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Living In Spain: The Essential Must-Read Guide For Expats

This guide will 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, and how to sort out your bank accounts and doctors and register with your local authorities. We will also discuss property matters and choosing where to live in Spain. 

Spain is the number one destination for many of us 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, Spain offers a fantastic sun-filled lifestyle that isn’t available in other countries. 

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. 

Living in Spain - Soller
Soller in Mallorca. Surrounded by a lush valley with an unspoilt coastline of beaches and a mountain backdrop.

However, the complete opposite is true for others, 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; only you can say if Spain is a good idea personally. 

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

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

What is it like living in Spain? 

This guide will help you answer these and other questions and ultimately decide whether living in Spain is good for you.

Moving to Spain means you’ll 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. 

Spain gives you endless opportunities to live al fresco – the main reason the country is so appealing to sun-starved northerners.

There is far more emphasis on being with family, relaxing and enjoying the best lifestyle Spain offers.

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 frustrated that nothing, even the simplest things, gets 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 intensely 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 – feeling well and enjoying life becomes effortless. 

The pros and cons of living in Spain 

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

Living in Spain - Costa Brava
The beautiful landscape of Tossa de Mar, Costa Brava, Spain

The pros of living in Spain 

1. Spain offers excellent value for money.

A vital consideration 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 other northern European countries. 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 

Spain’s climate is one of the best in the European Union, averaging 137 days of sunshine compared to just 52 that we have each year in the UK. Some microclimate pockets in Spain have mild weather all year round, which greatly benefits 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. Travelling to Spain and around Spain it is easy. 

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

Plus, Spain itself is a well-connected country. Travelling within 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 2hrs 40 minutes to travel 500km from Barcelona to Madrid or 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 nation’s history 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 every one of us.

Living in Spain - nature trails
El Caminito del Rey (The King’s Little Path) in Malaga province.

Northern Spain’s summer temperatures are ideal if you prefer a more temperate climate; 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, you have the Spanish Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands, each with unique characteristics. 

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, including the UK and the USA, whose citizens are allowed to come and stay in Spain for three months every half a year without a visa. So if you want this, 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.

Spanish people generally love dogs and family pets; 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 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 you plan to live in Spain, you might need to learn Spanish. All the paperwork in Spain gets done in Spanish; it always helps when you know what you’re signing! Even if you are moving to a significant expat community, learning the language will always help.

And even if you speak Spanish, it might only partially localise you in regions where families speak Catalan, Basque or Galician. However, everyone will understand you if you speak Spanish and appreciate your effort to learn the language.

Don’t get us wrong; plenty of expats live comfortably in Spain without speaking a word of the language, and you can find them in the most popular expat destinations in Spain. If this is how you plan to live in Spain, 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. 

Living in Spain - vineyards
Txakoli vineyards with the Cantabrian sea in the background, Getaria in Basque Country

2. Bureaucracy 

Moving to Spain requires completing a lot of paperwork which can be frustrating and time-consuming. Also, no matter how hard you try to collect all the necessary paperwork, don’t be surprised if something extra is still required.

So, always bring more; you may as well bring everything you can think of. The more, the merrier. There might be a slight chance you get it right on the first try. 

Also, remember that when you get through it – 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 enjoy a siesta and have a different approach to life, especially compared to Brits or Americans. Punctuality and efficiency are meaningful but less important than enjoying life. So, get used to three-hour coffee breaks, unpredictable hours of operation and long siestas when many shops are closed.

It’s frustrating, but only in the beginning. Very 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 in the first place. 

As with any country, Spain has its pros and cons. The key to success is planning. Our guide, 10 Tips To Make Retiring To Spain An Absolute Success, can help you focus on the most critical aspects of your relocation.

Where to live in Spain 

Choosing the best place to live in Spain takes work: the country offers so many unique locations, and 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. 

Living in Spain - Marbella
The Costa del Sol, Marbella beach

Coastal locations in Andalusia, Valencia and Catalonia regions are very popular with expats. You will always find good company and make friends easily, especially if you know a little Spanish.

If you are after something a bit less touristy, consider living in Murcia and the Costa Calida, it’s a great destination, warm, relaxed, beautiful and affordable.

If you are into an urban lifestyle – 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. You have 4.2 km of golden sandy beaches only 10 minutes from the city centre.

Choose Madrid if you need a central location.

Madrid is a vibrant, easy-going city with great architecture and a well-connected and exciting vibe. But it’s not a top retirement hotspot. It’s also costly to live there. Life in Madrid is more about career, business and employment opportunities than anything else. 

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 Madrid and 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.

Living in Spain - the Canary islands
Las Teresitas beach in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the Canary Islands.

