A Little Advice… Here’s What It’s Like Living in Spain

Last updated on September 7, 2023

Spain is one of those countries that many first visit during a study abroad program or on a train trip through Europe. Once you’ve spent even a few days here, it’s easy to wonder if living is Spain is as alluring as it is to travel here. Should you pack up your life and move here?

I’ve lived all over the world—from Thailand to Mexico to Florida—and I moved to Barcelona, Spain in 2018, after 10 years of round the world travel. I’ve also spent years traveling through different areas of Spain, from walking the Camino de Santiago to house-sitting in a desert town in Andalusia.

Girona, Spain
The pretty city of Girona is one of the most livable places in Spain. It’s an inland city, but it’s accessible from Barcelona in under an hour, and you can be at the beach in less than that.

In March 2023, after five years of living here on a non-lucrative visa, I earned my five-year residency permit. This is home and I plan to live in Spain and raise my son here for many more years.

Pros and Cons of Living in Spain

While it’s not all roses living here—there are some drawbacks to life in Spain—the pros make a pretty compelling case for those thinking about taking the leap. The cost of living in Spain alone is reason enough for many, but there are many other great reasons to consider Spain as your future home.

There’s a lot to love about living in Spain, obviously—that’s why it’s my home. These are the high points that keep me and my expat friends circling back to Spain whenever we have itchy feet and are looking for greener grass.

Pro: It’s among the most affordable places to live in Europe.

Palafrugell, Spain, a popular beach located on the Costa Brava
Views of Palafrugell, located on Spain’s Costa Brava that, while more expensive than many cities, still offers comparatively affordable coastal living.
Life in rural Spain costs significantly less than the cities, and has the benefit of gorgeous hiking—this is a scene from the north west along the Camino.

Compared to other Western European countries, the cost of living in Spain is among the lowest—only Portugal’s living costs clock in as a tad bit more affordable than Spain. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that is one of the more compelling features that convinced me to move here back in 2018.

Housing in Madrid and Barcelona, are going to run higher than the rest of the country, but even there it’s still comparatively lower than living in any other large city in Europe or the U.S. And if you move basically anywhere else in Spain, you’re going to find that a nice life is downright affordable.

In spring 2023, I stayed in Florida for two months to visit family—I was shocked by just how much cheaper it is to buy fresh fruit and vegetables in Spain. And then there’s the free schooling and daycare for kids from two-years-old onwards. Overall, the cost of living is a clear pro for those looking to either live on a small budget, or live larger on a mid-range budget.

Con: Some things cost a lot more.

Sometimes a beach day cooling off Mediterranean is the only way to beat the heat during summer in the city, when many apartments are roasting hot.

Although the overall cost of living is low in Spain, there are aspects that cost more than other places. Utilities like electricity and gas are quite high, and imports from back home for both Britts and Americans cost more, especially since Brexit.

If you need air conditioning to stay comfortable during the summer, you will pay dearly. That is true in general because of the price of electricity, but also because apartments and houses in many places aren’t built to contain both heat and air. You’ll need to pay for a recently renovated apartment before you can expect efficient insulation and efficient cooling and heating.

Pro: Spain’s healthcare system is tops in all of Europe.

You might need a doctor’s checkup if you adopt the local love for churros con chocolate. ;-)

Spain boasts an excellent public healthcare system—ranked seventh in the entire world. It’s funded by the country’s social security system and accessible across the country for all residents. Given that I moved here on a non-lucrative visa, I wasn’t entitled to use the public system at first, so I can also attest to the fantastic private healthcare network.

The thing is, even though the healthcare is great, it’s also affordable, and that makes a huge difference in your quality of life in Spain. I pay about €130 per month for a €0 deductible private health insurance plan. And when I say €0 deductible, I mean zero euros. I had a baby in Barcelona, Spain in 2021 and it cost me nothing more than the price of my monthly private insurance plan. (Now, he also costs €130 for private healthcare coverage, so my monthly premium of €260 is a little bit steeper).

Con: It takes pretty high taxes to cover the high quality of life.

Estella (Lizarra) is one of Spain’s pretty small towns.

Taxes in Spain can be quite high, especially income and property taxes. Be prepared to allocate a significant part of your earnings to taxes, and note that this can impact your total cost of living and financial planning.

