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The expat's guide to moving to Spain

I've lived and worked in Madrid, Spain, for almost 2 years. In this post, I wanted to go over the experience from my point of view. This is a collection of random things that I wish somebody told me 2 years ago - maybe it will be useful for someone about to make the transition to Spain from another country, or still deciding whether Spain is the right place for them.

1. Almost nobody speaks English

This was the biggest surprise for me personally. Before moving to Spain, I kind of assumed I would get by in the country with English (I knew no Spanish at all). I figured that people wouldn't probably speak great, but surely enough to be able to communicate, right?

Wrong.

The rough breakdown of the Spanish population by their English skills, in my experience, looks something like the following:

  • 90% of people don't speak at all. And when I say 'at all', I mean it - at a store once, I pointed to an item I was buying and said "It's OK?" to the clerk (she had some problem getting the register to record the purchase), and she looked at me with a sad face, and said, "No entiendo".
  • 9% can understand what you're trying to say, but are unable to speak English themselves, so you can't really communicate anyway.
  • 1% understands and speaks English.

This situation has two important consequences:

  1. You will be forced to learn some Spanish, whether you want to or not.
  2. If you don't know any Spanish when starting out in the country, things will be tricky.

My advice would be to a) if possible, take some Spanish classes before going there - even 2-3 weeks will make a gigantic difference, trust me (also, Spanish is not that difficult - at least the basics), b) use Google Translate whenever possible, and c) make some Spanish-speaking friends ASAP (if you're moving there for work, your colleagues from the office will do in a pinch), and use them whenever you're having language problems. You need Internet in your smartphone and the ability to make cheap phone calls for this advice to work, so get a Spanish SIM as fast as you can (the pre-paid plans are quite good, and they start as low as 10€ a month. Alternatively, a lot of providers bundle mobile phone services with home Internet, which you need anyway, and you can save a good amount this way).

2. The bureaucracy is awful

In order to live and work in Spain, there are several documents that you need to obtain:

  • Social Security Number ("Número de la Seguridad Social")
  • NIE (a tax ID number)
  • Proof of residence ("empadronamiento")
  • public medical insurance card

(Note that this is for citizen of an EU country or the US, so not requiring a visa to work. If you're moving from somewhere else, you'll have more paperwork to deal with, but I assume your company will hire somebody to guide you through the process in that case.)

As you can see, that is quite a long list! To make it even worse, the Spanish administrative services are quite bad - the offices are open for a short time during the day, the lines are always long, once you finally reach the start of the line, the actual process also takes a significant amount of time, and taking into account point #1 above (nobody speaks English - yes, even in offices specifically aimed at documents for foreigners!), getting any one of these is a challenge, let alone all of them (take a look at this satirical video for a funny - but disturbingly close to the truth - picture of what a Spanish administrative office looks like).

What is even worse, you encounter a lot of these "closed loops" - series of demands that are circular, and that make it seem impossible to be fulfilled (for example: you can't open a bank account without a NIE; but you need an address in Spain to get the NIE, but it's not possible to rent an apartment without having a bank account!). In these cases, you have to "cheat" the system in some way (for example, give your friend's address at the office initially, and only later update it to yours when you get your own place; or open a special bank account for foreigners that doesn't require a NIE).

Expect that gathering all of these will take you a significant amount of time, and, because of the when the offices are open, might require you leaving the office during work hours to get it done. Fortunately, in my experience, most Spanish companies understand how bad the administrative chores are, and don't make a big deal of you taking some time to get all of the documents in order.

3. The level of 'services' is terrible

But dealing with the Spanish administration is just the beginning of your troubles. The country is notorious for having a really terrible level of any sort of services that you need.

When I first got my SIM, the guy at the store activated the wrong plan, and I had to go back 2 days later. My friend had his Internet upgraded to fiber; the technician came to his house, ripped apart the existing installation, and then realized he was missing some parts to complete the upgrade that day, so he told the friend to schedule another appointment, leaving him without Internet at home for several days. Another friend had a scheduled visit from a repairman at 11. He stayed back home waiting for him instead of going to work. The guy showed up at 12, took a quick look, and said he just needed to run to the hardware store nearby. My friend waited half an hour, an hour, finally called him after an hour and a half. The guy said, "Oh, I called the landlord to ask whether she authorizes the expense, but I couldn't reach her, so I just went back to the base" (!).

(BTW, both of those friends were Spanish, so it wasn't a case of 'screwing with a foreigner', or language problems.)

Banks are in a league of awfulness of their own, so assume that dealing with them will consume a lot of your time (and nerves). I won't recommend any, but I will say this: stay as far away as you can from the Santander bank.

I have tons of those kinds of stories, so I won't bore you with any more, but instead I'll leave some helpful tips:

  • When somebody says they'll be at your house between 9 and 11, don't expect him/her to show up before noon, and most likely closer to 1.
  • When somebody says they'll call you tomorrow, be prepared to give them a call the day after tomorrow.
  • Don't be too quick in accepting straight-up what people tell you (especially if they're saying that they cannot do something) - be tenacious, ask them to explain!

