Portugal vs United States vs Spain: Comparison of Living Costs

31 de March, 2023

Portugal vs United States vs Spain: Comparison of Living Costs

Comparison of living costs in Portugal, the United States and Spain: rent, food, transportation and healthcare. Find out where to live for less!
Reading: 9 min

Have you ever compared the cost of living between Portugal and Spain with that of a US city like San Francisco? It is not surprising that many Americans are moving to southern Europe.. Portugal and Spain are two choice destinations. They are beautiful places, with good weather, a rich and diverse culture, award-winning cuisine, safety… In short, there are many reasons to justify this trend, but none of them carries as much weight as the chance to live better and spend much less.

Both countries have an average annual per capita income considerably lower than that of the United States. So moving to these European paradises can represent a considerable increase in purchasing power, especially if American wage standards can be maintained.

In this article we bring a comparison between the costs of living in these three countries, focusing on three major cities: Lisbon, San Francisco and Madrid.

How much does it cost to live in Portugal and Spain?

“How much money do you need to live comfortably?” This is a common but difficult question to answer, as it depends on lifestyle and the number of people in the household. “Do you intend to rent or buy a residence?” Location also makes a difference – living in the city center or on the outskirts? To help, we can make an estimate for a couple renting a one-bedroom apartment in the city center, based on information from websites such as Idealist, Numbeo, Cost of Living e Expatistan. It is important to remember that these sites are updated daily, which means that there may be changes in the values from the day the article was published to the time you read it.


In Lisbon, a couple can live comfortably with a monthly budget of 2,000 to 3,000 euros. A good part of this amount will be destined to the rent. A curious fact is that Lisbon, Porto and Faro are the most expensive regions in Portugal, while Bragança, Castelo Branco, Viseu and Covilhã are among the cheapest in the country.


In Madrid, the average cost of living for a couple looking for some comfort, but without luxuries, is around 2,700 to 3,200 euros. Madrid and Barcelona are the most expensive cities in the country. Valencia, Malaga, Seville and Granada are known to have a lower cost of living.

United States

San Francisco is among the most expensive cities in the United States, where the average cost of living for a couple is about 6,200 euros per month.

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Housing Costs Lisbon x Madrid x San Francisco

Although Portugal offers a lower cost of living for goods and services, this benefit does not apply to housing costs. For example, currently, renting a 3-bedroom apartment in the center of Madrid can be up to 25% cheaper than in the center of Lisbon. It is worth remembering that Lisbon is a city 4 times smaller in size, but with the same population density, and currently faces a shortage of housing available for rent and sale.

Still, both in Lisbon and Madrid, the cost of housing is much more affordable than in San Francisco, where the average value for an apartment with these characteristics can easily exceed twice the prices charged in Europe.

It is important to note that the price difference can vary greatly depending on the specific location within each city, but overall the two European cities offer more affordable housing options compared to the American city.

ItemLisbonMadridSan Francisco
Rent m2€ 18,9/m2€ 16,6 /m2€ 31,3 /m2
Sale m2€ 5,938.28/ m2€ 5,423.35 /m2€ 10,461.10 /m2
Medium Rent 3 Bedroom Apartment Downtown€ 2,340.80€ 1,763.47€ 5,407.56
Medium Rent 3 Bedroom Apartment Outside Downtown€ 1,397.39 €€ 1,271.88€ 4,099.56
Source: Numbeo

Education Costs

Education is something that is highly valued when choosing a new city to live in. In Portugal and Spain, education costs much less than in American cities. Tuition in private schools at the pre-school level (up to age 5) can cost less than half as much in Lisbon and Madrid as in San Francisco .

Elementary Education

In Portugal and Spain, primary education up to the 12th grade (or 16 years) is compulsory and free. Many of the public schools stand out in national rankings, and have similar scores to private schools.

ItemLisbonMadridSan Francisco
Daycare or preschool (up to 5 years old)401/month479/month$2258/month
International elementary school9142/year8895/year13647/year
Source: LivingCost.org

University Education in Europe

Attending a quality university in Europe is a more affordable option than in the United States. This is another point that usually attracts Americans. Prices for undergraduate degrees vary widely, and are higher in private colleges. Public universities in Portugal and Spain are not free, but they offer more attractive prices than private ones. In addition, they usually have different prices for domestic and foreign students.

There are several options for universities in Lisbon and Madrid. In Lisbon, there are a total of 12 universities, 4 public and 7 private. The public universities include Universidade Aberta, Universidade de Lisboa, Universidade Nova de Lisboa and ISCTE – Instituto Universitário de Lisboa. The private universities include Universidade Autónoma de Lisboa Luís de Camões, Universidade Católica Portuguesa, Universidade Europeia, Universidade Lusíada, Universidade Lusófona de Humanidades e Tecnologias, ISPA – Instituto Universitário de Ciências Psicológicas, Sociais e da Vida and Instituto Superior de Gestão.

In Madrid, there are a total of 17 universities, 6 of which are public and 11 private. The public universities include Alcalá, Autónoma, Carlos III, Complutense, Politécnica y Rey Juan Carlos. The private universities include Alfonso X el Sabio, Antonio de Nebrija, Camilo José Cela, CUNEF Universidad, ESIC Universidad, Europea de Madrid, Francisco de Vitoria, Internacional Villanueva, San Pablo CEU, UDIMA and one of the Catholic Church, Pontificia Comillas.

To facilitate comparison of values, let’s take as a reference the University of Lisbona public institution considered the second best university in Portugal according to the QS World University Rankings 2023. ULisboa is also one of the largest in Europe. It is important to note that the annual fee charged depends on the course chosen and the nationality of the student. In Madrid, the reference is the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, considered the 4th best in Spain, according to Forbes.

