Living In Spain As An Expat – The Essential Guide

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 a lot of people around the globe considering relocating abroad for a healthier lifestyle and a better climate. Europeans especially love Spain for its proximity and glorious weather.

The numbers of people moving to Spain continues to grow every year. There are compelling reasons for this, and first and foremost is that Spain promises us an amazing lifestyle that we could only dream of.

Is living in Spain a good idea?

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

Living in Spain - Soller
Spain is full of dramatic landscapes. Like Soller in Mallorca, surrounded by a lush valley with an unspoilt coastline of beaches and mountain backdrop.

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 you new life in Spain:

  1. Have you got an income and financial security?
  2. Can you cope when things don’t always go to plan?
  3. Will you ‘really’ make an effort to learn the language?
  4. You know that living in isn’t the same as holidaying in, don’t you?
  5. You don’t give up at the first hurdle!

Living in Spain after Brexit

Now the Brexit transition period is over, Brits hoping to move to Spain must follow the same process as non-EU citizens. In short, this means the process is more complicated than it used to be.

Residency in Spain after Brexit

British citizens are now subject to third-country rules, which means you don’t need a visa for trips lasting less than 90 days. You can only stay in the country for 90 days in every 180.

A short-term trip entitles you to three months stay in the country within a 180-day period. For trips longer than three months, you need a long-stay visa.

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.

Another option is to invest €500,000 in property which will gain you and your family residency in Spain.

British bank accounts in Spain after Brexit

One major snag that many British expats have faced is the closure of 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. Of course, if you’re planning a move in the future, you at least have some prior warning.

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.

Pet passports after Brexit

EU pet passports are now invalid thanks to Brexit regulations. Instead you’ll need to apply for an animal health certificate (AHC) each time you travel. It’s valid for 4 months and a single entry back into the UK.

The process of obtaining an AHC isn’t vastly different; it’s just going to be more regular. For example, your pet will need to be microchipped, wormed, and vaccinated against rabies. Visit the UK government’s website for more details.

Second home owners in Spain after Brexit

Second home owners in Spain are still restricted by visa amendments caused by Brexit. This means that you don’t need a visa if you want to visit your second home for less than 3 months. For longer trips, you’ll need a long-stay visa, most likely a tourist or residence visa. These are valid for 12 months.

Of course, this might throw up several issues for those who would usually spend the winter in Spain and summer in the UK, or vice versa. Generally, this will still be fine but your trip can only be 90 days long.

Also, bear in mind that you must leave 90-day gaps between trips. This means you can spend a maximum of 180 days of the year in Spain, separated by 90-day intervals.

For longer trips, you’ll need to apply for a tourist or visitor visa. The application form is fairly short but requires ID and proof of residence in your home country.

The rules for breaking visa stays are the same for all Schengen-area countries. For first offenses, the punishment will likely be a fine. Further offences can result in deportation and either a temporary or permanent ban.

Some small consolation, though, is that property rights remain the same. There are no changes to your right to own property in Spain, but the process of buying further property in the future will likely be harder.

By 2022, unauthorised travel to the EU will end. A rule is being introduced called the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS), which will also cover short-term trips of less than 90 days.

Driving in Spain after Brexit

If you are a Spanish resident, your UK driving licence will be recognised until 30th June 2021. After this date you’ll need to exchange it for a Spanish one. For short-stay visits, your UK licence will remain eligible.

Currently, there haven’t been any updates on the process of exchanging your British licence for a Spanish one. You’ll need to register your details with the Direccion General de Trafico (DGT) – the Spanish traffic authority.

Based on the rules suggested by other countries, such as France, you’ll likely need to complete a full application process. This will likely include photo ID, proof of address, and so on. Also, you might need to sit a Spanish driving test.

The pros and cons of living in Spain

As any country, Spain has its advantages and disadvantages. For expat retirees there are definitely more advantages than disadvantages in moving to Spain.

What are the advantages of living in Spain?

Spain offers great value for money. This is the most important consideration, especially for retirees. You naturally want your retirement income not just to last, but allow you to afford a bit more than you can do in your home country.

