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Living Abroad in Spain

Making the Move

© Nikki Weinstein, from Living Abroad in Spain, 1st Edition. Used by permission of Avalon Travel. All rights reserved.

So you’ve visited Spain and fallen head over heels for the place—now you’re ready to move over there and make it official. The question is how do you do that? How do you transport all your stuff across the Atlantic since renting a moving van is out of the question and you’re probably not coming by steam ship. Oh, and then there’s the issue of visas . . . the only kind that you have right now is a credit card. Exactly what sort of a visa do you need to live in Spain? And should you take your alarm clock—the one that’s been with you since freshman year of college? Not to worry. With a little planning, your move to Spain shouldn’t be too difficult. Your biggest obstacle will be the process of obtaining a visa and even that is manageable.

Visas and Immigration

"A move to a new country will mean facing a lot of bureaucracy and Spain is no exception to that. You’ll have to deal with official stamps, official documents, official translations, and stern-looking officials—face-to-face. Just remember that if you’ve paid your taxes and dealt with the IRS in the United States, you can certainly handle this. And when you’re finished, you’ll be rewarded with access to Spain and that really is a rich prize."

Applying for your residency visa will likely be your biggest bureaucratic challenge, but most people have to bite the bullet and go through the necessary steps. Residency doesn’t only allow you to work, it permits you to simply live in Spain for more than 182 days of the calendar year. The range of visas vary tremendously—some are only valid for the duration of a work contract while others are good for as long as five years; you’re likely to score a more liberal visa if your work contract exceeds one year.

So can you skip all that residency stuff and go right for the gold—citizenship? Sure you can—as long as one of your parents is Spanish or if you were born in Spain and your parents happen to have no nationality or one that you can’t share. Barring those two reasons, you’ll have to wait in line. Most foreigners who become citizens have held residency status for about 10 years.

If paperwork gives you a headache and you decide to live in Spain for more than six months out of each year but you ignored the need for a visa, you run the risk of being fined about €300 ($375) and being barred entry to Spain for three years. (As you might suspect, the enforcement of that edict is lax, but don’t take that news as your cue to break the law.)

Tourist Visas

Tourists have it easy. U.S. citizens with a passport valid for the next six months need not concern themselves with visas at all, they can just go through border control at the airport, collect their baggage, step onto the street, and hail a cab. If that’s you, you’re in luck—the stamp in your passport is effectively your tourist visa and there’s no red tape to worry about.

However, there is one key thing to keep in mind. Rules have changed since the formation of the European Union (EU), and borders are not what they once were. Your tourist visa no longer applies to Spain alone, it applies to all the Schengen countries. (The Schengen countries are as follows: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden.) With just the stamp in your passport, you can travel throughout the Schengen countries for three consecutive months, but when your visa is on the brink of expiration you may no longer stay in any of the Schengen countries—not just Spain.

Student Visas

Every year, thousands of Americans study in Spain. In many cases they enroll in undergraduate programs for a year or semester, other times they come as graduate students, and many people also come specifically to learn Castilian in a language institute. If you want to study in Spain for longer than three months, you’ll need a student visa. You can’t get one in Spain nor can it be mailed to a Spanish address, so you have to apply while you’re still in the United States. Because Spain is such a popular study-abroad locale, the processing time for the applications can take longer than a month so submit all your paperwork well in advance.

The rules vary slightly at each of the separate Spanish consulates in the United States, but in most cases applications should be submitted in person. That rule is more ironclad in some consulates than others—the laxer ones allow the parents of a student to apply on the student’s behalf. To find out the specifics at the consulate appropriate for you, call in advance.

The first thing you’ll need is the application itself, and that can be downloaded from some of the consulates’ websites. As soon as you’ve filled that form out, you’ll have to add a few more things to your list before you’re ready to apply.

Include your passport (which must be valid for at least the next six months) with your application. Also add four current passport-size photos with white backgrounds to the pile. Additionally, you’ll also be asked to submit the original letter that verifies your enrollment as a full-time student at a university or school, and that should have a section assuring that you have paid tuition. Have your doctor write a letter assuring the Spanish government that you do not have yellow fever, cholera, or the plague, and also stating that you do not suffer from any drug addictions or mental illnesses; the letter must be translated into Spanish. If your stay in Spain will be longer than six months, you’ll also have to add a letter of good conduct from the police department of any city that you’ve lived in for as long as six months during the past five years, and that also must be translated into Spanish.

