International students in Spain – What to expect?

Sevilla top destinations for students

Student exchange programs have gotten very popular over the years. And Spain is one of the top destinations for students from all around of globe.

  • For European citizensSpain is great because of its famous beaches, casual lifestyle and laid-back atmosphere. For those from eastern countries, it represents a door to another culture.
  • For North, Central, and South America, Spain is important because of the language. Given that the Spanish language is native to Central and South America and the most important foreign language in the United States.

Given all that, Spain has opportunities for many countries to send their students to a student exchange program. 

Since there are more and more international students in Spain every year we wanted to help them. We thought we’d put together a list of the best tips on how to prepare for the life of international students in Spain.

Sun, sun, and SUN!

Spain is very sunny! Even in winter and autumn, most of the days, the sun just follows you wherever you go. During the summer and middle fall, it can be dangerous to walk around the town without sun protection.

Spain is very sunny
Parque del Bulevar, Jaen, Andalucia during the brightest period of the day

Sun is the brightest between 4:30 and 7:30 in the afternoon, so don’t let the hours fool you! A hat along that sun protection is also a good choice, and well, a bottle of water. Even if your skin is naturally darker and usually doesn’t burn – in Spain, it will. Bring sunscreen!

Cold nights in Spain

Spain usually doesn’t have cold winters, nor cold autumns. The temperature usually doesn’t drop below 4 Celsius, but here is a catch. 

Many people in Spain don’t have central heating systems at home because they don’t need heating for 10 out of 12 months. I don’t know about family homes, but most rental places for international students in Spain don’t have a heating system.

The problem begins when the 4 Celsius outside becomes 4 Celsius inside. This may be a normal temperature for the outside, but it’s too cold for your bedroom.

Most rental places don't have heating system
Most of the rental places for students in Andalusia don’t have a heating system

So, without a jumper and good fluffy sleepers in your home, you will freeze. When you are freezing in your home, you are also freezing outside. So, it’s an inescapable circle that makes winter seem harsher than in Northern countries.

Yes, there are small heaters that can help you during the winter; but they will double your energy bills. And since the homes are built to keep the heat away so you could survive summers, they also chase away the heat the minute you turn off the electric heater. 

If you see a circular hole in the dining table, that’s a hole for the heater.

Also, buy a scarf – Spain may not be cold, but it’s windy. Especially at night. So, please, this is not your grandma speaking, but, please, cover-up!

Nightlife in Spain

The majority of the country uses the standard Central European Time (GMT +1). Because of the differences with Central European countries, this time zone makes the sun in Spain rise around 8 AM and settle around 9 PM. In the summers, you can see the sun even at 10 PM. If you are not used to this, it’s pretty weird at first.

Besides these naturally late days, Spanish people LOVE late nights! Nightlife is one of the things international students in Spain love the most!

International students in Spain enjoying a night out
Nightlife in Spain

Spaniards normally start their days around 9 AM and have dinner around 10 PM. When they go out – and they do love going out a lot – they don’t go out before 1 AM.

And this is still pretty early. Most clubs open around 1 AM but don’t get crowded until 3 AM.
So if you are planning on going out, I suggest taking a siesta in the evening, because you’ll need a lot of energy at 2 AM!

Spanish kiss greeting

Spanish people greet each other by kissing two times on each cheek, starting from the right cheek. These kisses are not exactly real kisses, but more like a kiss in the air while your cheeks touch.

Shaking hands is acceptable only in very formal situations or between men. On any other occasion, men and women and two women will kiss to greet.

This custom is not unusual for southern Europe and Mediterranean countries (Italy, Greece), but there are some differences. In Italy, the first kiss goes on the left and the second one to the right. So, if you are from Italy, be sure to do it the other way around.

In Spain, you will not kiss only your friends, but anybody that you meet and greet. It’s a custom, and it would be weird if you would try and shake their hands. It doesn’t depend on age or status either, so prepare to kiss your friend’s mother or even your teacher if the environment is casual.

Siesta culture

The middle of the day in Spain is reserved for a siestaA siesta (nap time) starts around 2 PM and lasts until 5 PM. Even though it means “taking a nap”, siesta in Spanish culture is much more than that.

During this time, most shops, stores, and restaurants close. They open again at 5-6 in the afternoon. But around 2-3 PM, the cities almost turn into ghost towns.

Andalusia empty streets during Siesta
Andalusia empty streets during Siesta

Siesta is a time for everyone to take a break from their work and go home to rest, take a nap, or have a hot lunch. Of course, nobody is obligating you to go home or take a nap, but you will have a hard time finding an open spot to have lunch.

You’ll see that days in Spain have a unique rhythm. Even if you are used to working 10 hours a day, in time you will learn how to relax. In Spain, it’s not a sin to have a rest and gather energy for the rest of the day.

It can be hard to grasp this at first, but you will find a way to appreciate it. Believe us, siesta culture rules!

Tapas culture

Snacking is a big part of Spanish culture. Those snacks are called Tapas. Tapas are served in every bar (except nightclubs) and with every round of your drinks. Tapas culture is a big part of social life in Spain.

Every day is a tapas day. After a long day of studying or working, or just to get out of the house and meet some friends, tapas are a great solution.

