21 Things You Should Know Before Moving to Spain
Planning on moving to España? That’s Spanish for ‘Spain’! Allow us to take you through some need-to-know tidbits about life and culture in Spain, from serious stuff like healthcare and living costs to the country’s love of ham and oranges (jamón y naranjas).
1. It's in the wrong time zone
Let’s start with something that’s not quite right with Spain – the time zone! If you’ve been to Portugal, you’ll know that it has the same time as the UK – but why doesn’t Spain? They’re right next to each other! Well, back in the gloomy days of the Second World War, Spain’s dictator Francisco Franco shifted Spain’s timezone to align with that of Nazi Germany’s (GMT+1). This was meant to be a temporary thing, but Spain has never switched back. Some activists reckon that Spain would increase its productivity if it switched back to GMT, but Spain doesn’t seem too keen.
2. It's not just one landmass
That big slab of land right next to Portugal gets all the attention as ‘Spain’, but there’s more to the country than meets the eye. There are two archipelagos that count as Spain; the Canary Islands (off the west coast of North Africa), and the Balearic Islands (on Spain’s east coast, in the Mediterranean Sea). The Canary Islands were colonised by the Spanish in 1483, while the Balaerics weren’t established as a Spanish province until 1833. Both sets of islands are incredibly beautiful holiday destinations, especially the nightclub-studded Ibiza, which is part of the Balearics.
Boats bobbing around the Port of Pollensa in Mallorca, one of the Balearic islands
3. Meal times are very late
Some people like to show off by telling everyone how late they like to eat dinner, but you’d struggle to do that in Spain – they’ll always have it later than you. The Spanish tend to have lunch at 3pm and dinner at 9pm, with a lot more importance given to those two meals than you’ll be used to in the UK. There are no sandwiches at desks, or quick microwave meals in front of the TV. It’s a proper sit down with your friends and family – get out the wine, talk about your life, all that stuff. Lunch is actually called la comida – literally ‘the meal’. They don’t mess around here. Unsurprisingly, people reckon the incorrect timezone has something to do with these late mealtimes.
4. There are a lot of Brits
Leaving the UK to get away from Brits? You’ll struggle to do that in Spain. All you find is more Brits, except they’re tanned and quite a lot happier. According to official Spanish figures, as of January 2021, there were over 360,000 British expats in Spain – which is about 0.8% of Spain’s population. Almost a third of British expats in Spain live in Alicante, a beautiful port city on Spain’s southern coast. The majority of these Brits also aren’t doing anything in particular; according to a HSBC Expat Explorer Survey in 2018, 55% of British expats in Spain are retired, and only 17% are in full time work. Brexit may make Spain a slightly trickier option for Brits in the future – we will have to wait and see.
5. It has good healthcare
Spain has its equivalent of the NHS (called the Sistema Nacional de Salud, or SNS), which was founded in 1986. It’s run by the government, funded by tax, and is available to all Spanish citizens, along with any EU citizens in Spain. In The Lancet’s ranking of all healthcare systems worldwide in 2018, Spain placed 19th out of 195 countries – not too shabby. If you’re an expat who is living and working in Spain, you’ll be able to access the SNS – otherwise, you’ll need to get sorted with private medical insurance. Brits used to be able to access the SNS with their EHIC card, but Brexit has made the situation a bit more complicated.
6. You'll need to learn Spanish
Thinking of moving to Spain without knowing any Spanish? No seas estúpido! That means ‘don’t be stupid’. We’re being facetious, of course – lots of expats don’t start learning Spanish until they’re over there, and some of them probably just give up eventually. It will definitely help, though – almost 60% of Spaniards can’t speak English, according to a poll by the CIS State Research Institute in 2017. If you move to a busy Spanish city, you’re more likely to encounter English speakers, but head to the countryside and you’ll be smiling and waving and pointing until you’re sore. You’ll be pleased to know that Spanish is an easy language for native English speakers to learn, as Spanish and English both share Latin roots.
7. There are lots of languages
Spain is in fact teeming with lots of languages. The ‘Spanish’ we talked about in the previous section is more specifically known as ‘Castilian’. If a northerner and a southerner start speaking to each other in Spain, it’s not just a difference of accent that might pose a problem. There are 16 different languages spoken in Spain (including the Canary and Balearic Islands), including Catalan (4.6 million speakers), Galician (2.6 million speakers), Valencian (2 million speakers), and Basque (900,000 speakers). There are also some pretty niche languages too, such as Fala Galaico-Extremeña, which is spoken by 6,000 people in the valley of Jálama, near the Portuguese border in central western Spain. Just don’t call these languages ‘dialects’ – that can be very offensive, and is a bit like saying ‘your little unofficial language’.
