Moving to Spain Short-Term: An Essential Guide to Doing It Right

Are you ready to move to Barcelona? Here are our expert tips on getting your new life set up.

Are you ready to move to Barcelona? Here are our expert tips on getting your new life set up. Photo: Christy Stehle

By Christy Stehle

Barcelona. A sunny city nestled in the hills along the Costa Brava that will seduce you with its intoxicating blend of culture, language, and architecture. A place so magnificent that it consistently ranks as one of the top destinations in the world. I’m guessing, though, that you already know all of these things and that is why you, like me, have decided to make this enchanting city your new home. Having lived in Barcelona for almost half a year now, I have learned there is quite a difference between tourist and resident. Let me help you in your transition. We will be covering a breadth of topics including banks and cards, cell phones and internet connectivity, finding the flat that suits you best, adjusting to the Spanish hours, getting around, money saving tips, drinking etiquette, and overcoming the language barrier.

Before you leave home:

Let’s talk money. It took me 12 months of traveling and over $1000 in ATM fees to finally figure out the best means for managing my money, and I am here today to impart my wisdom.

First, you will want to obtain a travel credit card that earns rewards based on your lifestyle. I ditched my Chase Freedom card (which earned points on purchases from retail, gas stations, and grocery stores) and replaced it with a Chase Sapphire Preferred that I used so much I literally burned the magnetic strip right off of it. But, with their 2% back on all travel and food related expenses, by the year’s end I had accrued enough points to fly my boyfriend and myself to Asia, Cuba, and back to Barcelona all gratis. Oh, it’s also a thick, metal card so you feel like a baller every time you use it. Another excellent card that I recently started using is the Barclaycard Arrival Plus. They reward 2% as miles on all purchases so flying home is way more affordable than it used to be.

Throughout my travels, I learned the hard way that, despite having a fee-free travel card, I still needed a lot of cash. When I first arrived to Barcelona, I was swiping my shiny new credit card for even small or quick purchases, and thanks to their eye-rolls and surcharges, I quickly learned that this inconvenienced everybody here in this cash-heavy culture. Grocery stores, bars, restaurants, and even big purchases like rent and utilities are commonly paid for in cash or a bank transfer. My advice is to suffer the disgruntled attitudes when possible and track as much as your spending as you can on your travel cards, and just be prepared to pay in cash when you come across an establishment that won’t accept visa. Remember that many taxis will not take a credit card, too.

To make sure your purchases will be accepted abroad, you will want to issue a travel advisory to your bank letting them know where you’re going and for how long (just maybe wait until AFTER your fancy new card has been issued 😉), and you’ll need to learn how to use the ATMs here in your favor. Most ATMs in the city have a €5 charge for using them, and unless you have a nomad-friendly bank, you’ll be charged a $5 fee each time you use a non-branch ATM. While abroad, I was losing over ten dollars every time I needed cash. After researching heavily, I found the best bank to use is Charles Schwab. Not only do they waive non-branch ATM fees, buy they reimburse you for the on-site ATM fee as well! Additionally, they make it incredibly simple to buy into the stock market and manage your portfolio, and with no minimum balance requirement my banking life has actually just gotten a lot easier.

Now that we’ve handled your banking, let’s talk about your pre-existing bills. Sitting here in Barcelona, the last thing I want to worry about is anything in Florida, where I am from. I set my mortgage, student loan, and storage unit all on auto-pay and now I can just forget about them. Round up all of your bills from back home and pay off everything you can, setting up auto-pay for the rest. If possible, pay off your existing phone contract and close your account. Even if you do have global service with your provider it’s likely to be really slow 3g or even 2g speeds and you would be better off taking advantage of Spain’s inexpensive cellular plans.

Sagrada Familia

Imagine, your new home could be right next to the Sagrada Familia. Photo: Christy Stehle

Getting Connected:

There are many cellular networks to choose from within the city. Orange and Movistar are the top tier providers and I personally prefer Orange for consistency, coverage, and speed. An Orange SIM will set you back €20 for 2gb of data. I found this price much, much better than the $130 I was paying back in the United States.

