The Nuts and Bolts of Moving to Spain Part 1: The Visa

April 1, 2018


 If you’re thinking about moving to Spain from the US, chances are you feel more than a little overwhelmed, and completely uncertain of everything you need. You’ll need a visa, sure, but then there’s a NIE? Or do you need a DNI? And we haven’t even gotten to what you’re going to do with your couch, or how to tell your parents they won’t be seeing their grandkids without a 7-hour flight.



I Googled extensively in preparation for our move, but I could honestly never shake the feeling that I’d somehow lost or forgotten some important thing. There are so many important details you have to handle, and there’s simultaneously way more bureaucracy than you expect and way, way less. When we were preparing our big move, I would have loved it if I’d been able to find a clear, concise list of all the documents I’d need to get my family settled in Barcelona. So, with that in mind, I present to you here, all the documents we needed from Spanish government agencies, and the order we needed to get them. I will present each of these in their own little blog, complete with our story of dealing with the complex maze that is Spanish bureaucracy and everything we needed to submit to get through.


For an American family moving to Spain, we needed to handle these four things:

  • Our non-lucrative visas, one for each member of our family

  • An empadronamiento at our address in Barcelona

  • School registration

  • The NIE

Each of these things have their own set of bizarre requirements and procedures, and I’ll do my best to explain what, exactly all these requirements and procedures are. So let’s begin with part 1: the Visas!


The Non-Lucrative Visa - Why we chose it, how we got it

For Americans wanting to move to Spain, there are a lot of options for visas. In case you’re interested, here are the options available at the time of this writing (which is spring of 2018). To live longer than 3 months in Spain, you can have a:

  • Student Visa - The student visa is primarily intended for studying, but it does entitle its holders to work in Spain part-time. When you see this, you’re going to think that this applies only to students studying in a Spanish university, high school or college—and you’d be wrong. If you’re going to Spain and can make a case that you’re a “student” in any respect—which includes studying Spanish part-time in a private language school, taking guitar lessons, or whatever, you can apply for this Visa. I’ve even heard of at least one person who has been living on a student visa for 8 years and working as a full-time private English teacher. When it comes time to renew his visa, he makes the case that he’s “studying how to teach English.” I don’t know how he came up with that idea.

  • Work Visa - for most Americans, these are effectively impossible to get. The only way you can get a work visa is if you’ve already been hired by a Spanish company and they are sponsoring you. In which case, you wouldn’t be reading this post. Skip ahead to one of the other ones on here to help ease your move.

  • Autonomo - Since “autonomo” is Spanish for freelancer you’d think that would be the way to go if you’re earning your money off of freelance gigs in the States, but you’d be (mostly) wrong. When I was researching this, it seemed to me like “autonomo” visas were mostly for people working for themselves within Spain. For foreigners, that mostly means contract English teaching, or something like that. Nope. Not for us.

  • And that brings us to the Non-Lucrative Visa. Though it seems to be specifically designed for retirees, this was great for us as we wouldn’t have to pretend we were students (we’re not, even though we both ended up taking classes while in Spain). All we needed to do was prove that we wouldn’t be a drain on the Spanish economy, or take any jobs that could be going to a Spanish citizen in a country with a 25% unemployment rate.

The requirements for the non-lucrative visa can be found on the website for your local Spanish consulate. Ours was in Houston, and though the requirements they published were more or less the same as those published by other consulates, they’re not always consistent. Make sure you double check that you’ve got the requirements for the right consulate.


When we were going through this process, we found a lot of websites helpful in clarifying the requirements, especially this post, which we bookmarked and referred to almost all the time. To whatever else you might find about this process out there in the web, I’d add a few notes about our experience:

  • I was worried at first about the proof of income requirement—which is, incidentally, €25,560 for one person with an additional €6,390 for each additional family member, which for us meant €38,330, total for our family. Though we had more than that in our savings accounts, I was concerned because the original wording (which seems to have changed) said that it had to be investment income. As good as we are at saving money, no way do we have enough saved to show interest income of almost $45,000. Luckily, all they really want to know is that you’ll be able to survive without having to take a job in Spain. If you can show that you have enough saved (or enough income from non-Spanish sources) to live for however long you plan to live, you’re good.

  • The cost we were quoted by the consulate, it turned out, was per visa, not per family. Thus, for our family of three, even though we applied all in one package, the cost was three times what we had anticipated. It also had to paid in cash, during our appointment, which led to a frantic sprint to the nearest ATM in Houston that would accept our bank card. This wasn’t the last time we had this exact problem during our immigration process, but it was the first. So look out for it.

  • Another thing we learned when we drove to Houston was that that little certificate that you get from the Apostille that they staple to the front of documents you need to get Apostille certified, ALSO needed to be translated by a sworn translator. Even though the documents themselves don’t say much of anything, and are  literally photocopies of the same sheet of paper with a stamp on it. The clerk serving us at the consulate pulled every single one of those sheets out of our massive stack of paperwork, told us we needed to get them translated, and told us we could send it by mail and once they received the translated documents they’d began processing our application.

  • Despite the few small, mildly stressful snags discussed above, the overall process of getting a visa was painless. Once we had all the documents together, we received word that our visas were ready to be picked up less than 8 weeks later. It was super quick! All that needed to happen was another drive down to Houston and we were done.

Now, moving on to the next document we needed to get, and part 2… the empadronamiento!

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