The overall tax rate is high in Spain—between 19% and 47%—and you also owe local taxes if you live in a place like Catalunya.

Income (Euro)Total Tax Rate
0 – 12,45019%
12,450 – 20,20024%
20, 200 – 35,20030%
35,200 – 60,00037%
60,000 – 300,00045%
300,000 and up47%
There’s another table for capital gains taxes.

Note that if you’re working remotely or as a freelancer in Spain, your taxes are not quite as straightforward. You’ll have to pay a hefty monthly autonomo fee, collect IVA from your clients, and file taxes quarterly.

Pro: There’s a great expat community throughout Spain.

When friends were visiting Seville, it was quick and easy to pop down and meet up with them for a few days.
Once lockdowns ended, my expat friends and I hiked to the bunkers, a popular sunset spot nearby.

Even if you speak great Spanish and plan to make a lot of local friends, many expats gravitate toward other expats. Not only in expat groups, but because of overlapping sensibilities—it might mean you attend the same types of classes, eat at the same restaurants at the same (earlier) hour of the day, etc.

While the major cities all have the largest expat communities, naturally, you’ll find a mix of international residents living across Spain’s many towns and smaller cities, too. While it’s less common in super rural areas, it’s certainly easy to find expats spread across the most popular regions, i.e., the Costa del Sol, Costa Brava, Costa Dorada, and more.

Con: Salaries are low.

León, Spain
León, Spain
Nájera, Spain
Nájera, Spain
Estella-Lizarra, rural Spain
Estella-Lizarra, Spain

The cost of living in Spain is low because salaries are low compared to other Western European countries. The relatively low income levels has led to economic strain, limited opportunities for professional growth, and financial difficulties for many residents.

In some cities, the cost of living does not align with the income, making it challenging for locals to comfortable to live in these places they may have lived in for decades. Gentrification has been a huge problem in Barcelona and other cities.

While Spain offers many attractions and a warm Mediterranean lifestyle, potential expatriates should carefully consider the issue of low salaries when contemplating a move. Planning accordingly and being aware of the financial challenges can help ensure a stable and comfortable living experience in this diverse and culturally rich country.

Pro: Spain has two easy visa options for expats.

Before the pandemic, retirees and digital nomads with enough money banked could apply for Spain’s non-lucrative visa (meaning you can’t work in Spain). The non-lucrative visa allows expats to live in Spain for one year—but it’s renewable for four more (five years total). Obtaining a non-lucrative visa is how I moved to Barcelona. Once I lived here for five years in March 2023, it was straight-forward to apply for an obtain a five-year permanent residency visa.

In the wake of the global pandemic, Spain (like many countries in the world), formalized a visa targeted at remote workers. The digital nomad visa was in the works for a couple of years and was formally launched in summer 2023. It has different specifications than the non-lucrative visa, namely that you will work and pay taxes on your remote income via a favorable income tax rule written into the visa rules. The non-lucrative visa was written for retirees, so it’s not designed for those working while living on Spanish soil.

Securing either visa involves certain complexities, but it’s doable. Both have their own application process, but you’ll need to provide proof of sufficient financial means to support yourself during your stay, including health insurance coverage. Those who can demonstrate a stable income or significant savings and fulfill the necessary requirements are more likely to have a straightforward application process. That said, allow ample time for processing; the bureaucracy involved in the Spanish visa system can sometimes be time-consuming.

Con: Finding a local job might be tough.

For a city of this size, employment in Barcelona is surprisingly tight, particularly for those who lack an in-demand specialization.

The 2008 global recession was hard on Spain for many years. The country failed to recover long after others were seeing a strong jobs market and economy. Finally though, a decade later Spain was gaining a strong footing. Then the pandemic happened, and Spain was hit hard again.

Spain struggles with a high unemployment rate, which sits above 12.6% in 2023, which could make finding a local job more difficult, and might also affect your professional growth and opportunities in the country.

If you’re living in Spain on the digital nomad or non-lucrative visa, then you’re likely working remotely—in that case, local employment shouldn’t be an issue.