One drawback to a foreign SIM is the loss of free SMS and MMS to your former country code (at least to the US, I can’t vouch for the rest of Europe). However, this can be easily circumvented by the ever popular and widely used app WhatsApp. You will also want a reliable translator such as Google Translate. I recommend downloading both the Spanish and Catalan language packs. If you’re looking to brush up on your linguistics, AnkiDroid is a wonderful app that uses smart flash cards as its means of teaching.

Internet speeds in Barcelona are average but adequate. You won’t be seeing speeds of 100mbps like you would in Romania or South Korea, but connectivity is never an issue when it comes to work.

Another thing to note is free WiFi isn’t as widespread as you might think.

Figure out what area of the city you like and then research apartments.

Figure out what area of the city you like and then research apartments. Photo: Christy Stehle

Finding a Flat (piso):

Learn your barrios. The neighborhoods around Barcelona have distinct personalities and you want to make sure you’re living in a district that reflects yours. Personally, I love Raval. It’s unpretentious, there’s a lot of green space for my dogs, and it’s where the good and the affordable meet. There are so many resources online exhaustively covering each barrio, and so here I will distill each down to a few emotions and phrases.

El Raval – Controversial part of the old city, probably more suitable for seasoned travelers. Interesting and exciting area in Barcelona but with a darker and seedy side. Not the safest or the cleanest area in the city, but it does have a special personality and character all of its own that makes this area a compelling visit. Known as the immigrant district, the art district, and the trendy food district. Inexpensive and centrally located.

Barri Gótic – Oldest part of the old city, the “original” Barcelona where it all started, and the heart of the tourist district. Compact and crowded winding cobblestone streets, wonderfully picturesque architecture, and no room for green space. Restaurants and cafes line the neighborhood and are full of atmosphere.

El Born Upscale, fashionable district in Ciutat Vella. Here the streets are wider and many streets lead straight to the Arc de Triomf and Parc de la Ciutadella. Full of retail shopping, bars, restaurants, and nightlife.

Barceloneta Centrally located and nearest Barcelona’s beach and the fishermen’s barrio. Once a poorer, working class area, Barceloneta is now popular with tourists because of its seaside location.

Poblenou – Out and away from the city center, this district is known for transforming large industrial spaces into art galleries and markets. Right on the beach and popular with local families. Not too many tourists.

Eixample – Built originally as “The Expansion” from the old city and characterized by a busy, grid-like road system. Some of Barcelona’s best shopping is found in this barrio. There are many bars and restaurants here and this district houses Gaudí’s Casa Batlló, Casa Mila, and the Sagrada Familia.

Vila de Gràcia – Formerly a distinct village, Gràcia holds true to its Catalan roots. Residential and homey, yet chic and progressive, this is a district ideal for living close enough to the city for convenience, yet far enough away to enjoy peace and quiet.

From your research, figure out which areas of town interest you and then go spend some time hanging around each of them. Go for a stroll and pay attention to things like where the nearest metro stops are, what the supermercats (supermarkets) around you are selling, and if your schedule allows it I’d recommend staying in different Airbnb’s around the city before making the big decision. I never would have chosen Raval at first, but living in the different districts for a few days changed my mind, and because of it I found my dream place.

Be ready to watch rentals move FAST. Like really, really fast. When I was apartment searching, listings were being signed for within minutes of scheduling a time to view them. Use a site like uniplaces.com, a student placement service, to help you snag your dream apartment. You can view listings online, pick five to six that catch your eye, and then narrow it down from there. I still receive auto-emails of all available flats, and only once have I seen a listing stay available for more than seven days. Figure out your budget, where you want to live, and then pounce on it!

Explore the smaller food shops and stores in diverse areas such as Barcelona's Raval.

Explore the smaller food shops and stores in diverse areas such as Barcelona’s Raval. Photo: Christy Stehle

The Spanish Siesta:

Barcelona may be more progressive than its neighbors to the south, but they still take their afternoon siesta pretty seriously. Not everything is closed between 14h and 18h, but Tobacs (tobacco stores), Farmacias, and many restaurants are. Setting my internal clock’s rhythm to Spanish time was single-handedly the most difficult part of my move abroad. It can be hard to adjust to, but you’ll have to because it’s uncompromising. After living here for five months, I think I finally have the secret. Despite being six hours ahead of my hometown, everything in Spain happens four hours later than what you’re used to. For instance, 12h is still pretty early in the day here, and it feels like 8am from back home. No longer do I eat lunch sometime around noon, but rather closer to 16h. You’ll find a proper dinner happens at 22h and not a minute earlier.