Spanish people are very social, so they love hanging out with friends. They are also very family-oriented and like to spend time with their families at dinner parties and tapas.

While in most countries, Fridays are meant for parties and going out, in Spain Friday evening is for tapas and dinner. Friends and families go out and enjoy each other’s company while partying goes on Thursdays and Saturdays.

Spanish tapas
Spanish tapas

If you are afraid of getting out of shape because of the tapas culture, you will see you are wrong. Spaniards also have a big culture of training and jogging. They eat and drink a lot, but they are also very fit and take care of themselves.

Life in Spain is hedonistic but healthy. I can guarantee that their life philosophy will enlighten you.

Traffic in Spain

Traffic in Spain is very chaotic and confusing. If you come from well-structured and rule-oriented countries, you will be a little lost for the first two days.

First, Spanish streets are super narrow, which makes most of them a one-way street. Second, Spain is the third European country with the most density per capita of roundabouts. This surely makes traffic, well… more fun! 😀

Traffic in Spain

Traffic in Madrid, Spain

Also, traffic lights are not the most respected thing in the country. It’s not that Spanish people do illegal stuff, but sometimes they have more fate in themselves than a traffic light. And this system works, surprisingly.

Spanish drivers respect other drivers and passengers more than in other countries. They may not stop at every red light in minor streets, but they will gladly stop in the middle of the driving area for someone to cross over.

Also, the zebras are a bit strangely put. Passengers sometimes have a hard time finding the place to cross from point A to point B. Drivers understand this and respect it. So, there’s that.

All in all, the traffic in Spain may be chaotic, but it is also super respectable towards others.

If you, however, do wrong by someone (cross their way, cause an accident, block their car, etc.), then prepare for… let’s call it a lecture. Spanish people may be nice and respectful towards others, but when you cross them, you sure will remember it. They know how to fight their fights and are not afraid to defend themselves.

Active life

Spanish people love to walk, hike, and jog. We already said that they look fantastic, and even in their 70’s. This is because they love strolling the town with friends, and how most of the cities are steep, they walk every day up and down.

During our life in Spain, we were in the best shape of our lives. It is because we would walk every day half an hour down to the faculty and then half an hour back up.

There are buses, metros, cars, and motors, but if you can walk – why not walk? Madrid or Barcelona are huge cities, so without public transportation, you are very limited. But if a city is smaller like Jaen was – there is no need for a bus; only if you are in a big rush.

The most common personal vehicle is a motorcycle or a scooter. Because the streets are narrow and steep, it is easier to get around on those than in a car. If you are a driver, some agencies rent scooters and bicycles for international students in Spain.

Bicycle is a good idea wherever you go, but maybe not so much in Spain. It would require excellent skill and physical condition to ride the bicycle uphill.

Bicycle in Spain

Bicycle is not a good idea in Spain

We had a roommate who rode his bike down the faculty every morning – a piece of cake – he was there in 5 minutes. But, whenever he was returning home, he pushed the bike back up. So, you decide which is easier – walking or cycling.

Festive days

Spain has a lot of festive days. And when I say a lot, I mean A LOT. They have at least one day off every couple of weeks (not counting weekends). Whether it’s a saint day or a feria – or close to some saint or a feria – it’s a day off.

When Spanish people work, they are super focused and productive. Their schools and faculties have very active and engaged students. Professors give their 100% to their lectures and their students, and so do employees of other branches. But because of that – they love to take breaks.

First, we had a siesta, and now we have whole days off. These days are not some lazy sit-at-home days. They are reserved for get-togethers, parties, hobbies, excursions, etc.

So some would say that Spanish people are lazy – but I assure you, THEY ARE NOT. They are very active and productive in their lives, and that is the main reason they are happy, relaxed, and look amazing!

Informal speaking

In Spain, it is a custom to refer to everyone by their name (even nickname). It is not usual to use a formal way of addressing.

Some languages have formal ways of addressing strangers, people with higher status or older by age, and so does the Spanish language. But even though they have this formal addressing thing, they use it only in super-formal situations or with the elderly (sometimes).

At faculties and even in schools, students address their teachers by nicknames and use informal addressing language.

It is not unusual for some people to be offended if you use formal language around them. That can make them feel old or seem as if you want to put a certain distance in your dialog.

For me, it is not that simple to this adopt this concept because from where I am, we use formal addressing in schools, faculties, with our friends’ parents, etc.

Can international students work in Spain?

International students in Spain who hold a student visa are eligible for 20 hours of work per week. If you want to get a job while studying, you should contact local authorities or the Association of International Students for Economics and Commerce to obtain a special work permit.

If you are from the EU, you don’t have to hold a visa or a special permit to find a job. You only need a DNI for foreigners and a registration at the Social Security office. Once you register, you are eligible to find work like any other Spaniard.

The problem with this method is that most employers will hire a Spaniard first. So, to try and go around this problem, you can also contact the Association of International Students for Economics and Commerce or ask your university for help.

So if you are preparing for Spain, be sure to have these things in mind. But don’t overthink it. Try to relax and enjoy. I must say I am jealous of your new home and new adventures. Spanish people are amazing, and Spain is a paradise on Earth. You will definitely have the time of your life!


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