If you’re planning to work in Spain, being a highly skilled worker, or working in tourism, those could be good ins, although note that the wage disparity in Spain has led to a talent drain for locals—skilled professionals often seek better economic opportunities in the UK or other cities.

Pro: The rich culture and history infuses every aspect of life here.

Locals prep for a massive calçot roasting happening in the plaza just near by house in Barcelona.
I loved a visiting light exhibit at the Caixa Forum in Barcelona.

Spain has one of strongest tourist brands in the world, and it’s ranked third in the world in terms of the number of visitors. Travelers come from all over the world to walk through the streets that I call home.

Spaniards also love a good holiday—there are a lot of them on the Spanish calendar—so it seems like there’s always a public celebration happening somewhere in the city. Including food holidays, like when you either leave the city and enjoy a weekend roasting calçots, or you celebrate right in a plaza near you to sample this traditional Catalan delicacy.

And if that weren’t enough, Spain as its own diverse traditions and unique customs—some of them are pretty wacky. Like the caga Tío poop log that makes an appearance during Christmas in Catalunya.

Con: The work and life culture might take some getting used to.

Breakfast in Spain is eaten mid-morning, not early.
Meal times differ greatly in Spain vs. North America.
Lunches in Spain regularly run several hours
Late lunches could last hours, but at least you have good views!
Dinner is late in spain
You need candles to see your dinner since it occurs at 10p at night!

The laid-back lifestyle in Spain is attractive for many, but it also means that professional environments can sometimes feel slow-paced, and workplace expectations may vary. And its this same culture that you face at work that feeds into the slow bureaucracy.

I have expat friends living here working for local companies and they love it; others have had a tougher time adjusting. And there are a number of startups operating out of Barcelona or Madrid, so you might even find an international community.

What causes challenges? The two hour mid-day siesta means you get a break in your workday, but the con is that you’ll instead work well into the evening hours. A typical day for many runs from 9am-2pm and then 4pm-7pm. It’s easy, then, to see why dinner runs so late here. The sun in summer doesn’t set until nearly 10pm, and if you’re only leaving work around 7pm, it’s natural that drinks and dinner run late.

And besides work, I just find that my expectations as an American needed a dramatic retooling. What is cultural accepted and expected in the U.S. does not always translate. The easiest example of this is timeliness—being late is the norm for everything from lunch dates with friends to appointments with rental agents.

Pro: That climate is pretty much perfect year-round.

A hike near Tarragona Spain
Views from a hike near Tarragona of the lovely Mediterranean sea.

Living in Spain means you’ve just bought yourself a ticket to a year-round Mediterranean climate—warm summers, mild winters, and so much sunshine.

Of course, if you want cooler weather for most of the year, you can live in the mountains—and Spain has a number of places where that’s a possibility.

There’s even a hot desert in southern Spain, but given the outlook of climate change in the next few years, the deserts near Almería are not quite as livable as they once were.

Some of the varied weather across Spain looks like this:

  • Mediterranean Climate: Valencia (mild winters and warm to hot summers) and Malaga (pleasant temperatures year-round and numerous sunny days)
  • Oceanic Climate: Bilbao (mild temperatures and frequent rainfall), Santiago de Compostela (cool and damp climate with milder temperatures).
  • Continental Climate: Madrid (hot summers and cold winters with occasional snowfall), Zaragoza (hot summers and cold winters)
  • Subtropical Climate: Las Palmas (pleasant subtropical climate with warm winters and hot summers)
  • Alpine Climate: Granada and Sierra Nevada mountains (colder temperatures in winter), Pyrenees Region (colder winters)

Con: You’re going to need to learn Spanish, at the very least.

While many people in Spain speak English, particularly in the more popular tourist cities—Barcelona, Madrid, Malaga, Seville, etc—there’s a considerable language barrier once you settle in and live in any of these places, and there will always be a profound language barrier in smaller towns.

If you’re going to live in Spain, plan on learning Spanish. It takes a lot of effort to become proficient, but even just 20 hours will give you enough to start connecting with locals, and ease your process of communicating with utility companies and others.

And now let’s talk about local languages—if you plan to live in certain places in Spain long-term, then you may need to learn both Spanish and the local languages. This is the case if you live in Basque Country, Catalunya, Galicia, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands.

