Occupying the majority of the Iberian Peninsula and sharing land borders only with France, Andorra, Gibraltar and Portugal, Spain is one of only three countries to have both Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines. The country also has numerous island territories including the Balearic Islands of the Mediterranean, the Canary Islands located off the south west Moroccan coast, and several exclaves in North Africa. After spending much of the twentieth century as a dictatorship, democracy was restored along with the monarchy in 1975 and Spain has since developed into a tourist haven.
Spain’s ancient history has seen many cultures pass through and there are definite Roman, Moorish and Catholic influences present today. Modern Spaniards have a reputation for being relaxed and welcoming, and quality of life is an important commodity within the country. The population is predominantly made up of ethnic Spaniards, but regional identities are strong and several areas continue to seek autonomous rule.
From tiny villages to sprawling cities, Spain is known for its vibrant party spirit. A number of fiestas are celebrated around the year, bringing people together for fireworks, parade and other celebrations. Family is at the heart of Spanish society and it is not unusual for several generations to get together regularly for meals. Football is the country’s biggest spectator sport, but cycling, basketball and golf are also popular and the more controversial tradition of bullfighting continues to draw crowds. Extensive coast and northern mountain ranges mean Spain is also home to watersports and winter sports. There are also hundreds of arts and cultural destinations all around Spain.
Food and drink
Spanish cuisine has much in common with other Mediterranean nations, but regional influences are distinct and the way even simple dishes are prepared varies hugely across the country. Tapas-style meals are the traditional way to enjoy Spanish food, and great for tourists wishing to sample the many meats and cheeses of the country. Seafood is important to the Spanish, and seafood paellas are popular sharing dishes. Garlic is also prevalent in Spanish cooking. Typically Spaniards eat late, often arriving at restaurants for 11pm or later. Morning and evening coffee is a ritual, although it is typically rather strong! Spain also produces a large selection of wines, beers and sherries.
The official language of Spain is Spanish, which is among the most widely spoken languages in the world. However, Spain is actually extremely multilingual as a nation, and while Spanish (known as Castellano) is intelligible by most Spaniards, there are a number of other languages spoken around the country. Four are co-official languages of their respective regions: Euskara (Basque), Catalan and Aranese (Catalonia) and Galician (Galicia). Three more, Aragonese (Aragon), Asturian (Asturias) and Leonese (Castile and León) are recognised as languages but are not official, while several other minority languages and dialects still exist but are considered endangered.
The famous Spanish sunshine is what brings the tourists in, and Spain certainly enjoys more than its share of sunny spells. The majority of the country enjoys a warm Mediterranean climate with dry summers. Don’t believe anyone who says that Spain has year-round sunshine though – winters can be unsettled and stormy. Northern areas such as the Basque region see greater rainfall, and places like the Pyrenees and Sierra Nevada mountains have their own unique climates.
Safety and security
Spain is usually a safe place to live and work. Although various separatist groups have been active in the country over the last few decades, recent years have seen little violent activity. The country remains on alert due to the ongoing threat from Islamic extremists, but generally speaking this threat has little impact on day-to-day life. Tourists and expats are advised to be wary of petty crime, particularly at airports where it is not uncommon for thieves to attempt to steal passports. Scams such as fake timeshares and lotteries are also not uncommon, but as long as you remain wary the risks are fairly low.
The education system in Spain is known ‘Ley Orgánica de Educación’ (LOE), and students of foreign nationals are welcome at state schools. Schooling is compulsory and free for children aged between 6 and 16, while free preschool is optional from the age of 3. Private fee paying establishments are also available, and these include the international schools popular with expats. Students must complete primary and compulsory secondary education before deciding whether to continue into post-compulsory secondary education from the ages of 16 to 18. To continue post-16 they must achieve their secondary education certificate, and at 18 they can take a university entrance exam.
The school year in Spain is usually divided into three terms of 10 to 12 weeks. These run from September to June with holidays for Christmas, Easter and the summer break. School hours vary depending on the region and the individual institution, with some opening from around 9am to 4pm with a lunch break and some finishing at 2pm without a break. Universities typically run two semesters with an exam period in June.
