Expat guide: Spain

This guide offers information and advice if you are moving to Spain.

Click on the different tabs to find out about anything from tax rules and banking to education and cultural highlights.

You can also read our city guide to Barcelona and Madrid.

Moving to Spain

Expats moving to Spain will find a country steeped in a rich and eventful history. The westernmost peninsula of Europe and the landmass closest to Africa has hosted the meeting of some of the world’s largest and most influential civilizations. The Iberian Peninsula has witnessed the rise and fall of the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Moors and the gold-flush empire born of that Christian sailor who in 1492 famously took Europe to the Americas.

The Spanish Miracle of the 70s launched Spain into the modern era. One of the last countries in Europe to see the fall of fascism, Spain has become a resurgent economic force and is now the 8th largest economy in Europe, famous for its fashion, food, architecture, music and arts.

A popular expat destination

While salaries in Spain are low, so is the cost of living. It is the unhurried lifestyle and cheap beachside property which attracts many expats to spend their days on the Spanish coasts. With its vast coastline, Spanish beaches are amongst the most beautiful in the world. It is also the land of opportunity for many South Americans, whose historical colonial connection to Spain means their visa requirements are less stringent.

Shipping and removals

The most important thing to note when moving to Spain is that you may be subject to a 16% tax on the value of all the goods you are bringing into the country. However, if you move with a Spanish citizen and conduct the whole business in their name, or you are moving to Spain for good, the rules are different. As always, it is worth contacting the local Spanish consulate for paperwork to avoid any potential bureaucratic hiccups. While the removal company will have to deal with much of the bureaucracy on your behalf, it always pays to make sure there are no surprises. Compare movers before hiring as delays and lost goods can occur.

Bringing pets to Spain

Bringing pets into Spain is a relatively painless experience as long as you follow procedure. First of all, the animal needs a regulation tattoo or microchip. You will also be required to produce a veterinarian certificate detailing the breed, origin, description, identification of owner and rabies compliance.

Working in Spain

It can be difficult to get a visa for Spain. One of the reasons it is so, is that the contracts offered in Spain offer a lot more to the worker than most other places in the world.

Spain is a country in which the labour unions hold a lot of power, which makes it difficult to fire people. There may or may not be a provision for siesta in your contract, which defines the time of the longer lunch breaks. There are also a number of small bonuses that are paid to workers for the public holidays. Furthermore, severance pay in Spain is high with six weeks pay due at the end of a contract for every year worked.

Like everything in Spain there is a lot of paper work to fill out for most jobs. If you work a trade, your certificates have to be translated and sent to the Ministry of Education. If you are a chef or a bartender, you have to take an exam showing that you know how to handle food.

Visa and work permits

It can be difficult to get a working visa in Spain, meaning that a short visit may just not be worth the hassle. However, if you are a member of the European Union or another Schengen country, then you don’t need a visa for Spain.

It can be one of those difficult catch-22 for potential migrants. Getting a visa and work permit is easy, if and when a job is lined up.  However, getting a job is difficult without already having a visa or work permit. Due to the high levels of unemployment, getting a visa can be tricky as Spain does not wish to have their labour market flooded by foreign nationals.

The best document to have when applying for a visa is a signed contract of more than 10 months with a potential employer. For the full list of required documents it is worth contacting the local Spanish Consulate.

When arriving in Spain it is important to quickly register for a social security number. Being registered provides access to the banking system and general bureaucracy and is the means by which taxes are levied. The NIE (Número de Identidad/Identificación de Extranjer) is a number issued by the Spanish immigration service when you get hold of your residency permit. It is an important tool that – among other things – allows for the opening of a resident’s bank account.


It’s important to check what tax treaties and negations your home country has with Spain and the European Union. This is predominantly to ensure that you are not double taxed at any point. Income taxes must be paid for any year that the resident spends 183 days in the country. There is a 25% flat tax available for expats for the first five years you are in the country.

If you are working for a company, then the company usually deducts the tax from your salary. If you are freelancing or running a business it is worth hiring a tax assessor to help navigate the complex Spanish system - remember you must register as an autonomo with the local government.

Non-Europeans should keep all receipts, as Value Added Tax is paid back when one leaves the country or the Euro zone.


Spain has a conservative business culture and it is advised that expats behave and dress accordingly; formal attire and punctuality are considered very important. When greeting or being introduced to someone a handshake is customary. Also remember to use the titles Señor (Mr), Señora (Mrs) and Señorita (Miss) when addressing business associates. It is the norm to exchange business cards, printed in both English and Spanish text. Meetings are often held over lunch or dinner but normal business hours are usually from 8am to 5pm.

Banking and money

The NIE (Número de Identidad/Identificación de Extranjer) is important when opening a bank account. Generally a resident’s account has fewer charges at lower rates. It can be very useful to get the NIE card before you arrive. You can apply for the card at your local Spanish embassy, but this can only be done after you have obtained a social security number. The queues in Spain can be long, and it is more efficient to do this outside of the country.

