Moving to Barcelona: Common Expat Questions Answered

Answering some of the most common questions I receive from future expats preparing to move to Barcelona.

So you’ve decided the expat life is for you (maybe after taking my online quiz here) and you’re ready to embark on the adventure of a lifetime! Congratulations on making a fantastic decision to move to one of the most desired cities in Europe. As an expat wife living in Barcelona for three years, this city has earned a very special place in my heart.

But before stepping foot here, I spent the months leading up to our relocation agonizing about soo many things. Neighborhoods, schools, apartments, and overall safety. I knew very little about Barcelona, except for the fact that Spanish wasn’t the local language (another thing that really worried me!)

So listen, I feel you. I know what you’re going through. I’ve experienced all the emotional ups and downs. And rest assured, I’m here to help!

RELATED ARTICLE: An American Expat in Spain, Our Chronicle

I often receive questions from future expats about life in Barcelona and what to expect. Even though I’m still learning something new everyday, I like to think I’ve been in enough situations here as an American fish “out of water” to learn a thing or two.

Whether you’re a student coming to study abroad or are a family, like ours, you’ll surely have some of the same questions! Hope these answers put your mind at ease and provide some clarity as you plan out the final months before your relocation.

Sagrada Familia. Barcelona

Moving to Barcelona: 12 Common Expat Questions Answered

Q1: What paperwork do I need to legally live in Barcelona?

This depends on where you’re coming from! EU citizens will have a much easier process than non-EU, like ourselves. They will need to only obtain a NIE (or residency card) by scheduling an appointment, completing necessary paperwork, providing the requested identification documents and waiting a short period to receive the cards in the mail.

By comparison, non-EU nationals will first need to obtain a visa in order to live in Spain for more than 90 days. Since we relocated to Barcelona for my husband’s job, we all received work/spouse/dependent visas (which still was a lengthy and time consuming process, but successful nonetheless).

If you’ve never gone through these steps before to obtain a visa or NIE, I highly recommend using a relocation service expert, such as Barcelona Lifestyle Solutions, to assist. They will save you loads of time and frustration. They understand the sometimes strange Spanish protocols and can help navigate it in the local language.

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Q2: Is Barcelona a safe city?

The answer in my opinion is yes! This question might be subjective though based on where you’re moving from. People coming from Singapore say no place on the planet feels safer with such incredibly low crime rates. But as Americans, we feel a bit more at ease here in Barcelona.

How? I don’t worry that if my child wanders off in the store, I may never see her again. As a woman, I can go for a solo jog without having to look over my shoulder. My children still don’t know what an “active shooter drill” is.

And I’m okay with that.

It’s not uncommon to see 12-year olds riding public transportation alone in the morning to school. I’ve never felt safer than when we walk around this city. I’m comfortable venturing out with the kids, exploring new places and chatting with locals. It’s a very non-threatening city and as long as you use your vigilance (i.e., being aware of your surroundings) you’ll be fine.

Sure, there are areas that every major city has (El Raval, for example) that you wouldn’t want to get caught in alone at night. And it’s true, Barcelona is still listed as one of the worst in the world for pick-pocketing and theft in general. This is a very true statistic unfortunately.

A friend of mine who lived here for just two short years was pick-pocketed four times! That’s a lot for any one person, but all boils down to being smart, watching your belongings, and knowing where you are.

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Q3: What is the best neighborhood for expats to live?

When we first started looking at apartments in the city, we had our hearts set on the Gothic Quarter for its romantic alleys and rich history. MAN, were we mistaken! While beautiful and enchanting to visit on the weekends or with visitors, this neighborhood is swarming with tourists and not where you want to raise a family.

You won’t find expats living here.

They tend to settle in the neighborhoods closest to the international schools, but still considered central to the city. The barrios of Sarria, Sant Gervasi, Bonanova, Les Corts, LÉixample and Pedrables tend to be popular with foreigners. Each are well connected to public transportation and within a walkable distance to many of the international schools.

Bishop’s Bridge, Gothic Quarter Barcelona

You won’t find loads of tourists in these areas. There are several sizable parks and playgrounds for children and lovely squares for spending the afternoon enjoying Spanish life. It’s a bit more residential here and not uncommon to run into other expats from your country.