Spain has just under a hundred higher education institutions, with the majority state-funded and a smaller number operated by private enterprises or religious institutions. Although Spanish universities are perhaps yet to take a place amongst the world’s most famous, there is a long history of academia in Spain and teaching standards are considered good. Demand for university places is proportionally high for the country’s population, but with soaring unemployment in recent years young people are increasingly keen to take higher qualifications to attempt to improve their future employment prospects.
With relatively low tuition fees, Spanish universities are an attractive proposition for students from around Europe. Most EU citizens may attend university in Spain at the same cost as Spanish students and can often access grants and scholarships too. Fees are usually calculated on a cost-per-credit basis, with public university rates set by the government and private institutions setting their own fees. More information is available in the FAQs section of the Universidad.es website.
Universities in Spain offer a range of courses and qualifications in both Spanish and English. Since 2006, Spain has adopted the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) standards and as a result, universities can confer either official degrees or non-official degrees. Official degrees are those which conform to the EHEA standards and are divided into three types:
Bachelor’s degrees or ‘grado’ – undergraduate degrees typically taught in three or four years and requiring 240 credits
Masters degrees or ‘posgrado’ – postgraduate qualifications of one or two years and 60 to 120 credits
Doctoral degrees or ‘doctorado’ – typically lasting three to five years and incorporating extensive research
Non-official degrees are awarded by individual universities and typically support a specific vocation or skill. They are also awarded at different levels and can be powerful tools in the Spanish job market.
When compulsory education is completed at the age of 16, students in Spain have the option to continue their studies with a Spanish Baccalaureate or ‘bachillerato’ qualification. This two-year period of study encompasses a broad range of subjects designed to prepare young people for either university or work.
Primary and secondary education
Children in Spain attend six years of primary school and four year of secondary school with the aim of completing their secondary education certificate. Although some expat families prefer their children to attend private international schools to take qualifications more relevant to their home country, Spanish state schools have a good reputation for welcoming foreign children and helping them to learn Spanish effectively, so they are certainly worth considering.
Preschool and childcare options
Although preschool is not part of compulsory education in Spain, it is provided free for children aged between 3 and 5 years old and is therefore very popular with around 90% of children attending some form of preschool. Private options are also available for any child under the age of 6 and can be quite reasonably priced. However, make sure you understand what level of care the establishment provides as some nurseries are childcare centres only and do not deliver the educational content expected in preschools.
The cost of living in Spain is noticeably cheaper than many other western European countries, but it retains a degree of variation. Property prices have dropped in recent years, but the more desirable tourist and expat areas remain more expensive and this has a knock on effect on the price of goods and services in those areas. Cities and coastal resorts are typically the most expensive places to live, while rural areas represent the best value for money although the provision of goods and services there can be more limited.
Most of the rental accommodation in Spain is apartments, but there is no shortage of living space available and the costs are very reasonable. However, finding the right place to live can be a daunting prospect. Some universities will provide accommodation for new academic staff, but other options include long-term lets of holiday properties owned by expats, as well as local lettings by Spanish landlords. There are typically two types of contract:
Temporada – a short-term deal aimed at the holiday market and lasting just a few weeks
Vivienda – a longer-term agreement which is aimed as residents and is normally cheaper
It can be useful to take a temporada contract for a period when you arrive to enable you to find a more permanent solution. Many people also lodge with families in Spain for short to medium periods. If you are working there in the longer term, it is certainly possible to buy property in Spain. As well as arranging the mortgage, you will need to pay the notary to conduct the transaction and settle the relevant tax bills, so it is worth taking professional advice.
Typical rental deposits in Spain consist of a month’s rent, although you are usually asked for the first month’s rent in advance too. If properties are bigger or extensively furnished, the deposit may be two or three months’ rent. Letting agents usually ask for a month’s rent in fees too. Bear in mind that Spanish law does not offer a great deal of protection for landlords, so it is not uncommon to be asked for various documents such as proof of earnings or a bank guarantee letter.
