Expat Guide to Living in Spain

By

Spain is the most popular European destination for British expats by a long way with around 761,000 living there, and that number doesn’t show any signs of slowing despite Brexit.

As well as established expat networks, and the promise of summer sunshine, there are lots of great reasons to consider Spain as your home abroad:

  • Excellent weather and a year-round warm or mild climate.
  • Outstanding work/life balance and career prospects.
  • Strong communities and family-friendly towns.
  • Beautiful properties and a competitive market.

And don’t forget the beaches, the ultra-chic cities, or the fantastic food.

It’s clear Spain offers a whole lot in terms of lifestyle and quality of living for many prospective expats, but it’s also essential to think about practicalities, like education, visas, healthcare and living expenses are just as vital as the pros of living in the heart of the Mediterranean.

In this guide, we’ll explain what it’s like living in Spain full time and all the insider information you need to make your international relocation successful.

The Top Five Expat Destinations in Spain

First, let’s look at where in Spain sits at the top of that list – and why these cities, towns and regions are such a big draw for UK expats.

Madrid

The capital of Madrid, and what a city it is. Officially the third-sunniest European capital, this multicultural metropolis is an excellent destination for expats seeking employment opportunities.

It’s also surprisingly family-friendly.

While there is a lively nightlife scene, Madrid is also great for little ones, with excellent paths, quality schools and plenty of pedestrianised areas.

Try looking in Salamanca, Chambery or Retiro for upscale living, close to the centre, yet quiet and peaceful with plenty of green spaces to explore.

Barcelona

Next, Madrid’s biggest rival is Barcelona – and each city is distinct and unique. You can travel between the two via the high-speed AVE train.

It is pretty touristy but has the bonus of being a contemporary city, with astonishing architecture (home to many of Gaudi’s modernist buildings) and a beautiful beach.

Being close to the Med, Barcelona is slightly cooler in the summer and milder in the winter.

Valencia

The hub of Costa Blanca, Valencia, is loud, vibrant, and fast-paced – a go-to destination if you love culture, entertainment and socialising.

Living costs are lower than in Madrid or Barcelona, yet you’re right on the coast so that you can soak up that all-important sunshine at the weekends.

It’s also a perfect city for sporty expats, with the mountains nearby ideal for hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter.

Seville

Head further south, and you’ll find the beautiful capital of Andalusia and a stunning city with horse-drawn carriages, a riverfront, and traditional Moorish architecture.

About one hour from the Huelva beaches, and the Sierra Norte mountains, Seville is the most bike-friendly city in Spain, with a flat landscape and over 100 kilometres of cycle paths.

Seville is also popular with expats with children in education, with international English, German and American schools in the city or nearby, and two universities.

Bilbao

Finally, in fifth place, Bilbao is urban but with a twist. Up in the north, the city isn’t all about beaches and sunshine but is a different cultural experience in the heart of the Basque country.

The dynamic riverside city offers employment for professionals, modern architecture, and the Guggenheim sitting next to the redeveloped waterfront.

Bilbao old town is also worth a visit, with a massive range of delicious eateries and bars.

Visas and Residency for British Expats in Spain

Since the UK’s departure from the European Union, the visa rules in Spain have changed somewhat – but it’s certainly possible to get a permit or visa.

The visa you need depends on your reason for travel, so that could be:

  • A tourist visa for temporary stays over 90 days.
  • A long-term or seasonal work visa.
  • A student visa.
  • A golden visa, with an investment into a property or a Spanish business.

Let’s run through those options in a little more detail.

Tourist Visas for Expats in Spain

British expats can travel to Spain for up to 90 days (180 days per year). If you are travelling on a short-term basis, but over those limits, you’ll likely need a tourist visa.

From 2022, holidaymakers may need an ETIAS Visa Waiver, which immigration inspectors will enforce across the EU.

Spanish Work Visas

If you’re taking up an employment offer or intending to work, the type of work visa you need depends on the nature of that work and how long the position will last.

Most work visas mean you’ll need to attend the nearest Spanish embassy or consulate, although sometimes your employer will need to apply on your behalf.

Skilled professionals can apply for posts on the Spanish Shortage Occupation list – and then apply to the Ministry of Labour for a permit.

These visas can take up to eight months, so it’s wise to apply as far in advance as you can.

Freelance or Self-Employed Spanish Visas

Freelance Work Visas are available, lasting up to one year at a time. You need to apply through the Ministry of Labour and demonstrate:

  • Financial independence.
  • A business plan.
  • Contracts or commissions in place.
  • Your licenses, qualifications, registrations or relevant experience.

Spanish Golden Visas

A final option is available to investors or expats looking to purchase property in Spain. A golden visa gives you the right to residency, with investment requirements as below:

  • Real estate purchase of at least €500,000 (£429,142).
  • Investment into public debt of at least €2 million (£1.72 million).
  • Purchase company shares, or make a bank deposit, of at least €1 million (£858,000).
  • Invest in a new business offering technological innovation or with a positive socio-economic impact.

Golden visa applications are submitted to the nearest embassy or consulate. 

Once you have lived in Spain for five years, you can apply for permanent residency.

Cost of Living in Spain

Spain is a relatively low-cost place to live, especially outside of the larger cities. However, salaries are also low and impacted by inflation.