In both Lisbon and Madrid, the average annual cost for international students is about 7,000 euros. In private universities that teach in English, the price is usually higher, around 15,000 euros per year.

For comparison, studying at the University of San Francisco costs at least 25,000 euros per year just for tuition alone, not including accommodation costs.

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Is healthcare in Portugal cheaper than in the United States?

Yes, of course!

In the United States, health care is a very expensive item, generally speaking. The country does not have a single health care system, but rather a variety of independent programs, autonomously regulated by the 50 federal units and sponsored by the market. Popular health insurances such as Medicaid and ACA (Affordable Care) do not serve the entire population and their services leave much to be desired. According to Health Markets, the average monthly cost of private health insurance in California is $700700, according to the website ValuePenguinwhich analyzes health insurance prices in the United States.

How much does healthcare cost in Portugal and Spain?

The cost of private health insurance varies according to the age of the patient and the type of coverage chosen. Insurance usually requires the user to pay a portion of the expenses for consultations and hospitalization, which is usually around 20% of the total expense. This also affects the price of the insurance.

In Portugal, the best known insurers are Médis and Medicare. A complete Médis insurance policy, including hospitalizations and consultations, costs on average €870 per year for an average 50-year-old. A consultation with a specialist doctor on a private basis (without insurance) costs between €50 and €120 in Portugal.

In Spain, the most popular health insurance companies are Adeslas and Sanitas. The annual amount charged for a 50-year-old person is around 900€ per year. Specialty consultations under a private scheme range from 70€ to 150€.

It is important to remember that private health insurance is not a real necessity, but rather a complement that guarantees more comfort and agility in medical care. Both Portugal and Spain offer quality public health services for their legal residents, including emergencies and childbirth. To use these services, it is necessary to be registered with the social security agency and have medical records with the public health network.

ItemLisbonMadridSan Francisco
Private specialist consultation€50- €120€ 70-€150€ 180 e € 450
Health Insurance (annual | 50 years)€ 870€ 900€ 8.400
Free Public Health for AllYesYesNo
Source: Médis, Adeslas, ValuePenguin.

Food costs

If you are one of those people who likes to save money even on food, Europe can be a great destination! Both groceries and restaurant meals are cheaper in European cities.

For example, eating at a restaurant in Lisbon or Madrid can cost on average 47% less than in San Francisco. And if you are a smoker or enjoy a good beer, even your addictions can be cheaper in the Portuguese capital, with cigarettes and beers at more attractive prices. Check below:

ItemLisbonMadridSan Francisco
Simple meal for 1 person12€13€22€
Elaborate meal for 2 people.49€50€90€
McLanche or equivalent7,50€8€11€
500ml beer in restaurant2,50€3,50€6,40€
Milk (liter)0,92€0,92€1,42€
Chicken (1kg)6,70€7,54€14,90€
Rice (1kg)1,30€1,30€5,15€
Cigarettes (20 pack)5,40€5,10€12,14€
Source: Numbeo

Transportation and fuel prices

Transportation is one of the few sectors that may demand a little more from the European budget than from the American one. Both car and fuel prices in Lisbon and Madrid are higher than in San Francisco. The advantage is that in Europe it is much easier to live without a car, since public transportation is of quality and used by the entire population and people from all social classes. In addition, many inhabitants prefer to walk or use bicycles to get around. A more sustainable and healthy way of getting around the city.

ItemLisbonMadridSan Francisco
Public Transportation(average value of bus fare/metro)2€1,50€2.52
Monthly pass for public transportation40€50€80€
Taxi (normal rate per km)0,65€1,10€1,78€
Gasoline (liter)1,89€1,85€1,39€
Volkswagen Golf 1.428 thousand €25 thousand euros25 thousand euros
Toyota Corolla Sedan 1.630 thousand euros24 thousand euros23 thousand €
Source: Numbeo

How much leisure costs

Quality of life is also directly linked to leisure options. In this respect, Europe leaves nothing to be desired. Both Lisbon and Madrid have an incomparable cultural richness, with centennial monuments, churches of unique beauty, and sunny beaches. In addition, they offer great options in theater, music, festivals, and popular festivals. And the best of all is that these activities are affordable.

In Europe it is quite common for the government to celebrate special dates with free events: guided tours, art classes, access to monuments and museums, and parks. During the summer there are usually street performances, jazz festivals, theater, dance, pilates, yoga, and much more. All free.

ItemLisbonMadridSan Francisco
Music Festival (daily admission)Nos Alive 75€Mad Cool Festival 85OutsideLands: $180

Average salary in Portugal and Spain

Although for many foreigners the costs of living in Portugal and Spain seem low, the reality for local residents is different. According to Eurostat data, by 2021, the average annual salary for people employed full-time in Portugal in Portugal was 19,000 euros. In that year, the minimum monthly wage was €665, but was updated to €760 in 2023.

Already in Spain, the average annual income in 2021 was 28 thousand euros. The minimum monthly wage was 950€, but was updated to 1080€ in 2023. In comparison, the survey revealed that the annual average salary in the European Union was 33,000 euros 33,000 gross in 2021, while in the United Statesaccording to the United States Census Bureau, the average annual salary in 2021 was equivalent to 71,000 euros.


As we have already pointed out, the cost of living in Lisbon and Madrid is considerably lower compared to San Francisco, which has attracted many Americans – mainly retirees and remote workers – to start a new life in southern Europe.

With income in US dollars, it is possible to live more luxuriously and acquire goods and property that would be unaffordable in America. In addition, Europe offers a more tranquil and secure lifestyle, perfect for those who wish to abandon the stressful routine of overwork.

If this is an idea that appeals to you, do not hesitate to talk to Atlantic Bridge consultants. They are specialists in finding viable alternatives for you to realize your dream of living in Portugal or Spain.

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