Does life for expats in Spain live up to the dream? From salaries to family life, here are your biggest questions answered.
Many expats move to Spain to make the most of its laidback lifestyle and great weather. The Spanish tend to work later hours, but they do know how to enjoy life. As such, Spain is a paradise for those who enjoy socializing and want to take advantage of the country’s cultural and outdoor activities. That said, don’t expect to make your fortune here or climb the career ladder. And while public services may be lacking, there are many upsides for expats in Spain – like cheaper and larger properties than you might find at home.
From the cost of living to education and healthcare, this article explores what you need to know about making a home under the Spanish sun. Questions covered below include:
- What’s it really like to live in Spain?
- Can I afford to live in Spain?
- Is it easy to find love as an expat in Spain?
- What’s it like to work in Spain?
- Can I afford housing in Spain?
- What’s it like being a woman in Spain?
- What’s it like raising kids in Spain?
- How good is the healthcare system in Spain?
- What is the worst thing about life in Spain?
- What is the best thing about life in Spain?
What’s it really like to live in Spain?
Spain is a very popular destination for internationals. About 15% of Spain’s population is foreign-born. That’s about 7.2 million people, including 5.1 million born outside Europe. About five million residents do not hold a Spanish passport. For this group of people adjusting to life in Spain can be a challenge in many ways.
Things happen slowly in Spain, sometimes frustratingly so for expats used to a faster pace. It often seems that deadlines – in business or bureaucracy – are flexible. Two-hour breaks for lunch are common. On the other hand, embrace this relaxed approach and life suddenly seems richer and fuller.
Shop closed? Call an alternative. Delayed paperwork? Stop off at a cafe or bar for a caña (a small glass of beer) instead. As one expat notes, the unhurried pace is part of the appeal of moving to Spain.
Quality of life for expats in Spain
The OECD’s Better Life Index puts Spain above the average in work-life balance, income and wealth, housing, health status, social connections, and personal security. However, the Mediterranean nation ranks below average in civic engagement, environmental quality, education and skills, jobs and earnings, and subjective well-being.
By a different measure, HSBC’s annual league table, based on a survey of over 20,000 expats, ranks Spain third in the expat living category in 2021. However, the country loses places in other categories (aspiration and future outlook), placing 14th out of 45 countries overall in the HSBC Expat Explorer league table.
Additionally, expats in Spain will need to think carefully about wages – the country ranks considerably lower than other European countries, such as Switzerland and the Netherlands, in terms of salary. As with other parts of the world, your earnings impact your quality of life.
On balance, however, how you approach life as an expat in Spain will determine the quality of your experience.
Can I afford to live in Spain?
Spain is generally not an expensive country to live in. The cost of living is among the lowest in Western Europe, even in the cities – but wages are correspondingly low.
According to Spain’s National Statistics Institute (Instituto Nacional de Estadística), households spent about €2,250 per month on all costs in 2020. However, keep in mind that this number is lower than prior years, due to the pandemic. As such, it’s worth budgeting around €2,500 for a household of two – including dining out and entertainment.
Having said that, living in Madrid is cheaper than in many other capital cities. El Foro (the forum/the center), as some locals call it, ranks 67th out of 206 cities in Mercer’s 2021 cost of living survey. While Barcelona, at 84 on the list, is even less expensive with a similar quality of life to that of the 19th most expensive city in the survey, London. Valencia and Sevilla, the next-largest cities, are considerably cheaper and also offer a good quality of life.
About 25.3% of the Spanish population was at risk of poverty or social exclusion in 2019, according to Eurostat data. That’s higher than the EU average of 21.1%. The coronavirus pandemic has widened social inequalities and there is concern over the medium and long-term impact. Having said that, Spain provides a wide social security safety net for all who live and work in the country.
Is it easy to find love as an expat in Spain?
Dating in Spain can be a challenge for expats. Firstly, you are not likely to find love in a bar or nightclub. The Spanish head to these venues purely to enjoy the music and company of friends. As such, you will find that expat meetup groups are a popular way to meet people in larger cities. Secondly, although dating apps and websites are extremely popular, Spanish men and women often find romantic partners within their social circles.
So, one way to meet Spanish people is at an Intercambio, or language exchange evening. If you’re lucky, your local bar will offer one. With a bit of luck, your Spanish language partner could end up becoming your romantic partner too! In Spanish, that’s referred to as tener lo mejor de dos mundos, or having the best of both worlds. You’re welcome.
