Carlie: Hey there. It’s Carlie with another episode of the Expat Focus podcast.
Cat Gaa was pretty good at Spanish when she was at school in the USA. She first went to Spain to study abroad, and soon found her way back there, this time teaching English. Cat worked out how to stay on in Spain. She started a blog at Sunshine and Siestas, and that blog turned into a side hustle with a fellow expat.
Their business, Como Consulting Spain, helps fellow non-Europeans navigate the red tape around moving to the country and staying there long-term. So, how can you move to Spain and become a long-term resident as a non-European? And what else is important to know about life and culture in the different regions of Spain? Keep listening to find out.
Cat, how did you end up helping fellow expats?
Cat: My colleague and I, we met because of our blogs. She had a blog, I had a blog, and she said, “Listen, I’m going to be in Seville. I feel like we’re like-minded. We have to figure out how to stay here.” And it was nine years ago, more or less. So, we’d been here both for two years, we were in a language assistance program. At that time, you were able to stay three years. So, we were thinking ahead – how is it going to be possible for us to not just stay here in Spain but find jobs, thrive, start to make strides towards long-term residency?
And at that point in time, there were three or four options. One was to get married. We both had Spanish boyfriends but weren’t quite at that stage. I have since married my Spanish, but she ended up not doing it. She’s actually a Spanish citizen now, because of residency. And you can also do a freelance visa. Both Hayley and I were journalists, so we thought that maybe that would be an avenue. We didn’t have the right contacts, we didn’t have the right sort of contract either. The other thing you could do was kind of rat out an employer. But I was employed by the Spanish government, 100% legally, so that was out of the question.
And finally, there is something ‘arraigo social’, which is when you have lived in Spain for three years on a student visa, three consecutive years, and you have a one-year work contract being offered to you. The problem there currently is that most teaching contracts, the first few years, are only nine to ten months, and because that was, back in 2010, really the only thing that you could do for work in Seville, that was out of the question as well.
Como Consulting was born out of that necessity – having established ourselves as experts in the field, we started to get more and more emails individually, and we put our heads together. We were actually having a beer in Dubrovnik – we were travelling together, and we said, There has to be a way to make something like this work. We’re not the only people who want to make Spain a long-term thing, so we mostly focus on visas and residency issues for non-Europeans. When people ask us about European matters, we have some idea. We can kind of point them in the right direction. But we mostly focus on North Americans, and we also work with a lot of people from the Philippines.
Carlie: Is it realistic for the average non-European to stay in Spain and make it their long-term home without needing to find a local to marry or be sponsored by a company?
Cat: Yes. It’s actually quite difficult to have a company sponsor you, simply because it’s a process that takes a long time. You usually have to apply from your home country. There are a number of paths to residency that do not involve either that sponsorship or getting married or doing a civil union, like I did back in 2010. One of those ways is to come over on a student visa, if you’re a non-EU. After two or three years, you can either become a freelancer or you can find a contract and do a modification. If you were to come as a refugee or someone seeking political asylum, those are two other ways.
I would say that most people who are from outside of the EU do bide their time – they’re here on a student visa, either teaching or going to school, and then they look for a way to do the student visa modification or arraigo social. There are two big differences, one of which is that for arraigo social, you cannot have a legal residency card. Your residency card should have lapsed. So, most people tend to start the process before that has happened, and they’ll do the modification. With the modification, you can either have a company offer you a contract or you can come up with a business plan and be freelance.
A lot of people are taking this route, because this is something only popped up in the last three or four years, I’d say, but it’s something that a lot of people are doing. So, there are a lot of good resources out there about how to do it, and the government is familiar. It’s also a way that I think is bringing in new talent. There was some sort of [04:45] floating around a few years ago, that after the financial crisis, something like … I want to say it was 28,000 businesses were created in a five-year span, because people said, “I can’t get hired anywhere, I’ve got the skills, I need to make money,” so they would start their own thing.
