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Living in Spain

A Practical Guide to the Way of Life in Spain

Living in Spain comes with a whole set of rules. For example, the Spanish Siesta still exists, but it has lost its original meaning. Instead of napping during lunchtime, Spaniards like to have a long lunchbreak to eat out, pick up kids from school, and do things you normally do not have time for during the day. To be prepared and know what to expect on a cultural level, we will cover practical information, insights on social and cultural etiquette, as well as the pros and cons of living and driving in Spain.

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What is it like to live in Spain? In terms of cost of living, Spain is one of the more reasonable places to move to in Europe. Income and housing prices are stable, meaning living costs are not sky high compared to the average income. To give you an idea, rent prices in the UK are 40% higher than in Spain. But, bear in mind that there are huge cost differences when renting or buying in big Spanish cities versus smaller towns.

There are many pros and cons to living in Spain. While the low cost of living, nature, and weather are all positives, expats need to be aware of the high unemployment rate. The 2008 economic recession hit Spain very hard. And, even though the country recovered, and the rate of unemployment has been consistently low for a while at 13%, it is still high compared to other European cuntries.

Knowing Spanish is beneficial in Spain. Not speaking the language could make every day communication hard and slow. Expats will find that a lot of Spaniards do not speak much English. When learning Spanish, expats need to be aware that some regions have different languages, such as Catalan, Basque, and Galician.

Driving in Spain is chaotic if you are in a metropolitan area. Outside of the big cities, the only thing you have to worry about is driving on the right side of the road and keep within the speed limits. Spain’s public transportation system is highly developed throughout the country, connecting all major cities. The largest cities even offer a range of public transportation, such as buses and metro lines.

If you are wondering about everyday practicalities like emergency numbers, public holidays, and embassy locations, we have listed these important points in this guide.

Pros and Cons of Living in Spain

Although moving to the country of churros, paella, and tinto de verano is a dream come true for many expats, weighing the pros and cons of living in Spain is necessary to make an informed decision. One of the downsides is the high unemployment rate, whereas one of the many benefits of living in Spain is the top-notch healthcare system. This following list will break down the rest.

Pros

Low Cost of Living

Even metropolises such as Madrid and Barcelona offer a high quality of life for far less money compared to other large European cities like London and Paris. Living well in Spain is possible with an average annual salary of 23,000 EUR (25,000 USD).

Amazing Weather All Year

Even though winters can get cold and rainy, Spain has an overall temperate climate. In some parts of the country it is sunny almost all year. Due to the amazing weather, Spain offers a variety of outdoor activities, which range from surfing to hiking the spiritual pilgrimage to Santiago the Compostela.

Amazing Nature and Landscapes

The Spanish coastline stretches for almost 5,000 km (3107 miles). Spaniards regularly flock to sandy beaches to lie in the sun, swim or engage in a watersport activity.

Buying Property is Easy

Non-residents can buy property in Spain, as there are no restrictions on land and no special requirements for foreign real estate investments. In fact, they are highly encouraged by the Spanish government. Should you decide to buy property, you will even be granted a Golden Visa.

If your dream is to own a winery in Spain, then go ahead. As Spain was hit hard by the global recession in 2008, property prices went down around 40%. Although the real estate market is recovering fast, Spain is still considered a good place to invest in property. If you are interested in buying a house in Spain, read more in our Housing Guide.

Exploring Europe

Flights from Spain to Europe’s top destinations are cheap and very short. If you want to explore Europe, having Spain as your base is your best bet.

Healthcare System is Top-Notch

Spain’s constitution states that the country has to offer emergency and basic care, free of charge for everybody. The country’s universal healthcare system is considered to be one of the best in the world. Expats can use the public health insurance (Seguridad Nacional de Salud), if they work and pay monthly social security contributions. Read more about Spain’s healthcare system in our Healthcare Guide.

Cons

High Unemployment Rate

The economic recession of 2008 hit Spain very hard. A lot of young people lost their jobs, and recent graduates could not find employment for a long time. The economy in Spain is recovering, and the unemployment rate has lowered to 13.7%. Yet, compared to other European countries it is still quite high.