Getting married in Spain
A sizeable percentage of expats find love in Spain, even heading to the altar. In fact, in 17.3% of marriages in Spain in 2020 one spouse was a foreign national.
The pandemic year saw a 45.5% drop in marriage rates, with a total of just over 90,000 weddings – although this is likely to rebound at least partially. Nevertheless, people are settling down later in life. The average age at marriage was 39.5 years for men and 36.7 years for women in 2021.
The legal requirements for registering your marriage in Spain depend on several factors. You must provide evidence of your civil status, your nationality, and the region that you live in. Both partners must also be over the age of 18 years.
LGBTQ+ relationships and marriage in Spain
Despite being a Catholic country, Spain remains one of the most LGBTQ+ friendly nations in the world. In fact, 73% of the population supports openness about sexual orientation or gender identity, the highest among 27 countries canvassed for the Ipsos LGBT+ Pride 2021 Global Survey.
There is a diverse and welcoming scene across the country. The larger cities, like Madrid and Barcelona, and the country’s coastal areas alike have significant LGBTQ+ communities.
Same-sex marriage in Spain has been legal since 2005, guaranteeing identical rights to all married couples regardless of sexual orientation. Some 76% of Spaniards support gay marriage. Expat couples who opt for registered partnerships also have many legal rights. These include adoption, automatic parenthood recognition on birth certificates, and rights to inheritance and survivor pensions. Same-sex couples are also recognized for immigration and tax purposes and receive protection against domestic violence.
Likewise, trans rights in Spain are fairly advanced. Since 2007, people have been able to change their gender in Spain. In 2018, Spanish model and LGBTQ+ activist Angela Ponce became the first transgender woman to compete in the Miss Universe contest, where she received a standing ovation.
What’s it like to work in Spain?
Depending on where you come from, working in Spain can differ from your past experiences. Expats in Spain should prepare to embrace a longer, or later, working day. Typical workdays are broken into two chunks, with a long break between them. The workday typically starts at 08:30 or 09:00 through to about 13:30 and then resumes at about 16:30 to finish around 20:00.
On average, people in Spain work between 36.3 hours per week, but the 40-hour workweek is not uncommon.
The country already scores well above average on the OECD’s work-life balance index, but those rankings may soon improve further. The nation became one of the first to trial a four-day workweek in 2021. The objective was to determine if shorter workweeks could improve productivity. With funds earmarked for further research, expats in Spain could soon have more free time under the Iberian sun.
The country’s unhurried business culture, however, is unlikely to change.
At the same time, Spain has a notoriously high unemployment rate. Although unemployment has fallen for four consecutive quarters in 2020 and 2021, joblessness still stood at 14.57% in the third quarter of 2021. The good news is that Spain welcomes expat workers. Foreign workers account for around 15% of the country’s total labor force.
Getting a work visa in Spain
Most non-EU/EEA citizens – referred to as third-country nationals – need a work permit. They must secure an employment contract before they can apply for such a permit. Since Brexit, UK citizens who want to work in Spain also need a residence and work visa.
Some exemptions apply, including for university professors, technicians, foreign journalists, and artists. However, each comes with specific conditions attached.
Salaries and wages for expats in Spain
The cost of living in Spain is cheaper than in other parts of Europe, however, salaries are lower too. The minimum salary for a full-time job in Spain is around €1,125 gross per month in 2021 (€965 monthly payable in 14 installments to allow for the double salary in July and December). The annual household income after taxes and transfers in Spain is just under €20,000 per year.
Average salaries in Spain amount to €1,374 per month, as compared to €5,597 in Switzerland, and €2,210 in the Netherlands (at January 2022 exchange rates).
Can I afford housing in Spain?
When it comes to property, home sales in Spain have increased as the market has rebounded in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Sales of houses and apartments were up 12.1% in July as compared to the same period in 2019, before the pandemic.
Overall, house prices rose 3.3% in the second quarter of 2021 over the same period in the previous year. Expats looking to buy real estate in Spain could expect to pay an average of €1,829/m², in December 2021. That’s about 2.8% higher than a year earlier.