Pro: Every outdoor activity you love is nearby.

Living in the city means a bit of everything nearby
Go boating! Either on a lake in the city, or on the waters surrounding Spain.
Living in the mountains means hiking and cool weather
Hike the mountains—in this case we were high in the Pyrenees.
Living along the coast means water sports!
Take in the sun from the beach, or a boat along the Coasta Brava.

Most types of outdoor activities are accessible throughout the year (obviously skiing is limited to the north during the winter).

Given the miles of coastline and islands, Spain boasts innumerable gorgeous beaches. And while it won’t be particularly cheap to live near the most popular beaches (ie. near Barcelona or Malaga), there are hundreds of small towns dotting hundreds of miles of coastline where you can enjoy a nice life.

If mountains or desert are more your speed, Spain has both of those. And while the Pyrenees steal the show in terms of mountain hiking, no matter where you live in Spain you can likely access somewhere beautiful nearby.

Con: You’ll face a rough rental and housing market.

Pretty apartments when living in Barceloneta
My first apartment in Barcelona was a tiny one-bedroom in Barceloneta a block from the beach.
Plaza Real in Barcelona, Spain
Living in the Gothic Quarter seems like a dream, but you pay a lot to be surrounded by noisy tourists.
girona, Spain
I considered living in Girona, but it’s a tad isolating for a single mom to live outside of a bigger city.

Finding a suitable place to live in Spain can be challenging due to the competitive rental and housing market. In larger cities, the demand for affordable and quality housing exceeds supply—that means high rental prices are the norm in Barcelona, Madrid, Malaga, and other desirable cities.

Part of the problems with the housing and rental market is actual the influx of expats, and Spain’s strong reliance on tourism to stabilize the economy. Gentrification has reared its head across the country: Comparatively wealthy expats and retirees can snap up apartments at higher costs than a local could pay. Add to that the Airbnb problem, and housing difficulties can really impact your total cost of living in Spain.

Pro: Spaniards are both friendly and welcoming.

La Sagrada Familia
Even if you live near the touristy La Sagrada Familia, you find friendly locals and a welcoming vibe.

The Spanish people are known for their warmth and hospitality, and even in Barcelona, where visitors are told “tourists go home” via graffiti, it’s a welcoming place when you’re living in the neighborhoods and a regular at the local coffee shop or panadería.

And if you learn the language, it will only deepen your appreciation for local customs and culture, as well as enhance your interactions with locals.

Con: Good Lord the bureaucracy is enough to drive you mad.

Palafrugell at sunrise
You need serene views on days when you get #Spained.

Bureaucracy in Spain is overwhelming. It feels like no matter how well prepared you are for an appointment, there’s something that will derail it. Dealing with paperwork and administrative procedures here is time-consuming and, most of the time, intensely frustrating.

My expat friends and I share a text in our group WhatsApp thread that says, #Spained, when something happens that just doesn’t seem to make sense to us. The slow processes in place make it difficult to navigate through various institutions, from healthcare to renting a home to registering utilities.

That said, while it is a con for a lot of expats moving from more . . . efficient places, there is something to learn from the pace of life here, and after a bit of time, you just get into the rhythm. Sure businesses close for siesta and the hours at the bank are straight up unusable, but it becomes part of Spain’s quirks you grow to love after a while.

Pro: It’s a great place to raise a family.

One of the things I love about living in Spain is how easily I can explore Europe with my young son. Like when we trained to Switzerland and hiked for a week.

Spain is a great place for families to call home. There’s no places off limits to kids, even at 11pm at night. As a culture, the Spanish are welcoming and loving toward kids—the country values spending time with family and friends. Spanish communities across the country often host events, festivals, and outdoor markets, providing ample opportunity for families to enjoy the Spanish way of life.

As for practicalities, if you’re working for a Spanish company, you’ll receive four months of maternity/paternity leave. Once they’re born, every child on Spanish soil is entitled to healthcare regardless of your visa or immigration status. Nurseries are free from two years and up, and the schooling system is great. And even in the cities, the government keeps the parks and playgrounds well maintained and spotlessly clean. In short, it’s just a very family-friendly country.

Pro: Transportation anywhere in Spain or Europe is a breeze.

