Undertaking a study abroad program in Europe, also known as an Erasmus program, can be nerve-racking regardless of the country in which you’re studying. The world may be slowly transforming into one global village, but national and local customs still govern the daily lives of many populations. Spain is a very popular for Americans due to the sunshine, language and culture.
You may assume that some sun, sangria and maybe even a siesta will be part of your studies, but what else can an exchange student expect The Land of the Setting Sun to have in store?
First up, before even setting off to Spain it is often advised that you have a basic language level before touching down. Although it may not be entirely necessary, especially if you’re studying in larger cities or more tourist-friendly areas, Spanish people are by and large quite a proud nation who will not appreciate somebody coming to their country and not making the effort to speak the lingo. Some exchange programs advise this level should intermediate, even be up to B1 according the standard European framework, but of course this can be lower if your classes will still be in English. However not only will you be rewarded with a more immersive experience if your ability to communicate is up to speed; in Spain particularly there are many stories of exchange students being held in higher favor by locals due to their dedication to learning and speaking the language.
Check the language skill you will be expected to have for your program. Some courses will require proof of your knowledge before and during enrollment. Be aware also that not all cities prioritize Spanish as a first language. Catalan, Galician and Basque are predominantly spoken in some regions.
Not speaking the language should only really be an issue if you intend on finding a job throughout your studies. If you feel a lack of knowledge could be a hinderance, look into if your University provides free or discounted language courses. Although there are many online language classes which are inexpensive, or even free in the case of DuoLingo, most learners see quicker results from being in a classroom setting.
2. Be Organized
Start planning for your study abroad placement well ahead of its start date, and compile as much information as possible about the University you’ll be studying at. This can be done via your home university or a direct contact with the Spanish university. Addresses, local bus routes, the number of campuses, and course start dates will all be important. It’s wise to try and keep all info together in an organized and easy to access way. Additionally, most universities will send out information and fact sheets to new students.
Aim to submit your application at least 6 months before the beginning of a course, and deadlines are usually at least two months before a course starts. If you need to get a Student Visa for your studies remember that processing this can sometimes takes up to 4 months.
Ensure your passport is valid for the entire period of study.
3. Living Expenses and Costs
Next, research information on living, transport, and likely accommodation costs (more info on each below). Conveniently, the cost of accommodation is the only big factor that varies between cities and neighborhoods. The costs of food and other amenities are largely the same across the country, which helps when calculating living expenses. Most students estimate the cost of living to be between 300 – 400 Euros monthly.
Ensure you take into account all the things you will need to pay for on arrival, such as bedding, groceries and transport costs.
Spain is a well-connected country, with all major cities boasting public transport. Journeys to smaller destinations may need to be planned ahead of time – especially to remote locations during the weekends where limited bus services may run. Otherwise transport in more built up areas is frequent and relatively inexpensive.
For local connections buses and trains operate within and between cities and towns. Night bus services are offered in larger inner city areas and many built up locations also offer a metro service. Monthly and seasonal tickets can be purchased for the largely integrated fare system, meaning they work on all forms of transport. These increase in prices depending on how many zones you intend to travel within. Cheaper tickets are also offered, usually for people under 21 years of age, but schemes vary from place to place. Plenty of taxis are available in more built up areas, with a reduced chance of fraud due to fitted meters or an agreed travel cost before setting off.
For inter-city connections buses is usually cheaper than trains, however numerous high-speed services, such as AVE High Speed Trains, mean you can reach destinations in next to no time. The main operators within the country are Renfe, who operate train connections, and Movelia who deal with buses. Several ferry companies offer passenger services from the mainland to the Canary Islands and the Baleares.
If you’re into biking beware that much of the country is not well adapted to bikes, even in more built up areas. Like many places in the US, car drivers may take a less-than-enthusiastic view of your taking up space on the road.
