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Portuguese Verbs Ser vs. Estar: How and When to Use Either

In Portuguese, there are two to be verbs: ser and estar. Not fully understanding their differences, language learners will often hesitate between using one or the other.

See, while both ser and estar are equivalent to the English verb to be, they are used differently!

So, what’s the difference between the Portuguese verbs ser and estar?

The verb ser is used to talk about permanent states, whereas estar relates to the circumstantial and temporary. Thus, whether you use one or the other depends on the context’s time frame.

Here’s a concrete example:

[Circumstantial → temporary state]
Hoje estou contente.
I am happy today.

[In general → permanent state]
Sou uma pessoa contente.
I am a happy person.

There’s, of course, more to it as we’ll see further down. But before delving into the usage of ser and estar, let’s quickly look at their conjugations in the present tense:


Reading tips! Both ser and estar are irregular verbs. Learn more about other frequently used irregular verbs: Portuguese Must-Know Irregular Verbs.

Permanent vs. temporary states

As mentioned in the introduction, whether you use the verb estar or ser often depends on the context, that is, on if it is something circumstantial/temporary or long-lasting/permanent. 

Think about the concepts of climate and weather. The former describes the meteorological conditions that prevail in a given region over long periods. The latter concerns the meteorological conditions that are subject to daily changes.

So the concept of climate suggests a permanent state, whereas the weather implies a temporary one:

[Climate → Permanent state]
A Suécia é um país frio.
Sweden is a cold country.

[Weather → Temporary state]
Hoje está frio na Suécia.
Today it is cold in Sweden.

The same goes when you say, The Atlantic waters are cold, in Portuguese, As águas do Atlântico são frias. Again, the verb ser is marking the permanent state inherent in that sentence.

If you instead say, The milk is cold (right after having taken it out of the fridge), then you’re asserting a temporary state (guess what happens if you leave the milk outside the fridge a couple of hours). And so, that sentence in Portuguese is, O leite está frio..

Let’s now dive into either verb in more detail. 

The Portuguese verb Ser

In this section, I will walk you through several examples implying permanent states and the use of ser. I will also point out contextual shifts to temporary states that call to estar

Who am I? Who are you?

It is about time to introduce myself: Olá! eu sou o Pedro e sou Português. You probably know that I just said, Hi! I am Pedro and I am Portuguese

It is hardly surprising that I am using ser to introduce myself. After all, chances are that I will still be both Pedro and Portuguese tomorrow and well after that.

In other words, my name and nationality conform to a permanent state.

The same applies when we talk about our professions and trades. Again, ser implies permanent states:

Eu sou canalizador e ela é carpinteira.
I am a plumber and she is a carpenter.

So, you will be using ser whenever you introduce yourself, that is saying your name, nationality, profession, and so on.

You’d do the same, of course, if you were introducing a friend to another person:

João, esta é a Gabriela.
John, this is Gabriela.

How’s she as a person?

You’d also use the verb ser to talk about someone’s personality traits or your own:

A Sara é uma pessoa sensata. 
Sara is a sensible person.

O Paulo e o José são teimosos.
Paulo and José are stubborn.

However, you might swap to estar as soon as the permanent time-quality shifts into a temporary state:

Hoje estás teimoso. 
You’re being stubborn today!

How do you look?

I am curious about you:

És alto ou baixo? Magro ou rechonchudo? Loiro ou moreno? De que cor são os teus olhos?  
Are you tall or short? Thin or chubby? Blond or brunette? What color are your eyes? 

Unsurprisingly, I’ve used the verb ser to ask you about your physical traits. Again, if you’ve got blue eyes, they will stay blue for years to come, hopefully.

In other words, physical appearance has a permanent time-quality to it. Well, kind of!

Say that it had been a while since the last time I saw my friend Sara and that I got surprised when I saw her:

Sara, tu estás magra!
Sara, you look thinner!

So, even though I am referring to Saras’s physical appearance, I am now using the verb estar instead.

That’s because I am commenting on a physical trait that has changed over time, and so ser’s permanency no longer applies.

What’s her house like?

You’d also use the verb ser to describe things’ physical attributes:

A casa da Mariana é moderna e espaçosa.
Mariana’s house is modern and spacious.