When my parents visited, we took the 6.5 hour train between Barcelona and Paris for a quick weekend adventure.

Many non-Europeans dream of moving to Spain as a way to then have a base for deeper explorations of the rest of Europe. That was certainly a compelling feature for me, and I’ve taken dozens of train and plane trips in the five years I’ve lived here to more deeply explore countries I already love (why hello there Italy), and then visit off-beat countries I might not have visited if it required an international plane ticket to get there (I’m looking at you, Bulgaria and Serbia).

As a resident of Europe, I’ve also take advantage of Interrail sales (Interrail is the Eurail equivalent for residents) to then train through Southern France, Switzerland, and Norway.

Transportation within the cities is great and transportation to other places is affordable (many discount airlines run flights to many other places in Europe for well under €100). Living here is a total win if you want to travel more in Europe.

Con: The cities are old, which means always under construction.

Barcelona always under construction.
This is a street scene from Barcelona, located out of the touristy center. To me, this feels like it could just as easily be a scene from Mexico, given the state of disrepair of the buildings.

I live in Barcelona, and while it’s a dream destination for visitors for good reason, once you live here you start to see just what it means to live in such a historic destination. Construction. All. Of. The. Time. I live in a quiet apartment building in the heart of the historic Gracia neighborhood, which isn’t even as old as the Gothic Quarter. In Gracia, there is a near constant buzz of construction noise from renovations and maintenance.

As someone who works from home, and also has a baby/toddler son, I was devastated when the apartment above me took nine months to complete a total overhaul—jackhammers and all to rip out old installations. Then, a month after it finished, the apartment across the courtyard began the same process. Walking down the street is a cacophony of noise from reno projects on, literally, every block.

Couple that with a culture that keeps late hours, way later than I’m accustomed to, and it’s noisy here in the city. Way noisier than I anticipated.

Pro: There’s no shortage of delicious food.

Spanish pinchos.
Pinchos are the best version of Spanish tapas for vegetarians living in Spain—they’re small bites that are cheap and you can usually find a better variety than the usual fare offered at regular Spanish restaurants.

One of the best highlights of Spanish cuisine is its tapas culture. Tapas are small, savory dishes that are perfect for sharing and trying a variety of flavors. From traditional classics like patatas bravas (fried potatoes with spicy tomato sauce) and croquetas (creamy, deep-fried croquettes) to more elaborate creations like Iberian ham and cheese platters, tapas are one of the most unique and social dining experiences you’ll ever have. You’ll fall in love with eating again in a culture that celebrates the art of grazing and savoring different tastes.

Another must-try aspect of Spanish cuisine is the paella, a classic rice dish that originated in Valencia. Paella comes in various versions, with the most popular being Valencian paella featuring rice, saffron, vegetables, and a choice of meat (chicken, rabbit, or sometimes seafood). This iconic dish is cooked in a wide, shallow pan called a “paellera,” and the skillful blending of flavors creates a rich, aromatic experience. Paella is a favorite for gatherings and family celebrations, reflecting the warmth and conviviality that Spain’s culinary heritage embodies. Exploring the diverse regional variations of paella throughout Spain will provide a delightful insight into the country’s culinary tapestry.

Con: Rural Spain is not great for vegetarians and vegans.

Dinner in spain for vegetarians
This is what dinner looks like at a restuarant that doesn’t offer any vegetarian mains—two tapas served as my meal. The asparagus was 10/10, the creative/boring take on patatas bravas was less inspiring.

I walked the 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago in summer 2017, and I saw just how much traditional Spanish culture remains in the smaller towns, cities, and rural communities. That culture made my Camino only more beautiful, as I learned a ton about Spanish culture, but it wasn’t great for me as a vegetarian. It was hard to find anything other than bread and cheese at many points, and that proves true in most places that have mostly traditional options.

Even living in Spain, if my friends want to visit a traditional Spanish restaurant, I often eat something at home first. It’s a survival technique since there are basically only five things I am guaranteed to be able to eat in traditional Spanish food: patatas bravas, padron peppers, croquetas, bread with tomato, and a spanish omelette. That may sound like a lot, but over time, there’s just so much egg-and-potato omelette and fried potatoes a girl can happily eat.