You’re almost done, but there’s still one more document to toss in. The Spanish government will want to know that you have enough money to live on while you’re in Spain, and you’ll have to show them that you do. That can be done in several ways. You can present $350 worth of traveler’s checks for every month that you’ll be in Spain. Alternatively, the consulate will accept proof (usually in the form of a letter) that you have received financial aid or a scholarship that covers tuition, room, board, and personal expenses amounting to not less than $350 for every month of your stay. Another option is to present a notarized letter from your parents in which they promise to assume financial responsibility for you while you’re abroad, and they must specify that they’ll give you at least $350 dollars a month. (If you’ve been waiting for an excuse to hit your parents up for money, there’s your chance.) If you have a Spanish bank account, you can show evidence that you have sufficient funds for your time in Spain—of course, “sufficient” means at least (you guessed it) $350 for every month of your stay. Your final option is to include a letter from your academic program that guarantees complete coverage for your tuition, room, and board. However, that last choice is only available to students earning credit towards a bachelor’s degree or an associate’s degree. If that applies to you, the letter must mention that you will be receiving such credit.

Once you’ve compiled the paperwork you should make two photocopies of everything—one set is for the application and the other is for you. Add a stamped and addressed, Express Mail envelope and a money order for $100 to cover the processing fee, and you’ll be ready to go to the consulate and apply. Once you receive your visa, you’ll be all set to head across the ocean and begin your studies. If your program is for six months or less, your visa process is entirely complete but if your stay in Spain will be longer than that, you’ll have one more step to take. As soon as you arrive at your destination in Spain you’ll have to register with the police department to receive a student card.

Residency Visas and Work Permits

Some people complain that applying for a Spanish residence visa is as fruitless as trying to ride a bicycle to the moon. But try to tune that buzz out—those rumors are worse than the reality. Getting your hands on a visa is a big effort but it is possible, and as long as you’re eligible for a Spanish visa, it will likely be granted to you. However, the government will not make the process of actually getting the visa easy for you. Spain’s bureaucracy is infamous and your first brush with it will likely come in the United States when you apply for a residence visa. Applications must be submitted through one of the Spanish consulates and exactly which Spanish consulate is the right one for you depends on where in the United States you live. You should call the consulate as soon as you’ve decided to apply for a visa in order to find out how far in advance your application must be submitted—each consulate sets its own rules, but in some cases applications can take longer than six months to be processed. Most of the consulates will only accept applications that have been delivered in person, and some suggest arriving early in the morning to improve the chances of your application merely being received—some consulates enforce daily limits.

Before you begin, there’s one important thing to know: While you can’t just move to Spain and begin working without the proper papers, you don’t need a work visa exactly—permission to earn money in Spain is built into specific visas. That means that independent business owners must apply for one kind of residence visa that grants permiso de trabajo (permission to work), while those who will be employed by a company should apply for a different visa. Depending on your job offer (for example, permanent or temporary), your visa might have any number of time and geographical restrictions.

The Ministry of Labor ultimately grants foreigners the right to work in Spain (your visa won’t be approved without the department’s permission), but it’s worth knowing that some jobs don’t require the official go-ahead. Civil and military personnel employed by the Spanish government need not worry about getting permission to work in Spain, nor should accredited members of the foreign press, foreign teachers who have been offered positions at Spanish universities, and foreign technical employees invited to work for the Spanish government. Ultimately, your career and specific job matter a lot so peruse the various kinds of visas with special care and make sure that you apply for the correct one so you can earn a living when you reach Spanish shores.

The next step is figuring out exactly which residence visa to apply for—you have six options. The residence visa to work in Spain as an employee is for anyone with a job offer from a Spanish company. The residence visa to reunite a family does exactly what its name suggests; that’s the visa of choice for U.S. spouses of Spanish citizens, but it can also work for the parents of children who are either Spanish citizens or legal residents. The same visa works for people under 18 who are financially dependent on a Spanish citizen or resident. The residence visa to retire in Spain is straightforward—it’s for retirees. If you want to open a business independently, such as running an inn or restaurant, you should apply for the visa for investors or the self-employed. Another option is specifically for non-lucrative purposes and is only good for people who will live off money earned outside of Spain. (You must already have a large sum of cash in your name if you want that particular visa.) Finally, the residence visa exempt from requesting a work permit (a.k.a. the visa with the most unwieldy name) applies to those who will be in Spain for a religious, scientific, or cultural activity that is not applicable to work visas; that often translates into grant-related work, but not always.

