Living in Spain Legally: A Roundup for Non-EU Citizens

Updated May 3, 2019

The auxiliares de conversación program is one of the best ways for non-European citizens to legally live and work in Spain for a year, and a great stepping stone to starting a long-term life abroad. However, while some assistants are on their sixth or seventh year in the program, it’s not something most people can make a career out of. The average max amount of time is two or three years—the latter of which was my plan, but an unexpected change in the rules eliminated that possibility.

In 2017, the Junta de Andalucía introduced a new rule stating that language assistants would no longer be able to renew their contracts for more than two consecutive years in the region, which I’d learned to call home over the previous year and a half. I wasn’t aware of this until literally about an hour before the 2017-18 application period opened. When I read the new rules, I panicked and decided to submit my application as a third-year renewal in Andalucía anyway. After all, this program isn’t exactly known for its organization—I thought maybe I might slip through the cracks.

Wrong. A few weeks later, I got an email from the program curtly informing me that my application for a third year would not be considered unless I applied to a region besides Andalucía. It was then that I decided to pursue other options that would allow me to stay long-term in sunny southern Spain.

If you’re looking for a way to live legally in the land of tapas and tinto de verano, this is the post for you. I’ve rounded up a whole range of ideas for anyone who thinks they might want to make Spain their home, either for the long haul or just for eight months.

Some of these are only possible for people who have lived several years in Spain; others can be done by folks who have never set foot on the Iberian Peninsula. And because non-EU citizens (hi!) often have the hardest time with things like this, I’ve based this list off of my own research and experiences and geared it towards non-European peeps like myself.

living in Spain legally
…and livin’ it up in Spain.

Become a language assistant with the government program

There are tons of programs allowing US and other non-EU citizens to come teach English in Spain, but the most common program (and the one I’ve participated in for the last two years) is the Spanish Ministry of Education’s Language and Culture Assistants Program. Language assistants, or auxiliares, spend one academic year in Spain assisting in English-language classes at one or more schools.

There’s no program fee, experience requirement, or interview process—as long as you meet the (bare-bones) requirements, you’re pretty much in. Assistants work less than 20 hours a week and earn anywhere from 700 to 1000 euros a month, with schedule and salary varying depending on location. You’ll also have access to the private healthcare in every region.

Who it works for: If you’re thinking about making the jump across the pond, this is the program for you. Despite its scatterbrained organization and my annoyance at the fact that I won’t be able to continue with it next year, I genuinely enjoyed my time as an auxiliar for the most part and recommend this program to everyone who’s looking into moving abroad for the first time.

Who should reconsider: Someone who doesn’t meet the requirements (which are honestly so basic that any functioning adult native English speaker could meet them).

Being a language assistant is a great jump into living in Spain legally.
Blending in a little too well with my 16-year-old students. #babyfaceprobs

Alternative ESL teaching programs

There are many other programs that allow native English speakers to spend a year working in ESL classrooms in Spain. Each program has different working hours, wages, and expectations of its language assistants (some aren’t even assistants, they’re considered teachers in their own right), but like the government auxiliar program, all facilitate the process for non-EU citizens by providing student visa sponsorship and medical insurance.

Who it works for: If the government language assistant program doesn’t seem like a good fit but you’re still interested in moving to Spain, this is your best bet. If you’ve never lived abroad before, many programs also provide orientation sessions to help you get adjusted to your new environment.

Who should reconsider: Current participants in a language assistant program. Even if you already have legal residence in Spain through one teaching program, switching from one program to another usually means having to fly back home and apply for a whole new visa at your local Spanish embassy or consulate. Additionally, while orientations and extra guidance are helpful for new arrivals who are just getting their feet wet, seasoned expats might find them unnecessary.

Working as an auxiliar de conversación got me on the path to living in Spain legally.
Maybe they’ll even throw you a surprise goodbye party when you leave like my first school did!

Graduate degree at a foreign university

If grad school is something you’ve considered in the past, why not do it overseas? Many programs in Spain, while not totally tuition-free like their German counterparts, are still significantly less expensive than getting the same degree in the States.

Keep in mind that it’s more work than applying to programs in your home country and get ready to budget time and money for translations and apostilles. One popular program is the Instituto Franklin Teach and Learn program, which gives participants the unique experience of completing a master’s degree while also working as language assistants.

Who it works for: People who have an interest in furthering their education with a graduate degree, currently living either at home or abroad (in the latter case, it may help to have a contact back home who can help with getting official copies of your degree translated and apostilled).

Who should reconsider: Those who aren’t genuinely serious about grad school. It’s a huge commitment and if you’re not entirely serious about it, you’ll just be wasting your time and money.

Getting a degree at a Spanish university can allow you to spend some time living in Spain legally.

Getting a civil partnership with an EU citizen

This is the route I decided to take. In Spain, a legally recognized civil union is called pareja de hecho. It can be done by straight and gay couples where at least one of the partners is a European citizen. In the case that one of the two is non-EU (*raises hand*), that partner will be able to apply for social security, work without having to convince a company to invest time and money into sponsoring you for a work permit (more on that later), and be eligible for permanent residency in Spain, initially for a 5-year period but later renewable for 10 if you’re in good standing with the law after your first 5 years are up.

Who it works for: Anyone in a serious relationship with a Spanish or EU citizen.