8. Catalonia wants independence
Catalonia is a northeastern region of Spain (containing 7.5 million people), and it really, really wants to be independent. The majority of people in Catalonia consider themselves Catalan as opposed to Spanish, and the Catalan flag is hard to miss wherever you go (especially in Barcelona). Catalonia had a referendum in 2017 that ended with violent clashes between voters and Spanish police, who deemed the referendum illegal. The vote was apparently a huge 90% ‘yes’ to separate from Spain, but before Catalonia could cut free, the Spanish government got involved and stopped it from happening. Nine people are now facing charges of rebellion, and might go to prison for 25 years. Back to the drawing board, Catalonia.
Basílica de la Sagrada Familia towering over Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia
9. It's pretty affordable
As Western European countries go, Spain is on the cheaper side. According to Numbeo, prices in Spain are on average 18.74% lower than in the United Kingdom, with rent being 28.17% lower. It’s no surprise so many Brits head over there to spend their pension. In the OECD Better Life Index 2020, which examines quality of life in 40 countries, Spain came middle of the pack, ranking above average for things like work-life balance and health status. However, Spain’s average household net-adjusted income per capita is $23,999 per year, noticeably lower than the OECD average of $33,604 per year.
10. Spain is built on Catholicism
Spain is one of Europe’s catholic heavyweights, and it’s been immersed in the faith ever since Queen Isabella I of Castile married King Ferdinand II of Aragon in 1469. These two lovebirds were known as the Catholic Monarchs, and their marriage marked the unification of Spain. Was there Catholicism in Spain before this marriage? Yes, but there was also 750 years of Islamic rule by the Moors (more on that later), so Catholicism wasn’t exactly thriving before. Izzy and Ferdy also set up the infamous Spanish Inquisition, which took a brutal, no-nonsense approach to any non-Catholics. According to Statista, 61% of people in Spain identified as Catholic in 2020 – although back in 2013 it was a whopping 73%, suggesting the faith has taken a bit of a hit in the past seven years.
11. There are loads of holidays
Everyone has the right to time off, and Spain absolutely recognises this. The country is obsessed with national holidays and time off work, all in the name of letting loose. Well, most of the holidays are actually in the name of Catholicism, but people of all creeds benefit from the time off. There are lots of national holidays in Spain that the UK doesn’t observe, including: Epiphany (6th January), Assumption Day (15th August), All Saints’ Day (1st November), and Immaculate Conception Day (8th December). There are also national holidays for other reasons, such as Labour Day (1st May), Hispanic Day (12th October), and Constitution Day (6th December). On top of all of this, you’ve also got regional holidays; most places in Spain have a patron saint, so they’ll all have time off on that saint’s special day. If you’re new to Spain, try to keep an eye on the holiday calendar – you don’t want to walk all the way to a closed bank, or miss out on any of the festivities.
12. The Moors left their stamp on Spain
Many people (not you, obviously) don’t realise that Spain was an Islamic country for a long time before it went fully Catholic. In 711 AD, a bunch of people from North Africa (known as the Moors) just marched right into olde-worlde Spain. After a few clashes with some locals called the Visigoths, the Moors took the Iberian Peninsula for themselves, and named it al-Andalus (hence why we have the southern region of Andalucia today). In the 750 or so years until the Catholics got their act together, the Moors left a mark on Spain that would remain forever. The ‘traditional’ Spanish menu of today would be a lot less exciting without Moorish contribution – first and foremost, a Mediterranean paella wouldn’t have any rice in it. The Moors gave Spain rice, sugar, distilled alcohol, almonds, and even the concept of frying stuff in oil. They also introduced advanced irrigation to Spanish agriculture, which meant olive trees could properly flourish. You can still find mosques and arabesque spires in Spain today, particularly in Granada and Cordoba.
13. Spain has a king
A lot like the UK, Spain has a monarch at the helm. And a lot like the UK, it doesn’t really mean anything – the Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez Pérez-Castejón, is the one actually in charge. King Felipe VI obviously has a tiring diplomatic job, but he doesn’t wield much power. Spain’s monarchy in fact had a rather lengthy break in the 20th century, starting with King Alfonso XIII’s deposition in 1931, and ending with the death of the dictator General Franco in 1975, when King Juan Carlos I took the throne. Things were hunky dory for 40 years, until Juan Carlos got caught up in a string of scandals, and swiftly abdicated. When your country is in financial crisis, one of the last things you do is go on an expensive elephant-hunting trip.
14. It produces a lot of red wine
Spain is famous for churning out red wine. It loves the stuff. According to Statista, Spain was the third largest exporter of wine in 2019, producing 33.5 million hectolitres, with Italy and France in 1st and 2nd place. Spain is broken down into different wine-producing regions, known as denominaciones de origin (DOC), and there are 138 in total. The most famous DOC is La Rioja, located in the very north of Spain, but you’ve probably also heard of Ribera del Duero, Cava, Jumilla, and Sherry.