Language Barrier

Spanish is the second most spoken language worldwide and one of the most popular languages to learn. There are a lot of different dialects and accents in Spain alone, and in some areas people speak a completely different language such as Basque, Catalan, or Galician. Even if you are fluent in Spanish, these cultural nuances can create a barrier. Plus, most of Spain is known for a lack of English-speakers, unless you are in a big city, but even then, it is not guaranteed.

Endless Bureaucracy

Spaniards like paperwork. For every little thing there’s a document that needs to be filled out, and they are not very fast when it comes to bureaucracy. If you are moving from a non-EU/EEA country to Spain, be prepared to run around for a few days registering at a number of different offices, and filling out forms, before actually settling in.

Slow Pace of Life

One of the reasons expats are attracted to Spain is the slow pace of life, but this can become off-putting and annoying when you have things to get done. Restaurants open for dinnertime in schedules in which most expats are getting ready for bed. And, a lot of shops and offices are closed in the afternoon for siesta.

Shut Down in August

For foreigners, it often seems like the whole country goes on vacation in August. Spain slows down so much, it almost stops. A lot of businesses close in the big cities. If you live by the beach, be prepared for the influx of tourists, traffic, and street fiestas.

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Practical Information

Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, and located in the southwestern shore of Europe, just above North Africa, Spain is home to 44 million people. The population is diverse, too, with specific regional identities that are still very present in people’s daily lives. Basques, Galicians and Catalans all stay true to their languages.

  • Country Name: Kingdom of Spain, Reino de España
  • Government type: Unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy
  • Climate: temperate
  • Capital: Madrid
  • Currency: Euro (€, EUR)
  • Languages:
    • Official language: Spanish (Castilian)
    • Other co-official languages: Catalan (and its variant Valencian), Galician (Gallego), Basque (Euskera);
  • Religions: Roman Catholic and others;
  • Time Zones: UTC +1 (Central European Time) on the mainland, UTC +0 (Western European Time) in the Canary Islands and Plazas de soberanía.
  • Calling Code: +34
  • Voltage: AC 220 volts, 50 Hertz; outlet type C or F
  • Recommended Vaccinations: routine immunization
  • Member of the European Union, Eurozone, and Schengen Area

Spain operates as a state divided into 17 autonomous communities and two autonomous cities.

Emergency Numbers

Ambulance (ambulancia)
  • 112
  • 061
Firefighters (bomberos)
  • 080
  • 112
Local Police (policía municipal)
  • 092
Civil Guard (guardia civil)
  • 062
National Spanish police (policía nacional)
  • 091
Maritime Sea Rescue (Salvamento y Seguridad Marítima)
  • 900 202 202

What are the Main Public Holidays in Spain?

Because of the territorial divisions, Spain has both national and regional public holidays.

These are the Spanish national holidays:

  • New Year’s Day, 1 January
  • Epiphany, 6 January (not a national holiday, but it is declared in all regions)
  • Good Friday (on the Friday before Easter Sunday)
  • Labor Day, 1 May
  • Assumption Day, 15 August
  • Hispanic Day, 12 October
  • Constitution Day, 6 December
  • Immaculate Conception Day, 8 December
  • Christmas Day, 25 December

Main Embassies

There are about 120 embassies in Spain and many more consulates.

USA
  • Embajada de los Estados Unidos de América, Calle Serrano 75, 28006 Madrid
  • Consulado General de los Estados Unidos de América, Paseo Reina Elisenda de Montcada 23, 08034Barcelona
Canada
  • Embajada del Canadá, Torre Espacio, Paseo de la Castellana 259 D, 28027 Madrid
  • Consulado del Canadá, Plaza Catalunya 9 – 1º 2ª, 08002 Barcelona
Australia
  • Embajada de Australia Torre Espacio, Paseo de la Castellana 259 D, planta 24, 28046 Madrid
  • Consulado Honorario de Australia, Avenida Diagonal 433 bis – 2º 1ª, 08036 Barcelona
Germany
  • Consulado General de Alemania, Calle Marina 16-18, planta 30 A, 08005 Barcelona
  • Embajada de Alemania, Calle Fortuny 8, 28010 Madrid

Main Airports

If you are looking for airports, there are approximately 50 airports in all of Spain.