Once you’ve found the visa that fits, you’ll need to put the application together. Not all of the individual consulates have websites, but the New York one does and you can download the application itself from that page ( Once you’ve filled it out, there will be a few more things to add.

Each of the six visas demands a slightly different list of goods, but in all cases you should include the same list of goods that’s required for student visas: your passport (valid for six months), photos, your doctor’s letters, and the letter from your local police department. Remember that both letters require official translations. Additionally, if you own property in Spain, you should include the original deed as well as a photocopy of the same. To have your application cover your spouse or children, include separate applications for them, medical certificates of good health, your original marriage certificate, and for your children, add their birth certificates.

That takes care of the areas in which the various residence visas overlap, but each specific visa requires a little more information. If you’re applying for the work-specific visa, be sure to have your doctor add to the letter stating that you don’t exhibit any health conditions that would prevent you from working at your proposed job. You must also include a written job offer from the Spanish company where you intend to work, and that offer should also have already been filed with the Ministry of Labor in Spain. That’s mandatory for Spanish branches of American companies, too. The good news is that in most cases, your employer will take care of that detail.

If you’re applying on the family reunion visa, your family member in Spain should have already filed a formal petition with the local police department in Spain, and you must include a stamped and registered copy of that. If you’re the parent of a foreign resident in Spain, include your child’s birth certificate. Also be sure to submit the passport of your family member living in Spain, whether they’re a Spanish citizen or a foreign resident. If that person is not accompanying you to the consulate, a notarized photocopy will do just fine. Lastly, the Spanish government will want to know that you have a place to live in Spain, so submit that address in the form of a certificado de empadronamiento (certificate of residence)—a form that should have already been processed with the local police authority in Spain. If that form doesn’t apply to you, a work certificate or official change of your Spanish family member’s residence will do the trick.

If you’re a retiree applying on the related visa, you’ll have to add an official form certifying that you receive social security and stating its monthly amount. Additionally, add proof of any other source of income that you might have—and that includes all properties in Spain. Also submit an official document from the company that provides your medical insurance guaranteeing continual coverage while you’re in Spain.

Those applying as investors or as the self-employed must also have their doctors add to the letters that they are healthy enough to do the work proposed. A copy of the solicitud de permiso de trabajo (work authorization application) should have been filed previously with the Ministry of Labor in Spain—both an original and a copy of that should be included. The last form should document proof of the medical coverage to be received while in Spain.

If the residence visa that you’re after is for non-lucrative purposes, you’ll have to offer proof that you have enough money to live on while in Spain. More specifically, you must submit bank account statements, investment certificates, and any other proof of funds that amounts to no less than $75,000 annually. If you own stock or partnerships in any companies, the Spanish government requires assurance that you do not make money from direct labor in those companies.

The application for the visa exempt from requesting a work permit also calls for a letter or invitation from the organization in which you’ll be involved while in Spain. The Spanish government will want assurance that your financial needs will be taken care of, so be sure that the letter includes that information as well as some detail on the activities that you’ll be performing. Also submit forms proving that your Spanish organization is accredited with the appropriate government authority. (If you’re not sure which public office to contact for that confirmation, speak to someone at the Spanish organization you’ll have contact with in Spain in order to find out.) Finally, by the time you apply for a visa, a solicitud de exención de permiso de trabajo (application of exemption from permission to work) should have been filed with the Ministry of Labor in Spain. (Presumably that was done by the Spanish organization you’ll be affiliated with.) Be sure to add the original form with your application.

Once you’ve completed the list you must make two photocopies of all the documents and include those in the packet, but it’s not a bad idea to make an additional photocopy for your own purposes, too. Finally, you have to add a money order of $100 to cover the processing fee along with your application. Now just sit back and wait for your reply. However, you should spend that time in the United States because once your visa has been processed, you’ll have to pick it up in person at the Spanish consulate.

Now you have your visa, but you’re not done quite yet. The visa itself is only valid for 90 days and it offers you just one entry into Spain. As soon as you arrive at your Spanish destination you’ll have to go to the local police department to get your residence card. That residence card can be renewed from within Spain for the duration of your visa, but as soon as your visa expires (and they’re all valid for varying lengths of time), you’ll have to apply for a new visa. That can only be done by repeating the same process from the beginning.

Moving with Children

Believe it or not, moving your pet to Spain requires more work than moving your children does—at least when it comes to paperwork. As long as you include your children’s individual applications, medical certificates of good health, and their birth certificates in your visa application, they’ll also have visas. However, once you arrive in Spain things get a little trickier.