One of the many stunning vineyards in La Rioja, northern Spain
15. They're crazy for jamón
Jamón is a special kind of dry-cured ham, and the Spanish are obsessed with it. For centuries, the Spanish have never ever bothered to cook the ham – they just cover it in sea salt, leave it to hang for 12-18 months, and it’s ready to eat. You’ll find jamón all over Spain, especially Iberico ham, which is made from the Iberian pig, an animal native to Spain. Christopher Columbus even had a few Iberian pigs brought on the Santa Maria when he set sail for America. When it comes to jamón exports, Spain takes the bronze medal again; according to Tridge, Spain is the world’s third largest exporter of ham, producing $413 million worth in 2019 (the US and Denmark placed 1st and 2nd, respectively).
16. Bullfighting is still a thing
Unfortunately, the barbaric ‘sport’ of bullfighting (la corrida) is still something that Spain persists with. As PETA quite fiercely puts it, ‘torture is not culture’. While some may argue that it is culture, perhaps it is culture that should have been left behind a few centuries ago. Traditionally, a bull is tortured before the ‘fight’ in order to make it aggressive and scared, and then at the end of the ‘fight’ the matador plunges a sword between the bull’s shoulders. Some bulls of exceptional skill are pardoned and allowed to live in peace, but this is hardly a reason to carry on with the practice. As Forbes reported in 2019, annual attendance at Spanish bullfights is declining every year, with the number of events held in 2018 falling to a record low of 1,521. Mallorca tried to ban bullfights on its island in 2017, but the Spanish Constitutional Court stepped in and said this ban was unconstitutional. Not good.
17. Football is basically a religion
On the other hand, Spanish interest in the sport of futbol certainly isn’t waning, and football thankfully doesn’t involve ritual slaughter at the end of each game. Put simply, the Spanish are really good at football, and they dominated the world stage a few years ago. The Spanish national team won the European championship in 2008, the World Cup in 2010, and then another European championship in 2012. Meanwhile, Real Madrid and Barcelona are considered two of the best football clubs in the world, with Real Madrid having won more European Cups than any other team. You might want to learn a few phrases to shout at the television when you’re watching football in Spain, such as meter un gol (‘score a goal’) and falta (‘foul’).
18. It's not always sunny in Spain
If you’re moving to Spain for hot summers and mild winters, you need to make sure you’re heading to the right part of the country. Spain actually hosts a wild variety of weather, it being Europe’s fourth largest country and all (behind Russia, Ukraine and France). For example, if you go for a holiday in Bilbao (a city on Spain’s Atlantic coast), expect to see rain for 50% of the year, and some pretty cool summers. Of course, in the Pyrenees mountains (e.g. in the northern parts of Navarre and Aragon), the weather gets even colder. It’s on Spain’s Andalusian plain where temperatures can get scorching hot; Cordoba and Seville are two of the hottest cities in Europe, with summer temperatures often exceeding 45 °C.
19. The Spanish are big on oranges
If the immersion in red wine and cured ham didn’t sound tantalizing enough, Spain also has a huge obsession with oranges. The country produces a variety of oranges, from the bitter Seville orange to sweet clementines and blood oranges. If you go for a walk past the orange groves along Costa del Azahar in summer, the sweet scent of orange blossom mingles with the sea air, producing a heady cocktail of citrussy saline breezes. It’s hedonistic stuff. According to WordsTopExports, in 2019 Spain exported more oranges than any other country, sending out $1.3 billion worth.
20. Siestas are a bit of a myth
Planning on living in Spain and having afternoon naps? Telling everyone you’re off for a siesta ‘just like all the locals do’? Feel free to sleep in the afternoon, but you can stop assuming you’re partaking in some popular pastime. According to a survey conducted by SimpleLogica in 2017, nearly 60% of people in Spain never have a siesta. This was something rural field workers would have to do in the days of yore, when the afternoon heat became unbearable. However, in the Spanish towns and cities of today, a bit of air-con deals with the heat, so people just crack on with their days. In fact, an OECD study from 2019 found that the average Spaniard works 1,687 hours per year – more than people in Germany, France, and the UK.
21. The land is full of natural wonders
Spain is a lot more than beautiful beaches and vibrant cities. There’s a load of space in between that’s filled with some very dramatic landscape, and you should definitely make time for it if you’re heading over there. There’s Somiedo Natural Park in northern Spain, nicknamed ‘the Spanish Yellowstone’ and home to a load of Cantabrian brown bears. There’s Cabo de Gata-Nijar Natural Park, an isolated volcanic wilderness with some ancient geological features, located in Andalusia. There’s the rugged mountain range of the Sierra del Cabo de Gata, with its sharp peaks and cliffs falling steeply into the Mediterranean Sea. We could go on, but we’ll leave the rest as a surprise.