Living in Spain

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A practical guide to the way of life in Spain

Living in Spain holds many attractions, but is not without its challenges. Life on the Iberian Peninsula will indeed be more laidback once you have gotten used to expatriate life there. InterNations GO! supports you with essential information on Spain, from housing to healthcare.

Life in Spain

During your life in Spain, you will be sharing your new host country with more than 47 million other people, most of them of European or Latin American descent. The large population of Latin Americans in Spain, particularly from Ecuador, Colombia, and Argentina, is due to the fact that employment opportunities in Spain used to be better than in their home countries. Furthermore, for Colombians and Argentinians it is relatively easy to enter Spain in terms of visa requirements.

Spain, the second largest EU country after France, is also one of the most popular destinations among European tourists. It is therefore a common misconception that settling down in Spain means being in a holiday mood 24/7 and everything will happen mañana mañana (tomorrow, tomorrow). Having said this, many expats have indeed noticed that their stress level has reduced greatly once they have acclimatized to the Spanish lifestyle.

Regional Pride and National Politics 

Spain is a constitutional monarchy with King Felipe VI as the sovereign. The Spanish monarch has no executive role, though, but rather the President of the Government. Since December 2011 Mariano Rajoy from the People’s Party (Partido Popular), a center-right party, holds this position. General elections in November 2015 could, however, deliver a different outcome.

The electorate living in Spain votes for a legislature made up of the national assembly and the congress, in which at least two seats are given to each of Spain’s 50 provinces. If you are currently living in Spain as an expat, you may register to vote in all sorts of elections as long as you are a legal resident of Spain.

Regional identity is an important aspect of Spanish life. Although the main language is, of course, Spanish, while living in Spain, you will quickly learn that many Spanish people take great pride in their regional culture and may speak different languages altogether, e.g. in Catalonia or Galicia. Should you be living in Galicia, for example, and take a vacation in southern Andalusia, the differences in climate, culture, attitudes, traditions, and local food will surprise you!

The Catalan independence movement, which has been increasingly active over the past years, is of particular relevance to expats living in Barcelona and the surrounding region; the call for autonomy will undoubtedly come up in conversation with impassioned locals, so it could be worth reading up on it.

How to Approach the House-Hunt

Spain is home to a vast number of large cities and an even larger number of small towns, so how do you decide where to settle down? If you prefer living in an urban setting, cities such as Madrid, Barcelona, and Seville are an obvious choice. If your move to the Spanish peninsula is motivated by more recreational goals, you might consider a town along the Costa del Sol, which is popular among retired expats living in Spain.

In what kind of accommodation and which city you want to start your new Spanish life is up to you. However, it is highly recommended to find an apartment before moving to Spain. Expats may have a hard time finding short-term housing. Checking out the (Spanish only) website of the Ministerio de Viviendas (Ministry of Housing) is very useful for people keen on living in Spain. Other helpful and regularly updated websites for house-hunting are: 

Accommodation for Expats in Spain

Types of Housing: Know What to Look For

Apartments are the preferred type of housing for people living in Spain, but houses and small chalets can also be found in the suburbs of major cities and in the countryside. There are different types of apartments for rent (alquiler) or for purchasing (ventas):

  • estudios: one-room apartments ideal for a single person in a large city
  • apartamientos: have 1–2 bedrooms, a living/dining room, kitchen, and bath
  • pisos: larger 2–3 bedroom apartments more suitable for expatriate families.

Apartments may be rented furnished (amueblado) or unfurnished (sin amueblar), although the latter option is more common in Spain.

Madrid’s Barrios

If Madrid is calling, a few tips on preferred areas for expats in Madrid may be useful. The city is made up of 18 municipal districts (barrios), the central one being the business district. The best areas to live in are the west and the north, as the city center is very noisy and rather polluted. A good thing about the city center, though, are the beautiful, old buildings offering apartments accommodating to almost any budget.

Popular areas for Europeans living in Spain are, among others, La Moraleja (an affluent suburb), El Soto de la Moraleja (a very green area in La Moraleja), Parque Conde de Orgaz (where the Lycée Français is located), and el Retiro (a quiet, centrally located neighborhood). American expats, on the other hand, prefer living near the American school in, for instance, the Húmera, Monteclaro, or Monte Alina areas of the Pozuelo de Alarcón municipality.

Barcelona: Coastal or Centrally Located Property?