Carlie: What would you say the number one issue is that non-Europeans come up against when it comes to moving to Spain and being able to stay longer term?
Cat: I’m an American, and I feel that Americans [legally] have a superiority complex, that they don’t understand that they need visas. So, they come over without doing any research – and again, this isn’t true of everyone, but sometimes a lot of the older couples who we work with say “But I’m an American. I can travel for free. No visas, no anything in Europe.”
That’s not the case. Schengen laws are getting stricter. As you’re all probably aware, Spain is kind of at the epicenters of the migrant crisis. So, I’m finding, more and more often, with not only clients, but also in the work that I do at a university, that visa laws are getting more stringent. People who overstay their visas are often … even if it’s a tourist visa or they’re in the Schengen zone for more than 90 days in a period of 180, they’re banned for a few years, they can have a fine up against them. I have a friend who, just recently, after 10 years, after being deported, came back to Europe and went to Switzerland, which is where she was caught.
And I think there’s a lot of misinformation as well, that … Spanish law is not complicated, in some ways, but the civil servants who you tend to come up against don’t always have all the correct information. Laws change very frequently in Spain, and often over the summer. So, with regards to asking someone who works for the Office of Foreigners or the Foreign Ministry, or even in the consuls around the world, they’re often not abreast of all the new changes, and they don’t communicate those changes to you, because they simply don’t know them. We’ve had clients who said, “Well, you said one thing, and then we checked the website again, and it’s …” something has changed, and the two weeks you’ve been working with that particular client, going over visa documents …
I can say that, for example, in the United States, if you were to get a student visa – because I do work with a number of people coming in on student visas as well, in my capacity working for the university – we had some people who were able to use the health insurance documents that we provide without any problems, whereas others were not. So, sometimes … we joke that it usually depends on whether or not a civil servant has had their coffee. But you oftentimes run up against issues that … you’ve worked really hard to get everything in order, and then the person just isn’t informed.
The same goes for blogs. We try and keep Como Consulting … and Sunshine and Siesta is my personal blog as well … trying to keep those pages up-to-date. But it’s a process that is never-ending. Usually, if you see some sort of blog post that was written four or five years ago, you can use it definitely as a springboard, but it’s not going to be perhaps the most factual information you can find about a particular residency visa or a way to get your residency issues resolved.
Carlie: What is the most reliable source of information when it comes to the process you should go through to secure your life in Spain?
Cat: That is an excellent question. I would say either an immigration lawyer … I’ve personally never worked with one, I’ve been able to do everything on my own with the help of my husband, my Spanish-speaking skills, and a lot of persistence. But I think that the best source of information is always the government. Spain publishes something called the BOE, which is the Boletín del Estado or Boletín Oficial del Estado, and it’s an almost yearly chronicle of any new laws that being passed. So, it’s kind of like watching C-SPAN in the US. That’s going to be the most reliable. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of legalese. Even when I write complaint letters to companies, my husband has to double-check them, and he says, “Okay, you’ve got the basics there, but I’ve got to make it a little bit more superfluous,” and that tends to be Spanish law.
The government websites, for example, the [Gobierno de Exteriores], which is the foreign ministry, has the most up-to-date information. And if you don’t speak any Spanish, you can usually plug it into a translator and get the answers you need.
Carlie: Once you are legally in the country, what are the next challenges that you find expats come up against the most?
Cat: I think that the process of getting set up in Spain can be a little bit daunting. When I came to Spain 11 years ago, it was in 2007, and I moved to Seville. Seville is the capital of the south, it’s a large city, it’s the fourth-largest in Spain, but it’s kind of behind the times as far as tourism infrastructure, health for expats … there weren’t a lot of long-term expats at that time.
Things have changed considerably in a decade, where it’s now a lot easier to meet other people, either through Meet-up, through the American Women’s Club. People can help you get set up by … it’s often a matter of saying, “But how do I get a bank account? How do I get connected and get a mobile phone, a land line? What do I do now for my residency card?” Because it’s one thing to have a visa, but a long-term visa for non-European citizens usually expires after either 30 days or 90 days. So, that means you’ve also got to get set up with a residency card.