Banking fees are high in Spain so it is worth shopping around. The variety of charges are set up fees, debit card transaction fees, correspondence fees (when the bank communicates with you) and money transfer fees for transfers between accounts.

Living and culture

Culture shock

The Spanish are renowned for both their relaxed attitude to life and their exuberant social personalities. It is common in Spain to be interrupted while speaking, which in contrast to the English way, is a sign of interest. The Spanish tend to be unhurried in their activities, and do not readily hurry for anyone else’s urgency.

Siesta: There are many places that still observe the siesta, which is a long break between 2pm and 5pm in which many people sleep or return home for lunch. For restaurants and other members of the service industry the siesta, if taken, runs at a different time. Larger cities, such as Madrid and Barcelona, tend not to observe the siesta as the Spanish businessmen cannot afford to take this time off, and many workers find that a shorter lunch gives them more time to spend with their families in the evening.

Politeness: Politeness in Spain often does not rely on the "pleases" and "thank you's" that the English world is used to. Expect to be spoken to with short and sharp requests for either action or information. For most purposes the Spanish word for please, 'por favour', is either overly formal or a sign of exasperation. Spanish shopkeepers will acknowledge one with little more than a quick 'Si?' and an expectant facial expression.

Gender roles: The major cities are essentially modern, but rural Spain still holds onto some of its patriarchal thinking. Staring and commenting on passing women is something of a national past-time for many groups of men. While times are changing, it’s not for nothing that the word Machismo originated in the Spanish-speaking world. However, there are few legal, educational or even cultural impediments to female advancement in the workplace and the law protects female equality.

Religion: The Spanish are a Roman Catholic nation. While the church is not state backed, the evidence of its reach can be seen everywhere. In many towns the largest building is the church, and the cathedrals and shrines of Spain are not to be missed when site seeing. 

The Spanish regions: The structure of the Spanish government means that a high degree of autonomy is given to each of its 17 political regions. This means that both laws and culture can vary extensively from one part of Spain to another.

Bureaucracy: The bureaucracy in Spain is particularly painful. This is a reflection of the Spanish attitudes to contracts. The Spanish will take a lot of time negotiating any deal, running over each section until it is clear that both sides understand what is required of them, and once signed it is expected that the contract is carried out to the letter.

Cost of living

The cost of living in Spain is highly variable. Rural Spain can be very inexpensive which makes holidaying a lot more fun. Barcelona is considered the most expensive city in the country, with Madrid a close second and Seville and Valencia following after. When renting accommodation with an agency, you will have to pay a month's rent in fees. Furnished apartments are available in many places, but the Spanish have a habit of leaving furniture out on the street for others to take, so keep a watch out. Long-term rentals are always cheaper than short-term. After the first year in a property you have the right to extend for another 5 years, unless the landlord needs to move into the apartment. After those 5 years the landlord is no longer obligated to retain his tenants.

The financial crisis has changed things, and if you have any money to invest, it might be the right time to buy. If you want to buy property in Spain it is highly advisable that you use an agent, because the law in Spain can be complex and it often requires an expert to sort out transfer issues.

Electricity is expensive in Spain, especially as most apartments do not have central heating and cooling. The houses are not designed to resist the cold, so a winter in a cold part of Spain can feel colder than a winter in northern Europe.


The dominant language of the country is Castilian (which you would think of as Spanish), but the use of Catalan, Basque and Galician all define important social groupings. The Basque region has such a distinct national identity that part of its population wants the region to form an independent state.

Local customs

Smoking in public places is prohibited and fines can be issued if you break the rules. Drinking alcohol in the streets of Madrid is also against the law.

Spanish bureaucracy?

To a foreigner it may seem that the Spanish are obsessed with bureaucracy. Almost every significant action you take will require a form of some sort to be filled out and there is a lot of paper work to be done before departing and on arrival. Every contract should be supervised by a Spanish lawyer. When in doubt, contact the consulates and city halls.

Where to live?

Barcelona has long been regarded as the Spanish cultural capital. Madrid is the financial and commercial hub, so if you are working in a high-paying industry there will probably be more opportunities in Madrid. Rural Spain is good to expats, and if you can find a decent job you can enjoy a very high level of comfort.(LINKS)

Education and schools 

Education and schools in Barcelona

Schooling in Barcelona is free but classes are taught in Catalan. While this can be an opportunity for younger expat children to learn the language, most older students will need instruction in their native language with slow immersion into Spanish and Catalan. This is typically done at international schools in Barcelona. Some of these insist on enrolling percentages of local students, students from the country of the curricula (Americans from the Benjamin Franklin School), and other international students.

Even public schools are difficult to be accepted into because of overcrowding and a lottery system is often the only means of admitting your children. Its is also important for parents to understand or be able to translate Catalan for completing confusing paperwork for admitting children into public school.

International schools can also continue in the curricula from overseas while local Barcelona schools will have a difficult time accommodating or placing foreign students. Some international schools follow Spanish curricula in a foreign language although many of the students in these schools are local.

