Living In Spain As An Expat – The Essential Guide

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Expat Essential Guide Dream Home In The Sun

Spain’s wonderful climate, culture and nature have long held it as one of our most desirable expat destinations. Our essential guide will get you off to a flying start.

In this guide, we’ll look at the pros and cons of living in Spain, how to organise your move and settle down, what paperwork it takes to become a resident, how to sort out your bank accounts, doctors, register with your local authorities. We will also discuss property matters and where to live in Spain. 

Spain is the number one destination for so many of us who are considering relocating abroad for a healthier more relaxed lifestyle coupled with a fantastic climate. Europeans especially love Spain for its proximity and glorious weather. 

The number of people moving to Spain continues to grow every year. There are compelling reasons for this, first and foremost is that Spain tantalises us with the offer of an amazing sun-filled lifestyle that isn’t available in our home country. 

Is living in Spain a good idea?

Spain is an incredible country. Climate, culture and character, – Spain has it all in abundance. Many people who have already moved to Spain wouldn’t just say it was a good idea, they’d say it was the best idea they ever had. 

However, for others, the complete opposite is true, from horror stories about buying poorly built properties on land that didn’t have planning permission, to the frustration of never seeming to be able to get anything done. 

One man’s meat is another man’s poison, the only person who can really say if Spain is a good idea is you. 

But with that said there are some questions that should ensure your chances of loving your new life in Spain: 

  • Have you got some form of income and financial security? 
  • Are you the type of person who can you cope when things don’t always go to plan? 
  • Will you ‘really’ make an effort to learn the language? 

This guide will help you answer these and other questions and ultimately make up your mind whether living in Spain is a good idea for you.

What is it like living in Spain?

Moving to Spain probably means you’re going to experience quite a radical lifestyle change. The lifestyle that relocating expats find in Spain sometimes could not be further removed from what they are used to in their home countries. 

There is far more emphasis on being with family, relaxing and enjoying the best lifestyle that Spain has to offer.

Things happen slowly, sometimes frustratingly slowly for expats. Mornings can easily stretch into afternoons, small businesses can close for unspecified siestas. Many newly arrived residents get really frustrated that nothing, even the simplest things, get done on time.

Spaniards love and value both me-time and family time. In August the whole country shuts down for one month and literally, every Spaniard goes on vacation. Everything slows down, many businesses shut their doors and people head for the beach. 

Don’t count on getting too much done in August.

Also if you’re planning to move to a coastal town in Spain, it’s a good idea to check just how busy your intended location gets at this time of year as scores of tourists arrive causing crowds, traffic, and other hassles that you might not want right at your front door. 

After the August holidays, everything goes back to its usual steady routine.

It doesn’t take long to adapt to the change in culture and realise what you have been missing out on by constantly being on the go and living to work rather than just working enough to live.

As you start to accept the new culture you’re living in you can expect a positive change in your quality of life, with an enhanced feeling of well-being. It might sound insignificant, however, this new feeling of well-being is deeply addictive, and once you’ve experienced it you will want to hang on to it.

That’s why so many expats fall in love with Spain – it’s easier to feel well and enjoy life there. 

The pros and cons of living in Spain

Like any country, Spain has its advantages and disadvantages. For expats, there are definitely more advantages than disadvantages to moving to Spain.

The pros of living in Spain

1. Spain offers great value for money

This is a vital consideration, especially for retirees. You naturally want your retirement income not just to last, but to allow you to afford a better lifestyle than you would have in your home country.

Living in Spain is cheaper than in the USA, UK or any other northern European country. For a single person, a budget of €2,000-2,200 a month is enough for a comfortable life in a big city. If you set your eyes on a smaller town, you will only need around €1,800 a month. 

2. A healthy sunny climate 

The climate is fantastic with Spain averaging 137 days of sunshine compared to just the 52 that we have each year in the UK. There are some microclimate pockets in Spain that have mild weather all year round which is extremely beneficial for your health and longevity. 

