countries. The public sector focuses on accessibility, while private healthcare is known for shorter wait times and is often used in tandem with the public system. Whether you choose to purchase supplemental insurance is up to you, but it is very affordable.

Are there any costs associated with healthcare for expats in Portugal?

Public healthcare is not entirely free in Portugal; there are nominal fees for various services. However, private healthcare costs and insurance premiums are fairly reasonable, with broad coverage options available at a range of prices. In any case, you will find that all costs are more affordable than in most other countries.

What types of health insurance options are available for expats in Portugal?

Expatriates in Portugal can opt for either public health insurance through enrollment in the national health system or private health insurance, which provides quicker access to specialists and services.

Can tourists avail of healthcare services in Portugal, and if so, how?

Tourists in Portugal can receive emergency healthcare services; however, non-emergency services require payment. Tourists from the EU can use the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) for necessary medical treatment, and as a permanent resident of Portugal, you will have access to healthcare in other EU countries as well.

What are some of the best private health insurance providers in Portugal for expatriates?

Allianz and Cigna Global are two well-recognized private health insurance companies among expatriates in Portugal, known for their extensive coverage and dependable services. Both of these companies are well known in other countries so obtaining coverage should be simple.

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