Young children adapt to new cultures with mind-boggling ease and they pick up new languages at breakneck speed. Yet adolescents and teenagers tend to struggle a little bit. At the risk of sounding like Oprah, I’ll point out a few things that might make the transition easier. First, think back to the time when you were a teenager. Do you remember adults telling you that those years would be the best of your life and blah, blah, blah? What a bill of goods. Anyone who’s made the volatile transition from childhood to adulthood remembers that it’s anything but easy, and an upheaval like a move into another culture will have its rocky moments—initially, anyway.

Rather than trying to amp up your children’s enthusiasm for Spain by asking them to build shoe-box dioramas of the country’s great historical moments and dragging them through one museum after another, pursue things that they’ll actually enjoy. Once they’re having fun and meeting people, their excitement about the move will build naturally.

Extracurricular activities are well provided for in the international schools. After the school day ends, students usually have a range of activities available such as sports, music, dance, and various interest-based clubs. If you’re looking for classes outside of school, you’ll also find schools offering dance, martial arts, and the like. The municipal civic centers are also a good place to begin looking for activities, and they usually have a few classes that cater to kids.

Give them time to hang out online and just instant message with their friends. And doing something as simple as buying a soccer ball may lead your kid to take it into a plaza, begin kicking it around, and come home with a few new friends.

Moving with Pets

You won’t have trouble taking your pet to Spain. Most standard household animals are allowed in the country without being quarantined—even ferrets get the green light so long as their papers are in order. The laws on pets are currently in flux, but this much is known: as of October 2004, all pets must be identified with either a tattoo or microchip; a special certificate must be completed by vets regarding vaccinations and you’ll also need a written description of your pet and its origin. You can get your paws on all the details you need through the Spanish embassy’s office of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food (

In the case of dogs and cats—the most common pets—a veterinarian will have to provide certain stamps and your pooch or kitty will need to have had a rabies vaccination within the past year, but at least one month prior to your travel date.

Once you arrive you’ll have to register your dog with the government and you should attach contact information on your pet’s collar tags. Any dog older than three months will also require a health card in its name. If you’ve been to Spain before, then you’ve undoubtedly weaved your way along public streets dodging piles of poop; you’ll be shocked to discover that Spain does in fact have pooper-scooper laws but they are broadly ignored. (However, you should feel free to buck the system and pick up after your dog.) Each municipality has its own rules regarding where dogs are permitted to run free, but all dogs must be leashed in public areas.

If you are the owner of what the government deems to be a potentially dangerous dog, your pet will need a microchip inserted under its skin with identifying information. (That sounds like a far more painful procedure than it actually is.) You’ll also require a license from your municipality as an owner. Potentially dangerous dogs are pit bull terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, rottweilers, Dogo Argentinos, Fila Brasileiros, Tosa Inus, and Akita Inus. If you own one of those breeds and want to know if you qualify for a license to be in Spain, more information is posted on the consulate website.

On the whole, life is good for Spanish pets. Animals are adored and dog owners out on walks with their pooch will discover that their dog is a great conversation starter. Everyone seems to have a question for the owner and plenty of strangers are happy to scratch behind the ears of any dog that looks good-natured. Vets are easy to find and in the case of an urgent health scare you’ll be pleased to know that the country has plenty of 24-hour emergency clinics for animals. However, you should take particular caution if you live in a rural area. Spanish hunters and some farmers are known to leave pieces of poisoned meat strewn about in an effort to kill foxes and other animals viewed as pests. If your dog were to eat that meat instead, it could be fatal. Additionally, you should speak to your Spanish vet about any health hazards that might be endemic to your area of Spain.

What to Take

Once you’ve received your visa you’ll have taken care of the hard part, but you still have to make the actual move. Relocating to Spain has little in common with packing up your stuff and carting it to a new house on the other side of town; in this case you’ll have an ocean to cross. The catch is that everything you take will also have to make it across the ocean, too. It’s generally agreed upon by expatriates that the best approach is to first figure out what you can leave behind, and that assessment is more personal than practical. Anything that you need and most of what you want can be found in Spain. Of course, getting rid of your worldly goods is easier said than done. You’ve undoubtedly spent years collecting the objects that fill your home. From the books that line your shelves to your salt-and-pepper shakers, everything has a history.