Has anyone else discovered tips for adjusting to the hours here? Let me know in the comments below!

Getting Around:

Learn your metros. Sometimes walking further to save yourself a connecting journey is faster than the transfer itself. For instance, if you’re on La Rambla near the Liceu (green) metro and want to take the yellow line, it is actually faster to walk to Jaume I, the closest yellow station, than it is to ride the green line up to Passeig de Gracia, walk 10 minutes through the station to yellow, and then ride back down again in the direction of Jaume I.

A T-10 pass will get you on any of the metros marked with a red diamond and white M. Any metro line marked with an orange square and a sort-of white chain looking emblem requires a special ticket and is typically only for times when you are leaving the city to visit places like Montserrat.

The metro is great for getting places quickly, but in using it, you’re missing out on discovering hidden gems and exploring new avenues. My biggest and best piece of advice is to invest in some solid shoes and walk, walk, walk. You’re in Barcelona after all, a city with perfect weather and gorgeous architecture around every corner. Your legs and butt will love you for the five miles you’ll be walking every day. Bikes are a great means of transit and with the increasing number of superblocks coming to the city, are becoming an invaluable tool for traversing the city. Skateboards and rollerblades are also a local favorite.

During my first visit to Barcelona, I opted to take the bus everywhere (don’t ask), and I quickly learned the error of my ways. I discourage taking any bus route that runs through the Old City, especially in the summertime as they are crowded, move slower than walking, and are prime locations to have your pockets relieved of valuables.

Casa Mila, Casa Battló, and the Sagrada Familia are must-sees, no doubt, but as an expat living in Barcelona, the hidden gems of daily life are the real treasures worth seeking out. There is so much to see in the city, but when it comes time to explore are you like me and struggle with knowing where to start? The joys of Barcelona come from the afternoon discoveries, but when I go out without a plan in mind I rarely find anything noteworthy. Use these websites to learn about the different barrios around town and star the highlighted hangouts in your map. When it’s time to get out on the town, head for a recommendation, but stay open to possibilities on the way. Here are a few of my favorites:

• A Tu Bola: El Raval
• 33 | 45: El Raval
• Tarannà Cafè: Sant Antoni
• Flax & Kale: Universitat
• Gelaaati Di Marco: El Gòtic
• Ziryab: El Born
• Quinoa: Gràcia
• Brunch & Cake: Eixample

Saving Money:

This insider secret I’m about to share with you is so good that I almost hate to let it out in print, but I wouldn’t feel justified in sending you newly into Barcelona without it. Skip the Mercado de Boqueria and shop local markets in Raval. Markets are AMAZING in this barrio, the quality high, and the prices low. Seek out the AWAMIs for the freshest nuts and trail mixes around and prepare to have your mind blown at the deep discounts.
Typical restaurants are my favorite pit stops when I’m out in the city and looking for something quick and easy. A plate of olives and a quick glass of wine should set you back less than €5. Stop into La Masia on Carrer d’Elisabets to see a shining example of a hidden gem tucked off the side of the busy La Rambla.

Save your receipts! If you’re a US citizen and live outside of the country for 330 days a year or more you are exempt from paying federal income tax as well as any healthcare penalties. (Pro Tip: To stay lighter and tighter take photos of your receipts instead of keeping a physical paper trail.)

Drinking in Barcelona

There are rules as to what to order and when–but rules are made to be broken: you do you.