The weather in Spain gives you endless opportunities to live al fresco – a top reason why the country is so appealing to sun-starved northerners. 

3. Traveling to Spain and around Spain it is easy 

All regions of the country are accessible from all parts of the world and usually for a fair price.

Plus, Spain itself is a well-connected country. The travel within it is very easy with decent public transport connecting the whole country. High-speed trains, internal flights and bus services are the easiest ways to get around. 

For long distances, it’s easier to book the high-speed train or AVE (Alta Velocidad) which runs between most major cities. It takes you just 2hrs 40 minutes to travel 500km from Barcelona to Madrid or from Madrid to Seville. 

Besides, living in Spain you are perfectly positioned to explore the rest of Europe. The flights to other European capitals and major cities are frequent and cheap. 

4. Spain’s rich and diverse culture

The cuisine in Spain is thoroughly appealing, the wine is delicious, the history of the nation is fascinating, and then to cap it all off, much of the scenery in Spain is breathtakingly magnificent. 

5. Vast and diverse landscapes and geography 

There is a part of Spain that appeals to each and every one of us.

If you prefer a more temperate climate, Northern Spain is cooler, alternatively, if you want as much sunshine as possible, the Costas are ready and waiting.

If you’re a winter sports enthusiast or a lover of the great outdoors, what about the Pyrenees or the Sierra Nevada?

If the dream of island living appeals most you have the Spanish Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands, each with their own unique character. 

6. It’s relatively easy to buy a property in Spain 

You don’t even have to have residency in Spain to be able to become an owner of your own home in the sun.

Spain has an agreement with many countries, the UK and the USA included, whose citizens are allowed to come and stay in Spain for 3 months every half a year without any visa. So if this is what you want, you don’t need to worry about visas and residency formalities. 

On the other hand, if you are ready to spend a minimum of €500,000 buying a property in Spain, you can qualify for a Golden Visa which gives you the right to residency in Spain. 

7. Spain loves dogs as much as you

Dogs and other pets are very much loved in Spain and if you are a pet owner, socialising is not a problem. There are plenty of cafes, restaurants and other places where dogs are welcome. The only negative is that not everyone cleans after their dogs, so be careful where you step. 

The cons of living in Spain

While there are clearly a lot of pros to living in Spain, you have to be aware that there are also downsides. Here are some of them:

1. Brushing up your Spanish might not be enough 

Depending on where exactly you are planning to live in Spain, you might need to learn Spanish. Actually, even if you are moving to a big expat community, learning the lingo will do you a lot of good. All the paperwork in Spain is done in Spanish, it always helps when you know what you’re signing! 

And even if you do speak Spanish it might not completely localise you in regions where families speak Catalan, Basque or Galician. However, everyone will understand you if you speak Spanish as well as appreciate that you’ve made the effort to learn the language.

Don’t get us wrong, there are plenty of expats who live comfortably in Spain without speaking a word of the language, you can find them in the most popular expat destinations in Spain. If this is how you plan to live in Spain, just make sure you have some Spanish speaking friends who can help you out when needed.

If, however, you are planning to go a bit off the beaten path to experience a more authentic Spanish lifestyle, the language is a must. 

2. Bureaucracy 

Moving to Spain comes with a heap of paperwork which can be frustrating and time-consuming. Also, no matter how hard you try to collect all the necessary paperwork for what needs to be done, be assured, something will be missing.

So, always bring more; in fact, you may as well bring everything you can possibly think of. Not that it always helps, but there might be a slight chance you get it right from the first try. 

Also, remember that when it’s done – it’s done. When you have your NIE, residency, health insurance, driving licence and other issues sorted, you will never have to do it again. 

3. A relaxed approach to getting things done

Spaniards have a different approach to life, especially compared to Brits or Americans. Punctuality and efficiency are important, but not as important as enjoying life in general. So, get used to three-hour coffee breaks, unpredictable hours of operation and long siestas during which time many shops are shut.

