It’s been seven years since my husband and I left the United States and we are still in love with expat life in Spain. Does it ever get old? Not really. Like its renowned culture, the local people are welcoming and friendly here, making it no surprise that Spain continues to be one of the top countries for expats. From its picturesque cities and villages to delicious food and beautifully varied terrain, there seems to be a place here for every type of person.
Of course, life in Spain is different and there are more things to adjust to than just the language. It can take some time and it’s not always a bed of roses, but there’s more good than annoying and boy is it worth it. If you’re considering moving abroad, here are eight things to expect about expat life in Spain.
#1 – Timing of When Things Get Done in Spain
One of the first Spanish phrases you’ll probably learn in Spain is mañana, mañana (tomorrow, tomorrow). You probably know where I’m going with this. After all, Latin cultures in general are notorious for things not getting done on time and being put off. Spain is a sophisticated, European country, yet its laid back, easy-going culture that the world romanticizes does also cause delays. Sometimes, that is.
I am happy to say that it is much better now than ten years ago when I first spent some months in Spain. And in the past seven years we have lived here, I can say that I’ve seen it get better in many areas. Things can and do get done promptly in Spain, even early believe it or not. The areas where delays can happen are usually with government processes and administration, transactions like real estate, and local events.
There is a good side to this! It really is an opportunity to learn to relax and go with the flow. I know sometimes we don’t like to hear that, especially if it has to do with your Spanish residency. Yet that age-old adage of staying positive is healthier for you anyway, just like Spain’s relaxed lifestyle is. Just have an open heart and be flexible.
#2 – Allow YEARS to Learn Spanish
It’s surprising sometimes how many people expect they should be fluent in Spanish within a year of living here. Don’t beat yourself up and realize that it will take years to learn Spanish well (that’s right, emphasis on the plural). Most of the locals are encouraging and supportive, appreciating if you make the effort and kindly correcting you in some cases.
I was born and raised in the US but my mother’s first language is Spanish and my dad is American. My mom tried really hard to teach us Spanish growing up and my brothers and I did learn some, but we did not speak it at home as much as we could have. To this day I truly believe my Spanish to be more intermediate than fluent. I share this because I have seen and experienced how language learning is different for everyone and does not happen overnight. I also believe that some people have a special talent for learning languages easier than others.
The point is, for learning Spanish in Spain, give it time.
It’s also key to find what language tools work best for you and to commit to regular practice. I particularly love Gymglish for learning Spanish, because they’re like the topshelf of language programs. Their online courses are fun and personalized, incorporating creative storytelling and great designs that will make you smile and laugh while learning. It’s convenient as well with accessibility on desktop, tablet, and mobile phone, and microlearning designed to take just 10 minutes a day.
It’s also important to combine that with taking part in intercambio groups to practice conversational Spanish. Here in Spain these are local meet ups where native Spanish speakers who want to learn English get together and chat with native English speakers who want to learn Spanish. And it’s a great way to meet and become friends with the local Spaniards.
#3 – Opening Hours of Businesses
It’s true! The tradition of a big lunch in the middle of the day and then siesta is still going strong in Spain. This means that most businesses close anytime between 1pm and 2pm. Some restaurants also stop seating and serving lunch by 4pm so they can wrap things up and get a siesta in before reopening for dinner. Retail shops and services usually reopen between 5pm to 6pm.
Many restaurants do not open for dinner until maybe 7pm at the earliest. Sometimes in those cases they’re only serving drinks and cold tapas and their kitchen does not open until 8pm for the rest of the menu and hot dishes.
Businesses and most grocery stores are also closed on Sundays. The rest of the week, businesses do not open until maybe 9am in the morning and some, like retail shops, do not open until 10am. Many times, if we’re out in our town of Denia around 9am, it is pretty quiet and empty, which still makes us laugh. Nowadays, there are businesses that are having more hours, even restaurants with their kitchens open all day, but more so in the major cities.
#4 – Getting Your Spanish Driver’s License
After living in Spain for six months, Americans are required to have a Spanish driver’s license to drive in the country. While some foreigners from certain countries (those within the EU) can simply swap their driver’s license for a Spanish one, Americans have to start all over again by taking a theoretical test and a driving test.
Practically wherever you go in Spain, there are various driving schools you can go to. Just keep in mind that it is a business here. You have to pay on average over 300 Euros for online study tools, in person classes, a book, and three attempts to pass the theoretical and driving tests. It’s also good to take the driving practices so you become familiar with the town or city where your driving test will take place, and to learn those distinct differences of driving in Spain. There are some significant differences especially with signage. The driving practices are an additional cost and range around 30 Euros each.
Fortunately, the study materials and theoretical test are available in English. I believe that at some schools, the driving test can be in English as well. It is still rare to find a school that has an automatic car to practice and take the test in since manual is so much more common here. But that is changing some. Overall, the tests are known to be pretty tricky and most people do not pass either the first time. So find a good school, be patient with yourself, and prepare to spend some money.
#5 – There is Plenty to Celebrate
Spain has so many festivals that it seems like there’s always something being celebrated. It really is fun and a big part of the life-work balance that is attractive here. All throughout the year, there are festivals that occur with some of the biggest ones being Easter, Christmas, and Three Kings Day.
What’s really fascinating though is how there are different fiestas based on each region of Spain. For example, I live in the Mediterranean beach town of Denia in the Valencia Community. This region is known for its Fallas festival that takes place from March 1st through the 19th. I’m not kidding you – it’s three weeks long with fireworks and events almost every day especially in the city of Valencia. The locals work on the creations for the Fallas all year round as well, so you’ll see them dressed up in their traditional costumes at other times of the year as well. Valencia region is also famous for its Moors and Christians festivals which has events twice a year with the biggest, main event being in August for most Valencian towns.
