'It's now or never' - Britons scramble for residency in Spain and Portugal ahead of Brexit

By Victoria Waldersee and Isla Binnie
LISBON / MADRID (Reuters) - In October, Michelle Jones and her husband Gary boarded a ferry in England to start a new life in Spain. Had they left the European Union beyond Britain's transition period, things would have been much more complicated.
"We have no choice - it's now or never," said the former employee of the housing association in the hairdressing salon that she took over in the southern Spanish resort of Fuengirola.
"Our family and friends in the UK think we are crazy about it," said Jones, 54, during a pandemic, "but we are not going to bother to get visas and the like."
Britain officially left the European Union on January 31st after its 2016 referendum, but has since been in a transition phase where the rules for free travel and trade remain unchanged. This period ends on December 31st.
Fourteen European countries, including Portugal and Spain, grant Brits who arrive before December 31st the right to stay for five years. Other countries have stricter requirements after Brexit and urge all Brits to apply again after the transition period.
Some people submitted retirement plans before the deadline, others took advantage of the opportunity to work from home to move.
"I spent six months in Europe last summer and loved it so much that I wanted to do it every year, but that wouldn't be possible anymore," said Beth Sands, a 35-year-old nutritionist and accountant who moved to Europe is Portugal in September. "As soon as Brexit took place, I googled all the options to get European citizenship."
Those who left it by the last minute had thwarted their plans with Portugal's announcement on Sunday evening to close the borders to British travelers who had not already been registered as residents from Monday in response to the new superinfectious ones discovered in the UK Virus strain.
"Should come on December 26th. Will not take place before Brexit now," a Facebook user posted late on Sunday in a Facebook group for the British in Portugal.
In the Spanish spa town of Benidorm, insurance broker Sophie Goode arranged more policies in November that many people need to support their residency applications than the rest of the year combined.
"I got calls from the airport and they said, 'We're here, we have to do the paperwork,'" Goode said.
Registrations to stay in Portugal and Spain have increased in line with the Brexit deadlines.
In Portugal, 1,453 people registered in March 2019, the date the UK was originally supposed to leave the European Union, more than double the number of previous monthly registrations. Preliminary data for November shows the number was 2,407.
In Spain, the number of Britons with a residence permit increased by 8.2% from June 2018 to 2019 and by a further 5.8% by June 2020 to a total of 366,498 people. This is evident from data on the website of the State Secretary for Migration.
Some of them are long-term residents who failed to register, but community workers, private agents and the British Embassy in Portugal said many are newcomers.
"I have the feeling that a lot of them have just come to register an address and collect the certificate," said Maria Ricardo, who handles residency applications at the Loule Council on Portugal's Algarve coast. "They just want a ticket to Europe."
To get a residence permit, you must have a registered address, financial support, and access to health care.
"I wasn't sure I would stay, but it's so easy to get a residency permit and I knew the Brexit deadline was approaching, so I thought so," said James Ellsmoor, 27, a business owner and remote worker who arrived in Lisbon in November.
For Britons missing the December 31st deadline, moving to a European country means complying with the rules for non-EU migrants, possibly including sponsored work visas.
The coronavirus pandemic and unpredictable border closings have added an additional level of urgency.
"It was all the perfect storm," said Samantha Harding, 49, who moved to Cascais, Portugal in September. Capable of working remotely, she decided she was ready to make the move.
(Reporting by Isla Binnie, Victoria Waldersee; Editing by Janet Lawrence)
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