Living in Spain - Lanzarote
Spain gives you endless opportunities to live al fresco – the main reason the country is appealing to sun-starved northeners. Lanzarote, Spain

Travel to Spain is easy. All regions of the nation are accessible from all parts of the world and usually for a fair price.  Not only that, but the climate is fantastic with Spain averaging 137 days of sunshine compared to just the 52 that we have each year in the UK. 

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

The country is also vast and diverse, therefore there is a part of Spain that appeals to each and every one of us. 

For those who prefer a more temperate climate, Northern Spain is cooler for example, and for those who want as much sunshine as possible, the Costas are ideal. 

Alternatively, if you’re a winter sports enthusiast or a lover of the great outdoors, what about the Pyrenees or the Sierra Nevada, and if you prefer island living then there are the Spanish Balearic and Canary Islands of course.

Span has good healthcare both private and public.

What are the disadvantages of living in Spain?

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

Speaking a local language

Depending on where exactly you are planning to live in Spain, you might need to learn Spanish. And even if you do speak Spanish it might not solve the problem if your final destination is where a lot of people speak Catalan, Basque or Galician.

Bureaucracy

Moving to Spain comes with a heap of paperwork which can be frustrating and time-consuming. Be ready to it but also remember that when it’s done – it’s done. When you have your NIE, residency, health insurance and other issues sorted, you will never have to do it again.

Relaxed approach to doing things

Spaniards have a different approach to life 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 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 local do.

Where to live in Spain

Planning is a key to your successful life in Spain.

If you’ve holidayed on the Costas or visited Spain regularly and decided that it really is the one country that you could call home, chances are you have a basic but not deep understanding of the country. 

Unless you’ve committed to living in Spain for at least a few months, you won’t be able to say for sure that this is the country that you really can settle into.

Moving to and living in Spain - Barcelona
Barcelona

So, when planning on where to live in Spain, first, research well which locations are considered to be the best places to live in Spain.

Next step – go and spend time there getting to know the different regions and areas. During your research stay, it will be also important to spend time looking at the housing options available to you as well.

Research visit – how not to make a mistake when choosing your location

The main rules of a research visit are as follows:

Don’t just spend time getting to know one area of Spain 

The nation is vast and varied, diverse and wonderful – if you only commit to examining one small part, you could well miss discovering the part of the nation that actually suits you better.

Don’t just visit in the spring and summer

Spanish spring and summer are lovely, the weather is great and the towns are more lively. Spend time in Spain out of season and in the winter when the weather can be foul even on the coast so that you can determine whether you can cope with the climate extremes.

Get to know your favourite areas out of season

See how different the experience of living in such an area would be when your favourite bars, restaurants, and shops are shut. Visit towns and villages, rural communities, urbanisations, and Costa resorts to get an idea of where you would feel most at home.

Towards the end of your research visit, if you have decided that Spain really is for you, begin looking more closely at the part of Spain you’re strongly attracted to. 

Find out all about the amenities and facilities available, think carefully about how accessible the given community is and think ahead.  Whilst a given location is ideal for you today, will it still be ideal in twenty year’s time?

Living in Spain - Malaga
Malaga, a stunning coastal city, attracts working expats and retirees alike

Where is the cheapest place to retire in Spain?

Spain offers plenty of places for cheap retirement. The cheapest place to retire in Spain is Seville, the capital of Andalucía. Andalucía is the cheapest region of Spain in terms of living cost, so Seville offers the best of both worlds: urban benefits and inexpensive living.

According to Numbeo, the cost of living in Spain is roughly 34% lower than in London. Restaurant prices are up to 50% lower than London, and groceries can be up to two-thirds cheaper. In short, Seville offers plenty of opportunities for your money to go much further.

However, if Seville doesn’t sound like the right choice for you, some other cheap Spanish retirement destinations include:

  • Valencia (around €950 a month)
  • Granada (around €1,000 a month)
  • Alicante (around €875 a month)

Of course, the cost of living should only be one of many deciding factors when choosing a retirement destination. There’s little point 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.

Compared to the UK, the average cost of living in Spain is approximately 16% lower. Regional price differences in both the UK and Spain can exaggerate that difference in either direction.

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. However, it is possible to live with a reasonable degree of comfort for around 1000 Euro per month.

