Living in Spain: 17 Things to Know before You Move

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Written By Doug Newton

If you’ve ever dreamed of living in Spain, you’re onto something muy bueno! Spain consistently ranks as one of the best countries in the world to live in, with sunny weather, gorgeous towns, tasty food, and famously friendly inhabitants. But as close as it is to paradise, it’s not just wine, tapas, and long naps. Keep reading for what it’s like to live in Spain, with the top 17 things to know before you go.

Living in Spain long-term is challenging, but it’s getting easier

If you’re an EU citizen or have enough in the bank for a “golden visa,” kudos to you, and you may want to skip to number 2. For the rest of us, here are some options. 

Study at a universidad! Tuition at most universities is under €2000 per year, and you can even work part-time on a student visa. Best of all, you don’t need to speak Spanish, as universities in the larger cities offer programs in English. Here is a list of graduate course prices per credit hour at one of Madrid’s best universities.

Getting a regular work visa in Spain has always been challenging, with many requirements and ridiculously long processing times. There is a new digital-nomad visa right around the corner. It’ll let remote workers live in Spain for up to five years and enjoy some of the same benefits as other residents. Staying in Spain permanently may also be an option after those five years. Nothing happens quickly here, but we’re optimistic the visa will come into effect in early 2023. Check out this link for what we know so far about the new digital nomad visa.  

Finally, there’s Spain’s “Non-Lucrative Long-Term Visa” for retirees or remote workers. But you need upwards of €26,000 in the bank and an income of over €2600 per month. Really the more, the better on those financials, so fingers crossed on the digital nomad visa starting soon.

Once foreigners do find a way to live here, they often hire a “gestor,” who is similar to an accountant. A good gestor can navigate Spanish taxes, immigration laws, and bureaucracy for you and is well worth the money.

Spain is full of natural and architectural beauty

We can all picture the castles and the beaches, but what about the sprawling Roman ruins of Augusta Emerita or the wild, volcanic landscapes of the Canaries? There’s a place for all tastes here, so give it some thought and choose your region wisely before moving to Spain.

The south coast is the obvious choice for beach folks, but it’s scorching in the summer and teeming with tourists. For a more seasonal beach life—with beautiful, green mountains behind you—try the coast north of Barcelona or the Atlantic provinces of Galicia, Cantabria, or Basque Country. If you’re the alpine type, there’s excellent hiking all over the north and in Andalusia, while ski resorts dot the Pyrenees and the ranges just north of Madrid. And don’t forget the Canary Islands, an exciting combo of pristine beaches, watersports, volcanic landscapes, and perfect weather.

Spain’s got the buildings, too. Granada is often considered the country’s most picturesque, while Seville, Cordoba, Toledo, and Barcelona are all full of architectural wonders. For small-town types, hidden gems include the 12th-century hill town of Cuenca, cliffside Ronda in the south, and the ancient university town of Salamanca.

You’ll get further with Spanish, but you can still find work without it

Listen, Spanish isn’t a hard language, and you are planning on living in Spain—’nuff said. Besides, most folks in Spain don’t speak English, and you’ll struggle daily outside the big cities without a little Spanish language skills. You should know that most ex-pats here speak the language (unlike in China or Eastern Europe), so you’ll feel left out if you don’t.

That said, living in Spain on the south coast, on the islands, or in larger cities is possible if you don’t speak Spanish. 

There’s even some work available in hospitality and agriculture for non-Spanish speakers (legalities notwithstanding). For bar and restaurant jobs, head towards English-speaking tourist enclaves such as Benidorm, Alicante, Ibiza, Mallorca, and the Canaries. Find the foreign owners and give ’em your best smile. For agriculture, look to the Murcia or Almeria regions in the summer, then the Jaen area for the olive harvest in late autumn. It’s hard work, but so is waiting tables in Spain, and the pay is about the same (€1200-€1600/month).

Spanish is one of many languages in Spain

While we’re on language, let’s clear this up right now. While everybody in Spain speaks Spanish, many Spaniards have a different mother tongue. You’ll hear Catalan in Barcelona, Valencian in Valencia, Gallego in A Coruña, and Euskara in Bilbao. While citizens of Spain are all technically Spaniards, there is a wealth of different cultures and languages. Spanish provinces even enjoy a kind of autonomy and can make their own laws, a bit like American states.

