Moving to the Canary Islands, according to our guest expert Linda Wainwright, is also about throwing away your watch. Linda describes places to live, schools, papers, and learning Spanish. She moved to the Canaries in the 80’s, and knows the mountains one has to climb to feel at home.
By Linda Wainwright
Drat! I left my Certificado de Residencia (Resident’s Certificate) at the airline desk in Sevilla. Now, I’m back home in the Canary Islands, and I need that flimsy slip of paper. I groan inwardly thinking of going through the renewal process again, but then smile when I remember how much easier it is than it used to be.
Right to Residence/Work
As an English woman, immigrating to the Canary Islands in the late 80’s was different than it is today. Now I have all the privileges of being an EU citizen. Then, I had no right to work, and getting a resident’s permit was more challenging than climbing Mount Teide. Whenever I thought I had all the paperwork together, and trekked up to Santa Cruz (Tenerife Island’s capital) to present it, there was another paper missing. This happened despite using a gestor.
The word gestor has no real translation. Best description I’ve heard is clerk. Spanish bureaucracy is a nightmare, and in the Canary Islands it’s even more so. It’s also time consuming, people can’t take time off work, and so employ someone: a gestor. Gestors can help you with paperwork, accounting, even legal stuff – up to a point. You will need a bona fide accountant or lawyer for anything serious. They will, however, be able to guide you through social security registration, car purchase and registration, and everyday red tape. Often they have contacts in the town hall or the tax office, so they can speed things up.
If your Spanish is scant you will need one, but be very careful to check out their credentials and trustworthiness first. The first one we employed absconded with my money and the paperwork I’d handed over to him, and I had to begin over again. If you don’t speak Spanish, make sure your gestor speaks both English and Spanish to a high standard in order to avoid misunderstandings.
When I lost my Certificado de Residencia last year, I had to start from scratch. It was fairly simple. Collect form from the National Police Station and pay a fee of around €10 at the bank. Get a Certificado de Empadronamiento (certificate of registration of residency) from my local town hall. That required a trudge to the town hall with my lease (or property deeds if you’re an owner). Return to the police station with those, plus my passport and photocopies of everything. The certificate was issued there and then. It took me two half-days to complete. It was time-consuming but not difficult.
Not so easy if you’re not European, I know. In addition to the above you need copies of birth certificates, marriage certificates, divorce papers, passport-style photographs, and an offer of employment if you intend to work. We also needed personal references from someone of good standing (laywers or teachers for instance). Ensure that you have with you every single piece of paper you might remotely need. I once had to fly back to England just for an A5-sized scrap of paper!
Deciding Where to Live
We intended to buy property, but decided to rent until we got our bearings. Often expats congregate in communities, which means that they miss out on local events or integrating with the wider community. This happens nowhere more than in the Canary Islands, where the English-speaking expat population is large.
People come, tempted not so much by the thrill of living abroad, or by great job offers, but because the climate is, probably, about as perfect as it is anywhere on earth. They come because they know that it is feasible (though less so than it was) to live here without needing to learn Spanish. We knew that we didn’t want to live that way, and we took nine months to get to know places within sensible distance of my ex-partner’s work, and the kids’ school.
Given that foreigners tend to gather in the resort areas, it also makes economic sense to live outside those areas, where rents and house prices are cheaper. Wherever you live, however, it will be expensive if you aren’t willing to sign a minimum three-month contract, and pay a damage deposit, which is usually one month’s rent. Remember that the main island industry is tourism, and holiday-lets fetch something like four times as much as a permanent tenant. That said, some landlords prefer the security of a guaranteed rent each month, even if it is less. The good news is that rental properties almost always come fully furnished, so you don’t have to lay out a small fortune for furniture.
Choosing schooling for your children is a personal decision, especially if you’re not sure how long you will stay. We weren’t, and chose to send our boys to an English/International School, so if we returned they wouldn’t have lost out educationally. It was a no-brainer in any event because at that time local schools weren’t too good. Things have looked up a lot. I’m currently coaching a couple of schoolgirl sisters in English, because they are going to be exchange students next year in the US, and want to be as fluent as possible. It’s clear to me that their school has high standards, and great opportunities like the one they’re taking.
It seems that the schools in, or close to, the resort areas have learned to cope with the challenges the diversity of nationalities presents. We counted several different nationalities in the girls’ class. That has to be stimulating if handled correctly. Schools inland won’t have that experience, so it is a consideration when seeking property.
Work and Cost of Living
Wages in the Canary Islands are low, and Spain has 26% unemployment at the date of writing. The bright side is that it costs less to live here, given that, unless you go to live in the mountains, you don’t need heating, washing dries outdoors on the line, the old-fashioned way, and coats and pantyhose become things of the past.
It is still possible to find employment in some sectors of the tourist industry if you have the right qualifications, and many young people come to find casual work, as working in bars, selling sun cream around hotel pools or as waiters. Overall, though, it’s just as hard to find a good job in the Canary Islands as it is elsewhere in Spain. There are several British companies which cater to the English-speaking resident and tourist markets, supermarkets, radio stations, insurance brokers for instance. For many you don’t need to be fluent in Spanish, but there is keen competition for jobs in those sectors, as you can imagine.
Of course, not everyone who makes the Canaries their home is looking for work. Thousands of British expats are currently spending their golden years in Spain, many on the Canary Islands. A combination of fabulous weather and a lower cost of living is attracting more retirees to the country than ever before. However, people need to fully understand the Spanish tax system – as well as the government’s rules on offshore pension schemes – if they want to enjoy the full benefit of their hard-earned pension. Careful planning with the help of a financial advisor will protect a pension fund from unnecessary taxation by the British government.
The ExPat Community
For me, one of the great things about living on Tenerife is that my friends and acquaintances come from all over the world. At the beginning, when I spoke little Spanish, I found my first acquaintances in English expat circles, but with time I found that it wasn’t my “cup of tea.” Like many social groups it tends to get critical and inward-looking. Remember my previous comment about folk coming here for different reasons than, say, those who go to live in Madrid or Barcelona.
I certainly still have English friends. Being able to speak with someone in your native tongue with mutual cultural references is important, but if you were a fly on the wall as I sit at a table with a group of friends you would mostly hear a mixture of English and Spanish being spoken, with, perhaps some French or other language thrown in from time to time.
Even now, when people find out how long I’ve lived here, they ask, “Do you like it then?” Mostly, I refrain from being sarcastic. There are downsides, as there are to everything in life. The fabled “Mañana Syndrome” is very much alive and kicking, and getting almost anything done takes infinitely longer than elsewhere in Europe. You have to have oodles of patience and ‘go with the flow.’ If you don’t the chances are The Canary Islands will get you down, but if you can take learn to shrug your shoulders at delays and frustrations in local fashion, then I can give you hundreds of reasons to live in this enchanting archipelago.
Linda swapped the flat and damp vistas of the north-west coast of England for the distinctly warmer and hillier coast of south-east Tenerife in the Canary Islands over 25 years ago…and people still ask if she likes it here! Having squandered her youth, she embraced motherhood with open arms, and determined not to squander her third age once her nest emptied.
When not hunched over her laptop, she is now to be found exploring the Canary Islands, preferably with camera in hand, looking for stories and landscapes to share. She blogs at http://islandmomma.wordpress.com/