Wow, that's a lot of downsides! Reading up to this point, you would be excused thinking Spain is one horrible place to live in. But don't worry - that's it as far the disadvantages go, and the rest of the article is all upsides.

4. The people are very friendly

The Spanish are very polite and open people. Probably because we didn't know the local language at the beginning, the clerks and waiters in stores and restaurants near our house started to recognize us quite quickly, and were always very cheerful and nice to us whenever we came in.

That's been our general experience everywhere in Spain - not taking into account a few exceptions, people are nice and helpful.

5. The weather is great

This of course varies where exactly in Spain you live in. We were in Madrid, where it's quite sunny and dry throughout the year. The winters do get quite cold (below 0 Celsius), but in the summer the city turns into an oven (40°C). In the Bask Country in the north, it rains quite a bit more. Andalusia in the south is warm pretty much throughout the year.

While the details vary, in general the weather is nice pretty much everywhere in the country. The regional differences mean that whatever type of climate you enjoy, you'll most likely find it somewhere in Spain.

6. The food is fantastic

Food is a very important aspect of life in Spain. Going out, eating in cafes and restaurants are part of the culture, taught to kids from a very young age. Accordingly, the Spanish hold food in restaurants to a high quality bar, which means establishments serving bad food tend not to last. Don't get me wrong - there are better and worse places, like everywhere; but on average, the food in restaurants in Spain is really, really good. The number of places to choose from is also very high.

The food in stores is also quite good, especially seafood (even in cities not close to the coast, like Madrid), and has a relatively good price compared to other western European countries.

The Spanish also love to share food - not only between pairs, but between larger parties as well. You can come in with a group of 10 friends, and share the entire dinner between all of you - and the restaurant staff will not bat an eyelash. It's a very nice custom, and worth taking advantage of while you're in the country.

Some random food-specific tips:

  • The Spanish eat dinner at pretty crazy hours. No restaurant opens before 8 PM, most open at 8:30, and you'll only find tourists there at that time, so be prepared. When going out on a Friday, in my experience, the Spanish reserve tables usually for between 9:30 and 10:30.
  • When deciding how you want your meat, you should generally order one rank higher in Spain than you would in other places (so, if you usually take it medium, order well done) - otherwise, you might be in for a big surprise. Meat in Spain is prepared quite rare compared to other countries.
  • Lunch time is Monday - Friday from 1 to around 4. Many restaurants have special menus ("menu del dia") for that time, which are great value - you can eat a three-course meal for around 10€.
  • The Spanish pretty much hate vegetables. They consider them "cow food", and of little importance, so if you want vegetables with your main dish and not just a starch (potatoes, rice etc.), you will most likely have to ask for them explicitly.

7. The wine is amazing

This technically falls under the 'great food' advantage, but it's important enough I feel it deserves a paragraph of its own.

Spanish wine is one of the best in the world. You have two main regions - Rioja, with it's full-bodied and rich flavor, and Ribera, which is much more mellow and light. Spanish Cava is made exactly the same way as French Champaign (they just use a different grape variety). There are also many other regions, so whatever kind of wine is your favorite, you're sure to find a Spanish one that suits you.

In bars and restaurants, even when ordering per glass, you can expect to be served a very good wine, which is rare in most parts of the world. You also won't pay for it that much. In general, I'm pretty sure Spanish wine is the best in the world when judging by the quality-to-price ratio - you can get a fantastic bottle of wine in Spain for 8€.

8. The country is great for traveling

Spain is a large country with a ton of things to see. You have the huge coastline, mountains you can ski in, and many historically and culturally significant places, some dating back thousands of years. There is also a wide variety in the country - you have Catalonia in the north, with its crown jewel, Barcelona; you have the Bask Country, where people surf in the Atlantic Ocean; you have Andalusia in the south, with its unique mix of Christian and Arabic cultures; and many, many more. If you wanted to see every interesting place in Spain, it would probably take you multiple years.

What helps with the traveling is that Spain has fantastic infrastructure. You can travel from Madrid to Barcelona (625 kilometers) in 3 hours in a bullet train. There are over 30 airports in the country. The roads, in my humble opinion, are the best in Europe (yes, even better than the German ones) - the same Madrid-Barcelona route we did by car in a little over 5 hours. If you can, I would definitely recommend getting a car in Spain - it's a great way to get around.

Summary

So, after my experiences, would I recommend Spain as a place to live?

My answer is a definite 'yes'. The country is beautiful, the food is great, and the weather is nice. Spanish is a very useful language (more people natively speak Spanish than English), and the people you meet are very open and nice. Sure, it has its disadvantages, but which country doesn't?

If you ever have the opportunity, I would absolutely recommend giving Spain a try.