Spain has one of the highest rates of homeownership – second only to Malta, with 76% of Spaniards owning their place of residence. Over the past two decades, however, homeownership has been steadily declining (it peaked above 80% in 2001). The lingering effects of the pandemic may result in further declines as young people struggle to get on the property ladder.
If you want to rent in Spain, a one-bedroom city-center apartment could set you back €640.98 on average. You will need to stretch to €1,001.58 for a similarly located three-bedroom unit.
Expat Spain and real estate golden visas
There are no restrictions on foreign buyers purchasing property in Spain and Spanish mortgage lenders offer an array of products for foreign investors.
The government even operates a special visa and property scheme. Known as a golden visa, the scheme allows foreigners to gain residency in Spain if they invest in the country, including buying property valued at €500,000 or more.
What’s it like being a woman in Spain?
In 2021, Spain ranked 14th out of 156 countries in the world on the Global Gender Gap Index, down six places from the previous year. The index is a World Economic Forum benchmark that tracks the evolution of gender equality on four fronts: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.
The report notes Spain’s downward slide is principally due to the pandemic, which raised new barriers to build inclusive and prosperous societies and amplified pre-existing gender gaps. One in two Spaniards feels there should be a greater emphasis on education to achieve gender equality.
Among its peers, Spain ranked 6th in the EU on the Gender Equality Index and just over 43% of parliamentarians are women, as of November 2021.
Since 2010, the number of women in management and board positions in the country has also increased. However, Spain still has a gender pay gap that Eurostat estimates to be 11.9%. The good news is that as of 2021 companies with 50 or more workers must create and implement an equality plan.
Overall, gender inequality in Spain is most persistent in the time spent on care work and housework. Spanish men average 23 hours each week on childcare and 11 on household duties, against 38 and 20 hours respectively for women.
Violence against women in Spain
Violence against women remains a concern in Spain, although the country has progressive laws in this regard. Spain passed Europe’s first law to crack down on gender-based violence in 2004. The number of women who have died as a result of gender violence in Spain has totaled 1,118 since statistics were first officially recorded in 2003. In 2021, 37 women were killed compared to 46 a year earlier.
In 2021, the government tightened its sexual violence laws to define all non-consensual sex as rape. It also broadened its definition of gender violence crimes, to include the killings of all women by men – regardless of the killer’s relationship with the victim.
The government is also taking steps to counteract Spain’s reputation for machismo and patriarchal traditions. While these appear to have given way in recent years, 40% of women report suffering sexual harassment, with one in five experiencing it in the workplace. As of 2021, the country’s Equality Ministry has announced the launch of official guidelines for companies to tackle sexism in the workplace.
Women’s health in Spain
Women in Spain have a life expectancy of 86.2 years on average, as of 2019, as compared to 80 years for men.
The country’s healthcare system offers women residents a full range of services. These range from gynecology and obstetrics to maternity care, sexual health, cancer screenings, and more.
Abortion until 14 weeks has been legal in Spain since 1985. Beyond this point, there must be a serious risk to the mother’s life. Fetal deformities deemed ‘incompatible with life’ or incurable diseases are grounds for abortion at up to 22 weeks. Abortions can be performed in public hospitals, where they are heavily subsidized or free of charge, or in private hospitals for about €300. However, access to the procedure is diminished by the right of medical professionals to make a conscientious objection to performing an abortion.
Contraception is widely available and either free or reasonably priced. Public insurance subsidizes surgical and non-surgical methods of contraception in the country, but you will typically need a prescription from your GP or gynecologist.
Giving birth as an expat in Spain
Those having a baby in Spain can be assured of a high standard of care during pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum. Most births are in hospitals and clinics and are covered by state health insurance. However, home births are not covered. Those without insurance can expect to pay around €1,800, with any complications adding minimal costs.
Children born in Spain are not automatically eligible for Spanish citizenship unless one parent is Spanish. Many expats with private insurance choose to give birth at a private hospital.
What’s it like raising kids in Spain?
Overall, Spain ranks highly on various childcare indicators, including education, nutrition, and healthcare, according to UNICEF. Spain ranks 6th among the world’s 38 richest countries for child well-being outcomes: mental, physical, and academic. However, it is worth noting that Spain has a higher ratio of children-to-caregiver, 9:1, compared to other European countries that average a ratio of 7:1 at nurseries.
