Being an expat in Barcelona: a guide to housing, work, and culture in Spain
Being an expat in Barcelona can be an amazing experience, but finding a job and adjusting to the unique Spanish lifestyle takes time. Read our tips to help you adapt in record time.
13 min read
Spain is one of the liveliest and most exciting countries in Europe, and Barcelona is an ideal place for expats to experience the country's charms. People who choose to live in Barcelona are often attracted by the simple, relaxed lifestyle — although living in a large Spanish city still has its share of stress.
The good news: In general, the cost of living in Barcelona is more affordable than in other European cities such as London, Paris, or Amsterdam. The earning potential may not be as high in Barcelona, but many people find the warm climate and cultural richness more than make up for it. Expats who thrive in Barcelona tend to focus less on the potential drawbacks and more on the positives, such as:
- The climate — thanks to the city’s location, temperatures are mild and pleasant throughout the year.
- The coastline — the metropolitan area of Barcelona has great beaches stretching over 30 km along the coast.
- The culture — the Catalan capital has a wide variety of museums and cultural institutions, such as the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, the History Museum of Catalonia, and the Picasso Museum.
Ready to learn more? The following guide covers what you need to know about being an expat in Barcelona so that you can adapt to your new life in record time.
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The expat community in Barcelona
Thanks to its excellent food scene, verdant parks, and large international community, Barcelona is a very popular city among expats. The relatively low cost of living in Spain and the growing number of companies will likely make Barcelona even more attractive for expats in the coming years.
So, how many expats actually live in Barcelona? According to figures from the Generalitat de Catalunya, 1,636,193 of Barcelona’s residents are expats or foreign-born.
That all adds up to a robust community of people to meet and interact with, and you should have no trouble finding bars and events that cater to the expat crowd.
Most social media platforms have groups created specifically for expats living in Barcelona, which you can easily join to meet people.
Expat housing in Barcelona
Because you may be interested in either renting or buying, let’s look at some key facts about how both housing options work in Barcelona.
Basics of renting in Barcelona
If you’re planning to rent an apartment or a house in Barcelona, you can expect to pay an average of €11.80 per square meter per month, according to estimates from the Idealista portal. To give you an idea, that’s about €800/month for a 70-square-meter apartment. But that’s not all.
Barcelona is a popular destination, and the rental market reflects this. Even so, it’s not impossible to find an apartment at a good price — you just have to search a little harder.
Most rental contracts in Spain are valid for 6-12 months, although it’s generally possible to renew them for the same period.
When calculating a budget for rent and moving costs, be sure to factor in a security deposit equivalent to two months' rent, plus a one-time fee of a few hundred euros if you use a real estate agency to find your home.
If you want to be closer to the city center, opt for a smaller apartment. Also keep in mind that a furnished rental usually costs more than an unfurnished one — although if you choose an unfurnished place, you’ll have to budget for the furniture yourself.
Basic aspects of buying a home in Barcelona
Barcelona may be a popular destination for expats and Spaniards alike, but don’t worry — the real estate market isn’t out of control (at least, not yet). There are good reasons to invest in a house in Barcelona.
If you’ve decided to buy a property, the average price of housing in Barcelona as of 2023 is €1,990 per square meter, according to Idealista.
As with renting, the price to buy a house can vary dramatically depending on the area. The most expensive houses and apartments tend to be located in affluent neighborhoods, such as Sarrià and Pedralbes.
You could limit your property search to less expensive areas such as Nou Barris, Sant Martí, or other districts further away from the center.
Buying a house in Barcelona can make a lot of sense for those who are in love with the local culture and know they want to live here for many years.
But you have to go into the decision with your eyes open. When comparing prices, think beyond just the purchase price of the house. You should also take into account the financing costs and other expenses that you may have to pay when purchasing property, such as hiring a real estate agent to help you find a home, a surveyor to inspect the building, and a lawyer to make sure the paperwork is in order.
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The best places to live for expats in Barcelona
The most popular and in-demand neighborhoods in Barcelona are:
- Sarrià: This neighborhood still has the old nooks and crannies from when it was a rural village, along with more modern and cosmopolitan areas.
- Les Corts: The contrast of medieval and modern buildings give this neighborhood an interesting landscape.
- Les Tres Torres: One of the neighborhoods with the highest socioeconomic level in Barcelona, Tres Torres is known as a sophisticated, quiet area.
- Pedralbes: This area has a large concentration of historical monuments, parks, city attractions, and impressive villas.
- La Maternitat i Sant Ramon: Home to the Camp Nou stadium, this is also one of the most picturesque neighborhoods in Barcelona.