Learn more about the Moors

The Moors were Arabs from North Africa and occupied most of Spain for hundreds of years. Their kingdom was called Andalus, from which we get the name for the Spanish province of Andalusia. They left an indelible and vibrant mark on Spain’s architecture, food, culture, and languages. 

Some of Spain’s most famous sites, such as the majestic Alhambra, are Moorish. Words such as alcohol, algebra, tobacco, and guitar, similar in English and Spanish, come from the Moors. Finally, the Moors introduced rice and saffron to Spain—two of paella’s most essential ingredients!

Tapas, tapas, tapas

To truly experience what it’s like to live in Spain, you’ve got to spend some time in tapa bars. Cafes have become a little stingy in the big cities, but in most places, you can still expect a pleasant appetizer with your drink, usually for under €3. My favorites are spicy potatoes, fried calamari, and Spanish ham on toast. 

No one knows where tapas came from, but I hope they’re here to stay. Some say tapas originated from barkeepers covering drinks from flies with a plate of snacks (tapa means lid). Others say it was a king’s decree after being cured of an illness with lots of wine and just a little food. 

Expect to spend half your life in a cafe

Spain is a cafe-based economy. The salaries are some of the lowest in Europe, but the cafes are always bustling. We’ve got to enjoy all those tapas somewhere. To feel what it’s like to live in Spain, try going to your local cafe and spending a week there. 

Cafe culture is over the top here, and spending too much time and money whiling away an evening is easy. As soon as you’re ready to go, another friend will show up, and you’ll have “one last drink.” The Spanish call that the “penultimate” because it usually is.

Siestas are still important

I’ve read other blogs which say siestas are a thing of the past, but I disagree. I’ve taught English to young professionals from all over Spain, and at least a third of them like having an after-lunch nap. 

That doesn’t mean they always get it, especially in the big cities, but they’d like to, and they’ll let you know. As a result, lunch breaks are exceptionally long in Spain. If you’re not a napper, plan on having time to go home for lunch, have a couple of tapas in a cafe or chill out with a book or a podcast in your favorite park (and Spain has fantastic parks!). I’ve got a full post about the Spanish siesta, if you’d like to learn more.

Everything starts really, really late

Is this why so many Spaniards still want their siesta? Whether it’s a party, a lecture, a concert, or a symphony, they’ll often start when I’m ready to curl up in bed with Netflix. It’s something I still can’t get used to. Why does everything start so late? Probably because they eat so late. And why do they eat so late? Because…

Spain is in the wrong timezone

Seriously. And the reason is a funky and fascinating one. In 1940, Spain’s dictator Francisco Franco changed Spain’s timezone to match that of best buddy Nazi Germany far to the east. And no one ever changed it back. The Spanish kept eating at the same time, according to the sun and not the clocks. 

So now we have what we have today—absurdly late meals, afternoon naps, and what one Spanish economist has termed “continuous jetlag.” There is talk of moving back an hour to GMT, but it’s hotly debated, with sectors of the economy arguing late sunsets are good for business.

Layers, layers, layers (and not too ratty)

I can’t tell you how often I’ve gotten dressed inside my house (as one does), then walked outside into a completely different universe. It’s all about sun and shade in Spain, and the difference can be quite a few degrees. I’m woefully under-clothed if the sun is streaming through my window. If it wasn’t, I’m breaking a sweat. Layers are essential, plus sunglasses and a hat—oh, and a jacket for after dark.

While we’re on clothing, they dress better than you or I. You’ll notice this mostly when going out, where you can find yourself in a more upscale environment. There are plenty of hippy, hipster, and casual places to hang out too. Try to figure out where your group is heading before dressing for the evening.

Spain is basically a socialist country (in that good way)

Spain has a zero-debt health care system, excellent social benefits, a decent pension for the cost of living, and generally takes care of its own very well. Spanish banks also offer loans and mortgages at very low interest to those with steady jobs. 

