Living in Spain is a dream for many. And, it is no surprise that Spain ranks near the top of most Expat satisfaction surveys. Let’s explore what it’s really like to live in Spain as an Expat.
Why live in Spain?
Ask most Expats, and they’ll talk about the quality of life in Spain. There is an overarching view that life is for living. Taking time to chat over coffee with a friend, Sunday lunch with family, and siesta are all part of this feeling. The climate, natural beauty, and cost-of-living all help. And then there are the welcoming Spanish people themselves.
Need a bit more persuading? Here are our Top 10 reasons to move to Spain.
But that’s the surface. Let’s take a deeper look what living in Spain is really like for Expats.
What is Spain?
Spain is home to 47 million people, double what it was less than 100 years ago. And, a big part of that population growth is a result of Spain’s welcome to Expats.
Expats living in Spain represent the entire world, with around 5.5 million residents born in another country. Around 45% come from South and Central America, 30% from other European Union countries, and 25% from the rest of the world. And it is not just retirees; Spain attracts students, startups, professionals, families, and more.
Spain has extraordinary variety packed into 505,990 square kilometers. From the fresh, green mountains of Galicia to the hot, dry coast of Andalusia. The cool, wild Atlantic coast contrasts the warm, calm Mediterranean. And, the snow-covered Sierra Nevada and Pyrenees mountain ranges stretch down to the Mongros desert. And off the mainland, there are the fabled Balearic and Canary Islands.
And, all of that is crisscrossed by mighty rivers, including the Ebro, Douro, Tagus, and Guadiana.
There really is something for everyone. And, much is still pristine, with 12 million hectares of land and 5 million hectares of marine areas protected.
City vs. Country
Almost 80% of the population lives in urban areas, up from 60% in 1965. And, 16% live in the five biggest cities of Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Seville, and Zaragoza.
Expat populations are the biggest in the cities too. But, in the famous Expat towns along the Mediterranean coast, they are much more noticeable in the smaller setting.
We’ve put together our view of the best places for Expats to live in Spain.
As you would guess from the geography, Spain has a varied climate.
In general, the North Atlantic coast is cooler and wetter, with mild summers and cold winters.
The central inland has a continental climate, hot in summer and cold in winter, with less rainfall than some coastal areas. But, the high mountain ranges are cool in summer and snow-bound in winter.
The Mediterranean coast is milder but varies hugely from Catalonia in the North to Andalusia with its average of 320 sunny days per year.
The Canary Islands are sub-tropical, while the Balearic Islands offer a more Mediterranean climate.
Language for Expats living in Spain
Spanish, or Castellano, is the official language. There are four areas with an official co-language, Catalan (and its variant Valencian), Galician (Gallego), and Basque (Euskera).
For Expats living in Spain, learning the local language is a personal decision. Be aware, Spain has one of the lowest levels of English speakers, and almost 50% of Spain’s young people speak no foreign language. This is not surprising as Spanish is the second most common language and is spoken around the world.
Getting by day-to-day without any Spanish is just about possible (if difficult) in some areas. Major cities and tourist areas offer many services in English, but you do miss out on a part of life without learning some.
And in smaller towns, government services, and other areas, sometimes any foreign language (including English) is useless. If you don’t learn some local lingo, you’ll need to ask for help from a friend sooner or later!
For example, getting a visa or your local residency card is impossible without speaking Spanish. If you don’t yet speak Spanish, you’ll need to hire an excellent Spanish immigration partner to help you.
We’ve had varying success with a range of Spanish language methods. There are two that we’ve found most effective.
- iTalki – this online platform offers 1:1 virtual lessons with tutors and teachers. You can just chat or have structured lessons, depending on your needs. The flexibility and choice are a real bonus if you are time-poor.
- There is a beginner’s Spanish course on Udemy that we’ve also used. It is based on repetition and slowly building usable language. You learn to order a coffee and a beer in the first lesson, which may explain why we like it.
Getting around – transport in Spain
Like many European countries, Spain has exceptional transport infrastructure.
Air travel in Spain
There are around 50 airports in Spain that offer commercial travel. So, you are never far from being able to hop on a plane. Internal flights are generally reasonably priced, as are flights around Europe.
Direct flights to many US hubs from Spain are regular and cheap, as are flights to London and other UK hubs.
The biggest airports are (with the official airport code):
- Adolfo Suárez Madrid – Barajas. Madrid. (MAD)
- Barcelona El Prat. Barcelona. (BCN)
- Palma de Mallorca Airport. Palma de Mallorca. (PMI)
- Málaga – Costa del Sol. Málaga. (AGP)
- Alicante – Elche. Alicante. (ALC)
Rail travel in Spain
For many people living in Spain, travel by train is a common way of getting around.
Spain’s rail network is efficient, safe, and cheap. For many, it is a great option for both short and long trips.
RENFE is the national operator and many services. For instance, they run the high-speed AVE service between Madrid, Barcelona, Malaga, and Seville. These services also form part of an extended high-speed network in Europe.
Driving in Spain
In Spain, as in all of Europe and the USA, vehicles drive on the right-hand side of the road.
While some Expats complain about Spanish drivers, this may be based on differences in both laws and approach. Spain has just 3.7 road deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. This compares exceptionally well with the 12.4 in the USA and 5.6 in Australia, for example.
Your driver’s license is valid in Spain for 6-months. Most people require an international driver’s permit (IDP or IDL) if their license is not issued in Spanish.
After six months of living in Spain, your driver’s license is no longer valid. This means all Expats must exchange their license or resit the test. Only countries on this list can exchange their licenses. All others need to resit the full test, including American (USA), Australian, and Canadian drivers.