If your ideal life in Spain involves living by the sea, Barcelona is the best choice. This city of approximately 1.6 million is divided into ten barrios, some of which expats have claimed as their own. The best expatriate neighborhoods are in west and central Barcelona. Apartments are the most common form of housing in Barcelona.

Many of Barcelona’s numerous international schools are located in the western neighborhoods, e.g. in Bonanova, Tres Torres, and Sarría, resulting in very family-friendly areas. Families will also like the very green Gràcia barrio. Lots of expats also recommend Les Corts, which hosts newer, larger, and more modern apartments fitting with the financial district there. The Les Corts area is also very well connected in terms of public transportation. l’Eixample offers modern architecture as well along with good shopping opportunities.  

An alternative for getting away from the noisy city center are the housing areas along the coast, such as El Maresme (to the north) and Castelldefels (to the south). Most of these kinds of communities have higher rents, but they do offer the luxury of living away from the busy metropolitan setting. Trains are usually the easiest and least complicated way of getting back into the city, and most locals prefer this way of commuting.

Education and Healthcare in Spain

International Schools — Can You Put a Price on Education?

If you will be living in Spain with your family, you are probably considering sending your children to an international school, preferably with the option of an international baccalaureate so they have the opportunity to continue studying abroad. A major drawback of these private schools is the fact that they are usually very expensive. You might pay anything from 500 EUR to 1000 EUR in tuition fees per semester and per child, depending on their age.

Spain’s international schools are highly regarded and usually employ mostly experienced international teachers. The most common international schools, where some locals also send their children, are American, British, German, and French schools. Please contact your nearest embassy or consulate for a list of international schools in your area.

Local Schools: Habla Español?

The Spanish state school system is generally considered good, although academic standards vary between cities, neighborhoods, and individual schools. The public education system in Spain is free for all children residing in Spain. It is mandatory for all kids and teens to attend school between the ages of six and sixteen. Most parents send their children to preschool and kindergarten as well, once their kids are three years old.

Spanish schools are divided by age groups into three, possibly four, types. There’s the primary school (colegio) teaching children from the ages of six to twelve, and the secondary school (instituto), which twelve to sixteen-year-olds attend, is followed by the bachillerato. The latter is no longer compulsory, but it gives adolescents the chance to get a degree equivalent to that of the British A-Levels or the American high school diploma. Some schools also offer an educación infantíl for toddlers and children between the ages of three and six.

Healthcare Coverage in Spain

Spain has no known health risks, and no immunizations are necessary before entering the country. For a list of immunizations required by schools, please contact the school district of your neighborhood or town in Spain.

Every resident of Spain has a right to healthcare. The Spanish healthcare system is a non-contributory system paid for by tax revenues. Each autonomous community has its own budget.

If you are a non-EU national living in Spain, you are entitled to healthcare only if you are a legal resident and currently paying for social security. This means that you must either work in Spain or be self-employed there.

Citizens of EU member states who are living in Spain will automatically have access to health coverage in Spain once they become legal Spanish residents. For shorter stays, EU citizens should get a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) from their healthcare provider back home. The EHIC will get you access to state-provided healthcare at the same cost, or sometimes even at a reduced rate, as those insured in Spain.

For those who are not eligible for state healthcare provisions, both in Spain and back home, there’s the Convenio Especial healthcare scheme. This is perfect for foreigners in Spain who have stopped working but whose pensions have yet to kick in.  To be eligible for this scheme, you need to have lived in Spain continuously for at least twelve months, and not be eligible for state healthcare coverage. Keep in mind that a monthly contribution of 60 EUR is demanded of those under the age of 65, and 157 EUR for those above 65 years of age. You will be covered for the services included in the basic national healthcare package, but be aware that this does not include prescriptions.

Private Healthcare — Jumping the Queue

The Spanish healthcare system is very up-to-date, and doctors are caught up on the latest medical innovations. Due to the fact that medical care is state-run, though, hospitals are often overcrowded, resulting in long waiting periods. Spaniards sometimes choose the more expensive option of taking out private health insurance. One of the most popular private insurance providers is Sanitas, whose website also helps you locate the specialists they cover.

Dentists are private doctors in Spain and, arguably as a result of this, dental care is very good. As quality comes at a price, however, they are usually not covered by your health insurance. Unlike in some other countries, you are unable to buy medication anywhere other than at the pharmacy. Farmacías can be found on almost every street corner, clearly marked by signs in the shape of green crosses.

InterNations GO!
by InterNations GO!
12 October 2018
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