The average household in Spain has an annual disposable income of €20,468 (£17,567), below the global average.

Rental and property costs are very low compared to the UK. However, that is offset by higher electricity charges – particularly during the summer. 

If you live in southern Spain, air conditioning is crucial in regions where daytime temperatures regularly exceed 40 °C, which can ramp up your monthly outgoings.

Food is cheaper through the local markets, but imported products can be substantially more expensive, so it’s wise to stick to local produce if you are on a budget.

Below you’ll find some average costs of life in Spain, compared to those in the UK.

ExpenseAverage Cost in Spain €Average Cost in Spain £Average Cost in the UK £
Litre of milk€0.79£0.68£0.92
Cup of coffee€1.65£1.42£2.75
Domestic beer€2.50£2.15£3.70
Monthly utilities€115£99£156
Monthly broadband€40£34£31
Monthly nursery fees€364£313£941
Annual international school fees€7,315£6,281£13,261
Litre of fuel€1.29£1.09£1.26
Monthly public transport pass€40£34£65
Monthly rent for a one-bed central apartment€651£559£749
Monthly rent for a three-bed non-central home€759£652£968

Healthcare For Expats in Spain

All residents in Spain can receive state healthcare, but you’ll need to register first.

Most basic state healthcare services are free, but there are some exclusions, and usually, you need to pay a subsidised cost for services such as prescription medications.

There are a few ways to qualify for the Spanish national health system:

  • By making social security contributions through employment or voluntary contributions if you’re self-employed.
  • Paying into the Convenio Especial – the public health insurance scheme.
  • Living in Spain for five years and then applying for permanent residency status.

If you plan to stay in Spain for over three months, you’ll need to register as a resident. 

That means having proof of private medical cover or paying into the Convenio Especial to contribute towards the state scheme.

You’ll need a social security number to register, which you apply for through the National Social Security Institute (TGSS).

Public healthcare covers any urgent treatments and some basic dental care, but you’ll need to pay for non-emergency transport and other non-essential medical therapies.

Taxes for Expats in Spain

Your quality of living may depend on whether you are a resident in Spain or on a short-term visa and considered a non-resident for tax purposes.

Non-residents pay a flat-rate income tax of 24%.

Tax rates also vary considerably between the regions, with a baseline federal tax rate added to a municipal tax rate. That can make some areas far more affordable than others.

Generally, you’ll expect to pay around:

  • 19% on income up to €12,450 (£10,679).
  • 24% on earnings up to €20,200 (£17,328).
  • 30% on wages increasing to €35,200 (£30,195).
  • 37% on income in the next band to €60,000 (£51,469).
  • 45% or more on higher incomes.

Remember that those are rough guides, and the exact tax brackets are related to the province in which you live – the most expensive tax bands can reach 54%.

Which Are the Most Affordable Places to Live in Spain?

Living costs – and average salaries – vary widely across Spain. The 10 cheapest places to live and the average annual salary are:

LocationAverage annual salary €Average annual salary £
Palencia€23,654£20,302
Melilla€26,519£22,761
Lugo€23,977£20,579
Logroño€25,581£21,956
Teruel€21,782£18,695
Cáceres€22,559£19,362
Zamora€22,353£19,185

Is it Easy for Expats to Find Work in Spain?

Unemployment is relatively high in Spain, at around 14.5% and double the EU average. However, you can find employment opportunities, particularly in these sectors.

  • Automotive
  • IT
  • Chemicals
  • Tourism
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Food and drink production

There are several large employers in Spain, including Telefonia, Banco Santander, IAG, Repsol and Iberdrola.

Finding a role on the Skills Shortage list is usually the easiest way to find an in-demand position with a high salary and a better prospect of securing a work visa.

You can find more information about vacancies and current skill requirements on the EURES portal.

Expat Guide to Living in Spain FAQ

Below are more frequently asked questions

Can British Expats Buy Property in Spain?

Yes.  Spain has relatively few laws about foreign property investment. 
 
However, each region has autonomy over those rules, which vary depending on which area you move to.
 
You will need to have a social security number to purchase a home or a financial number you apply for by visiting the nearest police station with your passport.
 
Golden visa property investments also qualify for residency status.

Do Most People in Spain Speak English?

A common misconception is that everybody in Spain speaks English – that only tends to apply to hotels and tourist areas.
 
Around 28% of people in Spain speak some English as a second language, but it’s certainly helpful to learn some Spanish if you’re planning to move permanently.

Is Spain Safe for UK Expats?

Yes, Spain is regarded as a safe country. 
 
The majority of crime is pickpocketing, particularly in tourist areas where they target money and passports.
 
It’s also wise to be cautious if approached by someone dressed as a police officer who asks to see your wallet to inspect your ID or residency documentation. 
 
Police won’t ever ask this, so if you don’t speak fluent Spanish and can’t query it, it’s best to visit a police station to avoid falling for a scam.

Can Expat Children Attend School in Spain?

Provided you’ve registered on the local municipal register, all children in Spain, including expat kids, can attend public schools.
 
Education standards are high, and there are also numerous international and private schools in all the major cities.

Related Articles

Further related information and articles can be found following the links below