Also worth noting are Barcelona outer suburbs Sant Cugat, Castedefells and Viladecans which can be more appealing to expats that desire spacious homes and gardens/backyards. While they aren’t considered in the city, they’re well connected and close enough to enjoy the activity of the bustling streets!

When you start looking for an apartment, keep these important factors in mind. First, realtors don’t work on weekends so don’t expect to see any homes on Saturday/Sunday. Welcome to Spain, guys.

Also regarding realtors, the renter (YOU) will pay the realtor fee – it’s the opposite in the states.

Second, the rental market moves very fast. If you find a place and like it, don’t take your time making a decision. Either put down a deposit or move on. We found an apartment we loved, spent a day to “think it over” and the following day, it was gone! Lesson learned.

Next, the typical deposit for a rental is one month but as a foreigner with no established credit in Spain your landlord may request 2-3 months worth. Be prepared.

Lastly, the following utilities are usually the responsibility of the renter – gas, electricity and water. For our family of five in a six-bedroom 180sq meter apartment in Sant Gervasi, our total utility bill is around 300 euros per month. Just to give you some perspective.

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Q4: Which schools should I choose for my kids?

This is probably the number one question I get and undoubtedly the most important if you have children. The school you chose will weigh heavily on the whole family’s adjustment to a new city. Happy kids equals happy parents, right?

Before you begin diving into the decision-making process, it’s important to identify some key goals for education. These are very personal and will differ by family, but factors such as cultural immersion, language, and cost will all play a role. Get these figured out first and then your options will be a bit more refined.

I recently partnered with The Barcelona Edit to put together a comprehensive schooling guide. It covers Spanish guidelines, your options and the registration process. But in short, here’s what to expect…

You basically have three options in Barcelona. The first is public school (in which the primary language spoken is Catalan, not Spanish as many people assume). There is no cost to attend and the school is assigned based on your catchment (or residence) area. Registration is done through an online portal via the Barcelona Education Department this year (due to the COVID-19 restrictions) and typically begins in March, ends in late June.

RELATED ARTICLE: Expat Advice for Choosing an International School

The second option, is a semi-private school (or concertada). The registration process is exactly the same as public schools. There is monthly tuition, registration fee and uniform/supply costs to pay but nowhere near as hefty as a private international school. The language spoken is usually bi/tri-lingual, mainly Catalan, Spanish and English taught.

The last option, and most popular with expats, is a private international school. There are more than 35 to choose from in Barcelona ranging in size, cost, language and curriculum style.

Since expat families are constantly moving in and out of these schools, there is no set enrollment period. Parents will pay a sizable registration fee, monthly tuition, sometimes daily lunch and uniform.

The major benefit of sending your kids to an international school is the cultural diversity they’ll experience. For more in-depth support of your school selection process, be sure to check out My Barcelona School and tell Anya that The Expat Chronicle sent you!

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Q5: What activities are there for kids?

If there’s one thing I noticed about the Spanish culture early on, it was their love for children. This is such a family friendly city with lots to keep little ones busy. After-school programs, weekend activities and summer camps (casals) are available in abundance.

Not to mention family activities such as indoor soft play parks and museums to keep the whole family entertained. Check out my article here for the top kids’ picks!

RELATED ARTICLE: 30 Things to do With Kids of Any Age in Barcelona

As an expat, you may want your children to partake in activities in their foreign language, therefore, international school programs are a great option. Depending on the size of the school various sports, academic and artistic programs will be offered. We’ve taken advantage of this a ton at the British school for our two older kids and they’ve enjoyed futbol, chess, drama and dance.

But if language immersion is a goal and your children don’t mind being mixed with Catalan locals, the options are of course much greater. Private sports clubs, like David Lloyd and Artos, provide a nice assortment of activities such as swimming, padel and multi-sports as well as public organizations such as Kinobs which offer summer programs like skateboarding, gardening and even horseback riding.

Mar Bella Skate Park, Barcelona

And if you’re looking for something super specific, always rely on Facebook groups. I belong to Barcelona Babies & Kids and Barcelona International Expats which have both been fantastic resources! I never thought this city would have a competitive cheerleading team – but it’s been my 7-year old’s favorite activity yet!

Whatever your kids fancy, you can find here.

