When I went to live and work in Spain: 5 key lessons for a successful move

My husband, daughter and I went to live and work Spain in August 2012. I was pregnant with my second child, and we had previously lived in Grand Cayman for four years, so we were by no means new to the whole emigration process. Overall, we had a very positive six years in Spain. The lifestyle was fabulous, and my job as an international teacher ensured that our children received an international education and free wrap around care. My husband commuted to Gibraltar from Estepona, which was approximately an hour’s drive, albeit with a border and a runway to cross twice daily. High rental prices meant that moving to Gibraltar was not our preferred option, hence the commute.

Now, having been back in the UK for a year, I thought that it was a good time to share some of the lessons that we learnt from our experience in Spain.

Being prepared to live and work in Spain as a UK expat.

1.Be prepared to work hard to learn Spanish if you really want to live and work in Spain with more ease

For some naive reason, I just thought that I would pick up the language via osmosis when I lived there. I learnt the basics and presumed that mixing with the locals would propel me into billingualism. Two mistakes here. Firstly, unless you move to a rural Spanish village without any other English speakers (doable, but quite difficult on the Costa del Sol), then English will be all around you. And by nature, you will gravitate towards English speaking friends, particularly at the start when you know nobody. And secondly, learning a language involves studying. Lots of it.

Think sticky notes of verb conjugations all over the house, textbooks or an online course to work through and constant looking up of new vocabulary. On top of that, you then need the time to listen to Spanish radio, watch Spanish television and try to chat with as many natives as you can. I actually found beginner’s short stories a less clinical, more interesting way to learn. Don’t get me wrong, your efforts will be very much welcomed by the locals. But don’t assume that learning a language does not require much time and work. It really does (and I have an A’Level in Italian, so was a fairly reasonable linguist to start with). It is completely achievable, but have realistic expectations when emigrating to Spain.

Learning Spanish is essential when moving to Spain

2.Check job opportunities before you move

As second time relocators, we were experienced with searching for job opportunities. We knew that in 2012 Gibraltar had a good demand for jobs in the finance industry, which was perfect for my husband. It was also English speaking, so did not involve immersive language study. Furthermore, I knew that as a UK qualified English teacher, there were a lot of potential roles available for me in the International Schools. Somewhat naively, we moved before securing jobs (although in our defence, my husband did really need to be ‘on the ground’ and I was six months pregnant). It took two to three months for my husband to find a suitable role with a decent rate of pay, and longer still for me to find a job after having my son. You can find a brief overview of the sort of jobs available at Recruit Spain.

Needless to say, if you do relocate without prior employment, have a good amount of savings in the bank. And don’t move to Spain based on a pipe dream of opening a bar, running a bed and breakfast or cultivating a vineyard, without doing a HUGE amount of research (and learning the language to a near fluent level).

3.Embrace queuing and red tape

Everything got done eventually when we moved to Spain. Registering for a doctor. Opening a bank account. Finding a nursery. However… unlike the UK, most errands need to be done in person (and quite often in Spanish). So you need to do your research, download appropriate paperwork in advance and fill it in. This guide covers everything from moving to Spain after Brexit, through to what documentation you will need as a resident.

Get acquainted with the Google Translate app on your phone, it will become your good friend when filling out forms. Try to find out if there is any help for expats in the area to which you are moving. We were very lucky to have some excellent support available in Manilva. I still remember now how appreciative I was to have a wonderful billingual lady (employed by the town hall) helping me out with enrolling my daughter for Spanish school. To contextualise how different this process is from the UK, the school application to be done face to face at our chosen school and the school place offer was pinned on the school door on a certain date in August. As aforementioned, everything was entirely achievable, but it took time and patience, and a certain reliance on the goodwill of others.

If you are very lucky, you may have the funds or company to use an external company like Globexs who will arrange everything for you, from procuring an NIE number to finding rental accommodation.

You will have to queue if you want to live and work in Spain.

4.Reach out to expat forums and groups on Facebook to help with moving to and living in Spain

These were a Godsend for us. From advice prior to our move, to finding fellow ‘mummy friends,’ these groups were a massive support network when we were moving to Spain. Let’s face it, most of us moving abroad have nobody else to reach out to, so do not be afraid to accept the help of strangers. Often these strangers become friends. And then eventually, you end up as the one who is able to help others out.

Groups range from generic Spanish expat forums through to area specific communities, like the wonderful ‘Manilva, Coffee, Chat‘ based between Gibraltar and Marbella on the Southern coast, who I heavily relied on throughout the whole six years of living on the Costa del Sol. There were only 300 members when I joined, now there are over 12,000, which shows how many people appreciate its value!

5. Be strict with guest bookings

When you first move out, everybody and their brother will want to come and visit you. And without being cynical, the majority will be doing so for a cheap holiday. Most likely you will also be dying to show everybody your new fabulous life abroad. But. The chances are that one or both of you will be working full time, the kids will be at school full time, and quite frankly, in the evenings you will be pretty shattered. Guests seem to think that you are on holiday with them, and forget that you actually live and work in Spain.

For the first night or two you will gladly fire up the barbecue and entertain your guests. Perhaps another couple of nights will be showing off your best local bars and restaurants. But your guests will not have to get up for work in the morning. And they are also on holiday, so splurging out for restaurant dinners is part of the holiday budget. Spread out your guests; entertaining as an expat is wonderful, but also tiring and expensive.

Also, when looking for a rental property, weigh up how much extra it will cost for you to have a guest bedroom. It may be considerably more cost effective to get a two bedroom apartment (of which there is a lot more availability than three bedroom properties) with a sofa bed. After all, even the most sociable of expats will have more time without guests than with them.

So there you go. Of course there are so many other considerations when emigrating abroad, but these are the ones that would certainly impact the choices that we made should the clock have been rewound. My most important tip would be to definitely go do it, if you have the job skill set and the financial means. Life is too short not to explore the world, yet also too short to spend years trying to rectify mistakes made through impulsive, uninformed decisions.

Have you ever moved abroad? How was your experience? Are you still there? Let me know in the comments below!

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