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Interview with Stuart – a British expat living in Spain

Updated 5 Sep 2023

Stuart Fahy has travelled to many countries around the world. He moved to live in Spain in 2017, which was initially an on-and-off experience until it became more permanent towards the end of 2020. Now he lives in Santander on the north coast, working mainly as an English teacher alongside writing for his personal travel site, Just Travelling Through, and a few other external sources.

Follow Stuart's adventures on Twitter @JustTravelling1.

About Stuart

Stuart, a British expat living in SpainQ: Where are you originally from?

A: Leeds, United Kingdom

Q: Where are you currently living?

A: Santander, Spain

Q: When did you move here?

A: I first arrived in February 2017 and have moved around a few cities within Spain since then. Starting in Torrelavega, then a couple of summers in La Coruna and Valencia and a few months in Madrid. Although the majority of my time living in Spain has been in Santander.

Q: Is this your first expat experience?

A: Yes, although it was on and off for a few years. Spending several months in Spain before returning to the UK or going travelling for a few months before my stay became more permanent. Aside from a few months in Madrid in 2021, I've been in Santander continuously for the past three years.

Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?

A: I came over here alone. Ready to try something new.

Q: Why did you move? What do you do?

A: After travelling a lot, I wanted to experience living in another country. Spain was always my first choice, and a friend of mine suggested working as an English teacher. After passing my TEFL qualification in 2016, I found a job in the north of Spain working in a high school and have worked as an English teacher since then.

Living in Santander, Spain

Q: What do you enjoy most about Santander? How would you rate the quality of life compared to the UK?

A: The food and the views are the best parts of living in Santander. For me, the food in the north of Spain is the best in the country, and the city has so many good pincho places, not to mention other typical Spanish food. From the top of the city, you can look out over the bay with the mountains and green fields on the opposite side. It's so picture perfect, especially on a sunny day.

Overall, I'd say the quality of life compared to the UK is better. Eating out is more affordable, and the locals tend to do it more regularly than they would at home. The local mentality is more sociable than I'm used to in the UK too. Being outside is just part of the culture.

Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about home?

A: When I first arrived, it was difficult to have much of a social life as I didn't know anybody in the city. Without my friends and family from back home, the adjustment was harder, especially without knowing much Spanish beyond a very basic high school level.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Spain? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?

A: Learning Spanish was the main issue, which is still a work in progress. Now I'm able to communicate reasonably effectively, which makes solving everyday issues a little easier. Particularly after Brexit, when I had to register with a local GP surgery, change my ID card and buy a Spanish SIM. The little things operate differently than in the UK too. Taxes for example are a lot more complicated, especially if you're self-employed, as you have to pay to be registered.

The initial culture shock I experienced was related to food. I was a very picky eater, so I was instantly put off by the sight of a whole fish (face and all) offered in front of me. It's still a little disturbing now to see the fish laid out like that in the supermarkets. On my first trip to buy groceries, my biggest problem was trying to find the milk. It wasn't in the refrigerated section as I'm used to, and I spent at least 10 minutes trying to track it down.

Q: What's the cost of living compared to home? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in Spain?

A: In general, things are cheaper in Spain. Prices are increasing but on the whole still not at the same level as at home. However, it's easier and cheaper to find some things back in the UK. Olive oil for example is produced in Spain but is one of the most expensive items on my shopping list. I also find nuts are expensive too.

Q: How would you rate the public transport in Santander? What is your most memorable experience of using your city's transport system?

A: Santander only has a local bus service. It's apparently the city's answer to a metro system, and you can kind of see the similarities when you look at the map of the various coloured routes. However, it isn't the easiest to figure out just by checking the map. Fortunately you can download an app to help find the bus times, and almost every stop has an electronic display counting down the minutes to the next arrivals. Getting a local bus card gives almost a 50 percent discount. And even at full price it's affordable.

More bus lines connect the suburbs and nearby villages, along with local trains, which are also inexpensive.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Santander? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?

A: Fortunately, I've had minimal experience dealing with the local healthcare service. But every time I have, they've always been friendly and helpful. Not to mention understanding of my difficulties in communicating. As Santander is relatively small, there's only one main hospital, but you'll find several health centres scattered at convenient points throughout the city. However, most are only open until early afternoon. So if you have any health problems post-lunch, you have to go to the hospital.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Santander? What different options are available for expats?