It’s frustrating, but only in the beginning. Quite soon you will get used to it and start enjoying the relaxed lifestyle as much as the locals do and begin to wonder why you ever needed shops to be open every day all day in the first place. 

Where to live in Spain

Choosing the best place to live in Spain is not an easy thing: the country offers so many amazing locations, the choice depends on what you want from your life in Spain.

Dreaming of a relaxed beach lifestyle? Look at the Costas

The beachside towns of the multiple Spanish Costas can provide you with an unprecedented lifestyle while keeping your cost of living down.

Coastal locations in Andalusia, Murcia, Valencia and Catalonia regions are very popular with expats, so you will always find good company and make friends easily without the need to learn Spanish well.

If you are into an urban lifesyle – look at Barcelona

Living in Barcelona is not cheap but it offers the best of two worlds: all urban amenities and entertainment plus beautiful sandy beaches. There are 4.2 km of golden sandy beaches only 10 minutes from the city centre.

Choose Madrid for the central location

You can also opt for the most central location – Madrid. Life in Madrid is more about career, business and employment opportunities than anything else. It’s a vibrant and easy-going city, well-connected and fun. But it’s not a top retirement hotspot. It’s also not very cheap to live in. 

If you want an urban lifestyle for less money, consider Valencia

Valencia is a northern urban hub for expats living in Costa Blanca. It has lovely weather, a beautiful coastline, and is cheaper than both Madrid or Barcelona. Valencia’s best beach, Malvarrosa (or Malva-Rosa) Beach is just a short trip from the city centre (about 15 minutes by bus/metro). 

Island lifestyle – there’s no shortage of it in Spain

Then there are, of course, the incredible islands. The Spanish islands are spectacular getaways in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean.

The Canary Islands and the Balearic islands are the top favourites among expats. The island lifestyle is quieter and calmer, there’s very little crime, the cost of living is low unless you start importing extravagant goods from the mainland.

The downside may be a lack of facilities and infrastructure. If you are a digital nomad moving for a better lifestyle, make sure you check the available internet connection on your chosen island before you commit. 

Where is the cheapest place to retire in Spain?

Spain offers plenty of places for a cheap retirement. The cheapest place to retire in Spain while having access to all the facilities you need is Seville, the capital of Andalucía.

Andalucía is the cheapest region of Spain in terms of living costs, Seville offers the best of both worlds: urban benefits and inexpensive living. 

The cost of living in Seville is very affordable. It is roughly 40% lower than in London. Restaurant prices are up to 50% lower than in London, and groceries can be up to two-thirds cheaper.

You can rent a decent 2-bedroom apartment in the central areas of Seville starting at €750 a month. Budget for basic utilities at €150, TV+internet+mobile bundle at €50, transportation costs at €35 for a monthly pass. 

If you shop in the markets, your grocery spending won’t be a burden either.

In short, Seville offers plenty of opportunities for your money to go much further. Plus, it’s one of the most beautiful places in Spain. 

Of course, the cost of living should only be one of many deciding factors when choosing a retirement destination. There’s little point in finding somewhere cheap to live if there’s nothing around for you to enjoy with all that extra money!

The cost of living in Spain

In comparison with other countries in Western Europe, Spain scores well in terms of value for money. If you are reading this guide from your home in the UK, USA, Canada or any northern European country, we assure you living in Spain will cost you less compared to your present living expenses. 

How much money do you need to live comfortably in Spain? 

As with any country, the region you chose and the location within that region will impact your overall cost of living. Also when considering how much money you need to live in Spain, make sure you actually have enough income to qualify for residency in Spain. 

If you are retiring and going for a non-lucrative visa, which is the only suitable one for retirees, unless you can afford a Golden Visa, for example, you will need to show at least €30,000 of savings or a minimum of €2,130 monthly passive income (your pension, dividends, rental income or other investments). If there are two of you, the minimum goes up to €2,600 a month. 

With this kind of income, you will be able to afford a good lifestyle in Spain.