Spain offers free healthcare to all children residing in the country. The country ranks 19th on the most recent Healthcare Access and Quality Index with a score of 92 out of 100. In Spain, 98.1% of children are in good health and only 0.4% are in poor health. Both scores are better than the EU average.
This continues into adolescence, according to pre-pandemic data from the OECD. Teenagers report being comfortable at school in Spain, higher than any other OECD country. Additionally, relatively few teenagers report being the victim of bullying (14%, compared to an OECD average of 19%). Few teenagers skip meals or smoke regularly, but a lower-than-average share engages in regular intense exercise. As a result, overweight and obesity rates are fairly high – roughly 22% of 11-15 year-olds in Spain are overweight or obese, compared to 19% on average across the OECD.
Overall, 33% of teenagers in Spain report high levels of life satisfaction, and less than 10% report low levels of life satisfaction.
Education for expats in Spain
The standard of education in Spain is relatively high. The country scores 491 in reading literacy, mathematics, and sciences, above the OECD average of 486.
Although school is only compulsory between the ages of 6 and 16 in Spain, people also study for a little longer – about 18 years each between the ages of 5 and 39 – than in the rest of the OECD (17.2 years).
There are a variety of schooling options for expat children, including state-subsidized colegios concertados, international schools with teaching in different languages, method schools, religious academies, and boarding schools.
Expat children who are learning Spanish as a second language enjoy state support. As well as providing extra help in the classroom, schools might also teach lessons in Spanish (Castellano) or another local language in a separate language classroom. While some schools also support and encourage children to learn their native language outside of school hours.
How good is the healthcare system in Spain?
The sunshine may have something to do with the fact that Spain ranks sixth out of 93 countries on the Numbeo 2021 Health Care Index. All that Vitamin D and a good healthcare system put it above Austria (7th) and the Netherlands (11th) but below Taiwan and France. Perhaps more impressively, the World Health Organization ranks the Spanish healthcare system seventh worldwide for efficiency.
Spain offers high-quality healthcare, through state and private facilities, and many clinics offer both types of care. About 90% of the population uses the public healthcare system.
According to the OECD, Spain had 4.4 doctors per 1,000 people in 2021. By comparison, there were 2.64 per 1,000 residents in the US. Many medical professionals in Spain speak English, especially in the larger cities. However, the situation may be very different in less populated areas. It may be worth taking a Spanish-speaking person along to a consultation or even writing down your needs in Spanish.
Expats in Spain get free state healthcare if they meet certain conditions, such as residency or student status. State healthcare in Spain is covered by social security payments, which are made by all employees and self-employed workers. Spouses and children of workers also receive coverage.
However, many expats in Spain choose to take private health insurance to have access to wider and quicker options. Around 19% of the Spanish population has some form of private healthcare coverage. Some of the largest private health insurance companies in Spain include:
Private health insurance in Spain usually costs between €50-200 a month, depending on the coverage plan.
What is the worst thing about life in Spain?
Expats in Spain can find it hard getting used to the lower salaries in the country. The average household’s yearly disposable income is US$23,999 (about €21,000 in January 2022), lower than the OECD average of US$33,604 (€29,722).
In 2018, there were nearly two million more people in employment as compared to five years earlier. Yet the remuneration per full-time employee rose a mere 0.5% per year on average. Annual salaries in Spain are just €1,000 higher than in the early 2000s.
The situation could worsen in the wake of COVID-19, with rising inflation and utility costs sparking protests in 2021. Although the Spanish economy is expected to post two years of strong growth, the EU forecast that Spain will not see pre-pandemic levels of economic activity until 2023. Lagging behind every other country in the 27-member bloc. Internationals looking to enjoy life as expats in Spain should consider this.
What is the best thing about life in Spain?
As the Spanish saying goes, ‘A beber y a tragar, que el mundo se va a acabar‘. Or roughly translated into English, ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die/the world ends’. It’s trite but true, tomorrow is not promised.
Spaniards live life to the fullest, taking an open, carefree attitude to everyday events. It is this laidback approach that underpins life in Spain, whether it’s the country’s famous outdoorsy culture or the fact that the Spanish are so gregarious and welcoming of foreigners and expats. Subject to where you’re moving from, Spain provides the opportunity to enjoy a healthy lifestyle and beautiful weather on a relatively low budget. And chances are, you’ll leave with many more friends than when you arrived!