A: In Santander, most people live in flats. You'll find a few houses away from the city centre, which are generally well connected by buses and local trains. The suburbs also have newer housing, with several blocks still being finished. Some of the older buildings in the centre are badly insulated, which doesn't help in the winter when it can be pretty cold. The more modern apartments are much better, both inside and out.

Q: Are there any areas or suburbs you'd recommend for expats to live in?

A: Sardinero, by the beach of the same name, is the most expensive area purely because of its location. Puerto Chico too is known for its higher prices, as it's situated ideally between the city centre and the beach. Along General Davila is a good spot, especially if you can find an apartment on the top floor with views across the city and towards the bay. Outside of the centre, Maliaño, Peñacastillo, Valdenoja and Monte are nice suburbs with good nearby facilities. A little further along the coast is Mogro, which apparently has the best sunsets.

Meeting people and making friends

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular group? Have you ever experienced discrimination in Santander?

A: The north of Spain has a reputation among Spanish people as having a more closed attitude. It's certainly true in Santander. Not everyone is negative towards outsiders, but it is difficult to get to know a group of locals. Other expat friends (some have lived here longer than me) have told me the same. I haven't experienced any discrimination or general negativity, but it's not very open either.

Q: Was making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?

A: I got lucky that I met another expat when I first started in my academy. He was about to leave, and our stays crossed over by just a couple of weeks. He already knew a few other expats through regular activity groups, such as meet-ups or language exchanges. I found this was the best way to get some kind of social circle. Both expats and locals who want to practice their English.

Q: Have you made friends with locals, or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals?

A: Most of my friends are other expats, although I have some sporadic contact with locals too. I met some local friends through my girlfriend, who, while she is half-English, grew up in Santander and is very much Spanish. I met her while working together on an English teaching course.

Working in Santander

Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?

A: Arriving before Brexit was a big help. It meant I could already get my Spanish ID and social security before the restrictions came into force. I merely had to switch across to the more relevant documentation once Brexit became official.

I was fortunate again when I first arrived that the company I'd be working for sent someone to help get me set up with all the paperwork I needed to work and communicate with the necessary officials. This included a bank account, NIE (Spanish ID), social security, etc. I had to complete a lot of forms and return several times to get everything sorted. Bureaucracy in Spain is never the simplest of tasks.

Even ignoring my basic level of Spanish at the time, knowing what documents I needed and from where would have been very challenging without that initial support.

Q: What is the economic climate in Santander like? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?

A: Santander is an affluent city in some areas, although nowhere near the likes of Barcelona and Madrid. Prices are gradually increasing, especially in terms of accommodation, which peaks during the summer months. In general, it's not as cheap as the south of Spain but considerably less expensive than the big cities.

I was offered a job before I arrived (and that's why I chose this region). As a teacher, I used TEFL.com to find initial work. Once I decided to stay longer, I stopped by all the English academies in town with my CV. Santander isn't short on academies, so you have plenty of options.

Away from teaching, the usual work sites have jobs to apply for, such as Indeed, InfoJobs and LinkedIn.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Santander?

A: People tend to work later in Santander, as in Spain in general. Longer lunch breaks in the middle of the day mean restarting later in the afternoon. You'll find much fewer people working in the middle of the day in Spain, so I suggest avoiding this time if trying to deal with clients or businesses in the country.

Final thoughts

Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Spain?

A: Unless you're living in one of the big cities like Madrid or Barcelona, learning Spanish is a must. Even a basic level will allow you to communicate with the locals and help get what you need to set up your new life. Then you'll have to work on the paperwork with ID (NIE/TIE), social security and a bank account being the most important. Stop by any bank to find what you need to set up an account, while you can get your ID from the extranjería. Helpfully, social security is in another office. Try to find someone who can go along with you to translate in case of any difficulties.

Have a lot of patience with the paperwork. You'll likely be going back and forth a few times to get everything sorted. Maybe just for the sake of a form missing a stamp or going to the wrong desk. It can also depend on the person's mood on the day.

To find accommodation, the best websites I've found are Idealista and Foto Casa. They're relatively easy to use with an intuitive layout.

Language exchanges (or "intercambios") are a good way to meet people and learn the language. You'll find bars setting them up regularly. Or try websites like Meetup for similar events.

– Interviewed in September 2023

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