16 Things You Should Know Before Living in Brazil (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly)

You can learn a lot about a country and its culture just by visiting. But you really learn about a place after living there.

After the honeymoon phase is over, you start to see both the good and the bad. You see what really lies beneath the surface, as opposed to just the fantasy sold in guidebooks and the like.

I definitely had my preconceptions about Brazil before moving here…but there were some things that surprised me in the end….and they just might surprise you too.

Thinking about living in Brazil? Here are 16 things you might want to know before you move.

1) People rarely ever text. They (almost exclusively) Whatsapp.

Before moving to Brazil, I never used Whatsapp. Now, I can’t imagine communicating with anything else.

In Brazil, people don’t ask for your phone number. They ask for your Whatsapp. I don’t think I have ever actually texted with a Brazilian here outside of Whatsapp.

So if you decide to live in Brazil, you’d better get used to it. The good news is that Whatsapp is far more user-friendly than normal texting or iMessage. Once you start using it, you’ll never go back to anything else. Guaranteed.

2) Things are (absurdly) expensive 

Imported products in Brazil are crazily overpriced, due to high import taxes. So overpriced that I refuse to buy clothes, cosmetics, books, electronics…I pretty much only buy what I actually need here!

Just to give you an idea, I went to the cosmetics store, Sephora, the other day and saw that a NARS lipstick that runs $26 USD back home costs R$100 here (about $45 USD).  A Lancome cream that costs $190 USD in the U.S. (still crazy expensive) costs a mind-boggling $1,029 reais here (like 450 USD).

The price of electronics is generally two to three times the cost that it is in the US. A Nikon camera that costs about $500 in the US will set you back about 2,100 reais here (approximately $1,000 USD).

I was appalled when I saw the price of this simple calculator (equivalent to about $70 USD – would not cost more than $5 USD at home!)

I’ve heard that many Brazilians travel to the US just to buy things and then resell them here–And they’re able to pay for their flight (and more) with the money they make.

3) Customer service is gosh-darn awful  

I’d always heard how friendly people were in Brazil. So I was surprised to find that, with few exceptions, people who work in the service industry in Brazil (like at grocery stores, big department stores etc) don’t care to help customers and are often even downright rude to customers.

I was actually shocked when, last month during Carnaval, some woman behind the counter at Lojas Americanas (a “cheap” department store) initiated a conversation with me. That had never happened before (and hasn’t happened since)!

And you can forget about returning anything here! If you buy something and want to return it in Brazil, the salesperson will make the return process as difficult as they possibly can (if you’re able to return it at all). Yet another reason why I don’t buy things here!

This all goes back to the mentality in Brazil. People are focused on short-term gain, rather than long-term.

4) The Brazilian bikini is kind of awesome 

If you’re female, you’d better get used to the Brazilian bikini.

When I first came here, I was extremely shy about wearing the Brazilian bikini on the beach. Fast forward to today and I can’t imagine wearing anything else!

Personally, I find the Brazilian cut FAR more flattering than the American/European bikini bottoms–which Brazilians jokingly refer to as “fraldas” (diapers).

I think it’s safe to say that I’m forever converted to the Brazilian style…

My Brazilian bikini compared to my American bikini
And…another Brazilian bikini bottom on top of  bottoms I bought in France…

5) You’ll (almost) always feel like you’re being ripped off 

Just to go to a bar in Rio (not a boteco, which is a casual Brazilian bar), you generally have to pay a cover of at least 15 reais. And that’s if there is no live music playing. It makes bar-hopping pretty much out of the question and going out a very expensive excursion.

There are also many times when the waiter will short you of change or purposefully add items to the bill (it happens too often to just be a mistake). You have to be extra diligent about checking change and bills here.

Here’s another example: If I order sushi and want extra wasabi, I have to pay 4 reais just for that extra wasabi. Nothing is ever free in Brazil.

6) Inefficiency is the norm 

Let’s just say that Brazil’s strong point is not exactly efficiency.

Here’s an example: As mentioned, bars in Rio charge an entry fee. But instead of paying at the door when you arrive, you have to pay it when you leave. You’re given a piece of paper when you arrive, and food and drinks are written down as you buy them. Then at the end of the night, you have to pay for everything at once.

