Work Permits in Spain – 16 years of visa nightmares in Madrid and Barcelona
Thinking about moving to Spain?
You definitely should.
Spain is a great country. I love it. In fact, most days that I wake up to find myself still in Spain, I feel pretty lucky just to be here…
Rather than, well, back on the ranch in Arizona.
But if you’re going to move to Spain, you should probably get some kind of work permit before coming – or at least a residence permit if you don’t intend to get a job.
And that’s the topic for today. Because getting a work visa to move to Spain is not always as simple as you might imagine.
In this article, I’m going to tell you all about the process of getting a work permit in Spain. And it’s not gonna be pretty.
First, a tiny story…
Work permits in Spain: the saga begins
About 10 years ago, in the otherwise marvellous spring of 2012, my boss asked me to sit down with a girl named Christina to advise her about getting a Spanish work permit.
I’d just gotten mine through Arraigo Social, a process in which you prove your integration in Spanish society, present a lot of papers, and hope for the best.
It’d taken me, for a series of stupid reasons, 7 years to actually get “legal”. I wrote about it a little bit in my article about Spanish Lawyers.
But finally, I was legal. And it felt great.
(The lawyers tell me I should use the word “irregular” to describe my previous situation, but let me tell you, it felt a whole lot like illegality. I even have a letter dated 2010 in my files inviting – or perhaps obliging – me to leave Spanish territory within the next 15 days. I guess I didn’t leave, and in the meantime I’d forgotten all about the letter. But yeah. Illegal like the guy in “La Tumba del Mojado” by Los Tigres del Norte.)
Anyway, back to 2012.
Christina had come to Spain on a tourist visa, and was working “under the table” at the same language school in Madrid that I was.
Now, she wanted to get legal. Or – as the lawyers and gastroenterologists call it – “regular”.
So I sat with her in a café, and explained arraigo social: you hang out in Spain for 3 years, keep a lot of papers proving you were here the whole time, go to a few appointments with social workers, get a criminal background check, present a job offer and then hope.
It’s not easy, but I think it’s actually a great system. I wish the US had something similar. A clear “path to citizenship”, as they’re saying these days.
But Christina wasn’t convinced.
“I just got here”, she said. “And I don’t want to wait 3 years.”
I explained again: there are several ways to get a work permit in Spain. But just “wanting” one isn’t going to get you through the police station at Aluche.
She was insistent, though.
“I don’t want to wait for 3 years. I want a visa now.”
I looked at my watch.
“Oops, I forgot. I’ve got a class across town in an hour.”
“Massive Sense of Entitlement” visas are hard to get. And I don’t think there’s any country that gives you a visa based on “I’ve always wanted to live here.”
Most of them make you contribute something to society. Money or skilled labor seem to be popular choices.
Otherwise, I’ve found, bureaucracy isn’t really based on what you “want”.
Fast forward 5 years, during which one of my main concerns in life (besides online dating) was working enough actual on-contract hours to be able to renew my work permit when I had to.
(Giving private lessons under the table would have been more profitable, but I had to show the government I was actually working on contract.)
A lot had changed in the meantime. I’d become an author. I was mostly working for myself, on my online business. I’d been through a lot. Also, I’d decided I was going to stay in Spain “forever”.
So I’d recently put in the papers for the long-term residence permit. The one that gives you 5 years of legal residency. If that was approved, I’d be legal in a more or less permanent way – with the “larga duración” all you have to do is show up at the police once every five years to renew your ID card.
It was pretty exciting. I sat in all the waiting rooms, took a number, paid the fees, put my fingerprint on the little glass screen – you know, the whole process.
Come back in 40 days for the card, they finally said.
And so, approximately 40 days later, I went back to the police station at Aluche and I picked up my permanent residency.
I even made a video about the experience…
It was, and still is, one of the best days of my life.
