An Overview of Spanish Visas and Residence

Once you decide you want to live in Spain, you need to understand Spanish immigration law to find out if you meet the requirements to become a legal resident.

Because the law in Spain, as anywhere, can be complex, I’ve consulted professional experts to help get the details correct. The first thing to note is a simple case of terminology. Immigration lawyer and director of the Madrid law firm Sterna Abogados, Ainhoa Manero Benavente, explains that a visa is different from a residency permit. “Visas only allow people to enter Spain. The residence or staying permit is something else.”

With numerous residence permits on offer, the first step is choosing which fits your needs. ©Csundahl/iStock

After submitting an application at the Spanish consulate in the applicant’s home country, and the consulate approves the procedure, the applicant gets a visa that allows entry into Spain. After arriving in Spain, expats need to register with immigration and apply for the residence or staying permit. Note that you cannot submit your application at any consulate you choose. You must submit at the consulate designated for your city of permanent residence.

Spain offers many options for visas and residence permits. Each option has its own set of requirements. The most common possibilities are:

  • Tourist Visa
  • Student Staying Permit
  • Non-Lucrative Visa and Residence Permit (sometimes called Retirement Visa)
  • Employment Visa and Residence Permit
  • Self-Employment Visa and Residence Permit
  • Entrepreneur Visa and Residence Permit
  • Investor Visa and Residence Permit (also known as the “Golden Visa”)
  • Long Duration (Permanent) Residence Permit
  • Spanish Nationality for the Descendants of Sephardic Jews
  • Family Roots Visa and Residence (arraigo)

Less common possibilities are intra-company transfers, family reunification, asylum seekers, students serving post-graduate internships, and former students applying for jobs after university graduation.

Here’s a brief summary of the benefits and requirements for each option. Check your consulate’s website for all the crucial details.

Tourist Visa

Allows you to stay in Spain for 90 days, but then you must stay out of the Schengen zone for 90 days before you can return. If you are not familiar with the Schengen zone. It’s almost the same as the EU but not exactly. Usually the tourist visa is issued automatically to North Americans on arrival but check with your consulate to be sure that applies to you. You need to have a valid passport, a round-trip (or onward travel) ticket, a place to stay (hotel reservation or invitation from a friend), and sufficient funds (access to about $100 a day).

Student Staying Permit

If you are enrolled in classes at least 20 hours per week, you can apply for this permit from within Spain while you are on a tourist visa. The permit is good as long as classes last. There is no age limit. A person could be enrolled in a master’s program or language classes and be eligible as long as they are in class 20 hours a week. You have to show that you don’t have a criminal record, and that you have the funds to sustain yourself while you study. You are allowed access to Spain’s healthcare system with this permit.

Non-Lucrative Visa and Residence Permit (sometimes called Retirement Visa)

If you meet the requirements, the first residence permit is for one year. The first and second renewals are for two years each, so Non-Lucrative Residence can last five years (at which point you are eligible for the Long Duration Residence). By definition, you cannot undertake paid work with this permit (and that includes remote work of any kind). But after one year, you can convert Non-Lucrative residency to Employment Residence or Self-Employment Residence.

You must have the equivalent of €30,000 ($33,286 at the current exchange rate) in a bank account or income from pensions or investments of €2,130 ($2,363) a month, plus €532 ($590) a month for your spouse and each dependent child. Income from rental properties or salaries is not accepted. You also have to provide proof of private health insurance in Spain, clean criminal record from the FBI (with fingerprints), and a letter from a doctor stating that you have no infectious diseases. Consulates can add other requirements. Some consulates require “proof of accommodation” in the form of a one-year lease or title to a property in Spain. Ainhoa says that proving that you have a place to stay should be sufficient.

Employment Visa and Residence Permit

This is what you need when a company hires you to work in Spain. In this case, your employer will do most of the work or at least tell you what to do. Depending on the situation, you may have to apply from your home consulate. But, in some cases, you can apply from Spain if you are a legal resident or on a tourist visa.

Self-Employment Visa and Residence Permit

Also known as the autonomo, this is what you need to work freelance, including remote work. You have to apply from your home consulate, submit a business plan and any permits needed, and document that you have the funds needed to get your business going.

Once you get the visa and arrive in Spain, you need to register your address, then get the residence card, register with Social Security, and register as a freelancer. The autonomo requires you to pay an escalating monthly fee that begins around €60 ($66) and rises to over €280 ($310). You’ll also have to pay Spanish Social Security, VAT tax, and personal income tax. It does not establish legal residency for spouses or dependents. Consult with an expert to figure out if this makes financial sense for you. Autonomo holders can access government healthcare, which saves the cost of private health insurance.

Entrepreneur Visa and Residence Permit

If you want to start a business in Spain, apply for this visa/permit. Residence is good for one year and can be renewed. The permit includes residency for spouses, dependent children, and elders in the family. Besides meeting the same financial requirements, and the need for an FBI report and private health insurance as the Non-Lucrative residency, applicants must have an innovative and viable business plan approved by Spain’s commercial office. Entrepreneurs can apply either from Spain or at their Spanish consulate. Processing is quick, no more than 20 working days.

Investor Visa and Residence Permit (also known as the “Golden Visa”)

Buy property in Spain valued at €500,000 ($554,780) or more and get a visa and residence for yourself, your spouse, and your dependent children, as well as permits to work in Spain. Financial documentation, FBI report, and private health insurance are required. It’s good for one year but can be renewed even if you’ve been out of Spain for more than six months.

The property purchase must be made within 90 days prior to the application, and €500,000 must be unencumbered. You can make the application from your home consulate but applying while in Spain on a tourist visa gives you more advantages. Applications are processed within 10 days. You can also get a Golden Visa by buying $2 million worth of Spanish government bonds, depositing €1 million ($1.1 million) in a Spanish financial institution, or buying €1 million worth of shares in Spanish companies. For more details, see our article on Golden Visas at IntLiving.com/iberianvisas

Long Duration (Permanent) Residence Permit

After five years of living in Spain on one of the residence permits described above, you are automatically eligible for permanent residence as long as you have not been out of Spain more than 10 months in the five years. Time spent on student staying permits counts at 50%. Once you have this permit, you only need to be in Spain one day each year to keep it. Permanent residence gives expats the right to work and access to the government healthcare system.

Spanish Nationality for the Descendants of Sephardic Jews

You can submit the application at your home consulate. For requirements, see: Tiny.cc/7n3tiz

Family Roots Visa and Residence (arraigo)

If at least one of your parents was originally Spanish or you have a minor child of Spanish nationality, you are eligible for this residence. Documentation includes a clean criminal record and birth certificates of the Spanish family. For requirements, see: Tiny.cc/arraigo

For general research on your options, see: Tiny.cc/Spainimmigration

The catch is that each consulate has its own list of requirements, which may be different from those of other consulates. Ainhoa cautions that “a lot ‘depends,’ so be cautious about interpreting the requirements. The consulate has the decision power over the approval of the application, but the law is the same for everyone, and in case of a mistake, we can always appeal.”

Her advice to North Americans who want to move to Spain is, “make a good plan, have a legal strategy and a Plan B, just in case.” And, as you’ll probably agree after reading this article, because of the complexity of immigration laws, consulting with an immigration lawyer before submitting your application is always a good idea.