The main airports are:

  • Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas, in Madrid
  • Barcelona-El Prat, in Barcelona
  • Palma de Mallorca, in Palma de Mallorca
  • Málaga-Costa del Sol, in Málaga
  • Alicante-Elche, in Alicante
  • Gran Canaria, in Gran Canaria

Culture & Social Etiquette

Clichés of Spanish lifestyle, such as siesta, lively festivals, and restaurants offering dinner until very late into night, are very much true. However, Spain’s culture and social etiquette has a lot more layers to it than we see at first glance.

The Spanish Language

Spanish is spoken by almost 330 million native speakers and ranks Number 2 worldwide after Chinese, in terms of how many people speak it as their mother tongue.

This means that the language barrier may be one of the biggest problems for expats, but, as Spanish is considered to be one of the easier languages to learn, you should give it a try. Foreigners are not guaranteed to find English-speaking locals in Spain. Do your best to learn the language and, whenever handling formalities, bring a Spanish-speaking friend along, or try to learn some of the basic terms in advance.

Of course, living in bigger cities such as Madrid and Barcelona, you will be able to find expat havens with English-speakers. If you do not yet know where you would like to put down roots, and one of your requirements is to find a city where you can get by without being fluent in Spanish, then read our guide on best places to live in Spain.

The Importance of Family

Spaniards place a lot of importance on family. It is not a celebration if there are not at least three generations present and an extended gathering of relatives. Although, in big cities, these traditions are slowly fading, the elderly in Spain are very respected and it is common to care for older relatives in the family home.

The Imbalance of Gender Roles

Gender roles in Spain are becoming more balanced, especially in bigger cities, where modern life and modern views are taking over. Still, the gender pay gap is prevalent in the country, with women making on average 12% less per hour than men.

The Impact of Religion

Spain is very catholic with 70-75% of Spaniards identifying as Roman Catholics. A great part of the population still practices their religion and participates regularly in religious worship. The country is famous for its spiritual pilgrimage route to the  Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. In fact, Spain is home to some of the greatest religious architecture in the world, such as the Cathedral of Cordoba, which used to be a mosque. As well as the cathedrals of Seville, Toledo, Burgos, or the famous Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona.

If you want to visit a religious institution, be mindful of showing respect by making sure your shoulders and knees are properly covered. Because of the religious background of the country, some areas of Spain are more conservative than others. Sunbathing topless is not generally frowned upon, but might not always be the best idea. Of course, that depends very much on where you are. Topless sunbathing in Barcelona’s beaches is completely fine.

Does Spain have a Royal Family?

A lot of people seem to forget that Spain still has a Royal family. Although monarchy, nobility, and aristocracy still exist in Spanish society, the concepts of class, wealth, and upward mobility are the same as other Western countries.

Greetings: The Concept of Personal Space

Greeting someone in Spain could be awkward for non-locals. Giving a kiss on each cheek, starting with the left, is the standard way of greeting women, even when you are meeting for the first time. A handshake is also standard, but locals may still go for the two kisses, as it is embedded in the culture. Men greet other men with a handshake, or, if they are more familiar, with an embrace or a pat on the back.

If you like keep your distance from other people, you will need to adjust your concept of personal space. In Spain, physical contact during conversation is accepted and not considered to be an invasion of personal space.

The Issue with Adult Living Arrangements

As consequence of the 2008 economic recession, it is common for people to still live with their parents well into their thirties. Be sensitive and self-aware when approaching the subject, as expressing surprise could make a local in this situation feel uncomfortable.

The Controversy Around la Siesta

The popular Spanish mid-day nap, siesta, is controversial. Siestas made their way into business hours in some parts of the country, with shops or services coming to a complete standstill between 14:00 and 17:00. It was originally introduced to avoid the strong midday heat, but these hours no longer reflect the modern and competitive business culture in the big cities such as Barcelona and Madrid. In some situations, mentioning the siesta could be taken as an implication of laziness.

