USA to Spain: Going Expat

I completed paperwork for a Spain long-term visa, moved to Madrid, live there now, intend to stay.   This morning I feel oddly motivated to sum up what I’ve learned about the process for transitophile readers.  I wonder why!  Who knows where these weird whims originate? Maybe something happened.

The U.S.-to-Spain expat wanna-be must:

  • qualify for the visa in the states,
  • register the paperwork in Spain,
  • settle into Spanish life.

In order:


Your United States passport qualifies you to spend three months in Spain visa-free, without additional paperwork. Buy tix, bring your passport to the airport, fly. Don’t forget to leave in three months or fewer.

Teleférico cars cross Casa de Campo in Madrid, Spain
Teleférico cars cross Casa de Campo in Madrid

If you want to stay longer, you need a visa. These can be applied for at Spanish consulates. Find the web site of the closest, click on the visas section, pick an appropriate visa category — e.g., Non-Lucrative Residence, Work and Residence — load the .pdf’d requirements, groan while contemplating the to-be-jumped-through hoops.

Consulates in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami work with private sector VFS Global to field questions and book appointments. Expect courtesy and short hold times. Other Spanish consulates may do just as well; I haven’t worked with them, don’t know.

I successfully applied for a Non-Lucrative Residence Visa. The getting-through-the-hoops information that follows may or may not be useful to seekers of other visa types.

Certified Translation: Some paperwork may need to be submitted with a “certified translation into Spanish.” I paid several hundred to get this chore done by Idesli, one of the translators listed.

Think you can translate docs yourself? Call VFS Global or the consulate, see what they think. I erred on the side of safety, didn’t want to see my app gutter-balled for rotten español.

Cover letter: My app required a Notarized document explaining why you are requesting this visa, the purpose, the place and length of your stay in Spain and any other reasons you need to explain, with a certified translation into Spanish.

I kept this short and sweet, and explained that I would seek permanent accommodations once in country.

Background check: My app wanted: Police Criminal Record clearance must be verified by fingerprints. It cannot be older than 3 months from the application date with a certified translation into Spanish. The certificate must be issued from either:

(a) State Department of Justice. Original clearance letter form signed (from the States where you have lived during the past 5 years). It must be legalized with the Apostille of the Hague Convention from the corresponding Secretary of the State.

(b) FBI Records, issued by the US Department of Justice – F.B.I. It must be legalized with the Apostille of the Hague Convention from the US Department of State in Washington DC.

I took path (a), above, found a handy visa/immigration page at the California Department of Justice web site, completed the downloadable form, took this form and my dry fingertips to a Livescan center.

A California Secretary of State web page tells how to get the ‘Apostille of the Hague Convention’ — e.g., a fancy-schmancy piece o’ paper with a stamp. I traveled to Sacramento to get mine over the counter, waited less than a half hour.

International medical insurance: I suggest that you try to verify requirements before your consulate appointment. I didn’t, found out the hard way that the consulate wants a policy with a zero deductible.

I got mine through Cigna Global. Cigna has adroitly fielded phone questions, but I can’t yet praise or pan them as an insurer: I’m a healthy guy, haven’t yet visited a doc here.

At the consulate: I strongly suggest an advance look at the ‘appointments’ section of the web site, to see how long you’ll have to wait for date. I had expected a two week wait, found that the lag had more than doubled by the time I was ready to sign up.

The San Francisco consulate lives in an unpretentiously furnished Victorian.  The sometimes crowded waiting room collects Spaniards, future expats and anyone interested in long stints on Spanish soil. Staff speak fluent English, and are prompt, cordial and reserved. Remember: you are there to ask for something that they might not want to give you. They don’t want to give an impecunious Charles Manson a bye for that year long Barcelona vacay. They’re ready to say ‘no.’ Señor Manson can go right ahead and Yelp a one star.

The consulate notified me by email that my app had been granted. Be forewarned: the email arrived with an unexpectedly simple subject line: “Positive Answer.” I didn’t recognize the sender’s name, saw nothing in the email’s header to indicate communication from a consulate, came perilously close to banishing the unopened missive to the binary circular file. Please learn from my near-blunder, and keep careful tabs on your inbox while awaiting word.


The S.F. consulate told me I had to register my visa after I reached Spanish soil. Alas, they didn’t tell me much more than that. I learned the hard way that requirements are tougher than anticipated, and wound up seeking professional help once in Madrid.