So the approach to life is radically different from, say, the US, where there’s always a need to get ahead and make more and more. The Spanish are more chill and not as concerned about money. This can be advantageous for motivated foreigners moving to Spain. There are a lot of good business ideas that most Spaniards can’t be bothered with.

So when you’re living in Spain, learn how to use the system. Taxes aren’t super-low here, 25-30% for most, but if you take advantage of the perks, you make out well. For example, there’s no shame in taking a few months of unemployment pay if you’ve been working for a while. You can even use that money in a lump sum to start a business or go back to school.

The healthcare is excellent and 100% free

You may have to wait for something non-essential, but that’s about the worst of it. Two-thirds of Spaniards are satisfied with their care, and no one ever goes into debt over their health. Need a triple bypass? You get a triple bypass. And you won’t pay a euro cent. I’ve heard more than one Brit say it’s better than the NHS.

You’ll need a long-term visa or residency to enjoy the healthcare system. You’ll also need an official address, which sounds easy until your landlord says, “Sorry, nobody officially lives here because—taxes.” Once you’re in, though, it’s pretty sweet. 

Regarding the new digital nomad visa, there’s no word whether it will come with public healthcare or if you’ll need to buy private insurance. Don’t stress, though—a private policy will set you back less than €200 per month.

Spain is great for hiking, biking, climbing—anything outdoors

A wonderful thing about Spain is there are very few fences or No Trespassing signs. I’m not advising traipsing through private property—and there’s no nationwide “Right to Roam” law—but it feels pretty free and open here. 

In residential areas, even the wealthiest neighborhoods have public access to the beach or natural attractions on the other side.

Valencia has designed its entire existence around biking. The Pyrenees and Santiago de Compostela regions are tops if you’re into hiking. And the Girona and Malaga areas are excellent for off-road. Andalusia is great, too, and warmer.

Spain loves its dogs, mostly

About every third person in Spain has a dog, and most are good owners. There are certainly issues, though, such as mistreatment by hunters, chained-up animals, and an alarmingly high number of owners not picking up after their dog goes to the bathroom. A sweeping animal rights law was enacted earlier this year, so let’s hope that helps with the first two problems.

Spain is also not the most accessible country to travel to or live in with dogs. You’ll need a cage on many trains if your dog is over 10 kilos (22 lbs.), and most buses won’t allow it. BlaBlaCar or a rental car may be better options for intercity travel with your pup. For rental properties, filtering for “Accepts pets” can reduce your results by as much as 90%. We have more info on that in our article on renting an apartment in Spain.

Oh and if you’re a dog-lover moving to Spain without a dog, you can offer dog-walking and dog-sitting as a service. This is popular here, and you can earn a few euros doing something you enjoy. Try an app like Pawshake or Wakypet to get started.

For more info on living in Spain with pets, you can check out Spain’s tourism site

They’re still bullish on bulls

It’s not a Hemingway novel, but the whole bull thing is still pretty big. Yes, bullrings in many cities have been turned into exhibition centers or event halls, but it’s still easy to attend a bullfight. It’s still one of Spain’s most popular paid leisure activities.

And it’s not just bullfighting. There are events all over the country involving bull running and rodeo sports. It’s often not even bulls but what they call vaquillas—little cows. Any festival advert in Spain will include something like “Featuring Juan Carlos and his Little Cows!” It’s a pretty raw deal for the little cows, but even my vegetarian Spanish friends run to the balcony like school kids when they come screaming past.

Spaniards are humble, welcoming, and refreshingly egalitarian

And the biggest reason I love living in Spain are the people. Besides some paella pride, you’ll get very little of the immodesty or attitude some of Spain’s neighbors are known for. There’s low wealth disparity here, as many professions earn a similar income. As a result, or because Spaniards are cool, you’ll find a banker, a tattoo artist, and the neighborhood street cleaner all at the same tapa table after work. It’s refreshing if you’re moving to Spain from a more class-conscious country. 

And when a group of locals sits down next to you, grabs some chairs without asking, and elbows you out of the way for a card game, don’t get offended—it’s just a Spanish way of saying welcome to the neighborhood!