Another thing to know about Spain that I think is increasingly important is that after Spain came out of the dictatorship and transitioned into a democracy in the later ’70s and early ’80s, autonomous communities were established. So, for example, if you go to Barcelona, you’re in the autonomous community of Catalonia. If you go to the Balearic Islands, you go to Majorca or Minorca, then you’re in the Islas Baleares. In Seville, where I’m talking from right now, we’re in Andalusia.
So, each of these autonomous regions has a high degree of autonomy. They’re not exactly self-governing, but the laws can be interpreted differently between each one. There are 17, so you can imagine that if I’m advising somebody from Madrid, I’ve got somewhat of an idea, because I’ve done a lot of bureaucratic matters there. But if someone were to say, “Well, what’s the deal in the Canary Islands?” I might not know as well, and I’ve got to do some reading.
So, with respect to getting set up with the residency card, people sometimes find that the requirements for that residency card are different depending on where you are. The same goes for if you want to pareja de hecho, which is a civil union – marriage, no, but I, for example, got married in the US. I registered my marriage certificate with the consulate in Chicago, where I’m from. And once I came back, I couldn’t go to the civil registry here, to also register – I had to go to Madrid, simply because I got married outside of Spain.
So, just like any countries like Greece or Portugal that have suffered with a financial meltdown, in Spain, there are a surplus of civil servants, and because of that, laws are different between each region.
But I would say that the steps to take, when you first get to Spain and you’ve found a place to live, is to register with your local government, that’s called an empadronamiento, it’s a really long word but it’s very easy to do. You just have to take in your rental contract or a bill that’s in your name at the specific address where you live. You take that in with your passport or your residency card, if you have one, and that gets given to you on the same day. You should also set up your residency card, that’s called [Tarjeta de Identidad de Entranjera]. If you are from the EU, you’re usually just given a slip of paper in some regions. And if you’re non-EU, you will get a plastic card. And then, from there, that’s when you can start considering getting connected, with your internet, your phone, getting a bank, that sort of thing.
Carlie: What do you think is one of the biggest surprises to expats?
Cat: Spain is a fairly large country. I often have friends saying, “Hey, I’m going to be in Barcelona. Do you think you could pop over for the day?” I have a full-time job, I have a family, [chuckles] and Barcelona is a two-and-a-half-hour train ride from Madrid. Because of that, Spain has a lot of different climates. People assume that Spain is sunny, and the beach, and [boat gliding], and flamenco, and it’s actually an interesting country, in the sense that because of these autonomous communities, there’s been a retention of language, of customs. If you know the wide, sweeping history of Spain, you know that there’s been a lot of different cultural influences, from the conquerors and the reconquests, and the Catholic kings versus the Moors versus the Visigoths.
And even just in Seville, where I lived for nine years, it’s really apparent in the architecture, in the language, in the way that people act. And people often say, “I’d really like to go to northern Spain, to go to the beaches there.” I say, “Well, you better go in July or in August, because it can get quite cold.”
So, people are often surprised at how different Spain is from the Spain that they think of, have seen in movies or on TV. People are also surprised that not a lot of people speak English. I do think that’s changing. There have been a lot of government initiatives to provide people with training in English, especially because tourism has become such a large chunk of Spain’s GDP. With respect to people not speaking English, it goes back to the dictatorship, because 45 years ago, just about when Franco died, most people were learning French. People did not learn English. Nowadays, you would find young people … whenever my mom comes here, she doesn’t speak Spanish, but she can get out on her own, she can ask for directions. But she knows to go right to a young person or somebody in a suit, because those tend to be the people who have had that English language training.
