Living in Spain


Lazy days spent basking in the sun, midday siestas, a cheap cost of living. There are many reasons why, since the fall of fascism in the mid-1970s, Spain has emerged as a popular destination for expats from all around the world. Statistics show that around 14 per cent of the country’s population was born outside of Spain and, while British expats have long been associated with setting up home in the southern coastal regions of the country, it is also home to a sizable number of North Africans, South Americans and people from other EU countries, too.

Spain has had a rich and eventful history – both modern and ancient – and many remnants of the country’s colourful past can be seen throughout the country today, both in its culture and architecture which has been influenced by the Iberian, Celtiberean, Visigothic, Roman Catholic, Islamic and a myriad of other cultures that came under Spanish rule during its colonial heyday.

Due largely to the country’s complex history, it’s fair to say that modern-day Spain is an extremely hard country to define. In many ways it is split into 17 autonomous communities each of which has a unique identity of its own. For example, in Catalunya, which encompasses the popular expat cities of Barcelona and Valencia, the primary language used is Catalan, a French and Latin-influenced variation of typical Spanish (Castilian). This makes each part of Spain very different from another. Each area has its own customs and culture, while some parts even have its own laws. This can make dealing with bureaucracy in Spain something of a nightmare and is one of the major reasons that most immigrants tend to settle in the already existing popular expat locations in southern Spain or in one of the big cities, where they are used to being dealt with.

Throughout Spain though, there is a clear preference among the Spanish to lead as relaxed a lifestyle as possible. One need only look at the tradition of siestas – where for three hours each afternoon many businesses shut down to enable people to either enjoy an afternoon nap or a long lunch – to see that the Spanish like to take things at their own pace. While siestas are becoming less common in larger cities such as Barcelona and Madrid, they are still observed throughout most of the country and while this can be hugely frustrating for newcomers used to 24-hour supermarkets and other instant services, it is something that expats living in Spain will have to get used to.

Of course, this slower, more relaxing pace of life is one of the main reasons that so many people – Brits in particular – have long been drawn to Spain. The low cost of living and cheap property prices, especially outside of the bigger cities, are also major attractions for expats, as is the fact that healthcare facilities and the country’s education system is, on the whole, fairly good.  Due to the fact that a large number of British expats have been calling Spain home for the past 30 or so years, English speaking schools are fairly common – particularly in the ever popular Costa del Sol and Blanca, where entire towns have almost entirely been taken over by UK residents – so if you’re emigrating with non-Spanish speaking children to a popular expat destination, you may just find that their education needs will be well served.

Sadly, there is a common misconception among many English speaking expats that you don’t need to try and attempt to learn the Spanish language as ‘everyone speaks English’. While this may be the case in some of the more ‘anglicised’ regions of Spain – for example, Benidorm – it is far from the case throughout the country. What’s more, attempting to converse in the native tongue will endear you to the Spanish locals and you may well find that certain tasks will be performed quicker for you if you at least try and speak with them in their own language rather than just talking loudly and putting an ‘o’ at the end of every word.

It’s also worth noting that while the country’s Mediterranean climate has been one of the main factors in attracting large numbers of expats – especially from other EU nations – to its shores, not all of Spain enjoys warm weather all year round. For example, northern Spain has a largely Atlantic climate meaning that the weather there is much cooler and wetter than in the south (hence, why it tends to be less popular), while the Canary Islands located off the west coast of Africa, benefit from a sub-tropical climate.

Given the frankly abominable state of the Spanish economy at present – as of July 2012, the country’s unemployment rate was 24.63 per cent, which is the highest in the industrialised world – it is highly unlikely that a person’s decision to move to Spain is going to be anything other than a lifestyle choice right now. While the country’s two largest cities, Madrid and Barcelona, are the best bets for people looking for work, even there you will find that jobs are currently in short supply. This could cause problems for Non-EU residents, as well as immigrants who don’t come from countries belonging to the former Spanish Empire, as without a work permit it can be difficult for them to obtain legal residency in the country. In fact, since the onset of the economic crisis, there has been a significant trend for migrants to move back ‘home’ as work in Spain has dried up and made the country impossible for them to stay in financially, even with the overall low living costs.

These prevailing economic factors, however, are unlikely to dampen the enthusiasm that many retirees have for moving to Spain. The country has long been a popular destination for elderly expats, particularly those from developed EU nations, wanting to live in a warmer, healthier country which offers fairly cheap and effective healthcare treatment.

As is the case for a majority of the expats who are seeking a move for lifestyle purposes, southern Spain, particularly the autonomous region of Andalucía; the second-largest in the country which encompasses the Costas del Sol, de Almería, de la Luz and Tropical, is likely to be a retiree’s destination of choice, largely down to the climate. In recent years there has also been a growing trend in Andalucía for developers to create purpose-built retirement communities with a high level of built-in security. Costa Cálida, which directly translates as the ‘warm coast’, tends to be another quite popular destination among retirees, as it is a little bit less built-up and ‘touristy’ than many other regions of southern Spain.

Given that a survey conducted by Lloyds TSB International in early 2012, which asked expats to rank their new life in a range of factors including quality of life and cost of living, revealed that immigrants living in Spain were happier than those living in any other country, it would appear that Spain’s reputation as a popular expat destination is still extremely high. Sun, sea and sangria all around!