This process sometimes leads to extremely long lines at the end of the night–and caused major issues when there was a fire at a nightclub in Brazil last year. Tragically, many people actually died because the bouncer wouldn’t let people leave without paying their tabs first.

A much more efficient system would be to have customers pay for the cover charge immediately when they arrive and then have them pay for their drinks as they order them–or just allow customers to start a tab and leave the credit card with the bartender, as is done in the US.

It works similarly in stores, where customers have to go to one cashier to get a slip of paper with the price of what they have to pay, and then proceed to another cashier to actually pay. I never understood this. Why can’t I just pay at one cashier? Why is it so darn difficult just to make a purchase?! Whatever the reasoning is for this (probably to avoid theft), there’s got to be a more efficient way.

Or…If I go to the grocery store, there can be three people in front of me and I’ll somehow be waiting for half an hour just to buy a mango.

So…yeah. You learn to be patient living in Brazil. And deal with the frustration of inefficiency.

7) Portuguese is essential 

If you’re traveling to Brazil and expecting to get by on just English…you may have your work cut out for you. I would at least advise buying a phrasebook and learning some key phrases–a little Portuguese will go a long way! And will be much appreciated.

8) Everyone flaunts their bodies proudly 

One thing I love about Brazil is that there’s no body shame like there is in the U.S. No matter one’s size (or age), everyone seems to be proud of their body.

In the US, women tend to stop wearing bikinis past a certain age or if they’re over a certain size. But in Brazil, all women wear bikinis (and not those “diapers” that people wear back home!).

Suffice it to say that the beach culture is a refreshing change from the US. And if you’ve got body shame, you’d better get rid of it. Fast.

9) It’s difficult to eat healthy

Salgados, popular Brazilian fried snacks made up of meat and/or cheese (photo courtesy of pixabay.com)

In a country that has more types of fruit than I’ve ever seen in my entire life, it’s surprising to me how difficult it’s been to have a healthy, well-rounded diet here. I’ve found myself eating much worse here than I do back home. The grocery store selection is limited and the majority of restaurants don’t cater to healthy-eaters.

I’ve found that most Brazilians love to add tons of sugar to almost everything–even things that (at least in my opinion) don’t need any added sugar! Like fruit juice, for instance. Unfortunately, this could be a reason why obesity is on the rise in Brazil.

Eating out tends to center around fried food (salgados), meat and sugar and very little organic, unprocessed food.

Granted, healthier restaurants can be found in Ipanema and Leblon (the wealthier neighborhoods of Rio), but be prepared to pay an arm and a leg for it.

10) Everyone seems to live with the ‘rents 

Most Brazilians live with their parents until they get married, unless their parents live in a different city.

I live with an English guy and anytime I tell a Brazilian that I live with a guy who is not my boyfriend and that yes, we have a purely platonic relationship, their jaws practically drop in surprise.

I asked one Brazilian about it and he explained that it’s not normal for a guy and a girl to live together here, unless they are coupled up or married.

11) It’s not as dangerous as the news makes it out to be

This also came as a surprise to me. Sure, I live in a very safe neighborhood and spend most of my time in the Zona Sul (the safer part of Rio), but I do feel a lot safer in Rio than I had anticipated, even riding the bus (I had always heard that there were a lot of robberies on busses, but I’ve never had a bad experience…knock on wood!).

At the same time, I know that I need to always have my guard up here and should never walk alone at night. And I’ve definitely heard my fair share of horror stories. But I think if you stick to the safe areas and don’t walk alone on empty streets at night, chances are, you’ll be just fine. Like anywhere, be smart.

But regardless, if you’re traveling to Brazil, be sure to check out these safety tips.

12) Cariocas tend to be a bit closed-off

I’ve found that cariocas (people from Rio) tend to have their group of friends (from high school, college, work…) and don’t seem to care that much to branch out and make new ones.

I’ve heard from many people that it’s very hard to break into a circle of Carioca friends–so it’s not just me that thinks this!