Like many European countries, living in cities is more expensive than elsewhere, and you will always find more and less pricey neighborhoods. However, accommodation costs in Spain are usually regarded as reasonable compared to London or other north European locations. Recent reports show inner-city one bedroom apartments priced at around 530 Euros/month, and suburban accommodation at around 410 Euros/month. These costs can vary largely from city to city.
Use Google and Google Maps to research neighborhoods (barrios) that you would be happy to live in. The latter can – to some degree – help you get a feel for the an area before even visiting.
You can sometimes find accommodation through University schemes and help desks, however if not, websites such as LoQUo and Idealista are trusted and widely used. Always remain cautious when using the internet to find accommodation. Follow universal rules for this practice (such as not transferring any money ahead of signing a contract) and check out our tips below:
- Sometimes Skype chats can be arranged with people advertising a room, but your best bet is to arrange for some short term accommodation (a friend’s sofa, an Airbnb apartment or even a hostel) and look more thoroughly once you’re in the city.
- Use these terms and abbreviations to help find your perfect pad.
- Apply to every advertisement in which you’re interested. Especially at the beginning of the semester, you are up against a deluge of other students hoping to find accommodation. Apply to as many places as possible to maximize your chances of getting a foot in the door.
- As mentioned in the above section on language, if the ad is in Spanish, respond in Spanish. The effort will be appreciated even if it isn’t perfect.
- Be friendly and tell them something about yourself. The person you’re contacting is likely to receive a high volume of applications. Try and stand out by bringing your personality to the table.
Usually you will be required to pay 1 – 2 months rent as a deposit. Use caution if the figure is higher than this. Landlords in Spain have little legal protection so are likely to ask for extra guarantees, but not much more than this in the form of cash. You may have to provide them with proof of your student status, and something to show you have a form of income, even if this is only your scholarship or grant. Make sure all amounts are paid and the conditions for getting this cash back are agreed in writing.
Agencies are also available to help with searching, but bear in mind that their fees shouldn’t be extortionate. Anything more than 1 – 2 months rent, again, avoid!
If you’re searching in summer, rents may be a little higher, especially if you are in an extremely touristy city.
Typically searching for accommodation will take students between 7 – 10 days, so don’t feel disheartened if nothing seems suitable in your first week. And of course don’t forget to use the all-powerful channel of social media and your new found friends and classmates to spread the word that you are looking for somewhere.
This varies from university to university, however is extremely straightforward. Your university will send you information depending on what you might need to take along on the day and many documents will have been scanned and sent to your university during the application process. This may include a student visa (usually arranged through your host university), a proof of language skill (if applicable), an acceptance letter from the institute, proof of health insurance, 2 passport sized photos and some form of ID.
7. Student Buddy Programs
As part of inductions, many universities offer Buddy Programs, which means a locally-savvy student will accompany new students to help them acclimatize. Your university will let you know if this is available.
Opening a bank account may not be necessary, but if so, check with your university if they provide the means of opening a student bank account. If so, it saves on a lot of work for you.
Opening a bank account is simple but requires much of the documentation. The process is quick and painless, and once complete you’ll be given a “libreta”, a small deposit book which acts as a temporary way to make cash withdrawals until your debit card is delivered in the post. The temporary withdrawals can only take place at designated, special ATMs, so have a staff member show you which ones and maybe demonstrate how to take money out, if necessary.
Typical bank opening times are Monday – Friday 9:00 a.m – 2:00 p.m.
9. Buying SIM/Mobile Phone
Many students end up opting for a cheap Pay-As-You-Go SIM to put into an unlocked phone. This makes the most sense as contracts are usually longer than the study period a student has committed to, and often require a documentation for a bank account that has been open for longer than 3 months in order to take out a contract. Pay-As-You-Go SIMs often take into account a fair amount of internet usage should you be using a smartphone. There are a plethora of phone providers across Spain including Movistar, Happy Móvil, Orange, Vodafone, Yoigo, which each offer unique draws, such as cheap European calls or free net. It may take a while, but do a little research ahead of time to ensure you get the best deal suitable for you. SIM card prices begin as low as 5 Euros.