Finding a job in Barcelona
Barcelona is home to a growing network of companies, so job opportunities are easier to find than ever before. Booming sectors such as web programming and computer engineering make Barcelona a particularly attractive place to look for work. In fact, companies like American Express and Astrazeneca are always on the lookout for local talent.
Getting a residence permit for Barcelona for non-European expats
One major difficulty for some people wanting to live in Spain: residency status.
If you’re not an EU citizen and you want to move to Barcelona for work, you’ll most likely have to find a job and a company to sponsor your residence permit or visa.
Expats have to complete a number of formalities when they arrive in Spain. Before moving to Barcelona, it’s best to familiarize yourself with what you need to do.
Getting a residence permit for Barcelona for expats from the EU
If you come from an EU member country, you’ll have no problem settling in Barcelona, although you’ll still have to complete some formalities.
Expat salary expectations in Barcelona
If you’re imagining getting a job in Spain with a large salary, you may need to rethink your expectations. Compared to other major European economies, such as France and Germany, the average base salary in Spain is not very high.
According to the Spanish Statistical Office, the average base salary in Barcelona is €28,142 per year, which is equivalent to an average hourly rate of €13.32. This is higher than the average base salary across the rest of Spain, which is €25,896 per year.
If you’re looking for a job in Barcelona, keep in mind that a place can seem more or less expensive depending on how much money you earn. If you can, negotiate a salary that equals or exceeds the average salary in Barcelona.
Cost of living in Barcelona
Living in a city like Barcelona doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically save more money. People who live in Barcelona tend to earn higher salaries than their suburban or rural counterparts — but they also tend to pay more for essentials such as rent and food.
Barcelona in particular is known for its high prices for eating out and entertainment, such as museums and other attractions. Housing is also more expensive than in other cities in Spain.
Keep in mind that the cost of living in Barcelona includes not only essentials, but also activities that allow you to really explore the local scene. If you’re looking for a quick way to balance your main expenses, check out our 50/30/20 calculator, designed to help you divide your income among three major categories: basic needs, disposable income and savings/debts. Or, input your specific expenses into our monthly budget calculator to get a clearer idea of your monthly spending.
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Healthcare in Barcelona
Healthcare in Spain is free and generally high quality, but you’ll have to register with the Social Security system in order to access it. There are different ways to do this, depending on where you live and what your situation is.
Check out our complete guide on how to register for Social Security in Spain, which includes everything an expat living in Barcelona needs to know.
Education in Barcelona
If you plan to study in Barcelona as an expat and you already speak Spanish, you probably won’t have any difficulties. In Barcelona, you can also choose to study other languages such as English, French, or German.
Looking for a study program in Barcelona in Spanish? We recommend exploring the programs of the best universities in Barcelona, including:
- Pompeu Fabra University: This university offers a wide range of programs, including more than 27 bachelor’s degrees, 33 master’s degrees, and nine doctorates.
- Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona: Although it isn’t located in the city center, it boasts a very large university campus.
- University of Barcelona: Founded back in 1450, this is the oldest university in Barcelona.
Education in Barcelona (for non-Spanish speakers)
If you plan to study in Barcelona as an expat and you don’t speak Spanish, you might encounter some difficulties because Spaniards aren’t generally fluent in English. Although more and more programs are becoming available in English, the vast majority of courses are taught only in Spanish or Catalan.
That said, universities such as Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya offer more courses in English.
Looking for a study program in English in Barcelona? We recommend checking out programs at the best universities in the city, including:
- ESIC, Business & Marketing School: Unlike other universities that also offer courses in Spanish and Catalan, all of its courses are in English.
- International University of Catalonia: This private university has the longest history in the city of offering study programs in English. It has about 6,000 students.
- Universitat Oberta de Catalunya: This university is especially attractive because it offers all its courses remotely.
Children’s education for expats in Barcelona
As in many other European countries, the school year in Spain usually runs from September to June, with a break in the summer. If you have kids, you might choose to enroll them in a local public school, which is free. Classes will almost certainly be taught in Spanish in public schools.
You can also choose a private school, where teaching may be in English or another language, and there may also be a religious component. Some of these schools can be quite expensive, especially the internationally oriented ones.
Getting around in Barcelona
As a major communications hub, Barcelona is well connected to the rest of Spain. This makes it an ideal starting point for expats who want to explore the country.
Barcelona also has a modern network of trains, buses, and trams that allow you to travel relatively quickly to any point in the city.
Public transport in Barcelona
Public transportation is a relatively affordable and reliable option. A single public transport ticket costs €2.40 and is valid only on the same day of purchase.
Other options are also available. For example, you can buy a 10-journey ticket, which starts at €11.35 and has no expiration date. The price increases depending on the area(s) of the city for which the ticket is valid.