Barcelona boasts tons of vegetarian, vegan, and even gluten-free specialty restaurants, but there are also heaps of traditional restaurants that have virtual nothing to offer those with limited diets. I have entire galleries of photos filled with my vegetarian hipster eats in Barcelona, but those don’t exist in smaller cities.

Pro: Life is filled with beauty.

The Burgos Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana de Burgos)
A morning stroll through historic Burgos could not have been prettier thanks to the stunning Gothic architecture on Burgos Cathedral, built in the early 1200s.

Spain is an old country, and most of the cities were built in a bygone era of construction. Building are gorgeous, and by-and-large they are renovated to modern-day standards while maintaining the country’s legacy of cultural influences.

That means you carry out your everyday life along picturesque streets and in places that tourists spend countless hours photographing. My closest post office was a historic building with vaulted ceilings, a gorgeous dome, and huge pillars. I felt like I was walking into a palace every time I needed to mail a letter.

I live in a charming neighborhood surrounding by ornate, gorgeous architecture and I pass by Gaudí buildings at least three times a week during regular outings. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think: I’m so grateful I get to live here.

Pro: All are welcome to live and let live.

Pride festivities in Barcelona.
Even the traditional Spanish giants and big heads come out for BCN Pride!

Spain is a welcoming place for people of all races, creeds, and lifestyles. Although there is certainly a thread of traditional biblical values among those of the older generations, Spanish law has carved out strong protections for LGBTQ+.

As noted in many previous points—rural Spain has its own quirks. But on the whole you are able to live your life as you see fit. It’s a fairly liberal country, where even weed is decimalized and accessible. Like everywhere, the far right is gaining a foothold, but that currently mostly affects politics. Violent crimes against others is rare, and that is double true for hate crimes.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is living in Spain worth it?

The culture, food, and low cost of living makes Spain worth it for the many expats who live here. Securing my visa and moving to Spain in 2018 has shifted my worldview in numerous positive ways, and I am so happy to have landed here after trying out life in places as diverse as Mexico to Panama to Thailand.

But I’ve written a ton about the cost of living in various countries around the world, and many expats greatly prefer one place over another. There’s no guarantee that you will love living in Spain as much as I love living here. But if you’re interested in Spain, then there’s a good chance you already find something about this country compelling. There are downsides to living in Spain—some real cons that may be a dealbreaker for you. But if non of the cons of living in Spain that I mentioned seemed that bad to you, then you could likely enjoy your time exploring, living, and enjoying all Spain offers.

What are the common challenges faced by expats in Spain?

Really the main challenges for expats in Spain come down to the main ones mentioned above. The language barrier will become an issue over time unless you dedicate time to learning the language, finding a local job at a salary you feel comfortable with might be tricky, and taxes are quite steep, particularly for freelancers.

How easy is it for foreigners to adapt to the Spanish lifestyle?

Spain is known for its laid-back, relaxed atmosphere and slower pace of life. That’s a win for most people who move here, but that same culture infuses how Spaniards do business, so it just takes time to adjust expectations.

And if you appreciate outdoor recreational activities, vibrant (family-friendly) nightlife, and delicious cuisine, you’ll find a place to feel at home in the country.

Really what trips you up might be totally different than what another finds challenging about life in Spain. Later meals and bedtimes has been the hardest thing for me to adjust to—I can’t get my body to sync when it’s hungry with when all of the restuarnts are guaranteed to be open. Spanish people often have dinner late in the evening, and the nightlife usually doesn’t start until midnight. Adapting to these lifestyle changes might require some adjustment, but it is entirely possible for you to embrace and enjoy the Spanish way of life.

What are the best places to live in Spain?

Where you might prefer to live Spain in highly subjective—it depends on if you like beaches and heat, or mountains and cool. Or cool beaches—those exists in the north western coast. So, look beyond this list once you narrow down exactly what type of climate and culture you’re looking for (some places are more popular with retirees, while others have a more youthful expat culture). Overall these are the 10 most popular locations for expats in Spain.

  1. Barcelona
  2. Madrid
  3. Valencia
  4. Malaga
  5. Alicante
  6. Seville
  7. Palma de Mallorca
  8. Granada
  9. Tenerife (Canary Islands)
  10. Marbella