Originally published November 30, 2015; updated March 6, 2019.
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Everything you wanted to know about how to legally live in Spain for a year with the auxiliares de conversación program—and then some.
My dreams of living abroad became a reality thanks to the auxiliares de conversación program in Spain. In short, the program allows you to spend between 12 and 18 hours a week working as a language assistant in a Spanish public school in exchange for a monthly stipend, health insurance, and student visa sponsorship. For non-EU folks like myself, it’s one of the easiest paths to living in Spain legally, and can be quite an enjoyable experience in and of itself.
I always get a lot of questions about how and why I moved to Spain, and although my life’s goal wasn’t to be a teacher, this program allowed me to do something different and achieve another one of my goals at the same time. Now that the applications are open for the 2019–2020 auxiliares de conversación program in Spain, here are some of the most common questions I see (and am asked myself) about the program, along with their answers.
What is the North American Language and Culture Assistants program?
A few years back, Spain realized that it had a long way to go if it wanted to catch up to the rest of Europe in terms of proficiency in English. This program is essentially a way of accomplishing that by ingraining English into students from a young age. It allows native speakers from the USA and Canada to legally reside in Spain for one academic year, helping teach English (or French, as applicable to our friends up north) in bilingual and non-bilingual schools.
What are bilingual schools, anyway?
In centros bilingües, all course material is presented in both Spanish and the designated second language—or, in the case of both high schools I worked at, English. This means that my job as an auxiliar went far beyond explaining the difference between “they’re,” “there,” and “their” to non-native English speakers. I assisted in math, science, geography, and history classes that are taught in English, as well as a handful of English language classes.
In Andalusia, where I worked, all auxiliares are placed at bilingual schools. Many other comunidades, such as Madrid, place their assistants at a mix of bilingual and non-bilingual institutions.
Go to the program website and check out the list of requirements. You’ll need to fill out an online application and submit several other documents. The requirements occasionally change from year to year, so be sure you’re reading the most updated info.
With that being said, placements are given on a first come, first serve basis. As long as you meet the (very basic) requirements and submit all parts to the application, you will more than likely receive a spot. There is no TEFL certificate or previous teaching experience required. They don’t even care if you can speak Spanish (although being able to do so can certainly help).
If you’re still unsure about the program, apply ASAP just in case. You can always reject your placement later with no consequences if you change your mind.
Does the auxiliares de conversación program in Spain allow me to choose which location I want to work in, and with which age group?
In theory, yes. The application will ask you to select your top 3 autonomous communities (some communities are not always available to North American applicants; check the program manual for more info), your preferred age group, and the size of city where you would like to work. If you have no idea which comunidad autónoma is the best fit for you, here’s a great guide to all 17 of them written by a former auxiliar.
Again, in theory, the sooner you submit your application, the more likely you are to receive your preferences. The program attempts to accommodate everyone’s choices as best as possible, but sometimes comes up short. I got my first choice region of Andalucía and my first choice age group of high school students, but instead of a large city as I requested, they put me in Cantoria (pop. 3,592). You win some, you lose some. I lived in a larger nearby town and commuted to school with my coworkers, and living in small town Spain was not nearly as bad as I was expecting.
Keep this in mind and be open to anything, because it’s not a given that you’ll be given your top preferences (in my case, I’m pretty sure they just threw a dart at a map of Andalucía and placed me wherever it happened to land). Also, if you request Madrid, keep in mind that Madrid is its own autonomous community, and not just the city itself. Be prepared to live closer to your school, or commute!
Tell me about the benefits.
You get paid between €700 and €1000 a month depending on your community (some regions have more weekly hours required in exchange for a higher salary), in addition to free health insurance in all regions.
The salary looks small, and while it’s nothing luxurious, it’s easy to live off of here in Spain—especially the south—where the cost of living is much lower than many people would expect. For example, I paid €250 per month (around $300 USD) in rent my first year. That’s it. That’s the total price of rent, and the highest my share has ever been here in Spain. I lived alone in a huge three bedroom, two bathroom apartment. In contrast, my
shoebox apartment at OU during senior year was $910 total, with my roommate and I each paying around $500 after utilities. The place was half the size of even the smallest apartment I’ve lived in here. Spain wins this round.
You’ll work almost the vacation-like schedule of less than 20 hours a week, depending on how much your community pays. Many people freelance or teach private English classes in their free time to have a little extra money.
Your schedule will also be limited to working just three or four days a week, which gives you lots of opportunities to travel around Spain and Europe on the weekends and possibly meet a handsome cordobés stranger in a charming craft beer bar (but that’s a story for another post).
Above all, this program is one of the very few ways for a non-EU citizen to legally live in Europe long-term. If you like the sound of that but Spain doesn’t float your boat, there are similar programs in France and Italy.
What is your role in the classroom like?
First of all, auxiliares are not teachers. We are never allowed to be alone in the room with the students and generally aren’t expected to plan full lessons and/or teach the entire class period.
My responsibilities ranged from basic pronunciation help to preparing short presentations or games to help reinforce the material, depending on the day and the teacher. If a teacher wanted me to prep something in advance, he or she always let me know ahead of time—and in any case, I always got briefed on the material beforehand so I knew what was going on.
That being said, I was lucky to work at two great schools during my years in the program. Not everyone is quite as fortunate. Some people are thrown up at the front of the class alone to handle 30 squirming preschoolers, jaded teenagers or anything in between, while the main teacher sits at the back of the room playing on their phone—or worse, disappears from the classroom completely. They might be expected to plan every single lesson for every single class period they teach. If you feel that you’re being taken advantage of, be sure to alert your bilingual coordinator, the school principal, or the local program organizers.
In many cases, teachers asked me to relate class material back to my own country or culture. I helped teach about the American Revolution in history class, the National Parks system in geography, and the US dollar and all of our weird imperial units in math.
I’ve applied to the program. Now what?
Be patient. Within a few weeks, you’ll find out if you are admitida (meaning that all your documents have been accepted and you meet all the requirements). In April, once the application period closes, people will start to find out their regional placements (which autonomous community you’ll be working in). Again, the sooner you submit your application, the sooner you’ll find out your placement.
After accepting your regional placement, you’ll get your school placement, which is where you’ll be working. I got my school placement one week to the day after accepting my regional placement for Andalucía this past year, but it can vary based on location. Some people in other regions often wait well into July or August before they learn where, exactly, they’re going to be working.
Your school placement comes in the form of a carta de nombramiento, which you’ll more than likely get by email (I don’t think any regions send them out as snail mail anymore). Keep this document because you will need it to apply for your visa, as well as for your student ID card here in Spain.
After getting your carta, it’s time to start the super fun visa application process! Make your appointment well in advance, because slots fill up quickly. At some consulates, you might not need an appointment (lucky!). Because I’m from Ohio, I had to go to the consulate in Chicago to apply for my visa, which meant driving 12 hours round trip from Cleveland to spend approximately 30 seconds handing in paperwork. The visa requirements vary by consulate, so be sure to check what is required for yours and only yours.
Check to see which consulate serves your jurisdiction before applying for your visa, too.
What should I do before moving to Spain?
I highly recommend the ebook Moving to Spain for all the information you could possibly need to answer this question. The authors (two fellow expats who have been here a lot longer than I have) explain every step of the process in a friendly and informative way, with plenty of visuals to help. Click here to learn more about the book, or here to get it now.
These are the most common questions I’ve gotten from friends and acquaintances back home about this program, so I hope it helps. If there’s anything I didn’t cover here, please comment below or send me an email and I’ll be happy to help.