The Canary Islands and the Balearic islands, such as Mallorca, are the top favourites among expats. The island lifestyle is quieter and calmer, there’s very little crime, and the cost of living is low unless you start importing luxury 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, 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 in Seville, the capital of Andalucía.

Living in Spain - Seville
Seville is one of the cheapest cities to live in Spain

For a low cost of living, Andalucía is the most affordable region of Spain. 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 essential 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 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! 

Other popular locations in Spain to consider:

The cost of living in Spain 

Compared 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 that living in Spain will cost you less than your current expenses. 

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

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 have enough income to qualify for residency in Spain. 

Suppose 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. In that case, 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 income, you can afford a good lifestyle in Spain.

If, however, all you want to do is to live in Spain for three 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 

A single person can live with a reasonable degree of comfort for around €1000 per month.

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

How much money does 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 at €2000 per month. That includes being able to enjoy regular meals out and an 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. 

Living in Spain - Granada
Granada is one of the pearls of Spain in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The cost of utilities in Spain 

The costs you can’t avoid, such as electricity, water and emptying bins, tend to be relatively high in Spain.

Budget for around €130 per month for a small apartment. Add on more if you’re 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 recommend renting a property in Spain first before you buy. Renting will allow you to get familiar with the area and ensure it works for you all year round.

Living in Spain - Cantabria
Santillana del Mar in Cantabria

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 be 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 to become a homeowner, ensure you are familiar with all the legalities of buying a property in Spain. Understand how Spain’s property market works and all the possible pitfalls 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 suitable 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. 

Regarding 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, and your mooring for your yacht. 

Money-saving tips 

If the yacht and palace are a bit outside 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 know which areas of your chosen region offer the best value for money. You can make savings on your property purchase by looking 5-10km outside the most in-demand locations. 

2. Shop like a local

You’ll be able to save 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.

Living in Spain - markets
Fruit and veg market in La Boqueria, Barcelona

If you shop exclusively in supermarkets, you might find that your grocery bill is 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 in southern Spain, where summers can get 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 that you may not need one.

Spain has excellent public transport, and many locals get by perfectly well without owning a car. Of course, it depends on where you choose to live, but a vehicle 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 – after you’re complete, 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 and US citizens, should follow third-country rules regarding residency in Spain.

Living in Spain - houses in Andalusia
Typical Mediterranean houses in Benahavis, Malaga, and Andalusia.

Depending on agreements between your home country and Spain, you may travel to Spain as a tourist without a visa. For example, Britons and US citizens only need a visa for trips lasting longer 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, remember that you must leave 90-day gaps between trips: three months in and 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 a minimum of €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 must submit with your applications. 

If you have questions or need more information about your Golden Visa or non-lucrative visa options, contact us via our Advice page, we will be happy to help. 

UK citizens can find detailed information on moving to Spain in our Living In Spain After Brexit guide.

Sorting out your furniture removals to Spain 

It is often cheaper to buy furniture and essentials in Spain than to ship them 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 send just a few items and don’t want to wait long for their arrival. 
  • Shipping container – a good compromise between cost and time. However, this one has different options that come with additional charges.
  • Road freight – the cheapest option, can be relatively fast, a good choice if you live 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 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.
  • Get your pet 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 on PetTravel.com

Healthcare in Spain – registering with the Spanish National Health System 

Spain’s universal healthcare system is the Spanish National Health System (“Seguridad Social” or SNS). Spanish citizens and foreigners legally residing 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 private health insurance; this is one of the application process requirements. 

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

International health insurance is also a popular option. To ensure you get the best value for money, compare international health insurance options from various providers to find the best deal. 

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, are challenging to understand. Add to this; 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, read our guide UK Pensions and Tax When Living in Spain – what your pension options are in Spain and how your pension income can be taxed here. 

Opening a bank account in Spain 

There are several options for you as an expat regarding banking in Spain.

Living in Spain - Tenerife
Canyon Masca in Tenerife

You might need a local bank account before moving to the country.

Consider 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 from another 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 more 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 many British expats in the EU have faced is the closure of their British bank accounts. Financial regulations in the Brexit agreement needed to be more concise 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 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 in Spain can, as a rule, drive with their original driving licence for six months, provided they also have an International Driving Permit. The six-month period starts from the time you register for residency. 

Before driving in Spain, you must apply for an International Driving Permit (IDP) in your home country.

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

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

If your country is not on the list, you will have to obtain a new Spanish licence. 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 in both English and Spanish to help you learn the Spanish terms and vocabulary used during the exam. 

Please find more information on Spanish driving regulations and the car registration process in our guide, Sorting Out A Car And Driving In Spain.

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 allows enjoying a healthy lifestyle and beautiful weather for less money.

Take your time with the paperwork you face 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 settling into the lifestyle of your dreams.

With the necessary funds and documentation, starting your new life and living in Spain should be reasonably smooth.

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