Saints Days are also the biggest cause for the festivals in Spain, and there are a lot of those. While the religious background and history is there, many people simply enjoy it as time off and to be with family and friends. Expect plenty of noise and fireworks (Spaniards love their fireworks), reduced hours for businesses, and some amazing parades of movie-set quality pageantry.
#6 – How Homes Are Built
The construction of homes depends on what part of Spain you’re in. In the south of Spain and along the Mediterranean, homes do not have insulation like what us Americans are used to. In humid areas, homes can tend to feel like a little freezer box in the winter months because it still gets cold even in the south, especially if it’s damp. Most homes have tile floors as well, not carpet.
Central air is also a very rare thing to find in a home, and can be a lot more expensive. Instead, individual wall units for both cooling and heating are in rooms like the living room and bedrooms. These can be quite economical and function well. Some homes have wall radiators as well which can be quite nice.
Another feature are wrought iron bars on windows. This one usually freaks out Americans when they move here. It can be for security purposes on the first and second floors of homes. Usually they are in certain designs so they at least look less foreboding. Whether or not they indicate an area being unsafe depends on each area. Many times, they are in homes because that is simply how it has been done for so long. It is also more typical in southern Spain where homes near the beach are left for the winter months and can be targeted by robbers. But along those lines, Spain in general is very safe
#7 – Great Quality of Life That is Super Affordable
Even after years of living in Spain, it continues to be such a great quality of life that is very affordable. It’s no surprise that foreigners, particularly Americans, want to retire here because their retirement will go so much further. Some people are not even waiting until retirement and, especially with the post-COVID changes the world is experiencing, are finding ways to work from Spain because it’s such a better life. Then there’s the public health care in Spain, which can be available to expats. The rumors are true – the health care in Spain is very good and quite inexpensive. That topic is another article entirely.
People ask me so often “how much does it cost monthly to live in Spain?”. In general, I say that with $3,000 a month, you can live quite comfortably in Spain. Of course, the main variable is where in Spain you’re living. For example, living in the heart of Barcelona or right in the Barceloneta beach area, is likely to be more expensive for housing than in a smaller town in the Valencia Region. The same can be said of Madrid’s city center.
The food here is especially affordable and of such great quality. Most food items are not allowed to have horrible preservatives like food in the United States. Eating out can also be shockingly inexpensive and delicious, even more so when you venture into the small villages. One of the most endearing things is the local markets that still take place in practically every town in Spain. My town of Denia has theirs every Friday, thus called the Mercado de Viernes. This outdoor market is full of stalls overflowing with colorful produce from the local area and around Spain. For between 10€ and 15€ my husband and I can have enough produce for an entire week.
How is the COVID situation in Spain? At the time this was written, it is very stable and there are few cases that have severe consequences. On public transportation and in health centers/hospitals, masks are still required to be worn, but otherwise things feel like they are back to ‘normal’. Feel free to contact me to learn more.
#8 – Europe is Truly Your Backyard
Most likely, if you’re interested in Spain, you also like to travel. Well, you’re going to love the convenience and pleasure of traveling Europe even more when living in Spain. Let’s not forget that Europe and especially Spain also have great public transportation systems. And it’s only getting better!
Flights within Europe are less time and very affordable, and new companies are already exploring alternative aircraft to help reduce emissions. Some airlines allow you to also purchase carbon off-sets for your journey to reduce its environmental impact.
What’s most exciting though is the fantastic rail travel throughout Spain and Europe. In 2023 and 2024, two new companies featuring sleeper trains will be launching routes all across Europe. As if train travel could not get any more romantic, now you can get from Barcelona to Paris while comfortably sleeping. Within Spain itself, even more AVE trains (the high speed rail network) are launching this year. Two of the new high speed routes are from Madrid to Murcia in the south and from Madrid to Oviedo in the north. Rail travel here in Spain is also more affordable than ever with the new low-cost, high speed train company, Iryo, and routes from Valencia to Madrid are currently at 9€ a person each way (and that’s only a 2-hour trip).
And let’s not forget traveling by boat. There are numerous ferries, cruises, and river cruises that make for a fantastic way to enjoy slow travel with a more environmentally friendly mindset.
Create Your Dream Life in Spain
As you can probably see, I’m super passionate about Europe so it’s no surprise that along with being a travel writer, I’m a certified Travel Consultant. I love to plan bespoke trips around Europe and nearby, and specialize in planning scouting trips for moving to Spain.
Now that you know more about what to expect from life in Spain, take the next step and come visit. Or perhaps you’re already ready for the move itself. You won’t be alone with all the great resources and people who are here also enjoying living in Spain. Whether it be trip planning services, DIY travel booking tools, or Spanish residency resources, let me know how I can help you create your dream life in Spain.
*Visit MoveToTraveling.com and get 10% off my custom trip planning services or scouting trip planning service when you use coupon code SWTTravel10 at checkout.
American expat Amalia Maloney Del Riego loves living in Denia, Spain and traveling worldwide with her husband Eric. Her idea of a great time is ‘eating and drinking’ her way around a new place and meeting the people. As a certified Travel Consultant, she specializes in custom trip planning services for trips throughout Europe, as well as scouting trips for moving to Spain. Learn more and connect with her on MoveToTraveling.com where you can enjoy resources to experience Europe and live in Spain.