I’d spent 12 years, at that point, busting my ass on the daily to “levantar España”. I’d gone through all the shitty jobs, the shared flats in Lucero and Vallecas, the economic crisis and the general misery.
And finally I was fully legal. I could legally, after all this time, give up my day job and start making real money, like the guy in the Tigres song “El Mojado Acaudalado”.
I went home, and I swore I’d never go through another visa process again, for as long as I lived.
A few weeks later, I met Morena.
And the Spanish immigration adventures begin again
When I met Morena, she was doing a PhD in nanotechnology – whatever that is.
She’d hang out in a lab all day, wearing a surgical mask long before it was cool, and putting cancer cells onto petri dishes, or something.
Anyway, we met, sparks flew, it was the big L.U.V.
She’s now my wife.
But then, she was just a young student. And soon after we met, they fired her from the lab. She was offered another job, in a different field, up here in Barcelona.
And, logically, we started to wonder about her visa renewal process.
Several lawyers told us: sorry, but the government is not going to renew this. You came in to do that one job in the lab, and that’s all you’re allowed to do.
Just hope nobody in the bureaucracy notices you’re still here – they’ll kick you out so fast it’ll make your head spin.
(I’m just kidding about that last part, actually. No lawyer ever said they were sorry. Just that we were fucked.)
In the end, we decided to try the nuclear option: the famous “pareja de hecho” and “reagrupación familiar”.
I believe pareja de hecho is what they call a “civil union” back home. Not exactly like marriage, but almost.
Usually, people wait years for this. Years just to get an appointment in some government office somewhere.
But Morena was smarter than those people. Rather than hiring the worst lawyer in town, as I would have done, we spent our first morning after moving to Barcelona talking to the best.
His name is Cristian Balcells. And you should talk to him, too.
He was actually quite reassuring.
He told us the deal for “reagrupación familiar”, and when we asked him to set up the pareja de hecho appointment, he called up a notary.
It took no time at all. Maybe a week to get the appointment.
We went to a fancy office. Balcells sent an interpreter along. We signed some papers while sitting under an original painting by Joan Miró.
And boom! 10 minutes later, we were officially a pareja… de hecho.
We went out for a celebratory cava at 10:30 in the morning, and then Morena went off to work.
This was all going so smoothly.
Or so we thought…
Surprises with Barcelona real estate
You should probably listen to this song while reading this bit…
After pareja de hecho, the first thing we needed to do was get a certificate saying we were living in decent conditions.
And we were, barely.
So off to City Hall I went.
I presented the rent contract paid a small fee. And two days later they called me.
“No can do”, said the (very polite) woman who called. “You need a real rent contract.”
Apparently, our shitty 11-month contract wasn’t good enough for the bureaucracy.
“So… what do you suggest?” I asked. “Should we move?”
“No, no… Just talk to your landlord or -lady. I’m sure he or she will be happy to help you out.”
We talked to the landlady.
She was no help at all. Fuck you, Gigi!
So we moved.
Moving to a new flat in Barcelona is like shoveling large amounts of money into a hot furnace. But hey. Gotta do what you gotta do.
We only ended up moving about 3 blocks up the street, so we could stay in Barceloneta near the beach.
We got a better contract, and a better house, and it’s only costing us 300€ more every month.
(Pro tip: don’t sign an 11-month contract. Ever. Also, don’t live in Barcelona. It’s expensive AF up here.)
After that, there wasn’t much to do but wait…
The Miraculous Spanish Work Visa Process Continues
In case you couldn’t imagine, all this took months of my life.
Standing in line at one government office, only to be sent across town to another government office, where someone would tell you either to go back to the first place, or, “Oh, no, you have to do that online!”
Struggling with official websites, which only work with Windows 95 and a version of Adobe Acrobat that was banned in most civilized countries decades ago.
Finally, in the new flat, a woman came to inspect our lifestyle to see that we weren’t living 6 to a room in bunk beds.
