Moving to Spain: All You Need to Know

Go from tourist to local. Learn some “how to” tips from our Irish author who now calls herself a resident of Spain. Just like the rain in Spain, she stayed!

Where to Live

Your first decision, if you’re thinking about making a move to Spain, is deciding where to live. Like most European countries Spain has large expat communities, although different nationalities tend to stick to certain areas.

Like any capital city, Madrid attracts a mix of nationalities. However, unlike other European cities, such as Paris or Amsterdam where the presence of foreign nationals is evident, in Madrid, the dominant culture is Spanish.

This is true of all of Spain with the exception of resort towns such as Benidorm or Marbella. Which city or region of Spain you choose will mostly be determined by your reasons for moving there.

If you’re looking to learn Spanish it’s best to stick to Madrid or the northwest of the country and cities like Salamanca, Santiago or Bilbao. If you want sunshine and a slower pace of life, head to the Costa del Sol or even better, the Costa de la Luz. If you want to experience authentic Flamenco, then Seville or Jerez de la Frontera are your only options.

On the costas, the Costa del Sol and the Costa Brava is where you’ll find the largest English-speaking communities. Here you’ll also find English restaurants, bars, bookstores and service providers, everything from lawyers to beauty therapists. Alongside the English are sizable German, Dutch and French communities.

Certain towns are very English; they include Benidorm, Marbella, Nerja and Sotogrande, so if you want to keep your Spanish experience authentic, stay away from these places.

Speaking Spanish

The handy thing about going to a tourist destination is that the locals will be used to dealing with foreigners and they’ll be more likely to speak a foreign language. That said, when in Spain, the Spanish expect you to speak Spanish.

They’ll appreciate your effort to try and learn Spanish so even if you don’t speak it well, make attempts and they’ll be happy to help you out. Don’t get frustrated. If you start barking at them in English, they’ll be more likely to ignore you.

There are lots of ways to learn Spanish when in Spain but if you have done the groundwork before arriving, it’s going to save you a lot of effort and help you understand the culture more quickly.

The best thing to do when you arrive is to set yourself up with an intercambio. This basically means finding a Spanish person who is happy to sit and chat with you allowing you to practice your speaking Spanish. The Spanish love to chat. It’s part of their culture. Finding an intercambio will not be difficult.

Becoming a Resident

Depending on where you’re coming from and how long you’re planning to stay it’s not always necessary to tackle the Spanish bureaucracy system. If you’re American and planning on staying for up to three months, your passport is enough.

If you have an EU passport or a European parent and are planning to stay for longer than three months and also work, it will be necessary to apply for residency. To do so, it’s necessary to visit the local Oficina de Extranjeros (foreigners’ office) with your passport and an EX-18 form.

You can download the EX-18 form here:

Make sure to check the opening hours of this office before going. Also some towns will send you to the local police station instead. It simply depends on the administrative set up of the town.

Once the paperwork has been processed, you’ll be issued with an N.I.E. number, which is your Spanish Identification number.

If you’re not an EU citizen, you’ll have to apply for a visa. To obtain this visa, apply to your local Spanish consulate before traveling to Spain. It can take longer than a month to receive the visa so give yourself plenty of time.

The same is true if you want to live and work in Spain. The first stop is at your nearest Spanish consulate. They will provide you with the necessary form. You’ll fill that out and include your passport (valid for six months), photos, letter from your doctor and a letter from your local police department.

If you already have a contract with a Spanish company, you must also include the written job offer from the company where you intend to work. That offer should also have been filed with the Ministry of Labor in Spain. The company should take care of this part.

Once obtained, this visa gives you the right to enter Spain and work in the country for 90 days. When you arrive in Spain, it’ll be necessary to go to the Ofician de Extranjeros to apply for a residency card. This is issued for a variable length of time, anything from three months to five years. When it runs out, it’s necessary to go through the process again.

The other important item you’ll need is a Spanish social security number. This gives you access to Spanish health care but is only applicable to people working in Spain. If you do work in Spain, go to your local health center to claim this number. Alternatively Spain has lots of private health insurance companies such as Sanitas.

Opening a Bank Account

Again it will only be necessary to open a bank account if you’re planning on living and working in Spain. Once you have your N.I.E. number this is an easy process. You’ll need your N.I.E. number and a copy of your passport to open an account.

Settling into Spanish Culture

Unlike other European countries whose cultures have been diluted by modernization or the presence of other foreign nationals, Spain is very Spanish. Outside of Madrid, don’t expect to find a Starbucks or McDonald’s on every street corner.

In Spain if you want a good coffee, you go to a bar. If you want a snack, you go to a bodega. Likewise evening entertainment is likely to be a particularly Spanish fare. Spaniards love nothing more than to go “a tapar.”

This basically means bar-hopping from bodega to bodega enjoying a tapa and a cerveza (beer) in each bar along the way. This is a great way to meet locals and sample the best of Spanish food.

Making Friends

While the Spanish are very friendly when you meet them in bars and are happy to chat, making friends with them is a little more difficult. Also there’s a difference between how Spanish from the north and south of the country treat foreigners.

The general rule of thumb is that northern Spaniards are colder but more sincere as opposed to the southerners who are friendlier but also flaky.

For example, Spaniards from the north of Spain will be slower to talk to you but if they make an appointment to meet you they will keep it.

If you meet some southern Spanish in a bar they will embrace you. They’ll be so friendly, they’ll probably even promise to come to your wedding but most likely you’ll never see them again.

Despite their adventure-seeking past, the Spanish can be quite insular. So what’s the best way to make friends with them? As mentioned, setting up an intercambio is a good way to begin.

If you have a hobby, be it painting or surfing or cycling, seek out a local group and see if you can join in. This is also a great way to expand your vocabulary.

At first you’ll probably be restricted to the Spanish people you meet at work or school but don’t worry about this. Take your time.

As a nation, the Spanish are the kind of people who wear their hearts on their sleeves. They are very open about their lives and emotions once you get to know them.

The best way to widen your circle is to be yourself, be sincere and don’t worry about being a little kooky. Spanish people will pick up on this and welcome you with open arms.