If, however, all you want to do is to live in Spain for 3 months at a time without applying for residency, this is how much money you need: 

The bare minimum a single person needs to live in Spain 

It is possible for a single person to live with a reasonable degree of comfort for around €1000 per month.

Your €1000 would cover the rent on a small apartment, food, drink and essentials for one person. You would need to consider your personal lifestyle needs on top. 

How much money a couple need for a comfortable life in Spain 

On average, for a couple who plan to retire to Spain, presuming you have the means to purchase a property avoiding the need for a mortgage or rent, it’s perfectly possible to enjoy a very comfortable lifestyle on €2000 per month. That includes being able to enjoy regular meals out and active social life. 

In Valencia, a couple can enjoy a reasonable life for around €1200 without rent or mortgage.

If you choose to live in Granada, it can be even cheaper at about €1,000 a month without rent or mortgage and in Alicante – around €950 a month.

The cost of utilities in Spain 

The costs that you can’t avoid such as electricity, water and getting the bins emptied tend to be quite high in Spain.

Budget for around €130 per month for a small apartment. Add on more if you’re going to be living in a larger home, especially if you plan to use central heating in winter or need the air conditioner full time during the summer peak. 

The cost of housing and property in Spain 

We strongly recommended renting a property in Spain first before you buy. Renting will allow you to get familiar with the area and make sure it works for you all year round.

Pricewise, rent is affordable in Spain. You can find a 3-bed apartment with sea views in Marbella for €1000 a month while 2-bed rentals start at about €700. 

In Costa Blanca, you can find a 1-bed apartment with a sea view for €500 per month. 

If you are willing to compromise on the location, for example, live further away from the beach, you will find even cheaper property options.

Entering any unfamiliar rental market might feel a bit daunting, especially if you don’t speak the language. So, it’s worth doing your homework beforehand. Our guide on renting a property in Spain is a good starting point to ensure you do everything correctly. 

When you decide you are ready to become a homeowner, make sure you are familiar with all the legalities that buying a property in Spain involves: how Spain’s property market works and all the possible pitfalls that you should avoid when buying your dream home in the sun. 

Buying a property in Spain can be an excellent investment opportunity. Retirees from northern countries can often buy a good property in Spain for much less than a similar property in their home country. 

For example, it’s possible to buy a lovely 2-bed villa with a pool on the outskirts of Alicante for as little as €130,000. A 3-bed apartment in Estepona (Malaga) 5 minutes from the best beaches and the Estepona promenade can be found starting from €200,000.

How would you like a 3- bed beach apartment in Cullera (Valencia) for €190,000? Venture a bit further from the seafront, and you can find some astonishing bargains, too. 

When it comes to luxury properties, there are no upper limits in Spain. Everything is possible if you are willing to pay. Including a small (or a big) palace on the seafront with a swimming pool, manicured gardens, your own mooring for your yacht.

Money-saving tips

If the yacht and palace are a little outside of your retirement budget, it’s not a problem, you can still enjoy an incredible lifestyle living in Spain. Here are a few tips to help make your money go further:

1. Research the areas when buying a property

It’s always worth investing time before buying a property in Spain to get to know which areas of your chosen region offer the best value for money. You can make significant savings on your property purchase by looking 5-10km outside of the most in-demand locations. 

2. Shop like a local

You’ll be able to make savings on your day to day living costs if you adopt a more Spanish approach to shopping. Instead of using a single supermarket to purchase all your groceries take time to explore Spain’s open markets. You’ll have a great time and you’ll be able to enjoy fresh local seasonal produce for less than you would pay in the supermarket.

If you shop exclusively in supermarkets, you might find that your grocery bill is actually higher than it used to be in your home country. Remember, Spain is perfect for local seasonal produce but not so good for international imported goods. 

3. Choose your supermarkets carefully

If you need to shop in a supermarket occasionally, look at the prices and offers different supermarkets have. Spanish supermarkets might lack variety, but their pricing is more reasonable. For example, you might find a great choice of products in Carrefour, but your bill will be much higher than if you shop in a Spanish Mercadona branch. 