Q6: How much is the average monthly rent?

Cost of living in Barcelona is significantly cheaper than in other parts of Europe, 65% to be exact according to Expatistan.com . Don’t even get me started on how much cheaper things are here than in the U.S.!

Alcohol is cheaper, our grocery bill is a fraction of what it used to be, and even paying for a babysitter is less per hour. For Spain as a whole, Barcelona rent is around 8% lower than Madrid. This is all good news for expats. We couldn’t believe the cost of a large beer the first time dining out. Let’s put it this way – the bottled water cost more.

Like any city, you have your pricier areas and your less expensive more affordable. As an expat, who typically moves abroad for their work or career, these families may be in a position to afford a more affluent area.

Depending on the size of your flat and whether or not it includes garden/penthouse access, the common expat neighborhoods can include homes for around 1,500-3,500 euros per month.

Then again, there are flats on our street in more renovated buildings going for 4,500 euros per month. It all depends on what you’re looking for and where. These are just ballpark figures to give you an idea of what to expect.

Keep in mind, the above costs are related to an expat family and not necessarily a single or student looking for flatmates. Prices for those types of living accommodations will range anywhere from 500-1,200 euros per month with factors such as barrio and furnished/unfurnished taken into account.

Q7: How can I meet people as a Barcelona expat?

Quite easily actually! This melting pot of a city is very diverse and meeting other expats is not difficult. But you do have to know where to look. Assuming you’ve chosen to live in an area where many expats live, you’ll start making friends naturally while out and about. As long as you aren’t afraid to strike up conversations with people. Sometimes it’s our job to put the first foot forward.

Speaking of being proactive, it won’t hurt to enroll yourself in language classes or exchanges. This has proven to be a great way to meet others who are also adapting to the local way of life in Spain.

I’ll be very honest, as an expat mom my circle of support has come from the other expat parents at the international school. We’re all in the same boat, experiencing the same chapter living abroad and can relate to one another in a unique way. So if you are relocating here as a family, rest assured you’ll find your “circle” once school begins.

For those without children, figure out what you’re into and start researching! This city has everything… Facebook groups, as mentioned earlier, can be great ways to meet other expats and find out when events are happening.

BCN Life is a relocation company started by American expats in Barcelona and often they plan get togethers for the English-speaking expat community. Also, The Barcelona Edit, the online magazine I mentioned writing for earlier, often plans outings as a great way to meet other English speaking expats. Wine tastings, group exercise classes, rooftop tea parties – these ladies are so creative and ease the tension around meeting others.

The best piece of advice I can give you is to be patient with the process. It takes time to feel comfortable, find your way and meet others along for the same journey. But they’re here, I promise. You’ll find your people soon enough.

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Q8: What sorts of cultural etiquette should I be aware of?

Ahh I love this question! And even after being here for 3 years, I’m still learning! Don’t get all obsessed about adopting each and every social norm, but it’s good to at least have a general understand of what’s acceptable and what’s not! You’ll feel more at home and less like an expat if you understand the ways of the locals.

– Alcohol is acceptable any time of the day, as long as you don’t get drunk!

– Splitting the bill at dinner is also seen as completely acceptable. We still kind of feel like broke college students doing it, but just try to go with the flow.

-The Spanish love children and it isn’t uncommon for strangers to approach yours, talk with them or offer kindness in some way. I learned this the first time my son fell asleep on the bus and a complete stranger helped me by picking him up and carrying him off. Shocking yes, but sweet nonetheless.

– Bring your own plastic shopping bags to the grocery stores. Most either don’t carry them at all or charge for them.

– Whenever you leave your house, dress up. I’m not talking wedding attire, but expect to see locals put real effort into looking their best whenever they leave home. Unless you’re heading for a workout, leave the yoga pants and trainers at home. For more about the fashion dos and don’ts here, read Dressing Like a Local in Spain: Your Go-To Guide.

RELATED ARTICLE: How Not To Dress Like a Tourist in Barcelona

-When visiting churches or other religious buildings, hats must be removed and shoulders covered. Keep skirt/shorts lengths conservative.

-The Catalan and Spanish greet one another with a kiss on both cheeks. I love this tradition.