Spainwide helps entrepreneurs start businesses and deal with tax issues. They don’t generally hold the hands of newcomers eager to register visa paperwork, but agreed to assist me. Color me grateful. I’d run out of patience.

If you’re bound for Madrid, and decide to jump through the hoops on your own: the Madrid extranjeria to be visited for visa registration is on Avenida de los Poblados, a fifteen minute hike from the Aluche station.  Feel free to take a look in Google Street View.  Not touristy, but — in my experiences , anyway — better run than many equivalent offices in the U.S.

After you’ve jumped through all necessary hoops, you’ll get a date to return to this extranjeria to pick up your wallet ready, drivers license-sized Permiso de Residencia card.

My visa is for one year, so I’ll have to deal with the extranjeria again in 2017. Several have assured me that visa renewal should be (relatively) quick and easy.


Language struggles have been the one big drawback to expat life here, at least thus far.

I anticipated problems with technical vocabulary, but had let myself forget how often I dealt with tasks presuming knowledge of such vocabulary in the U.S. of A. Who wants to wax sentimental about reading a rental contract, or filling out paperwork at the bank, or coaxing the cable company telephone robot to transfer your call to a live human? Those are chores; tedious, dull, endured with the big package of earthly life; glossed over, mercifully forgotten.

But I have to deal with such chores in Spain, too. I’m not a tourist; I live here. Further, I had to deal with many more such chores as a new arrival, without bank account, cell phone service provider, and so on. The folk I chat with aren’t trained language instructors, either, versed in the merits of addressing extranjeros with clear, cadenced speech. They may talk fast, mumble, slur; may be sick, bored, hungover, irritated, rushed, like working stiffs everywhere. “Address second language learners like a Spanish prof” isn’t in the job description for front line sufferers at the post office or cell phone monopoly.

The upshot: I have staggered out of a few Madrid offices in a shell-shocked, hollow-eyed daze, amazed that I fumbled my way through the execution of some chore or another. I have navigated all hurdles successfully to date (fingers crossed, knock on wood), but sometimes have required repeat visits to complete chores that I would have slam-dunked in the states. I don’t understand all the technical lingo on those forms, get lost when natives speak quickly.

I arrived as an intermediate speaker, have suffered less as my Spanish has improved. If you grew up yakking in español, you might not suffer at all.


I popped a Vodafone prepaid SIM into my cell phone a few hours after arrival at Barajas International, changed it to a conventional monthly plan after nabbing the above-mentioned Permiso de Residencia card. Movistar is another big cell provider here, but I don’t own Movistar stock. I do own shares in Vodafone.

TripAdvisor lets you search for rooms with kitchenettes. Idealista also lists short-term rentals.

My Permiso de Residencia card allowed me to open a Spanish bank account. Before that, I got by with my own good counsel from a 2015 transitophile post .

Ernst & Young offers a  ‘worldwide tax and immigration guide.’  Deloitte has a ‘Spain Highlights 2016’ pdf.

Madrid Metro ticket machines sell 7 day ‘Zone A’ passes for €35,40. Your wallet will thank you if you quickly make an appointment at a Madrid Metro office to nab a personalized, photo-and-name-on-the-back ‘tarjeta transporte publico.’ Said card will accept a thirty day Zone A pass for €54,60. Big cost savings.

I booked CrownWMS to move my earthly possessions from a California storage locker to an equivalent space in Madrid. Said possessions rounded the globe on a container ship; I followed the vessel’s progress online as it plodded south along the Baja coast, cleared the Panama canal, nosed into the Atlantic.

First rate local agent SpainSIT delivered my stuff yesterday. I haven’t had a chance to pore over the boxes and don’t know if everything arrived intact, but I see no water damage, and am inclined to mark the move as a success.


I’m happy to be here, think I chose well, but also feel that I write prematurely. I’ve been here only four months. Further, I came as a retiree, with no need to work. Spain’s unemployment rate pushes 20%. I might feel very differently about Madrid if trying to haul in a paycheck here, although I understand that native English speakers are in demand.

“How good is your Spanish?” is my first question to other retirees contemplating a move to Spain. The better your Spanish, the better the move looks, at least so far.

– – – – –

edited 11/11/2016: added information about Spainwide

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.