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Finding work in Spain can be very difficult for an expat, and those already working in Spain should make efforts to keep their jobs.
Although unemployment in Spain has improved steadily over recent years, it's still among the highest in the European Union (EU). The national government has even created financial incentives to encourage jobless foreigners already in the country to return home.
The country’s strict policies protecting workers' rights also mean that many stay in their positions long-term and turnover rates remain low – creating limited openings. This can certainly work to an expat’s advantage once they secure viable employment.
Non-EU citizens need a work permit to be legally employed in Spain, while EU citizens and EEA citizens do not need a work permit. Expats moving to Spain will need to apply for an NIE (Número de Identificación de Exrenajeros) number, and different regions will have different processes. The NIE is a foreigner's identification number, which is necessary for getting set up with healthcare coverage and a bank account, among others.
Job market in Spain
Overall, the tourism and construction sectors are Spain’s most important industries and are the best areas to look for employment.
The country has also historically attracted large interest from entrepreneurs looking to set up businesses. Anyone planning to migrate to Spain to do so should, however, hire a local gestor to help them negotiate the sticky bureaucracy spun from Spain’s web of rules and regulations, particularly in Catalonia.
Qualifications obtained in Europe and the UK are widely recognised. Salaries are generally less than in the UK and Northern Europe, but the standard of living is higher and the cost of living is lower. Plus, typical Spanish working hours include a two-hour break for lunch in the afternoon, although the traditional siesta is slowly being done away with in many Spanish cities in favour of sociable working hours.
Finding a job in Spain
Those lucky enough to secure employment prior to arrival will thankfully avoid the crunch of the job hunt, but many who arrive in Spain without a job offer will quickly discover that finding work can be more difficult than they anticipated.
The job prospect horizon will broaden tremendously for those with a good command of the Spanish language. If an expat happens to know German, there are even more opportunities to be filled – especially with real-estate agencies, travel companies and tour operators.
Otherwise, English-speaking expats should strongly consider taking a course in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) so they can take advantage of the demand for teachers in private enterprises and language schools.
Self-employment in Spain
Given the lack of decent job opportunities, and even more so after the pandemic, many expats have had to turn to self-employment to work in Spain – with many finding success in the IT sector or improvements and repairs.
The actual process of working as a self-employed person in Spain (known as an autonómo) is quite straightforward. Expats interested in doing so will need a financial consultant called an asesor to help them get established, and handle their income tax returns and IVA (the Spanish equivalent of value-added tax).
Anyone from another EU country can come to Spain and start work without any special requirements, but this is not the case for non-EU nationals (which includes UK citizens after Brexit). Non-EU nationals will need a Cuenta Propia permit to legally do this kind of work.
Being self-employed also legally requires contributions to the health and pension system, the cost of which increases with age. There is no sliding scale of contributions, where someone pays more as they earn more. This is a significant hurdle for someone who aims to set up a business but does not have much money behind them.
Earnings tend to be lower in Spain than elsewhere in Europe, and monthly costs are high from the get-go. Newcomers will also need to account for the fact that their asesor will charge them for their three-monthly IVA returns and a yearly tax return. Expats planning on raking in the cash as self-employed workers should therefore think twice, since it will cost several thousand euros a year just to operate legally.
New arrivals can also choose to increase their monthly contribution payments to provide for unemployment and illness benefits.
Work culture in Spain
Spain's business culture is strongly rooted in tradition, and some business practices may seem old-fashioned to expats. Nonetheless, once they adjust, expats should find it relatively easy and pleasant to do business in Spain.
Hierarchy is paramount to business in the country. Spanish managers generally have the authority to make important decisions without consulting their employees. That said, the business culture is evolving, and those of a younger generation may uphold slightly different ideals and subscribe to more egalitarian practices.
Making contacts and networking in Barcelona is also essential. The power of connections is not to be underestimated and is a principle ingrained in the Spanish working world. Expats should take advantage of any attempt to interact with decision-makers and attend job fairs and group events.
It is also critical for foreigners to learn at least some Spanish or Catalan if planning to work in Catalonia. International business may be conducted in English, but other transactions will most likely be in Spanish.
►See Doing Business in Spain for more on work culture and etiquette
►How to Bypass the Notorious Catalonian Red Tape provides details on navigating bureaucracy in Spain
"When I moved to Spain I got a job with a fixed contract in a Spanish company. After contributing to the Social Security system, and being from a European country, getting a residence permit was practically automatic. Things have changed a lot since then.
"I've done all my legal, residential and financial admin myself over the years. I find that it is important to actually understand the intricacies of the process. I like to know what I am signing and what implications it may have.
"In Spain, the most important document to obtain at the beginning of your time here is called the Padron. It's a register to show that you live in a specific municipality. This document then allows you to request further documents and permits." Read more about the expat life of Molly, a British expat who's lived in Spain since 1998, in her interview with Expat Arrivals.
"I would advise signing up with an agency to assist in finding a job. It is usually a bit harder to find a job here than it is in larger cities." Read more about Dan, an American expat, and his life in Barcelona.
Are you an expat living in Spain?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Spain. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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