There are also a number of regional languages, there are different sorts of accents and dialects that can kind of throw people off as well. I think the thing to remember about Spain is that people will tend to be friendly, people tend to be willing to help you out. There are also more and more groups being started – for example, Costa Women is really popular in the south, around Malaga, the Costa del Sol, the Costa Tropical, they’re very active there. Here in Seville we have the American Women’s Club. There’s also an American Club in Madrid that’s very active. And [eventually, I guess] there’s one in Barcelona as well. So, if you are looking for other people who speak English, even just to make a few friends, it’s quite easy to do.
One thing that shocked me about Spain – I was thinking that they would be friendly and open to making new friends – is that, unlike in the US, Spaniards tend to go to school with the same group of people their entire lives. So, they start an infant … or in kindergarten, and all the way through secondary school and sometimes even into university, they have the same group of friends.
I, for example, went to five or six different schools, because we moved quite a bit when I was a child. And I went to university with a few of my friends, simply because that was the university that we chose. I also went to school away from my family, so I had to make friends. I found that the number of Spanish girlfriends I have in Seville I can count on one hand. And I think that’s a testament to just how closely knit their social circles are. Family is a big deal of course, so you might say to a friend, “It’s a great day, it’s a Sunday, let’s go for a beer.” And they’ve got a family obligation. “No, every Sunday we have paella,” or “Every Sunday we go to the countryside.”
So, it can be kind of hard to break into their social circles, but not impossible. And I think there are more and more people interested in foreign exchange, learning about people from other cultures, as opposed to ten years ago, when I moved here.
Carlie: I know that one of the big things in the Expat Focus Podcast interviews that I have done, one of the pieces of advice that comes up time and time again, is to not live in an island of English in your new country, and to make efforts to connect with locals. What’s the best strategy to do that somewhere like Spain, where, as you said, people have such close-knit connections for so much of their lives?
Cate: Definitely, that’s a great question, and I get asked very often about how to make friends abroad. When I came here, because there were no Facebook groups, and I was grasping for straws, and I would never turn down an invitation to do anything, no matter who it was with. If you’re a young person, I would definitely see if there’s an Erasmus community. Erasmus is an exchange program for Europeans, and my friends who lived in smaller cities in Seville that had a large Erasmus community had friends from all over the world, and those people in turn would introduce them to others.
I work for an American university, so the language that is used for instruction, for clubs, is English. And when we have English natives who come and they’re interested in the Spanish culture, they always get encouraged to do something outside of the university, whether it’s taking lessons somewhere … there are people who might want to be in a band, or they want to do some sort of sport. One girl plays viola, for example, with a Spanish quartet. She says, “It was a big challenge for me, because I could read the music, I could read the notes on the page, but I couldn’t communicate with the other people in the quartet – at first. I’ve since learned a lot more of the language, I have friends.” And of course, in Madrid, people tend to be a bit more open-minded than in smaller communities, but she also plays doubles tennis with a Spanish partner. I always use her as an example, because I think that that was the right way to go about it.
Spaniards are very social people, at least in the south, and I think the weather kind of lends to that. What I did at first was I would go and sit down and have a coffee at … I call it an old-man bar, because it was only frequented by old men. They’re like, “Oh, here’s a young girl, I’ll speak to her.” And I used that to kind of build up my confidence and my language skills. It did help me to meet my husband. He introduced me to a lot of his friends, and I would say that the majority of my Spanish girlfriends I met through him.
I wouldn’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone, ask someone to have a coffee. I think that we [guiris] – [guiris] are kind of a blanket term for Northern Europeans and North Americans – we tend to stick together and want to help one another to make connections, whether that’s in the English-speaking world, the Spanish-speaking world, or otherwise. And I think that my best piece of advice is to use your networks as well as you can, even if it’s starting small or starting with an English-speaking enclave, and branching out from there.
Carlie: Cat, when we first got on the call today, you mentioned that you have church bells ringing every 15 minutes where you live.
Cat: I do. [laughs]
Carlie: What other stark differences are there between life in Spain and life as you might know it in your home country?