Still, you should probably leave the baby grand behind unless you’re a concert pianist. Large items are the most expensive to move internationally, and all of those same things can be replaced. Leaving cherished belongings behind really smarts, but it might help to know that Spain offers a wealth of opportunities to buy beautiful home furnishings that span the spectrum of design. Barcelona is a veritable workshop of one-of-a-kind fixtures envisioned by internationally applauded designers, and samplings of those showpieces are stocked in stores throughout the country. Hand-carved, older pieces also abound. If you’re looking for things that are reasonably attractive and cheap, you’ll be relieved to know that Ikea—the Swedish supermarket of home furnishings—has locations in Spain, too. In fact, you’ll probably run across the superstore’s catalog every other time you open your mailbox.

You’re probably wondering if you should take your electronics and the answer to that is a resounding maybe. Here are the basics. Spain’s uses a 220-volt electrical system, like the rest of continental Europe. You don’t have to know what that means, you just have to know that the North American system is different (it uses 60Hz) and the bottom line is that you can’t plug the hairdryer that you bought at Wal-Mart into a Spanish outlet—the plug itself won’t even fit. Yet in the case of your hairdryer you can use an adapter because they work best for small, low-draw items with no significant motors in them. Battery chargers and small CD players should also fare well with transformers. However, lugging your refrigerator to Spain and expecting an adapter to do the trick will be a colossal error.

Computers are more expensive in Spain than they are in the United States so you might want to hang on to the one you have if you can. Some U.S. desktops have a switch that transfers the rate of power and allows the computer to function in Europe with an adapter, and most laptops have extension cords that can be entirely detached and replaced with ones that fit Spanish outlets.

However, there are a couple of drawbacks. As soon as you leave U.S. soil, the warranty that came with your computer is meaningless—you can’t make good on it in a Spanish store that sells the same item and most companies won’t ship replacement pieces abroad. Likewise, you’ll have to dial internationally if you ever want to reach the help line associated with your American computer. While you’re sitting on hold for 30 minutes listening to Muzak and waiting to talk to a tech-savvy trouble-shooter, you’ll be mentally calculating what you’re paying for each minute on the phone. The keyboard is one more detail to consider. In Spain, keyboards have accents and different keys and even the layout isn’t the same. Those extra keys are vital tools that allow you to type correct Spanish sentences, so if you’ll be writing in Spanish that’s a worthwhile feature to have. However if you use your computer to surf the web, keep in touch with people on the other side of the Atlantic via email, and to write in English, a U.S. keyboard will serve you better.

The last note on electronics is only for people with Macs. You will be a rare (but growing) breed in Spain. Until recently, Spain priced Macs far higher than PCs and the discrepancy resulted in fewer Mac users. The prices have begun to drop down but most people still use PCs and you’ll have to look a little harder to find service and parts for your Apple. When I had a DSL line installed on my iBook, the technician spent three hours struggling with a job that usually takes about 20 minutes. Halfway through the ordeal he confessed that he had never even touched a Mac before and he was relying on a lot of guesswork. Although you can find what you need here, it’s not always easy.

Shipping Options

You don’t absolutely have to see the contents of your house sold off in a tag sale or on eBay—you can ship just about anything to Spain, but the cost for that service adds up fast. One couple on the verge of relocating hoped to ship 1,500 pounds of beloved possessions from Los Angeles to Barcelona. When an international moving company gave them a quote of $2,700 for the service, they shopped around for a better price but they didn’t find much improvement. Ultimately, the couple arrived in Spain with a lighter load. Many people take one look at the quadruple-digit price tag that’s typically attached to shipping the entire contents of a home and quickly come to the conclusion that sentimental value is overrated.

But for some people, especially for families with young children, sending some items separately is unavoidable. The Yellow Pages is full of listings for international shipping companies that will be able to pack up your home for you, deliver your cargo to your Spanish doorstep, and take care of every detail in between. As is usually the case, the better the service the higher the price. You can knock down the cost by boxing your things yourself and collecting them from the port or drop-off center in Spain. A few weeks later, you’ll have to pay a customs tax for your personal effects and those prices are steep.

Plenty of people manage to take just about everything on the flight. Most airlines allow you to check a hefty amount of baggage so why not take advantage of every pound that’s offered? Typically you’re allowed a maximum of two checked suitcases that can total about 70 pounds each, plus one carry-on bag. Perhaps you won’t be able to bring everything you want with you when you move, but you’ll have the essentials. The next time you visit the United States will be an opportunity to return back to Spain with one more load of your things. Slowly, your house will come together.

More from Living Abroad in Spain
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 True Expatriate Stories
 What to Take
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