Long-term resident, and English teacher, George Chilton, gives us his tips for life as an expat in Spain. If you are specifically interested in teaching English in Spain, follow George on our sister site, Linguabanca.com , where he looks in tonnes of detail at different aspects of the TEFL teacher’s life.
My first few months living in Spain, nearly ten years ago, were a little Kafkaesque.
After a six-week stint living in a coffin-like basement room (with a pavement-level window), I moved in with a 75-year old man and spent December 2008 freezing half to death in a hundred-year-old flat, with no central heating or insulation.
The free-living budgerigars that passed much of their time in the kitchen would leave droppings on my breakfast, if I didn’t pay attention. It was a far cry from the typical British vision of Spanish palm trees and beaches (though of course, there were plenty of those).
I stuck around for a decade for a reason, however, and today, I call Barcelona home. The culture, the people, the countryside and the climate are certainly reasons worth getting through the challenge of starting a new life in a strange country. I would encourage other people to come and try it out too.
Here are the biggest hurdles to getting started, from my point of view.
1. Culture shock
Spain was the second country I came to after moving away from the UK in early 2007. Had I not been aware of culture shock when I first came here, I think I would have struggled a lot more than I did. Everyone experiences this, to some degree or another – and you tend to go throug
h four well documented stages.
The first stage of culture shock tends to be a feeling of elation, a honeymoon period in which everything is new and wonderful. The food tastes strange and you can’t speak the language, but that’s okay because you’re learning something new everyday. You struggle to travel and do simple everyday things, and you embrace it. You walk down the street and look up in wonder at your new home. It’s clearly the best decision you’ve ever made.
Once the honeymoon is over, frustration – or the angry stage – comes next. The excitement wears off and you start to miss things – especially the ease and convenience of life back home. It was much more straight-forward there – you’ll get annoyed easily, strange queuing rules, paying the water bill, bureaucracy, unintelligible television, talking with banks…it’s all just so much more difficult. You’ll also be much keener on learning the language now, too, because not being able to express your desire for room-temperature milk is getting on your nerves. A lot of people don’t get past this stage, pack up and go home – and sadly, it’s the lasting impression they have of their time in a new country.
Stage three is adjustment and normalisation. The country won’t bend to you, so it’s up to you to adjust to it. Basically, you start getting used to how things are done, and you are more prepared for difficulties. As your perspective changes, things get easier.
Acceptance, arguable the fourth and final stage of culture shock, is simply when you feel fully integrated and independent in your new setting. Rather than feeling like a new adventure, or temporary situation, your new country actually begins to feel like home.
2. Finding a place to live
Renting in Spain comes with its own set of challenges. My advice for first time expats coming to live in a new country, is to look at a temporary living situation – try flat sharing with a group of people first. There is less commitment, and generally, it’s easier and cheaper to rent a room than an entire apartment.
Some popular rental websites are:
If you decide to share, you are often required to pay a deposit and at least one month’s rent upfront.
However, if you take a contract out on an apartment, expect to pay*:
-One month’s rent up front
-One month’s rent deposit
-An agency fee (up to 10% of the annual rent, non-refundable)
-Moving and insurance expenses
Renting an entire apartment can set you back thousands and thousands of euros, considering the average 2-bedroom flat in Barcelona will cost you around 900 pcm.
*These are the most common charges, but they may vary depending on your agent or landlord. If in doubt, always seek advice from a professional advisor.
Beware of scams! Any agency or individual that requires a deposit from you – or any money for that matter – before you have seen the apartment is trying to steal from you. The con artist will often explain that you will need to pay a deposit (“100% refundable”), in order to reserve your viewing. This is a lie and you will never see that money again. Move on and report the listing as a scam.
Note that If you are renting an apartment you will have to pay a deposit (often a month’s rent), but you will be given a legal contract and this is only upon agreement that you will rent the property.
Another well known scam, is that the owner requests that you pay money via wire transfer as they are “out of the country on missionary work” – but they will pass you the keys once they receive the payment on a highly underpriced flat. Run a mile, there is no flat – and you will not see your money again.
3. Getting a Job
If you are a European citizen (Brits, you better hurry), you are fully entitled to reside and work in Spain without a visa. You may apply and interview for jobs without having all the official paperwork, and when you are offered a position, ask for a letter from your employer saying so, to support your official documentation.
To be legal in Spain, you will need to be registered for social security and you will need a NIE (Número de Identificación Extranjero) number. Both are relatively simple to get hold of. Here’s how the process works:
-A letter of intent from your future employer
-A photocopy of your passport
-Several passport photos
-Fill out a NIE form (the EX-15) in Spanish/Catalan
There will also be a small fee to process the application.
Once you have all the above, apply for a “cita previa” (an appointment). Depending on where you live, this can be in several weeks time. You will be told where and when your appointment is in the city.
Social Security (Seguridad social):
To be “on the system” you will also need a social security number.
-Download, print and fill out the TA-1 form here
-NIE number if you already have one.Residency and visa if you are non-EU.
-Rental contracts and supporting documentation if possible
Then head to the local social security office.
There’s a lot of hard work involved in moving countries, but there is no doubt that it is a life-changing and positive experience. I hope this has been of some use – and please let me know if you decide to take the leap!
Looking to take a Spanish course in Spain?
Then take a look at our guide to the best cities in Spain for studying Spanish.