Who should reconsider: Anyone who does not have a long-term Spanish or EU partner (sorry, single friends—I’m speaking as a former Perpetually Single Person myself, so I know the feeling). Additionally, anyone whose relationship doesn’t meet the pareja de hecho requirements in the region where they live. Here in Andalucía the process was relatively simple, but it’s more difficult in other regions—for example, in some parts of Spain, you have to have been registered as living at the same address as your partner for a period of one year at the time of your application, which can obviously slow things down if that’s not the case for you. This post about pareja de hecho in Spain links to a great resource that breaks the whole process down by region so you can see at a glance what the requirements are where you live.

coffee cups at a cafe in Spain

Get work permission

This is unfortunately one of the most difficult options on this list – if not the most difficult. COMO Consulting Spain recently published a comprehensive guide outlining the process much more eloquently than I could explain it, so go check out their post if you’re interested.

Long story short, you first have to get your foot in the door and convince a Spanish company to sponsor you for a work visa, then (if they even agree to do so) the process itself can take up to six months and lots of paperwork on the company’s part.

Who it works for: People with EU passports or legal residency who are already eligible to work in Spain, in which case the process is much less complicated. On the other hand, Americans or other non-European folks with a lotttttttttt of patience.

Who should reconsider: Anyone for whom literally any other option I’ve listed in this post might be more realistic.

Get a non-lucrative visa and work remotely

The non-lucrative visa allows holders to stay in Spain for a period of greater than 90 days without partaking in any kind of work or “professional activity.” You need to apply at your nearest Spanish embassy or consulate in your home country or in your country of legal residence.

Who it works for: Digital nomads. If you can take your work on the go, congratulations! The non-lucrative visa is perfect for people who are able to work remotely and who want a taste (figuratively) of Spanish sunshine and (literally) of all-you-can-eat tapas. This could also be an option for retirees or anyone else with enough money saved up to live on for more than 90 days.

Who should reconsider: Anyone without the ability to work remotely or support themselves for a period greater than 90 days.

The non-lucrative visa can get you on your way to living in Spain legally.
*stunning views of the Catalan Pyrenees not guaranteed.

Become an au pair

Au pairs are foreign domestic workers who live with a family and get free room and board (as well as a small amount of spending money) in exchange for child care and light housework. I see a ton of au pair opportunities pop up on Spain expat forums, particularly for the summer months.

Who it works for: Someone who is a native speaker of a foreign language that is considered important in Spain—usually English, but French and German are also highly sought after here—who isn’t afraid to meet new people and lend a helping hand.

Who should reconsider: People who aren’t fans of housework or working with kids, as those are usually a given on the part of the au pair.

Social integration (arraigo social)

Long-term expats who have been in Spain for three or more years are eligible for residency through social integration. They need to be able to prove that they’ve integrated themselves sufficiently into Spanish society by being able to speak the language; produce proof of registered addresses, bills, and other such fun paperwork, etcetera. It’s also required to have a job offer from a company interested in hiring you, but no worries—this process isn’t quite as much work on their part as sponsoring someone for a work permit as described above.

Who it works for: People who have been in Spain for 3+ years (legally or not) with a paper trail to show for it (usually in the form of an empadronamiento) and a valid job offer on the table.

Who should reconsider: Anyone who hasn’t been in Spain for that long—sorry, you’ve gotta wait it out!

Student visa modification

Similar to arraigo social, anyone who’s been living in Spain for three or more years on a student visa is able to get long-term residency status. Again, you have to have a valid job offer.

Who it works for: Auxiliares who have completed 3 years in the language assistant program on a student visa and are interested in being here for the long haul.

Who should reconsider: Simply put, if you haven’t had a student visa for three years, this isn’t the option for you.

Paperwork for living legally in Spain
Typical student resident card (and the much better pictures I got taken for my new one). (I don’t live at that address anymore, sorry stalkers.)

Go freelance (autónomo)

An “autonomous worker” is a freelancer in Spain. This blog does a great job of outlining the process step-by-step and listing all the documents needed at each point, and SpainGuru has a great timeline for this process as well. Keep in mind that you will have to pay taxes to Hacienda (Spain’s answer to the IRS) as a freelancer.

Who it works for: Freelance writers, translators, designers, developers…you name it!

Who should reconsider: Anyone who’s still developing their skills in one of those areas. It might be hard to find freelance jobs if you’re inexperienced, but you’ll still have to pay your taxes. It’s lose-lose.

Apply for citizenship or permanent residency

Getting Spanish citizenship takes a while, but it’s not impossible. The most common ways are through having lived in Spain for 10 years, being married to a Spaniard and then having lived in Spain for 1 year, or being the child or grandchild of a Spanish citizen (and having lived in Spain for 1 year). Applying for permanent residency is a lighter process (though not without its fair share of paperwork, because Spain) with more people counted as eligible.

Who it works for: Anyone mentioned above, as well as anyone considered a “family member” of an EU citizen, in which case you’re eligible for permanent residency. (This means you, fellow pareja de hecho-ers)!

Who should reconsider: Anyone without family ties to Spain, whether by blood, marriage, or civil partnership, or anyone who has lived in Spain for a short amount of time, thus making them ineligible for now.

This list is by no means exhaustive. If you’ve obtained residency in Spain through a method I haven’t listed here, let me know – I’d be happy to add it!

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Author: lindseyzimmerman

I'm a marketing pro, writer and cat person from Columbus, Ohio living in southern Spain since 2015. Usually drinking manzanilla, reading Lorca, or attempting to dance flamenco (not all at once).

10 thoughts

  1. Such a detailed post. A few friends of mine are looking into this so thanks very much. I’m British, so no problem working in Spain at the moment, but after brexit we will see what happens. Thanks.

  2. This blog is really informative. I have been looking for several options on how to get to Spain and I came across this writing. It has provided me several other ways to get to Spain- it has been my dream destination. Thank you!

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