However, Spaniards tend to eat much later in the day in comparison to other countries. Lunch is typicallyaround 14:00, and having dinner after 21:00 is common. Because there is a lot of importance placed on meals, eating lunch at your desk or on the metro is usually frowned upon. Spanish people like to take a few hours off during lunch time to spend time resting, socializing, and eating before returning to work or to school.

The Correct Way to Tip

Tipping is common, although not always expected. It is practiced if the service is considered good. Tips in Spain also tend to be lower. Although the typical rule is to leave 10% of the bill as a tip, most Spaniards tip much lower.

How to Follow Invitations

If you are invited to someone’s house for dinner, the rules in Spain are sometimes tricky for non-locals. It is common to bring along a bottle of wine and flowers for the hosts. Although avoid red roses, as they are usually used in romantic settings. Dahlias, chrysanthemums, and lilies are associated with funerals. It is better to avoid those, too. If the hosts have children, it is customary to bring some chocolates or sweets along, too.

The Heavy Cloud of Smoke

Spaniards are heavy smokers. In fact, an estimated 30% of the Spanish population smokes on a regular basis. Although attitudes around smoking are changing now, and the law bans smoking in public places.

The Elasticity of Punctuality

Spaniards are typically relaxed when it comes to being on time­. Anything between a five and 30 minute delay should not be a big reason for concern in social situations. Do not be offended if your new friends keep you waiting. The concept of time is very flexible in Spain. However, in a business environment, being late is considered very unprofessional.

 

Driving in Spain

If you are planning on driving in Spain, there a few rules you should know in advance.

How to Get a Spanish Driver’s License

The driving age in Spain is 18. Even if you already have a valid driver’s license from another country, you must be at least 18 years old to drive in Spain. If it is your first time obtaining a driver’s license, you need to pass a theoretical exam and a practical exam in Spain, both of which are regulated by the Dirección Generale de Tráfico(DGT).

New drivers should register at a driver’s school of their choice. They usually take care of the registration with authorities, send you to the doctor to get a health certificate, and prepare you for your written and practical exam.

Driving in Spain with a Foreign License

If you already have a driver’s license that is not from a European country, you will typically need to renew or exchange it for a valid Spanish permit after six months of being in Spain. This also applies when you have a US driver’s license and are driving in Spain. Depending on your country of origin, there are different procedures for getting a valid driver’s license in Spain.

How to Exchange Your License for a Spanish License?

In general, you will need an appointment, or cita previa at the DGT (Dirección Nacional del Tráfico), to renew or validate your license. Be aware that in some autonomous regions, the wait times for a cita previa can be up to one and a half years. If you do not handle this formality in advance, you may find yourself with an expired license in the country. Some authorities may be benevolent with expired licenses if you prove that you are waiting for a cita previa, but others may still fine you.

Exchanging Driver’s License as an EU-Citizen

If you are an EU national, your driver’s license is European and therefore valid in Spain for the first two years of residency. After that, you will need to exchange your license for a valid Spanish permit. You can do this at any Provincial Traffic Department, provided you have made the cita previa and have the following documents:

  • official application form for EU/EEA citizens;
  • duly completed talón-foto, which can be obtained at the Traffic Department, Jefaturas Provinciales de Tráfico;
  • your ID, passport, or NIE;
  • your national driver’s license (provided it is still valid): the original and a copy, sometimes called thepermiso de conducción comunitario;
  • recent photograph (32x 26mm).

There is a fee of 30 EUR (35 USD), which you can pay either through the DGT website or in cash at financial institutions (model form 791).

If you have a UK driver’s license you will no longer be classified as an EU/EEA-citizen after Brexit is finalized. How this will impact the process and steps of exchanging foreign driver’s licenses is not yet clear.

Exchanging Driver’s License as a Non-EU-Citizen

As a non-EU national, your driver’s license is only valid in Spain for sixth months. Whether you can exchange your driver’s license for a Spanish one or need to take the practical exam will depend on your country of origin. Check with your consulate or the DGT website to know which conditions apply to you.

