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The Nine Biggest Mistakes Expats Make in Spain


Being a tourist or a backpacker makes you pretty visible. When you go to a Spanish town famous for its art or its architecture and stand about taking photos and soaking it all up, you stand out from the crowd of locals going about their business. After all, at home you don’t go around looking at the local landmarks or craning your neck to see the statues in your town. It’s familiar. You might appreciate it; you don’t usually photograph it.

When you’re a tourist, that’s OK. It’s expected. Many of the locals you see around you will have been tourists themselves in other places, after all. But when you switch from being a visitor to being a resident, you need to change some of your habits. It’s like when you’re at someone’s house: if you’re a guest it’s different from when you move in.

Not managing that switch quickly or well enough can stand in the way of becoming at home in your new home, and if your goal is acceptance, you need all the help you can get. Avoid these nine howlers and you’ll be well on your way to being un espanol verdadero!

1: Learn to Time Your Meals

In Spain, there are three main meals. Breakfast is taken tiny and early. If you’re used to a full English, you’ll have to cook your own – and tolerate your neighbours’ looks of mystification at your foreigner’s ways. You’ll typically find a Spanish breakfast being taken at between 7 and 10 AM, though some places have a ritual where they eat a small breakfast very early and a second slightly larger one about 10 or 11 AM.

That’s a good idea if you can manage it, because lunch – la comida – isn’t going to be served until mid-afternoon. It’s not uncommon to eat lunch at 4 in the afternoon. The upside is that when it is on the table, it’s huge; lunch is the Spanish meal, the way dinner is the meal in many other countries. All business grinds to a halt and a huge, sometimes multicourse repast consumes the nation. If you’re not used to it, you can expect to feel very sleep afterwards. The final meal of the day can be served anywhere from 9PM to midnight, and usually consists of light meats and snack type foods: omelettes, fish, and so on. If you show up at a restaurant at 7PM, you’ll find shut doors, if you’re unlucky – or funny looks and leftover lunch if you’re lucky. Learning to eat Spanish is about adapting yourself to a national rhythm just as much as it is about learning to tell the difference between salchichon and chorizo!

2: Courtesy is a Minefield

In English there is one word for another person – you. In Spanish there are two: Tu and Usted. Tu is for friends, family, close acquaintances, and equals. Usted is for showing both social distance – someone you don’t know very well – and respect.

Sounds simple.

But if you call the wrong person ‘Usted,’ you’re showing distance where they might not perceive any. Call an esteemed work colleague ‘usted’ and you might be making an insult of a courtesy, by denying membership of your professional fraternity. Looking quizzical and copying what everyone else does will get you through most of it, but this is really one of those things that only attentive familiarity can teach.

3: Watch Your Dress Sense

This is one of those ‘guest/resident’ things. We’re all so used to seeing coastal resorts swarming with other scantily-clad holidaymakers that we don’t necessarily think twice about it, but the reality is that many Spanish people consider that kind of dress socially unacceptable. Some family groups are even pressing for stricter beach dress codes. The general rule: the more rural the area, the more conservatively you should dress, but if you take your level from the Spanish people around you rather than the tourists you’ll be making the right choice.

4: Smoking in Public

Spain used to be a very smoky country. Since 2011, though, all that’s changed and it’s gone in the opposite direction. The list of places you can’t smoke in Spain includes bars and restaurants – in fact, any enclosed public space, which isn’t unusual in Europe. But it also includes smoking near hospitals and schools, as well as appearing on TV smoking (in case you were planning on doing that!). Walking down the street smoking could get you into social trouble even if it doesn’t get you in trouble with the law, so look for a bit of open space before you light up.

5: The Price is not the Price

Spain is a haggling culture. If you’re from Germany, or Britain, or America, that’s a bit of a shock. That’s because in those countries, the price is the price. Trying to haggle the price down is insulting, and most people won’t budge much on their initial offer. In Spain, though, things are very different. There’s a two-tier system. In shops, don’t haggle. In markets, bazaars, or with street traders, haggling is half the fun – and essential to being a proper Spaniard. So learn how! That means getting a feel for when you’re haggling and when you’re being rude, a subtle distinction that has t be learned by experience.

6: Get Used to Spanish Driving

Spanish driving is a competitive sport that keeps threatening to become a contact sport, or seems to. Newcomers are best advised to stay out of the fast lane unless you want to be the subject of the ire of another driver. There are a few dirving laws that are becoming more common worldwide but still might not be in force in your home country, including the requirement to restrain all pets, mandatory seatbelts and even a ban on listening to in-ear music, allowing Spanish drivers to concentrate all their energy on the accelerator!

7: Tipping Point

Tipping isn’t particularly common in Spain. It’s not like America where tipping is totally mandatory. But it is a tipping culture, so you need to be aware of when you’re supposed to tip and when you’re not. If you’re new in town, err on the side of generosity; it’s expected of all English speakers because Americans tip.  Watch out though: your American tipping habits might get you into trouble too. In America, it all adds up, so small tips are OK. In Spain, it doesn’t work that way, and tiny tips won’t cut it. Go for 10% at least!

8: Sort Your Finances Out

Sorting your finances out is boring, and you’re not moving to another country because you want to do more boring chores. But getting your paperwork in order is what will allow you to become a real citizen of your chosen country. If you’re not an EU citizen you need to get your visa in order. Your application will need to be backed up by a sponsorship letter from your employer.

You should consider taxes too. Spain offers expats a special flat tax rate of 24%, but you need to apply for it within six months of arrival. If you’ve just moved to a whole new country, you’re going to be pretty busy, but find time for this, and it will save you serious time and money.

9: Take a Break from Shopping!

Outside of major cities it’s pretty normal for Spanish shops to close all afternoon – form about 2PM to about 5PM. The shopkeeper is eating their main meal of the day, and might be arranging for a siesta too. That’s normal; knocking on the window for service isn’t. It’s considered incredibly rude. In a tourist, it might be forgiven because of ignorance, but from a Spaniard, or someone who’s trying to become one, it’s a mistake.

Figuring out how to get along with your new neighbours in your adopted country is a big part of getting the move right. Use these tips to help you get it down!