Local authorities in Spain charge a municipal tax, the ‘Impuesto sobre Bienes Inmuebles’ (IBI) which is the contribution of residents towards local services. It is usually calculated based on the rental value of the property. Different regions also have a range of other local taxes, so check with the landlord or agent to estimate what the rates will be.
If you are renting a property, remember to check whether utilities are included in the rent. Utility bills in Spain are not exceptionally cheap, but work out lower than in many European countries. In most areas you will have a choice of electricity supplier so you can shop around for the best rates, but water supply tends to be administered through local authorities. Mains gas is not that common in Spain, so you will most likely need to purchase gas bottles.
Spain does not require people to buy a television licence as there is no central broadcasting authority. Channels are funded by advertising, and there are over thirty terrestrial channels as well as numerous pay-per-view services on offer.
Healthcare and medical costs
Provided that they are contributing to social security payments, foreign nationals working in Spain can usually access free or low-cost medical care on the same basis as Spaniards, so contact your local social security office to check your eligibility. Healthcare in the country is generally of a good standard, but waiting lists can be long so some expats prefer to take out private medical insurance. Visitors to Spain may claim back healthcare costs using a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), but be aware that this is not intended for long-term residents’ use and may not entitle you to free care.
Spain has a good choice of supermarkets and smaller specialist shops and the cost of grocery shopping is comparatively low. Although larger supermarkets can be cheap, it is usually worth checking local shops, particularly for fresh produce as locally sourced food can be much cheaper. Other items, such as clothing and white goods, can be less cheap than you might expect so again look for local brands to find the better deals.
Value-added tax called Impuesto al Valor Agregado (IVA) is charged on transactions in Spain. There are three levels of payment, but some services are also exempt from the tax. IVA is not applied in the Canary Islands, which hold a special economic status and therefore have their own Impuesto General Indirecto de Canarias (IGIC) tax instead.
Rent on 1-bedroom apartment in city centre – 530.23€ (≈£417.00) per month
Rent on 1-bedroom apartment outside city centre – 401.68€ (≈£315.89) per month
Price of apartment in city centre – 2,774.92€ (≈£2,182.32) per square metre
Price of apartment outside city centre – 1,813.57€ (≈£1,426.27) per square metre
In the late 1990s the Spanish government unveiled a large project to improve road safety and made extensive improvements to the network infrastructure. As a result, Spain has a good national network with the majority of major cities linked by modern motorways. There are two types of motorway in Spain: autopistas, which are usually toll roads; and autovias, which tend to be older roads with steeper gradients and tighter turns. Vehicles are driven on the right-hand side of the road and the maximum speed limit is 120kph (≈73mph).
To drive legally in Spain, you must be at least 18 years old, hold a valid licence and have car insurance and road tax. You also need to carry your vehicle documents and some photo ID at all times, along with two EU-approved warning triangles. Depending on where your licence was issued, you may be allowed to drive in Spain for a defined period, but some foreign nationals will need to exchange their licence for a Spanish one or take a Spanish driving test to qualify. For more information, consult the Dirección General de Tráfico (DGT) website.
Taxis are considered quite reasonably priced in Spain and are a popular way to make short journeys. Services are operated by several companies, but all should have a taxi licence clearly displayed and charge fares based on a meter. Standard rates should also be displayed in the car. Although it is not illegal to hail a taxi, it is usually easier to wait at a designated taxi rank.
Buses and coaches
There are several bus and coach operators running services in Spain and the standards of both are usually very good. Even the public buses are usually air-conditioned and fares on local services are often heavily subsidised. Punctuality is generally considered good, although this is perhaps not so true in smaller towns and rural areas. Information about routes and timetables is available from central town bus stations. Some of the main intercity coach companies include ALSA, Avanzabus, Eurolines and Movelia, and competition between these operators means prices are quite reasonable.