Drinking:

Catalonians have un-written yet unwavering rules on what to drink when. Never order a clara with dinner. Only drink vermut while the sun is up, and preferably only before you take lunch. It’s common to have a drink when you go out for lunch and acceptable candidates include: cañas (small draft beers), claras (shandy), white wine, sherry, and vermut. Red wine or water are the drinks of choice with dinner and spirits (but not vermut!) are for after dinner. That being said, at the end of the day, I love vermut, cava, and claras almost exclusively and drink them whenever I damn well please. Each and every time I place my order though, I suffer an exasperated eye-roll. If you want to blend in nicely at first, order what they drink when they drink it. If in doubt, take a look around. The gin & tonic scene is pervasive and all-the-rage at the moment. The craft beer scene is slowly growing, and at the time of this writing, leaves much to be desired. The Spanish may have wine culture perfected to the letter, but their budding beer culture can’t hold a candle to the variety and ingenuity of American breweries probably due to the lack of hops grown in Spain.

Catalan and Spanish

Be prepared for a mix of languages. Some people will speak to you in Catalan, others in Spanish, and some in English.

Language:

I’m going to be honest with you, the language in Barcelona is trickier than first meets the eye. Last spring I spent eight weeks in the city, yet it wasn’t until I moved here that I really realized just how much of everything is in Catalan. 99% of the population in Barcelona understands Spanish, 95% understands Catalan, and unless you’re in tourist areas you can count on only about one-third of the population comfortably speaking English. Even though you can get by as a traveler with just English, I can’t stress the importance of expats learning Spanish enough. Practicing with native speakers is the best way to learn the nuances of the language, and intercambios are some of the best ways to do that. (Pro-tip: some intercambios are informal meet-ups at bars, and regardless of what they pretend to be, are all about dating, and some like Barcelona Language & Friends have a structured practice time).

When in restaurants, etc., the conversation typically defaults to the most commonly understood language. This makes it tricky to practice as many Barcelonians will recognize your English and proceed from there. I recommend pretending you don’t speak English! Or, you can say something like, por favor, estoy aprendiendo, (please, I am learning). That being said, even if English is the common denominator, it is always polite and proper to exchange pleasantries in Spanish. Assuming the Catalan/Spanish person speaks English is seen as rude and may embarrass him or her.

Enjoy quick day-trips and overnights along Catalonia's beautiful Costa Brava, a nice respite from the city.

Enjoy quick day-trips and overnights along Catalonia’s beautiful Costa Brava, a nice respite from the city. Photo: Christy Stehle

And Finally, Stress Less:

Life moves at a slower pace here. Be patient. Plan extra time for things, and account for weeks with holidays in them to get nothing done. On the flip side, isn’t this one of the reasons you fell in love with the city to begin with? The relaxed, fun-loving way of life gives Barcelona one of the highest quality of living in Europe, and it’s important to take the good with the bad. While you wait on the bureaucratic process to move along, get out of the city and take a hike to Monsterrat, Sitges, Tossa del Mar, or the many other trails tucked along the astonishing Costa Brava.

Quick Tips:

Barcelona faces the Mediterranean and is backed by rolling hills. What this means for you is that it’s hard to get lost wandering around town. With little exception, walking downhill will lead you towards the Old City, or Ciutat Vella. Once I learned this handy little trick, I’ve had so much fun wandering undiscovered streets while always knowing my general direction.

A fairly accurate way to convert from Fahrenheit to Celsius is as follows: Subtract 32 and divide in half. 72 degrees Fahrenheit – 32 / 2 = 20 degrees Celsius. Conversely, 20 degrees Celsius x 2 + 32 = 72. It isn’t exact, but it does help you have a general idea of what the temperature is.

A foot is roughly 30cm.

A gallon is just shy of four liters.

Caixa Bank is the most widely used bank by foreigners and a good ATM to pull your rent from if you’ve waited past banking hours

Bio: Christy is a freelance writer and world nomad currently living in Barcelona, Spain. A worry warrior who has battled in the past with anxiety, depression, and failing health, Christy today uses her positive voice to inspire others. She believes that with fitness, positivity, and an attitude of gratitude anyone can achieve their personal legend. Read more of her story and follow her journey at www.theworldasweseeit.today

2 Responses

  1. Steph says:

    I really enjoyed this post. My husband and I are visiting Barcelona and Valencia this summer, and we hope to move our family to Valencia in the next 3-5 years. If you have any info like this, I would love to read it!

  2. The Spain Scoop says:

    There are lots of other articles about moving to Spain here: http://www.thespainscoop.com/category/uncategorized/moving-to-spain-uncategorized/

    :-)

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