4. Insulate your home

Electricity bills can shock you, especially if you live in southern Spain where summers can get really hot. Spanish properties, on the whole, are not very well insulated so you will be using air conditioners in summer and heaters in winter.

The best way to deal with this is to insulate your property and protect your windows from sunlight heat with blinds, awnings or other solutions. 

5. Use public transport

Before you rush off to buy a car in Spain, consider the fact that you may not need one.

Spain has excellent public transport and many of the locals get by perfectly well without owning a car. Of course, it depends on where you choose to live but a car could well be an unnecessary expense.

Moving to Spain: formalities and paperwork

There’s a lot to do when you start a new life abroad: sorting out your residency, organising removals to Spain, registering with local authorities, finding a family doctor, opening a bank account, connecting utilities and the list is going on and on. 

Let’s go through the best way to tackle these problems.

It might feel overwhelming, however, take it step-by-step and remember – once it’s done you won’t have to go through it again (unless you contract the expat bug and decide to move on to your next adventure). 

Residency in Spain for non-EU citizens 

Non-European citizens including Britons should follow third-country rules when it comes to residency in Spain.

Depending on the agreement between your home country and Spain you might be able to travel to Spain as a tourist without a visa. For example, Britons and US citizens among others, don’t need a visa for trips lasting less than 90 days.

You can even buy a property in Spain and never bother with residency. However, you can only stay in the country for 90 days in every 180. Also bear in mind that you must leave 90-day gaps between trips: three months in, three months out.

If you want to stay in Spain longer than three months, you need a long-stay visa for which you should apply to the nearest Spanish consulate in your home country.

Long-stay visas generally last 12 months and must be renewed. The type of visa you need depends on the purpose and length of your trip. 

If you are retiring to Spain, a non-lucrative visa is the best way to secure your residency.

Another option is to invest €500,000 in property which will gain you and your family residency in Spain and save you quite a bit of paperwork in the long run. 

We have a detailed guide where you can learn more about a non-lucrative visa, Spain Golden visa, NIE and Padron registration. You will also discover how and where to apply, how much it costs, and what documents you need to submit with your applications. 

Sorting out your furniture removals to Spain 

In many cases, it is actually cheaper to buy furniture and essentials in Spain than to ship them all the way from your home country.

If, however, there are things you cannot bear to part with and you are determined to ship them to Spain, you have several options:

  • Air freight – the fastest and most expensive way to ship your belongings. Great if you want to ship just a few items and don’t want to wait long for their arrival. 
  • Shipping container – a good compromise between cost and time. However, there are different options within this one that come with different costs.
  • Road freight – the cheapest option, can be relatively fast, a good choice if you live relatively close to Spain.
  • DIY removals – hire a van and do it yourself option. There are a few paperwork and regulation hurdles to overcome, but it is quite a viable option if you are after an adventure. 

There are pros and cons to every method. To understand which one is best for you, read our Removals To Spain guide

Bringing your pet to Spain 

Non-EU citizens can bring their pets to Spain through the designated Travelers Points of Entry where you must declare your pet with all the necessary documentation.

The requirements: 

  • Your pet must be at least 12 weeks and 21 days old
  • Your pet must be microchipped
  • You should present a health inspection certificate signed by an official veterinarian in your home country (with Spanish translation)
  • You need to have certified copies of the identification and vaccination documents.
  • A rabies vaccine is a must 

You can find more details about bringing your pets to Spain here

Healthcare in Spain – registering with the Spanish National Health System 

Spain has a universal healthcare system – the Spanish National Health System (“seguridad social” or SNS). Both Spanish citizens and foreigners legally resident in Spain have the right to use the SNS.

However, you cannot use the SNS while applying for residency. For this period you will need to have private health insurance, this is actually one of the requirements of the application process. 

The SNS covers most procedures free of charge. However, if there is surgery involved, or you need to stay overnight in a hospital or receive extensive prescriptions, you will be charged a reasonable fee. 