10. Work – Internship and Part-time Work
Internships are usually arranged with the help of your home university. Depending on the amount earned, you may get taxed any income during your placement.
In order to work contractual hours in a part-time job, a working contract must not be for over 20 hours a week whilst studying and working hours must not interfere with school hours. Full-time contracts can only run for three months and should not overlap with the semester.
Something you should definitely have is European health insurance while studying in Spain. Travelers get free basic travel insurance included with the ISIC card. If by some chance you’re in medical need in Europe or get into an accident while touring, up to $2,000 of your bill will be automatically covered.
If you find yourself needing medical attention whilst in Spain, the first place you should visit will be a Centro de Atención Primaria, or CAP. These are Primary Care Centers and your university should be able to advise on where the closest one is to either the campus or your accommodation. It is not unusual to have to pay a percentage of any prescription from a state-funded healthcare provider, usually around 40%.
For emergencies go straight to a Public Hospital or Urgencias. Again, your university will know your local one and you will probably be alerted to its whereabouts during some form of induction.
12. Personal Safety
Hopefully you never find yourself in a situation where you may have to call the emergency services. Of course this section isn’t here to scare you out of the idea of studying in Spain, but as a precaution it is better to be fully prepared should you find yourself in a bad situation.
As a general rule of thumb across the world, cities have higher crime rates than suburbs. Every region has the areas you know to avoid, and this is no different in Spain. Stay wise, and avoid looking like too much of a tourist in known pick-pocket areas. Use extra caution when on public transport, especially at metro stations or stops, and try not to stand near the doors if possible.
On the streets, be wise to the numerous tactics employed by pickpockets. Keep your wallet or purse on you at all times, and preferably out of sight. Make sure bags have a strap you can put around yourself, and remain aware of your environment. Street performers make excellent distractions where pickpockets can move quickly through an enthralled crowd.
If you need to attract attention to yourself, shout “¡Socorro!” (soh-koh-rroh) or “¡Auxilio!” (ahoo-ksee-leeoh), both interchangeable as “help!”.
Make a note of the following numbers just in case they are needed:
112 – Used when in need of urgent police or medical attention, or when you need the fire brigade. The person on the other end of the line is unlikely to speak English, so speak in the best Spanish you can muster in a slow and clear voice.
+34 915 87 22 00 – The U.S. Embassy in Madrid
Have a look at the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation’s page for a complete list of foreign embassies in Spain.
13. Culture Shocks and Misconceptions
We’ve covered numerous legal issues above, however something to bear in mind is Spain’s governing structure, which is known to frustrate even Spaniards themselves. The country is split into 17 political regions, with each having a large amount of autonomy. This can lead to large variations in law and bureaucracy across regions. Thankfully, the issues these affect are only touched upon once-in-a-while, and hopefully not at all during your study time.
Spanish people are viewed as very friendly, and this can be seen into many aspects of daily life. Personal space is judged differently, and in some cases an American may feel like it doesn’t exist at all. Public displays of affection are more more common in Spain also.
Americans overuse “please” and “thank yous” from a Spanish point of view. There’s a certain directness spaniards use to communicate with that you should mimic. When you’re in a bar, simply looking attentive and expecting to get served may not work. To get served quickly, shout “¡Oye!” just like a local would. Keep your tone friendly and smile to ensure it’s received in the correct way.
Some towns and cities practically close in August, so expect doing anything to take a long time. Likewise, Sundays can be extremely quiet, depending on where you are in the country.
Time for a little bit of myth busting – The majority of Spaniards are against bullfighting, and Flamenco dancing only really takes part in the south of the country.
Many places in the Iberian Peninsula, and more remote areas across the country, still observe siestas. Expect everything to be closed between 2-5 p.m. when employees head home or enjoy an afternoon nap.
The daily schedule differs from that in the US. In the evening, everything tends to take place much later. Meals will be late at around 9-10 p.m., and a night out clubbing will mean not arriving at the club until around 1 to 3 a.m.