UK license holders have until June 30th to swap their licenses. However, if you did not register before December 31st, 2020, you need to sit the test. See our moving to Spain after BREXIT article for more details.
Health and Health Care
Spain has one of the longest life expectancies in the world, and it looks set to keep on improving. There are several reasons for this.
- The abundance of good, fresh food.
- Spanish people traditionally follow the Mediterranean diet. This diet has been strongly linked to excellent health outcomes.
- There is a relaxed attitude and importance placed on strong social ties.
And there is one more critical factor: healthcare.
Spain has one of the most effective health systems in the world. There is a public health service, and all citizens have access to free healthcare. In addition, Expats who pay into social security can also use this system.
Most Expats in Spain have private health insurance. It is very affordable and offers you great benefits and access to a broader choice of medical professionals. If you want to access a healthcare professional who speaks your language, this is the way to go.
We’ve written a comprehensive guide to health insurance for Expats to get you started.
The Spanish Lifestyle
Spain is a very social country. There is an emphasis on spending quality time with friends and family. Eating out is cheap and forms an integral part of many people’s lives.
Outdoor activities are also popular. There are beaches, mountains, forests, rivers, and lakes. Fishing, hiking, cycling, and skiing, and more are everyday activities for young and old alike.
Many of Spain’s traditions are still vibrantly observed. The year is dotted with wonderful festivals, celebrations, and community events. From Catalonia’s extraordinary human towers to the pageantry of Semana Santa in Seville, there is something to astound.
Even the smallest town has a unique festival day as well as regional and national traditions. The community coming together every couple of weeks underpins the rhythm of life in Spain.
Cost of Living in Spain
Spain has a much lower cost-of-living than many other first-world countries and one of the cheapest lifestyles in Western Europe.
How much you spend can vary hugely. Living in a big house in a fancy Madrid suburb will cost you much more than an apartment in a small inland town. In general, premium cities like Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastián, or Sitges can be up to 50% more expensive for rent than inland areas. A couple can live a very comfortable life on $2,000 to $2,500 in a medium-sized beach town and much less inland.
But, some broad statistics can give you an idea. According to OECD statistics, the average disposable income in Spain is USD $23,999 – USD $7,600 below the OECD average. The USA average is USD $45,284 – almost double that of Spain.
Another rough guide is the US State Department per diem rate. This is the amount the State Department pays its employees to cover their basic daily expenses while abroad. The average for Spain is 75% of the United Kingdom and 55% of Switzerland. That means your money will go much further in Madrid than it will in London or Basal.
This means that many things in Spain are very affordable. Eating out is cheap, with a three-course lunchtime “menu del dia” often costing under €10 – €20 with a glass of wine thrown in. Fresh food is also reasonable, with local markets being a great source of fresh, seasonal produce.
Wine, beer, and spirits are cheap compared to many European countries. And with local wine regions like Rioja, Priorat, Penedes, and Ribera del Duero producing world-class wines, there’s much to enjoy.
Most mid-size and large towns in Spain have access to national chain retailers like Desigual, Kiabi, Zara, and Pull & Bear. Clothing at these retailers is very cheap. You’ll also find many unique shops that offer more boutique items with matching price tags. Most high streets have these local shops scattered throughout.
The low average wage and relatively high unemployment rate mean that home help is also reasonably priced.
Stability and Safety living in Spain
Spain moved out of the Franco dictatorship in 1978. Since then, it has been a functional democracy in good standing with the world. While local politics can be tumultuous, there has been a focus on moving beyond the problems of the past.
There are still significant issues to be addressed. Catalan independence is a problematic issue that has no easy solution in sight. Levels of youth unemployment, while falling, continue to be higher than desirable. And, the crash of 2008 and the impacts of COVID-19 have weakened both the economy and some social institutions.
However, the Legatum Prosperity Index ranks Spain 32nd in the world for Safety and Security. Security has improved markedly over the last decade and continues an upward trajectory. Other than petty crime in the large cities and tourist hotspots, living in Spain is very secure.
Financial and Business
The financial crisis hit Spain hard, but employment numbers have recently gone up, and the economy is growing. The same improvement also applies to salaries in Spain, which are steadily increasing. Combined, this means now is the time to grab an opportunity in Spain. The recovery has been broad, and most sectors have shown strong growth in the last few years.
Red tape and bureaucracy can be a problem, with unclear directives and long waiting times. Setting up a business can be frustrating without support, and expect a couple of attempts at getting things done. Officials are almost unfailing polite, but the inflexibility of the system can end up wasting time.
Property prices across Spain have stabilized and been climbing steadily, but there is still excellent value to be had in some areas.
Most immigrants can be found in Madrid and Barcelona, which are the biggest cities in the country and offer the most career opportunities.
For Expats who need an income, there is a wide range of Spain work visas and Spain work permits. Please see our article for all the details.
If you dream of living in Spain, get started today!
We are Expats in Spain, having lived here for six years now. We love this country and are very grateful for the opportunity we have.
Spain’s cost-of-living and wonderful lifestyle are the big factors for us. The excellent immigration options, fantastic schools, and outdoor lifestyle add to the appeal.
For others, it is the proximity to Europe, the amazing and cheap food, and the cultural richness. Whatever the reasons that resonate with you, we hope to see you living in Spain soon. And, if you do, please remember to say, “¡Hola!” when you pass by.
For those who want to live in Spain, you’ll need a visa or permit. We’ve written a detailed article on Spain’s Visas and Residency permit options with all you need to get started.