Education and schools in Madrid

Most local students attend free public school in Madrid. This can be a good option for young expat children learning to adjust to life in Spain, but difficult for older students as classes are in Spanish. Another option is private Catholic schooling which is subsidised by the government and a popular option for local students. Tuition is much less expensive than European private schools. However, subsidised schools teach Spanish curricula in the Spanish language and can be similarly difficult for newly arrived expat children.

Only independent and international schools teach in English and both are more expensive in Madrid than in other cities in Spain. Some independent schools in Spain refer to themselves as international schools although they teach Spanish curricula in a foreign language. These are popular for local students.

Many expat children attend international schools, although there typically is a waiting lists. Therefore expat families are encouraged to enlist their children well before the school year begins. International schools are more experienced in accommodating students who have previously studied different curricula.

School links (Barcelona)

School info (Madrid)

List of international schools in Madrid:

British international school:

The American school of Madrid:

Useful information

Standard time: GMT + 1 hour (GMT + 2 hours from the end of March to the end of October).

Currency: The euro (EUR, €) is the official currency of Spain. It is divided into 100 cents. You can check the latest exchange rates at www.xe.com.

Electricity: 220 or 225 volts, 50Hz. Standard Spanish plugs are European two-pins.

Safety Information: Passport theft is becoming more common in Spain, since demand from potential illegal immigrants in Africa has fuelled the creation of a lucrative passport black-market. If your passport is stolen then you should immediately report it to the local embassy and have the passport reissued. Very few people need to see your passport, so don’t show it to anyone unless they are employed in an official government capacity.

Tourists are targets for crime in Spain, and pick-pocketing is rife in the some crowded areas of Madrid and Barcelona. Keep your valuables in front of your body or locked securely away. If someone bumps into you, it is worth paying attention to where their hands are wandering, as they may be searching for valuables.

It is also worth finding out what a given taxi ride should cost before getting into one. Some of the locals take a pride in ripping off tourists.

Communications: The international access code for Spain is +34. To make international calls from Spain, dial 00 followed by the relevant country code (eg 44 for the United Kingdom). There are city and area codes used internally – Barcelona’s is (0)93 and for Madrid it’s (0)91. Phone cards and coins can be used in public phones throughout Spain; phone cards can be purchased from post offices, tobacconists and newsagents. Local mobile phone operators provide GSM 900/1800 coverage throughout Spain. Broadband internet connection at home and in internet cafés is available in all but the smallest of Spanish towns.

Emergencies: Dial 112 or 061 for emergency assistance in Spain.

Climate: Expats often imagine weather in Spain to be marked by magnificent sunny skies, Mediterranean temperatures and cool ocean breezes. Though this certainly happens to be the case in certain parts of the country, the nation has its fair share of geographic diversity, and as a result, weather in Spain varies tremendously.

Most of the country does see hot, sunny summers, but winter weather behaviour changes depending on locale.

The Spanish east coast typically enjoys mild winters with some rainfall and dry summers with abundant sunshine. Spain’s southern region, Andalusia, is considerably hotter and expats might find the peak summer months of July and August uncomfortably hot. The northern part of Spain experiences moderate summers and mild winters, but is prone to a large amount of rainfall. The Spanish mountain region is subject to harsh winds, cold winters and mild summers.

Overall though, climate in Spain is enjoyable, and expats won’t find too much to complain about in the way of weather.

Embassy contact details

Spanish embassies

  • Spanish Embassy, Washington, United States: +1 202 452 0100.
  • Spanish Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 (0)20 7235 5555.
  • Spanish Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 747 2252.
  • Spanish Embassy, Canberra, Australia: +61 (0)2 6273 3555.
  • Spanish Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 (0)12 460 0123.
  • Spanish Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 (0)1 283 9900.
  • Spanish Consulate, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 (04) 802 5665.

Foreign embassies in Spain

  • United States Embassy, Madrid: +34 91 587 2200.
  • British Embassy, Madrid: +34 91 524 9700.
  • Canadian Embassy, Madrid: +34 91 423 3250.
  • South African Embassy, Madrid: +34 91 436 3780.
  • Irish Embassy, Madrid: +34 91 436 4093.
  • New Zealand Embassy, Madrid: +34 915 230 226.

Useful links

Wordtravels.com has an extensive travel guide to Spain: http://wordtravels.com/Travelguide/Countries/Spain

Working in Spain:

Visa and Work Permits for Spain:

Shipping and Removals in Spain:

This content is provided by www.expatarrivals.com, copyright © 2011 Globe Media Ltd. All rights reserved. By its very nature much of the information in this travel guide is subject to change at short notice and travellers are urged to verify information on which they're relying with the relevant authorities. Neither Globe Media nor Bupa Global can be held liable for any errors or omissions, or any loss, damage, illness and/or injury that may occur as a result of this information. Bupa Global is not responsible for the content of external websites

Join Bupa Global

Global health insurance for globally minded people

The Bupa Global difference

Over 65 years of medical expertise and dedication to health. A global team of advisers and health experts who, between them, speak multiple languages – and a service that exceeds expectations. These are just a few of the things that make Bupa Global different. Explore how we provide you with world-class cover and stand apart from the rest.