Signing up for the SNS is easy – you can register at the local health centre with your social security number, passport and foreign identity number.

Some expats choose to have private health insurance for more extensive coverage. There are plenty of private healthcare providers to choose from with Sanitas being the biggest one. 

Read how to access public healthcare in Spain, apply for a health card and register with a GP, your top-up insurance and private health cover options in Spain in our Health Insurance in Spain guide.

Spanish taxes for expats 

Staying in Spain for more than 183 days in a calendar year means becoming a tax resident of the country.

It doesn’t matter if you occasionally leave Spain during the year. If all the days you spend in the country sum up to 183 and over, you are still liable to pay taxes in Spain.

Taxes in Spain, in general, aren’t an easy thing to understand. Add to this the fact that the Spanish government changes tax rules pretty often. So being up to date with Spanish taxation might be challenging especially for expats with multiple income streams and assets abroad.

Learn what taxes you need to pay as a Spanish resident, deadlines, rates, allowances, etc: Taxes In Spain For Residents & Non-Residents

If you are retiring to Spain from the UK, this guide will be very useful for you: UK Pensions and Tax When Living in Spain – what your pension options are in Spain and how your pension income can be taxed there. 

Opening a bank account in Spain 

There are several options for you as an expat when it comes to banking in Spain.

In some cases, you might need a local bank account even before you move to the country.

You also need to decide whether you need an international bank account and whether you should keep your bank account open in your original country. 

To open a resident bank account in Spain you will need the following documents: 

  • A valid, current passport or national identity card if you’re an EU citizen;
  • A document that proves your address in Spain, such as a utility bill that is less than three months old, or a recent bank statement fromanother Spanish bank;
  • Proof of your employment status (such as an employment contract, a student card or unemployment paperwork) or proof of your retirement status;
  • Your NIE number.

However, there might be other options for you: you might need a non-resident bank account or a more flexible international bank account.

To learn in more detail about your banking options in Spain read our guide Banks In Spain: Bank Account Options For Expats – Spanish bank accounts, how to open a non-resident and resident bank account, online banking options, special accounts for retirees, etc. 

British bank accounts for Spanish residents after Brexit 

One major snag that many British expats in the EU have faced is the closure of their British bank accounts. Financial regulations in the Brexit agreement weren’t succinct enough for many banks, which has led them to cease operations in European countries. 

Many, such as Lloyds and Barclays, have shut UK bank accounts for overseas residents who can no longer prove a British address.

Check with your bank before moving to see if they will keep your account active. If not, try switching to a bank that operates in the EU or using an online service. 

Driving in Spain as a non-EU citizen 

Non-EU citizens resident in Spain can, as a rule, drive with their original driving licence for 6 months provided they have an International Driving Permit as well. The six month period starts from the time you register for residency. 

You must apply for an International Driving Permit (IDP) in your home country before you start driving in Spain.

Remember that an IDP is a complimentary license, so whenever you are going to use it, you have to accompany it with your passport and your original driving license. 

After the 6 month period ends you can exchange your driving licence for a Spanish one if your original driving licence has been issued by these countries.

If your country is not on the list you will have to obtain a new Spanish licence. For this, you will have to resit your driving test in Spain (theory and practical). It is possible to do your theory test in English. However, when it comes to the actual driving part of the test, it’s done in Spanish. 

It’s easy to find a driving school that can teach you both in English and Spanish to help get to know the Spanish terms and vocabulary that will be used during the exam. 

Final thoughts on living in Spain 

Settling down in a new country might seem daunting. However, if you’ve planned well and thought things through, Spain can be the best experience of your life. It gives the opportunity to enjoy a healthy lifestyle and beautiful weather for less money.

Don’t despair at the amount of paperwork facing you when moving to Spain. It’s all doable. In the end, if you cannot do it yourself, there’s always an option of hiring a gestor to do all the legwork for you while you are settling into the lifestyle of your dreams.

Providing you have the necessary funds and documentation, starting your new life, living in Spain should be a fairly smooth process. 

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