Even Cariocas themselves admit this: I was out the other night with my awesome Carioca friend, Claudia and my (equally as awesome) American friend, Iyin (both of whom I met at a language meetup). A Brazilian guy asked us how we all became friends and said how it was estranho (weird) that a Carioca girl would befriend us, since generally Cariocas have their friends and stick to them.

Perhaps my expectations were too high. While people in Rio may not be as overly friendly and warm as I had anticipated, many people are friendly and strangers will often go out of their way to help you if you need help. And in other parts of Brazil, like Minas Girais, people are incredibly friendly and approachable.

13) Women are often seen as sex objects

How sad is it that I just google imaged “Brazil beauty” and “Brasil beleza” (the Portuguese translation) and, hoping to see pictures of the beautiful country, I instead see (in both languages), pictures of beauty pageant contestants, dolled-up women and their behinds.

Such gender objectification is obviously a global issue, but I notice that it is much more blatantly obvious in Brazil.

I’ve been shocked by some of the things that I see on TV here. Watching a normal talk show, for instance, this is what I see on the screen: a male presenter holding a microphone, surrounded by his “assistants”, a line of women in skimpy costumes, just standing there next to him, posing and smiling. As a woman, I find it to be downright offensive! Yet this type of thing is completely normal in Brazil–nobody bats an eyelid.

14) Brazilians (especially cariocas) are a flaky bunch

Brazilians (especially cariocas) are not the most reliable. I learned this when I was living in Paris and trying to meet Brazilians. I would make plans with someone, they would confirm, and then I wouldn’t hear anything from them.

But this is the norm in Brazil. Brazilians, particularly cariocas, are known for being perpetually late. You learn not to take anything anyone says literally when living in Brazil. “Estou chegando” (I’m arriving) can mean anything from “I’ll be there in five minutes” to “I’ll be there in two hours.”

Lesson learned? If you’re meeting a Brazilian, always be at least a little bit late. And if a Brazilian (especially a Carioca) tells you “let’s do something,” don’t count on it happening. And definitely don’t take it personally when they flake out.

Instead, always make plans with multiple people. The idea being that if you follow up enough with all of them, at least one of the plans you made will pan out!

And whatever you do, do not show up to a party on time.

15) You’ll need a visa 

On a more practical note, you’ll need a visa to go to Brazil (at least if you’re from the U.S.). Yes, this is the case even if you just want to go for a few months (or a few days). Brazil has a reciprocal policy, so because the U.S. requires Brazilians to get visas to travel there, Brazil does too. So you can thank the U.S. immigration for that!  

The good news is that your visa will last for 10 years. But on a tourist visa, you can only stay for a maximum of six months out of each year. The good news here? It’s not a big deal if you overstay. Unlike the U.S., overstaying your visa is punished by just a slap on the wrist (a.k.a. a fine). 

I overstayed my visa by three months the first time I was there (staying a total of nine months) and got fined a few reais per day (which I had to pay not when I left the country, but when I went back several years later). The fine went up A LOT the last time I was there, so, if you’re considering overstaying your visa, make sure you check what the fine will be so you’re prepared for the consequences. 

Tip: If you go this route, be sure to keep your comprovante or your receipt. I was asked to provide this when I reentered, as proof that I had paid the fee. If I didn’t have it, I would have likely had to pay the fee again (in case you couldn’t tell by now…Brazil isn’t the most organized country!). 

16) Brazil will steal your heart 

Granted, when living in Brazil, there are some things that will make you want to pull your hair out at times. But at the end of the day, it’s hard not to fall head over heels in love with this place. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

While some of the things on this list do make me miss home at times, at the end of the day, the positives outweigh the negatives.

The other day, I was riding the bus and the bus driver told me to sit in the front. While driving, he told me that he didn’t speak a word of English–that the only thing he knew how to say was “I love you”. Go figure!

Then at my stop, he directed me where to get off and how to get home, and when I got off the bus, he shouted out to me, “I love you!” Only in Brazil…

It’s those little interactions that make me love this country so much. It’s the kind, warm people…the infectious energy…the laid-back vibe…

It’s walking down the street and seeing this…

See what I mean? Try not falling head over heels in love with Brazil. I dare you.

Want to learn more about Brazil? Check out this post on Brazilian habits

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