Moving to Madrid

The Visa

I remember thinking: this must be so easy. It can’t be that hard to move to a foreign country, right? You hear about people doing it all the time, especially in the TEFL world. How hard can it be? My friends, welcome to the world of PAPERWORK. Get comfy, you’ll be here forever.

Without a doubt, the most common question I’m asked is about my papeles. This post will focus on Americans obtaining a visa for Spain—different countries have different visa requirements, and teachers of different nationalities (lookin’ at you, Canada!) will have different visa options. I’ll try to cover as many details as I can about the process I went through. Settle in, folks.

What visa are you on?

I opted to apply for a year-long student visa. This is essentially the only realistic visa option there is for Americans wanting to live and work legally as English teachers in Spain. Exceptions would be for people who qualify for a working visa or the autonomo (freelancer) visa. To qualify for one of those, you have to find a company willing to sponsor (read: pay thousands of euro for) your visa, or you must make enough money as an independent contractor to qualify for the autonomo.

Heads up: English academies do not sponsor working visas, period. Anyone who tells you they do is lying. There are also minimum income requirements you must meet and prove to obtain autonomo status. This is possible to do as an online English teacher—industry doesn’t matter, income does. You can look up autonomo visa requirements on the website for the Spanish consulate that serves your area. The last I heard, yearly income requirements were upward of €30,000.

Another option that gets thrown around a lot is the overstayed tourist visa. This is what I was originally going to do, but the information I was given was either incorrect or grossly outdated. Thankfully, I did my own research and I’m so happy I went with the student visa. I’ll explain more about the tourist visa (fart noise) later on.

How do I get a student visa?

It’s easy! Just kidding. It sucks. It’s expensive. It also feels extremely awkward to apply for a student visa as a 29-year old. But not to worry—you don’t have to be enrolling in a university program to qualify for a student visa. All you need to do is pay a year’s worth of tuition to an accredited Spanish language academy. The academy will then provide you with an acceptance letter that you will then provide to your local Spanish consulate—and then the fun starts.

The exact requirements from there on out vary from consulate to consulate. Generally, you’ll have to provide:

  • an official background check from your secretary of state or the FBI
  • a medical certificate certifying that you’re free of certain diseases
  • proof that you’ve purchased Spanish health insurance to cover you for the duration of your stay
  • proof of funds showing that you or a guardian have enough cash saved up to support you for the duration of your stay

All of the above must then be translated into Spanish by a Sworn Spanish Translator—someone who has been certified by the Spanish government as being capable of doing so. Then you’ll just have to provide a couple of cute little extras, like your passport, another form of ID, and the money for the visa processing fees. All told, including language academy tuition, you’re looking at $2,000-$3,000 out of pocket (and about $10,000 saved up for the proof of funds) before you’ll have your visa in-hand.

That sounds hard. Can’t I just overstay my tourist visa?

I’m glad you asked, you nincompoop.

Just so we can all start out on the same page, your “tourist visa” refers to your passport. “Overstaying a tourist visa” means that you stay in the European Union for longer than the allowed 90 days. Out of every 180 days, you are allowed to be in the EU for 90 consecutive days, then must spend another 90 days outside of the EU before returning. That means that for every 3 months in, you have to spend 3 months out before you come back. This means that “border-hopping,” or visiting a country outside of the EU for a couple of days and then returning, won’t work. Fun fact: this is a common practice and totally legal to do in Central and South America. In Europe? Decidedly illegal.

So, that’s the law. But why does it seem like everyone says it’s fine to ignore it and simply go to Spain and not worry about it? Honestly, I’m not sure how all of this misinformation got out about how living illegally in Spain is totally fine! It isn’t, almost no one does it, and it’ll make life a lot harder for you once you’re here.

First, you won’t be entitled to any rights. Healthcare will be incredibly expensive should an unfortunate accident or illness befall you (word to the wise: I’ve been in the hospital 3 times since I’ve lived here, never once at home. The bugs here are strong). You will also have a much harder time finding a job since essentially all English academies are looking to hire legal residents, just in case they get audited. It will also be harder to find housing. And the kicker: travel outside of Spain will be incredibly risky.

While it’s true that travel within the Schengen Area doesn’t require a passport check at each border, anyone can still check your passport at any time. I’ve had my passport checked while traveling to France, so you’re never guaranteed safe entry. The UK and Ireland are not within the Schengen Area—and I got the third degree from border agents in the UK, even with all my paperwork. If you get caught traveling on an expired tourist visa, you can be deported on the spot. You can also be banned from entering the EU for a few years or hit with a massive fine. It will also be on your record and show that you are a law-breaker every time your passport is scanned, anywhere. That could make all travel riskier—including, even, trying to come back to the US.

I suppose there are some cases where living in Spain illegally might be a good choice for someone—particularly if you don’t want to travel outside of Spain or want to travel much after. Or, if you don’t mind losing everything you have here and getting deported with only what you have on your back.

All this to say: I wouldn’t do it, man. Not a lot of people here do. Up to you (don’t do it).

So, what you’re saying is…

Getting a student visa is annoying and expensive, but I did it. All of the Americans I know living here did it. We’re not all geniuses, either, so if we did it, you can too. It’s the price of living in Spain, and in my opinion, it’s a small price to pay. I’d do it all again—in fact, I’m planning on it for next year. Living within the arms of the law might not sound like the most exciting thing, but trust me, it’ll make the cañas taste even more refreshing. Ah, that sweet feeling of not being tackled by airport security. Gets me every time!

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