-When walking down the street, there does not seem to be an understanding about “staying to the right” so others can pass. People tend to walk right down the middle with little to no concern of the person behind them. Don’t be offended, it is what it is!

– Expect time frames to be very different here. A few worth mentioning: the workday begins at 9, usually ends at 7, lunch starts at 1 and sometimes doesn’t end until 4, dinner/drinks from 9-11, children in bed around 11, most shops and restaurants closed for siesta 2-5 on weekdays and closed all day on Sundays. Like I said, very different.

-Don’t refer to Barcelona as “Barca”. This refers only to the famous futbol club which Leo Messi plays for. You’ll sound like a real tourist!

Camp Nou, Barcelona

Q9: Is the healthcare any good?

This was one of those things, as a mom with three toddlers, I was concerned about. Health care in the U.S., while not cheap, is excellent. Well, to my amazement, it turns out Spain has some of the best healthcare in Europe due to excellent medical options and low costs.

You have two options here – public system or private coverage.

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The private health-care system is paid for by employers and their employees or by private individuals. The advantages of the private system are often seen most in terms of significantly reduced waiting times for procedures and in the more upscale facilities.

Public healthcare in Spain is universal regardless of legal status (with limits). However, it is important to note that some visas disqualify you from this system and require private insurance as a condition of your visa.

If you are working in Spain and contributing to the social security system, you are eligible for the national public healthcare system. Although many locals and expats choose to contract with private insurance carriers because it is so affordable and typically covered under their expat benefits.

Sant Pau Hospital, Barcelona

In order to apply for the public healthcare system in Spain, it’s first important to know that coverage varies based on what region you live in. Each region has its own healthcare card (tarjeta sanitaria individual) and in Catalunya the Catalan Department of Health contracts with CatSalut to provide healthcare services. Application can be found here.

For most people who qualify for the CatSalut card, almost all health care services are covered at no cost to the patient and there are no exclusions for pre-existing conditions. Coverage generally includes primary care, specialized care, mental health care, medical transport, some degree of pharmaceutical coverage, physical therapy and support for chronic illnesses.

For more information, continue here.

Q10: How does tipping work here?

The Catalan locals of Barcelona generally do not tip. Shocking, but true. Actually, there is an ongoing joke in Spain about the people from Catalunya being particularly careful about their money. Tipping, generally doesn’t fit into the budget.

If you do want to tip, however, go right ahead! But do not feel obligated whatsoever to throw down the expected 20% like in the U.S. The tip is usually one or two euros as a friendly gesture at a restaurant, two or three euros for a taxi driver or food delivery person, and 10 euros for a service like a hair salon or massage.

Q11: Is the public transportation system any good?

It isn’t good – it’s fantastic!! When we sold both of our cars in the U.S. before moving to Barcelona, I couldn’t picturing myself with three toddlers on the city bus! Now three years later, I have the confidence to take public transport to any corner of the city – and back.

The trains, trams and buses are clean, safe, and very affordable! The city is well connected and you can find a metro station or bus stop within a few blocks distance. Each morning the kids and I take the train to school with many other working parents and their children. Zero threat, guys.

The entire public transport in Barcelona is organized in one fare system of the Autoritat del Transport Metropolità (ATM). This makes it much easier for passengers to travel freely with one fare card across the various transport options. Tickets are sold at newsstands, metro station machines or small kiosks throughout the city.

– The current 2020 price for a single ride ticket is 2.40 euros.

– The Travel Card “Hola BCN” offers unlimited journeys for 2, 3, 4 or 5 consecutive days. It’s perfect for visitors. Price ranges from 16.30 euros for 2 days to 38.00 euros for 5 days.

– The T-Casual is a 10-journey ticket and costs 11.35 euros.

– The T-Usual is an unlimited journey ticket for one month duration. *Popular with expats.

– T-16 refers to a youth metro card suitable for children ages 4-16. There is a one-time cost of 30 euros and an application process. Then the child can ride freely until December 31 of their 16th birthday year. *Popular with expats.

– Lastly, the T-Jove card is for passengers 25 years and under to take unlimited journeys over 90 days.

For more info, check out the comprehensive guide on Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona official website.

If there’s anything on this list that I haven’t covered, please comment below or email me! I would love to help answer your questions about moving to this fantastic and beautiful city.

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