She took some notes, asked some questions, made sure our water heater worked. She was nice.
“I hope you get approved”, she said, as she left. “But from this point it’s out of my hands.”
She told me I could pick up my report on the adequacy of my home at yet another government office in about 40 days. So again, we waited.
Finally, I got it. The “informe de adecuación de la vivienda”.
After that, it was just a matter of getting the appointment with the immigration people.
Another 6 months’ wait.
Well, nobody said getting a Spanish work permit was going to be fast or easy.
Asian Adventures for All
In case you don’t know us personally, now is probably the time I should mention that Morena is from a town in the south of India.
(She wants me to tell you, at this point, that they have a lot of coconut trees, amazing food, awesome beaches, and the richest temple – possibly – in the world. Also, a lot of different kinds of bananas.)
And at this point in our Spanish residence permit journey, it was time for her to go home.
Her previous residency was expiring, and so she went.
I think they make this process a bit less of a pain in the ass if one of the partners is officially Spanish. But I’m not sure.
So again… gotta do what you gotta do. And in Morena’s case, that meant waiting for slow-ass Spanish bureaucracy in her hometown, with occasional trips to the Spanish embassy in Mumbai.
I guess you could compare this part of the adventure to shoveling large stacks of money into the core of a nuclear reactor during a meltdown.
But on the plus side, I got a trip to Asia out of it.
A few weeks after Morena left, in fact, I was in India myself.
And it was quite an adventure, let me tell you. I’d never been to that part of the world before. Mumbai, then Goa. Later, Thailand. I only had explosive diarrhea about half the time. And even that was manageable.
After a month in the tropics, I came back to Spain, presented the papers to the immigration people, and once again started waiting.
I ain’t afraid of no ‘Rona
And about the middle of February, Morena called from India.
She was freaking out about some coronavirus thing, in a city in China I’d never heard of.
“Psh!” I said. “Don’t worry. By the end of March we’ll have forgotten all about it. Remember the Avian Flu? Remember SARS?”
Well, as literally everyone on the planet knows by now, I was wrong about the Rona.
A few days later, though, we got the official approval. I might have been a little drunk when she called to tell me. Either way, I cried like a baby on the phone. Finally. Morena could come back to Spain.
And so, come back to Spain she did, at the beginning of March.
Long story short, she had the appointment to get fingerprinted for her new ID card around March 15.
So that didn’t work out. Police stations were closed. All appointments cancelled.
The worry never ends, does it? We were so close to being done…
And then the whole country went into lockdown.
The heartwarming conclusion to our Spanish work permit saga
I don’t need to tell you how much 2020 has sucked, so far.
The bad news is, we’re only halfway through.
But a couple months into lockdown, the lawyer told us they’d opened one of the police stations for “residence permit emergencies”.
We went, and stood in line.
It was a beautiful spring day, in a beautiful city, and there we were, social distancing outside yet another government building.
And actually, I was grateful. It was a completely mundane, boring experience. But after being locked at home for 2 months, it felt like a return to normal life.
They took Morena’s fingerprints, and another 40 days later, we went to pick up her new card. As of last Friday, she’s fully legal. Or “regular”. Or whatever you want to call it.
And all it took was a buttload of money and a year and a half of my sanity.
Anyway, Spain is, apart from a few glaring problems, one of the best places in the world to live. And I’m happy to call it my home.
If you want to move to Spain, you definitely should. But – and this is a big but – immigrant life isn’t always easy. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Well, that’s about all I’ve got for today.
Fuck the virus… And ¡viva España!
Keep it regular out there, y’all.
P.S. I know, I know. I could have avoided all of these problems by just sticking to Spanish girls. But as I explained, in another article, that’s not any easier. Check it out: 7 things you should know about dating Spanish girls. Or maybe you want to use your new Spanish work permit to actually get a job. Well, here’s an article about Spanish work culture that might dissuade you a bit. Either way, have fun!