Your 1000 Euro 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.

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 Euro per month. That includes being able to enjoy regular meals out and an active social life.

Cost of utilities

The costs that you can’t avoid such as electric, water, getting the bins emptied tend to be lower than in the UK.

Budget for around 130 Euro per month. 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 conditioning on full time during the summer peak.

Research first, save money later

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.

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 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 produce for less than you would pay in the supermarket.

Before you rush off to buy a car, 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.

Work in Spain

Thanks to Brexit regulations, the ability for British expats to find work in Spain is now quite different.

If you were a Spanish resident before 1st January 2021, you can continue to find work as before. If not, and you’re thinking of moving there now, you’ll need to apply for a long-stay work visa.

There are different kinds of work visa, and you either need to apply through the Spanish embassy in the UK or through your potential employer (this is generally only applicable to high-skilled work).

Work visas do cover long-term work and self-employed or freelance work, but the former usually requires you to have job opportunities lined up.

Freelance visas require proof of income, contracts, proof of skills, necessary licences and insurance, and a number of other details. This makes them potentially quite hard to obtain.

Also, you can’t use a work visa alongside a retirement visa, but you can swap your retirement visa for a work visa after the first year.

What is it like living in Spain?

Moving to Spain probably means you’re going to experience 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. 

Living in Spain - Tenerife
Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain

There is far more emphasis on the family and on relaxing and enjoying life in Spain.

Things are done slowly, sometimes frustratingly slowly for expats. Mornings can easily stretch into afternoons, small businesses get closed for unspecified siestas, and many newly arrived residents get really frustrated that nothing, even the easiest things, gets done on time.

Spaniards love and value their me-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 anything to be done in August. Also if you’re planning to move to a coastal town in Spain, it’s a good idea to check it at this time of year as scores of tourists arrive causing crowds, traffic, and other hassles.

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

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

As soon as this sinks in you can expect a positive change in your life: an enhanced feeling of well-being. It might sound insignificant, however, the feeling of well-being is deeply addictive, and once you’ve experienced it you will try to hang on it.

That’s why so many expats love Spain – it’s easier to keep feeling well and enjoy life there.

Sooner rather than later your old friends and your family back in your home country will see this positive change in you and themselves begin thinking about whether moving to Spain could be just the ticket for them too!

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.

Living in Spain - beaches
Beautiful beaches of Tenerife – Las Teresitas (near Santa Cruz). Canary islands

Entering any unfamiliar rental market might feel a bit daunting, especially if you don’t speak the local language. So, it’s worth doing your homework beforehand.

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.

You need to know how Spain’s property market works and all the possible pitfalls that you should avoid when buying your dream home in the sun.

Moving to Spain

Organising removals and shipping your belongings to Spain can be a stressful process, however, if planned well, it can also go quite smoothly.

You need to know what options you have, how much they cost and how long they take to be able to choose the right option for you.

You can do a sea freight, move your belongings by land or even organise DIY removals. All these options have advantages and disadvantages, so do your research to choose wisely.

Settling down in Spain: formalities and paperwork

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

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 an expat bug and decide to move on to your next adventure).

Applying for NIE and Residency in Spain

After three months of living in Spain by Spanish law, you do need to register as a foreign resident. This is provided you entered the country not as a tourist but with some kind of long-term visa.

You will also need to obtain an NIE and register with your local authorities in Spain.

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 foreign residents who work in Spain have the right to use the SNS.

The SNS covers most procedures free of charge. However, if there is a 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.

  • Health Insurance in Spain – The Expat’s Guide – how to access public healthcare in Spain, EHIC, S1 form, what to do if you are not eligible for S1, applying for a health card and registering with a GP, top-up insurance and private health cover in Spain.

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 283 and over, you are 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. 

Opening a bank account in Spain

There are several options for you as an expat when it comes to banking abroad. 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 UK bank account open.

Final thoughts on living in Spain

Settling down in a new country might seem daunting. However, if you have made the right choice, 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.

Remember, too, that new Brexit regulations will make the process a bit longer. However, you shouldn’t be discouraged if you like the look of what Spain has to offer. Providing you have the necessary funds and documentation, residency should still be a fairly smooth process.

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