View of coastal Fortaleza, with a long strip of beach visible and a cluster of homes.

Fortaleza, Brazil. Photo © Leonardo Pallotta, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

If you’re thinking of moving to Brazil, it’s wise to spend some time getting a sense of the country and the culture, not to mention housing and job possibilities, before you go ahead and take the plunge. A fact-finding trip to explore a region of the country and neighborhoods of the city in which you’re interested in potentially living can be essential. Such a trip allows you to talk to both expats and Brazilians about the areas’s pros and cons and ups and downs and can help open your eyes to what you’re getting yourself into.

The shock of encountering some of the tougher, but less initially apparent, realities of life in Brazil can be brutal for those who lack preparation and walk into Brazil wearing rose-colored sunglasses.A lot of foreigners initially come to Brazil as tourists and are often seduced by its paradisiacal aspects; tropical climate, spectacular nature, warm and friendly people, rich culture, laid-back vibe, not to mention all that fresh fruit. Sometimes, the spell is so intense that they drop everything and immediately make the move without getting a sense of what lies beneath those alluring first impressions. The shock of encountering some of the tougher, but less initially apparent, realities of life in Brazil can be brutal for those who lack preparation and walk into Brazil wearing rose-colored sunglasses. While a fact-finding trip will allow you some forays into Brazil’s more delicious aspects, the focus is upon gathering sufficient information that will allow you to determine whether or not a certain neighborhood, city, region, or even Brazil itself is a good fit for you.

Documents and Immunizations

If your country requires Brazilians to have travel visas, you will have to get one from the nearest Brazilian consulate before entering Brazil. Currently, citizens of Canada, the United States, and Australia require visas. Citizens of the United Kingdom, other European Union countries, and New Zealand don’t need visas but must have a passport that is valid for six months and a return ticket.

Brazil requires only one vaccination: for yellow fever if you are visiting the Amazon region (or arriving from certain countries)—it’s an essential for that region, but otherwise only recommended. If you are going to the Amazon, make sure you bring an International Certificate of Vaccination booklet as proof of vaccination.

When to Go to Brazil

There’s no real season not to go to Brazil, although based on the region you’re visiting, you might want to work around certain weather tendencies. For the purpose of fact finding—not to mention affordability—it’s best to avoid summertime, particularly the weeks between Christmas and Carnaval (usually in February). This period coincides with summer vacation (and often very hot summer temperatures with a scalding sun that will make moving around during the day quite uncomfortable). In coastal areas (particularly the Northeast, Rio de Janeiro, and Santa Catarina), summertime is synonymous with tourism and multiple festas (the main one being Carnaval). Although this makes things fun for tourists, it also results in high airfares and accommodation rates. With many people vacationing, you may encounter difficulties in meeting with professionals regarding work and study possibilities. It’s also more difficult to gauge what “real life” during the rest of the year is like.

Summertime in the Southeast and parts of the Central-West is often accompanied by significant rainfall. This can lead to flooding (even in downtown Rio and São Paulo) and makes getting around very difficult. Rainfall can be heavy in the Northeast (particularly in Bahia, Alagoas, and Pernambuco) between March and June. Things are even wetter in the Amazon where the rainy season lasts for six months (usually November to May).

Because most of Brazil boasts a tropical climate, the only region you’ll want to avoid exploring in the winter months is the South, where temperatures can approach 0°C (32°F). São Paulo, parts of Minas, and the Central West can also experience cool temperatures during this period (particularly at night). Be aware that due to school vacations, many Brazilians also take winter holidays in July.

If your fact-finding trip is only going to last one or two weeks, it’s also worth checking an online calendar of Brazilian feriados or holidays. There are more than a dozen national holidays (and some state and municipal ones to boot) in Brazil when most public entities and a lot of private businesses shut down. The thing to watch for is pontes (bridges): When a holiday falls on a Tuesday or Thursday, for example, many Brazilians will often take Monday or Friday off as well, creating a ponte that stretches to the weekend and results in a 4-day vacation. Aside from finding cities abandoned, you’ll also find it more difficult to obtain available, not to mention affordable, accommodations and airfares.

What to Pack for Brazil

Brazil’s generally warm and casual climate means you can get away with packing quite lightly. Considering the heat and sun, take a tip from Brazilians and bring light colors. You might want to avoid white, which easily soaks up dirt, especially when you’re perspiring a lot (yes, be prepared to perspire). Outside of São Paulo, Brazilians are not that big on black (except for evening wear). Go for lightweight, breathable fibers (such as cotton). Keep in mind that heat and humidity will wilt carefully ironed collars, folds, and pleats, so consider clothes or fabrics that don’t require a lot of ironing.

As a rule Brazilians are casual, even in professional situations (unless you’re circulating in business and/or government circles). In most job-related or formal social situations, men can often wear a nice pair of trousers, a jacket, a button-down shirt (with or without tie), and a good pair of shoes. Women typically wear a skirt and blouse (with a blazer to dress things up) with heels or flats. In other situations, you can go even more casual although it’s preferable that men opt for pants instead of shorts when not indulging in touristic pursuits. Remember that even in the summertime, it’s a good idea to have a sweater or jacket since you’ll inevitably end up in an air-conditioned environment that verges on semi-Arctic. Leave attention-grabbing or expensive watches and jewelry at home.

For research and communication purposes, bring a laptop (one that can be cleverly disguised if you’re walking around with it), an iPhone or smartphone with Wi-Fi capability, or both. Bring a digital camera to take pictures of neighborhoods and apartments or houses that interest you. Aside from any prescription meds, bring some good mosquito repellent, anti-diarrheal medication, Tylenol or other analgesic, and lots of sunscreen (which costs a small fortune in Brazil).

Currency in Brazil

Although you might want to bring some U.S. dollars for an emergency (in the event you can’t get cash from an ATM or if your card gets lost, cloned, or stolen), you’ll usually lose money exchanging dollars at either a bank or a casa de câmbio (exchange house). Major hotels will also exchange dollars, as will airport banks. Since 2006, the U.S. dollar (which at one point was US$1:R$4) has declined considerably against the stable and increasingly robust real (which in July 2012 was around US$1:R$2). As a result, there are very few places where U.S. dollars—or travelers checks—are accepted. The best way to deal with money concerns in Brazil is to bring an international Visa or MasterCard (or both to give you more options), so you can also withdraw cash from bank machines. Most major branches of Banco do Brasil and Bradesco have at least one ATM that accepts Visa cards, while Bradesco, HSBC, and Citibank accept MasterCard/Cirrus. Meanwhile red Banco 24 Horas ATMs accept all cards. In all cases, you need to have a four-digit PIN number. Many ATMs have an option for English.

More and more ATMs in all major and reasonably sized cities accept international cards. It’s best to use banks in downtown commercial areas or at airports, bus terminals, and shopping centers. For security reasons, bank ATMs are open 6am–10pm daily. Most have a daily withdrawal limit of R$1,000 (although Bradesco’s is R$800). To avoid having your card cloned (a frequent problem in Brazil), don’t use empty ATMs and make sure nobody is watching you. Never let your credit card out of your sight and keep track of your expenditures so that you can quickly notice if unaccounted withdrawals or charges occur. It’s a good idea to inform your bank that you’ll be traveling to Brazil prior to your departure; it’s not uncommon for banks to freeze cards believing that sudden Brazilian purchases and withdrawals constitute credit card fraud.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Living Abroad in Brazil.