The Spanish railway network is operated by the state-owned company RENFE and offers very cheap fares compared to most of Europe. It consists of several different services from modern high-speed intercity links to far more ponderous local lines. High-speed services are understandably more expensive than the regional rail routes, but they are also less crowded as commuters tend to stick to the local services. It is usually advisable to book seats on any service if possible.
Trams and underground rail
Light rail and metro systems are very popular and affordable means of cutting the traffic in Spain and almost all major conurbations have some form of trams or underground. Some regions, such as the northern Basque Country, also have narrow gauge services running independently of the main lines.
With tourism such an integral part of the Spanish economy, it is no surprise that there are a large number of busy commercial airports located around the country, with Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport and Barcelona-El Prat Airport carrying the largest number of passengers. Domestic services are also important in Spain as they are the quickest and usually the cheapest way to reach the Spanish getaways spots of the Balearic and Canary Islands as well as the Spanish enclaves in Morocco. Flying between cities in mainland Spain is also a viable option, but it is worth comparing the speed and price carefully against rail and coach services before choosing to do so. Major carriers include Iberia and Air Europa, while budget airlines like Vueling have an increasing market share.
Other ways to get around
With its extensive coastline and strategic location, Spain is an important maritime power with sea links around the around the Mediterranean and North Africa as well as across the Atlantic. Ports and harbours play a significant part in Spanish cargo transportation and there are many passenger ferry routes, including to the Balearic Islands. Cycling is a very popular sport in Spain but is not generally acknowledged as a viable means of transport, so don’t expect to see extensive cycle routes.
The Spanish working day traditionally starts between 9am and 10am and ends in the middle of the evening to accommodate the famous ‘siesta’ period of two or three hours in the hottest phase of the day. However, some companies have recently begun to fall more in line with the rest of Europe and adjusted this break time to an hour with an earlier finish. Employment law in Spain states that normal working hours should not exceed 40 per week, with no more than 9 hours work per day. Overtime should not exceed 80 hours a year.
Full-time employees in Spain are generally entitled to a minimum of 30 days of paid holiday each year in addition to public holidays. Time off may also be granted to accommodate a number of special circumstances including moving house, getting married, celebrating births and mourning bereavements. Sick leave, maternity leave and paternity leave are also offered.
In Spain, there are both national and regionally celebrated public holidays. National holiday dates are announced annually in a government bulletin. Depending on the region, the number of holidays may rise as high as 14 days. For more information on holidays in your region, check the Ministry of Employment and Social Security website.
Public holiday dates
New Year’s Day: 1st January
Good Friday: 19th April
Labour Day: 1st May
Assumption of Mary: 15th August
Spanish National Day: 12th October
All Saints Day: 1st November
Constitution Day: 6th December
Christmas Day: 25th December
Visas and eligibility to work
Spanish immigration documentation can be lengthy and complex, with most only available through personal application at the local police station, immigration office or labour office, so always take advice from your local contacts. While freedom of movement within the European Union means citizens of many countries can enter Spain without a visa, some nationalities must still apply for such documentation. Full entry requirements are available on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation website. Whether you are an EU or a non-EU citizen, you will need a long-term visa or residence certificate to remain in the country from more than 90 days. If you wish to work in Spain, you may also require an employer-sponsored work permit and an identity card. Citizenship can usually be obtained after ten years of continuous residency, although in some cases this time may be reduced.
Tax and social security
Foreign nationals living, working or owning property in Spain must have a ‘Número de Identificación Extranjeros’ or ‘NIE’. Issued as part of the residency certification, this foreign identity number will appear on all official documentation for your time in Spain. It serves as your tax identification number and enables you to receive your salary, and will also be required for many everyday activities such as opening a bank account. The tax year in Spain runs from January to December and you are considered resident for tax purposes if you remain in the country for over 183 days in a year. Spain operates a Pay-As-You-Earn (PAYE) system, so depending on your earnings income tax ranging from 24% to 43% is deducted directly off your wages, although a tax free personal allowance is also granted. There are some regional variations in tax rates and you may need to submit tax returns each year.