Cat: I lived in Seville for nine years, and I’ve been in Madrid for the last two, for work reasons. Even though we might think that European culture is more closely related to Anglo culture, there were a lot of things about living in a smaller, traditional Spanish city that really struck me as different and difficult. The only person I know who takes a siesta everyday is my son, but he’s just under two. So, this siesta culture that you might think … doesn’t exist. People will go home mid-day, because they have a long break, but a lot of that has to do with the heat. But that’s difficult, when you say “Okay, well, it’s four o’clock in the afternoon. I’d really like to run out and get some ibuprofen,” but there aren’t any supermarkets or pharmacies that are open. Or, on Sundays, for example … my mom’s visiting right now. On Sunday, she said, “Oh, I’d really like to run to the supermarket and get this, that, or the other thing,” and I said, “There aren’t any supermarkets open.”
This of course isn’t the case if you live in a larger city. It’s changing a bit with the uptick in tourism as well. Seville is a lot different than some of these bigger, tourist-focused cities, because it does retain a lot of that traditional … I don’t want to say vibe or culture, but for example, people respect the religious traditions, even though they’re not religious. That’s a big thing here, and you have to just watch the parade go by and say, “Okay, well, I can’t get across the street, so I might as well just pop into this bar and have a beer.”
People are strange when it comes to their schedules, that you can’t have a coffee after eight o’clock at night, unless you’re at a wedding. Speaking of weddings, I was just at one this weekend. It was a night wedding, so I had to wear a long dress, and I couldn’t wear a fascinator. There are these quirky things that have kind of converted into the way that I interpret the Spain world around me, and then I go back to America, and I’m shocked that I can get everything in a supermarket or that the supermarket is open all night long …
Carlie: You have some reverse culture shock. [chuckles]
Cat: Completely, completely. I’m kind of a fish out of water. And because I’ve had a kid in the last two years, I’m going back and forth a little bit more often. But those years when I hadn’t been home in two or three years, and then, like, “How many condiments can I choose from? How many beers are on tap?” And sometimes it’s mind-blowing, and people laugh at me as the affable foreigner, and they think, “You’re really funny. This can’t be the way you really are.” But you know, you’ve lived in this culture, and of course I have a Spanish husband, he and I speak to each other in Spanish, we follow Spanish customs, we eat Spanish food at home. I feel like “This is my life, I just happen to do it in Spanish.”
I could say it until I was blue in the face, that open-mindedness, the willingness to be flexible is really important when you’re moving abroad, no matter where. And understanding that Spain really is different. In some ways, it’s behind the times; in some ways, it’s a very innovative country, doing a lot of great things with tourism, with infrastructure, with the high-speed trains … with organ donation, for example. But people can’t get past this idea, this notion of Spain, and that’s it’s anything more than a bunch of beaches, some cheap pints, and everything else that I have back in my home country.
I’ve been guilty of it, I think it’s really easy, especially on those days where things are very “Spainful” and it’s hard to get things done, or you’re going on a wild goose chase to get some bureaucratic matter done, it’s really easy to say …
Carlie: You end up in tears. [laughs]
Cat: Oh! It happens. Yeah, it happens to everyone. The same thing happened to me when I moved to Madrid. I’m like, “But it was so much easier in Andalusia!” And Andalusia has this reputation that people are really old-school and they’re behind the times and nothing’s online, and I found that in Madrid, processes were dragged out way longer than they had to be, or they would house everything in one particular office, and then no one could get anything done, because they were just so inundated with work and with paperwork and …
Those days where I just say, “I’m going to take a deep breath, I’m going to walk around the block, the weather’s nice…” I walk everywhere. Or I’ll have a beer or a coffee or a piece of cake. And I feel better. [laughs]
Carlie: That’s it for this episode of the Expat Focus Podcast. If you have questions for Cat about moving to Spain or want to share your own experiences, head over to expatfocus.com, follow the links to our forums and Facebook groups. You’ll find more episodes on lots of different aspects of expat life on our website, or through your favorite podcasting app. And I’ll catch you next time.