You can exchange your existing driver’s license, at any Provincial Traffic Department. You will need to bring the following documents:

  • official application form for non-EU/EEA citizens;
  • duly completed talón-foto, which can be obtained at the Traffic Department, or Jefaturas Provinciales de Tráfico;
  • your ID or Passport;
  • your authorization of residency;
  • your original driver’s license;
  • medical fitness report issued at a Driver Recognition Center;
  • written declaration:
    • that you do not have another driving license issued in Spain or the EU;
    • that you are not deprived of the right to drive;
  • recent photograph (32x 26mm).

You will also need to pay a fee of 30 EUR (35 USD), either through the DGT website or in cash at financial institutions (model form 791). If you need to take the practical exam, the fee is 92 EUR (100 USD).

International Permits are also recognized in Spain.

Driving Rules in Spain

Here is what you should know about the rules of driving in Spain:

  • You drive on the right side and overtake on the left side.
  • Seatbelts are compulsory and should be worn by everyone in the vehicle.
  • Helmets are compulsory on motorbikes, mopeds, bicycles, and trikes/quads.
  • Warning triangles and reflective jackets are mandatory in case of an accident or breakdown. You must have these in the vehicle at all times.
  • Using a mobile phone while driving is forbidden unless using a hands-free system.
  • The maximum alcohol level in the bloodstream is 0.5 grams per liter and 0.25 mg per liter for exhaled air.
  • Parking on a public street is not always permitted or free, with many cities having regulated parking areas subject to payment. These are identified by signs and parking meters.
  • BUS-VAO lanes are reserved for buses, motorcycles, and vehicles with at least two people (sometimes three), typically reserved for rush hours.

Speed limits are the following:

  • 120 km/h on dual carriageways and motorways;
  • 100 km/h on conventional roads;
  • 90 km/h on all other roads;
  • 50 km/h in residential areas.

Driving a Rental Car

If you rent a car in Spain, you need to be aware of the following:

  • You must be at least 21 years old to rent a car.
  • Many rental companies require having at least one or two years of driving experience.
  • Spain is one of the few countries that accept debit cards or cash as a form of payment for rental cars.
  • You will need to show your valid driver’s license and your ID.

You will not have trouble finding a car rental service as there are many car rental companies throughout the country. Just search for alquiler de coches near you.

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Public Transportation in Spain

In general, driving in Spain’s big cities comes with a lot of traffic. Madrid’s traffic jams can start as early as 5:00. Because of this, opting for public transportation may be a wise idea.

How is Public Transportation in Spain?

There are many options to choose from when it comes to public transportation in Spain. A good network of trains connects the entire country, with high-speed trains (AVE) connecting many regions in less than three hours. Many long-haul train routes make up the country’s railways, along with the Cercanías (the name given to the commuter rail systems of Spain’s major metropolitan areas), which connects nearby cities. The National Train Network is operated by RENFE, the Spanish public transportation service. You can find train itineraries and timetables on their website, as well as some car services.

Most cities are also equipped with either metros or trams. In cities such as Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao, or Seville, you can find both.

A network of buses operated by private companies covers many cities, most of which are owned by Alsa. You can find bus lines in places that are not covered by metros or railways, which ensure transportation to more remote parts of the country.

You can also use taxis or similar services, with popular apps for car transport operating in Madrid and Barcelona.

What are the Costs of Public Transportation?

As for the cost of public transportation, these services are generally quite affordable. Prices may vary by autonomous region, but, in general, expect to pay around:

Transportation Type of ticket Price EUR (USD)
Bus Single ticket 1.50 (1.60)
Single ticket, for 5 stations 1.50 (1.60)
Metro Single ticket, for 10 stations are more 2 (2.20)
Train Single ticket 1.70 (1.90)
Bonotren, valid for
10 trips
10 (11)

In Madrid and Barcelona, the 10-trip ticket combines both metro and bus and is cheaper per ride. Monthly passes for metros are anywhere between 30 and 50 EUR (33 and 56 USD), depending on the areas it covers.

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Updated on: September 08, 2020

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