Pensions and benefits
Depending on their immigration status, foreign workers in Spain are usually required to make social security contributions at the same rate as Spanish citizens – approximately 6% of your income, although this is heavily supplemented by your employer. Compared to some countries, access to pensions and benefits for foreigners in Spain is quite generous; however some may be restricted according to the length of your stay in the country. For more information, consult the Ministry of Employment and Social Security website.
Spain has a number of laws in place to protect and promote the rights of people with disabilities to work in the country. Anti-discrimination measures are enshrined in recruitment law and both private and public sector employers are obliged to employ a certain number of disabled people and adapt their workplaces as required. Employers who take on those with disabilities may benefit from government funding, while disabled people who choose to work enjoy tax advantages not available to those on benefits.
Traditionally, Spanish businesses were quite hierarchical and in many companies this structure remains today. There are often many levels of management and there is a definite divide between staff members across these levels. Senior decision-makers will rarely engage with more junior colleagues, instead acting on information provided to them and giving instructions to be carried out. If possible, less senior members of the team will try to solve problems without involving their manager so as not to disturb them.
Although the senior management play little part in the day-to-day lives of their subordinates, team managers may take quite a paternalistic attitude to their employees, often offering advice that goes beyond the professional concerns of the workplace. Employees want to respect their managers and believe they are charge because they have the ability and experience to be successful. Conversely, managers will assign employees tasks which suit their skill sets. With every employee having a clearly defined role, independent working is valued so individual responsibility and personal accountability are important.
Because of the separation between ranks, communication with managers tends to be quite formal in nature. However, communication amongst peers or colleagues of the same level of authority tends to be quite relaxed and informal. When meeting Spanish contacts or colleagues, use polite and formal terms to begin with and try to gauge the relationships of the people around you before relaxing your tone.
People in Spain often prefer to work with people they know or have a personal recommendation of, so you will need to spend a long time developing these relationships. Face to face meetings are much more productive than telephone or email communication. Networking plays a huge role in Spanish business dealings so trade associations and professional groups can be an excellent way to build the contacts you need to be successful in Spain.
As with many European countries, dressing the part is important in Spain and you should take care to make a good first impression. Business dress should be stylish yet relatively conservative. Men typically wear smart full-length trousers and a shirt. Suit jackets may also be appropriate, but are not essential, particularly in the heat of summer. Women may wear business suits or dresses, but should dress modestly to create a professional image.
Spaniards usually shake hands and exchange business cards when first meeting business colleagues. Unless you are aware that they hold academic titles and can use them, address your male contacts as ‘Señor’ and female contacts as ‘Señora’, followed by their surname.
The Spanish ‘mañana’ attitude may be exaggerated, but it’s fair to say that Spain has a time-fluid culture. It is not unusual for meetings and appointments to start quite significantly late, so factor this in when planning your schedule. This is no excuse for you to be late though – keep to your appointment times, just expect to be patient when you arrive. It is usually more productive to schedule meetings in the morning before siesta time as people tend to be running more to time then.
Meetings in Spain are usually formal in structure, but expect to make some small talk at the beginning. Spaniards are proud of their culture and sport and will enjoy visitors taking an interest in them. Although oral agreements are important in Spain, making deals is not considered to be the main purpose of meetings. Instead, they are viewed as a platform for discussion and often you will come away with no indication of the outcome. Proposals will be reviewed by all the stakeholders and you might have to go through several meetings before a deal can be reached, with the ultimate decision being made and communicated outside of the meeting room.
Although the rights of female workers are protected by Spanish law, workplaces in the country still retain some historical gender divides. Traditionally, Spanish women did not hold management roles and it is only recently that ladies were encouraged to strive for such positions. Although there are many women in middle management now, boardrooms in Spain can still be quite male-dominated and ‘machismo’ in nature.
Most business language is conducted in Spanish, although some international companies may work in English. Check ahead of your meeting to see if translation or interpretation is required.