Undertaking 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. Perhaps two of the most opposed European cultural lifestyles are those of the British and the Spanish. Arguably one of the most exotic Euro destinations, Spain in many ways is a polar opposite of rainy, grey Blighty. But this is maybe why it often tops the tables in terms of being the most popular Erasmus destination for Brit students.
You may assume that some sun, sangria and maybe even the odd siesta will be part of your studies, but what else can an Erasmus 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 Erasmus students advise this level should even be up to B1 standard, 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 scratch; in Spain particularly there are many stories of Erasmus students being held in higher favour by locals due to their dedication to learning and speaking the language.
Check the language skill you will be expected to have for your course. Some courses will require proof of your knowledge before and during enrollment. Be aware also that not all cities prioritise 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 which are inexpensive, or even free in the case of DuoLingo, most learners see quicker results from being in a classroom setting.
Start planning for your Erasmus 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 themselves. Addresses, local bus routes, the number of campuses, and course start dates will all be important, and it’s wise to try and keep info together but organised and easy to access. Most universities will send out information and fact sheets to newcomers.
Applications usually have to begin 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.
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 one of the few things that varies between cities and neighbourhoods. The costs of food and other amenities are largely the same across the country, which helps when calculating living expenses. Most students advise costs of living to be between 300 – 400 Euro monthly. You then need only take the cost of your rent into account.
Students from the UK are often eligible for funding to help towards their living abroad. The British Council provide this handy guide to funding which helps you work out how much non-repayable loan you can expect to receive on top of any amounts you would normally get whilst studying. This is arranged through your home institution, and you will normally need to alert your student loan provider that you are going abroad in order for payments to be made at an earlier date whilst in Spain.
Ensure you take into account all the things you will need to pay for on arrival, such as bedding, your first big food shop and transport costs.
Spain is a well-connected country, with all major cities boasting well-established 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.
A couple of cities, including Barcelona and Valencia, offer tram service within the suburban areas outside of the city.
For inter-city connections bus is usually cheaper than train, 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.
There are also plenty of taxis. Contrary to some other European countries, you usually do not need to be afraid of fraud as most taxis are metered or a fixed price is agreed upon beforehand.
If you’re a keen cyclist be aware that much of the country is not well adapted to cycling in more built up areas, and 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 neighbourhoods. 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 Euro/month, and suburban accommodation at around 410 Euro/month. These costs can vary largely from city to city.
Use Google and Google Maps to research neighbourhoods (barrios) that you would be happy to live in. The latter can – to some degree – help you get your bearings of an area before even visiting.
You can sometimes find accommodation through University schemes and helpdesks, however if not, websites such as LoQUo and Idealista are trusted and widely used. However, always remain cautious when using the internet to find accommodation. Follow the universal rules for this practise (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 sort out 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 advert in which you’re interested. Especially at the beginning of term, you are up against a deluge of other students hoping to find accommodation. Apply to as many places as possible to maximise 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 grant. Make sure all amounts paid and the conditions for getting this cash back are agreed in writing.
Agencies are also available to help with a search, 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 course mates to spread the word that you are looking for somewhere.
This varies from university to university, however is extremely straight forward. 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.
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 acclimatise. Your university will let you know if this is available.
Opening a bank account may not be neccessary, 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.
However if no student account is available, you’ll need an NIE number to open one. You can get your NIE Number by applying for a Registration Certificate. This can be done at the Foreigner’s Office, Central Register of Foreign Nationals, or at your local police station, where they will have a designated desk for helping non-natives obtain their certificate.
To begin the process first collect a Modelo 790 payment form from your local police station. Take this to a bank where you will get it stamped after paying the €10,50 fee. This fee, and the stamp you gain from it, is proof you have paid the admin to get your Registration Certificate. You can then head back to the police station (or Foreigner’s Office or Central Register of Foreign Nationals if they are closer) ensuring you have originals and photocopies of the following documents:
- A completed Residence Authorization Application Form EX18 (you can find one here. It’s in Spanish and there are guides for filling this out on the Internet, however your language skill may be called upon at the offices also. If you don’t think your level will be good enough to communicate it may be helpful to go with someone who can speak on your behalf)
- Your passport and a photocopy of the personal details
- The stamped 790 form showing the fee payment
- Proof of address in Spain
- Two passport sized photos
Once all the admin has taken place (which usually does not take long) you will be issued with a provisional NIE number, which allows you to open a bank account and gain employment. This number will be printed on your certificate, which will now be winging its way to you in the post!
Opening a bank account is simple but requires much of the documentation listed above. 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.
Caxton FX card – The Banking Alternative
Often seen as a more simple alternative to opening an account abroad, a Caxton FX Card gives you an account you can top up from your existing UK account, and then pay via card at chip and pin and cash points across the world. This also comes massively in handy if you wanted to visit other countries while away. Payment cards are accepted extensively across Spain.
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 Euro.
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, you need an NIE number (see info in Banking above). 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 term-time.
Something you should definitely have and keep handy is your European Health Card which can be claimed free via the EHIC website. Ensure you get it from this link – there are many fraudulent companies on the web who will charge you for the honour of ordering and sending you yours. Once you have it, DO NOT leave England without it. As an EU citizen this is all you will need to access healthcare in Spain. Once you’re in the country private healthcare can also be accessed but, of course, at a price.
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 Centres and much like visiting your GP in the UK. 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.
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 carriage 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.
+34 917 14 63 00 – The British Embassy in Madrid
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 much more friendly than Brits, and this permeates into many aspects of daily life. Personal space is judged differently, and in some cases a British person may feel like it doesn’t exist at all. Public displays of affection are more more common in Spain also.
British people 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 near enough 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 UK. 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.
Feature image source: Image ‘Toledo at sunrise’ by David Iliff, C.C Licence 2.5