Keep in mind, however, that bus and intercity train services may be less frequent on weekends. To help you plan your route, the Spanish rail network RENFE has a website available in a range of languages, including English, Spanish, Catalan, and Basque.
Cycling in Barcelona
More and more expats living in Barcelona are choosing to cycle to work, school, and social events. Cycling is especially easy if you live in central neighborhoods such as Tibidabo and Gracia.
If you decide to travel by cycling, you can expect to pay between €250 and €1,000 for a bicycle, depending on the quality you’re looking for.
Driving in Barcelona
Car-sharing apps such as Uber are available and becoming increasingly popular in Barcelona, although there may be a surcharge at peak times. Cabs are also common, and fares are usually not too high.
If you plan to drive yourself, keep in mind that parking in the city can be expensive and traffic can be a hassle.
You can exchange your driver’s license for a Spanish one if it was issued by a country that has an agreement with Spain. Otherwise, you’ll have to get an international license or apply for one once you settle in Spain.
Cultural differences in Spain and Barcelona
Barcelona is a large, multicultural city where many people live together in relative harmony, but Spanish culture is still very important here.
Some expats find it difficult to adapt to the Spanish way of life, while for others, it’s exactly what they’re looking for. For example, punctuality isn’t exactly a priority in Barcelona. You might schedule dinner for 8:00 p.m., but people don’t start arriving until 8:15 p.m. Although it may be frustrating at first, look on the bright side: It also gives you a little leeway when you’re running late!
Other things that expats find a bit strange in Barcelona are:
- The Canaletas fountain: This is where fans celebrate FC Barcelona’s victories. As the story goes, an old newspaper used to report the team’s results on blackboards in that part of La Rambla. When the team won, the fans would celebrate on the spot — a tradition that continues today.
- The meaning of “biquini”: In other parts of Spain, someone would most likely be referring to a two-piece swimsuit. But if you hear “biquini” in Barcelona, they could also be talking about a ham and cheese sandwich!
- No tapas: Spain has become famous worldwide for its tapas, but they aren’t traditional in Barcelona — unlike in Andalusia or Madrid.
- Greetings and farewells: Spaniards usually greet each other and say goodbye with a small kiss on the cheeks. Often, it’s just an air kiss and there isn’t any actual contact. One exception is when men greet other men — in this case, a warm handshake is customary.
- Spanish slang: Spanish is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, but there are many differences between countries. Spain is no exception, and terms that are familiar in Argentina, Colombia, or Chile might be completely different in Spain. You won’t have any trouble getting by in Barcelona with your Spanish, but to really participate in the culture, we recommend learning the local slang. Spaniards will appreciate it.
- Siesta time: Even if you’ve never been to Spain, you may be familiar with the concept of the siesta: a break in the day between 2:00 pm and 5:00 pm that in some parts of the country is used to take a nap. In a big city like Barcelona, with its cosmopolitan atmosphere and pace, it’s not very common for stores and restaurants to close in the afternoon, and you won’t find many people taking a siesta here.
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Managing your money as an expat in Barcelona
If you’re preparing to move to Barcelona, you may be feeling some stress about how to maintain your saving habits in a different city and country.
The good news? N26 makes it easy for you. With our fully online bank account, you can set daily spending limits to help you stay on track with your budget goals and use Spaces to create sub-accounts for different needs.
Oh, and speaking of bank accounts, you probably need more information to get started. See our guide on how to open a bank account in Spain for the whole process.
Is Barcelona a good place for expats?
Thanks to its culture, history, job opportunities, and all the possibilities and experiences it offers, Barcelona is an ideal place for expats. Plus, it’s also a hub for business, education, and tourism, which makes it an unbeatable destination for people from all over the world.
Where do expats in Barcelona live?
Expats in Barcelona live all over the place, but the highest concentrations of expats tend to live in international neighborhoods located in the Eixample and Gracia districts, among others.
Can I live in Barcelona without speaking Spanish?
It can be difficult to live in Barcelona for a long time without speaking Spanish, at least at an intermediate level. Even if you can manage, you won’t get a full experience of the local culture. You’ll also find it more difficult to do basic tasks such as shopping, filing a tax return, or getting around.
Is Spain friendly to foreigners?
Spaniards are usually quite friendly to foreigners. Still, it’s a good idea to make an effort to learn their language and respect local customs. Spaniards who see you at least giving it a try will likely be impressed and warm up to you more quickly.
Can I live and work in Spain if I don’t have an EU passport?
Yes, you can live and work in Spain if you’re not a citizen of another EU country. To find out what options you have, visit this link.
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