Again, one might revisit Mariana’s house after 2 decades and cry:

A casa da Mariana está num mau estado!
Mariana’s house is in a bad shape!

Here too, we shifted to estar to reinforce the idea that something has changed over time.

Where is Stockholm?

And the answer is:

Estocolmo é na Suécia.
Stockholm is in Sweden.

We continue to use the ser under the same permanency’s logic – Stockholm is located in Sweden for good.

While the use of ser is perfectly correct, it is, in this context of geographic location, much more common to use another verb, namely ficar

Estocolmo fica na Suécia.
Stockholm is in Sweden.

Lisboa fica em Portugual.
Lisbon is in Portugual.

! Although considered grammatically incorrect, it is not uncommon to hear estar in this same context. So, you might hear that O arquipélago dos Açores está no meio do Atlântico instead of O arquipélago dos Açores fica/é no meio do Atlântico. (The Azores archipelago is located in the middle of the Atlantic).

The Portuguese verb Estar

Let’s now turn our focus to the verb estar and temporary states. Again, I will sometimes point out situations where estar is replaced by ser accordingly to changes in the time context.

How are you?

A very common Portuguese greeting is, Como estás? – How are you? – In this case, the use of estar conveys an implicit circumstantial time quality.

Needless to say that the same thing applies when you answer that question:

Estou bem, obrigado.
I am well thank you.

Reading tips! Speaking of greetings, here’s a read for you: Saying “Hello!” in Portuguese: a quick rundown on Portuguese greetings

It might not be always the case that we feel well though. For instance, we may get sick every now and then:

Hoje estou doente.
I am sick today in Portuguese.

So, whether you feel sick or spirited, happy or sad, hungry or thirsty … you use estar to express those physiological and psychological states – they all are, in essence, temporary. 

However, those affected by a chronic disease would use ser:

Sou diabético.
I am diabetic

This shift from estar to ser is reflecting a lasting condition.

How’s your tea?

Is it too hot? Well, wait one minute or two until you can drink it. You see what I am getting at, right? Estar is the right one in this context:

Como está o teu chá? Está quente demais?
How’s your tea? Is it too hot?

Here, we are required to discern permanent from temporary physical states. For instance, while sitting next to you watching you drink your tea I could ask:

É chá verde ou preto?
Is it green or black tea?

So, the question above refers to a permanent property of the tea, thus the verb ser. For that same reason, you would say Este chá é forte (This tea is strong) if the tea is strong off of its intrinsic properties.

But what if your tea is strong just because you’ve used too much of it to brew your cup?

Este chá está forte!
This tea is strong!

Our estar is back again to denote a circumstantial state, not a permanent one.

Where are you?

Paris? Lisboa? Maybe in Dublin next year? You can always move around and change places (circumstantial):

Onde estás?
Where are you?

The same applies to objects in general – we move them around. Stuff such as chairs, pens, carrots, clothes, scissors, and cars are inherently moveable:

Mas onde estão o raio das chaves? *
But where are those goddamn keys?

 * Oops! Some cursing came along with the last example! Here’s a read for you in case you want to learn about Portuguese strong language: Portuguese Swear Words: An Unashamed Journey Through Portuguese Strong Language.)

Final thoughts

The idea that ser is used in association with permanent states and estar with temporary permeated the whole article. Keeping that in mind will help you to pick the right verb according to the context. 

However, see it as a recurring pattern and no more than so.

While the mentioned principle holds well in general, there will always be exceptions breaking the rule. As a matter of fact, there are several situations where either verb would work just as well. 

For instance, I am married in Portuguese can be stated either as Estou casada or Sou casada – there’s no substantial difference between the two.

Possibly, someone learning Portuguese could find estar illogical by holding that marriage, by definition, implies a permanent state. Well, kind of. The reverse argument could also be made. But these discussions are fruitless.

The thing is that logic and languages are not best friends. We may strive to tidy them up and to make sense of them, but languages have a life of their own and not without idiosyncrasies.  

Even advanced learners will, every now and then, use ser when they are supposed to use estar, and vice-versa. That’s totally fine.

See, it takes a solid idiomatic feel for the language to avoid these small mistakes. You’ve got to be patient and let time do the work. 

Until then keep the ser vs. estar guiding principles in mind and do your best. Neat!

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Where are you at? (1 Beginner–10 Fluent)

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