Lessons Learned (so far…)

*Last Update December 2018

Jeff had a great idea. Recap, succinctly, all the things we learned(so far) in our move to and settling into Spain. Not that I don’t want someone to read my entire Blog, but if they really wanted to suss out the pertinent info, it might be a rather time consuming undertaking. Lets face it, some of it is nonsense too. So here goes.

Making the decision:

Everyone is different, but I’m going to assume that if you’re thinking about moving to Spain (or another foreign country) that you’ve spent a decent amount of time there and know what you’re getting yourself into. OK, whew! That’s out of the way.

Now that you’re seriously considering pulling up roots and heading into the unknown (whether for your retirement or just a year or two abroad), here are a few things to think about.

  1. How well do you tolerate change? And by this, I mean a wholesale change in lifestyle, culture, language, priorities. Everything and anything you can think of will be different. Down to the quality of the toilet paper and the shape of a toilet seat (if there is one). It might seem quaint on a vacation, but when you move, it will be just how you live. Being open and honest with yourself about how well you tolerate inconvenience doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It just means that you’ll know yourself ahead of time and will understand what you’re feeling when you’re ready to pop a gasket.
  2. How will you support yourself, long term? This is a big one. I’ve heard so many stories about people who have a short term plan and hope that they can ‘find a job’ in Spain when they get here. First off, generally – unless you have a visa that will allow you to work – you can’t work while living in Spain. The unemployment rate is very high for college graduates in their 20’s and early 30’s. Spain is generally a service based economy now, so it’s hard for young people to find skilled work. They won’t take non-Spanish workers before they take a qualified Spanish candidate, so plan on NOT working. This means having considerable savings to live off of. But don’t freak out. The cost of living here is very favorable and if you are of retirement age, with a pension or Social Security, or trust income, you’ll do just fine.
  3. What the HELL are you thinking? Spain is a foreign country and you know no one. It’s a crazy idea and you should shut your laptop or turn off your tablet immediately and stop reading. Especially after reading the above two paragraphs. NOT!! You are reading this because you dream of moving to Spain, just like we did. And we all know, as my grandma used to say, ‘Where there’s a will, There’s a Way’. You just need to keep your feet on the ground, and under you, while you’re doing it. Easy Peasy.
  4. Back to Money – hope you have a pile. This process isn’t cheap. Every overnight envelope from Spain. To and from the FBI facilitator. To and From our Translator, multiple rounds. To and from the various Secretary’s of State to Apostille your documents and the US State Department – and the fees involved. Flying to Spain. Flying to LA for our consulate appointment. Flying back to pick up our visas. That doesn’t include leasing apartments, buying insurance, renting cars and hotels, and then parking euros in your new Spanish bank account ‘just in case’. It all costs and it’s expensive. And don’t get me started if you want to move goods and/or vehicle to Europe. Not just the shipping cost, but the duty and customs charges. When your husband cries over his motorcycle, stop him right there. It adds up.

Preparing for your visa appointment in the US:

Well, this is the most daunting part of the whole deal. Going onto the Spanish Consulate website is scary. They make it sound like it will take piles of documents, and your first born, to EVER get approved for a visa. But here’s the thing, that’s not true. But there is a lot of work involved and they’re serious about you getting it right. But the appointment isn’t that scary and when it comes down to it, it’s pretty simple after you sift through all the words and read what it NOT written there. Email the Consulate 100 times and parse their responses for hidden meaning – because their requirements change without notice, and depending upon who you get at the consulate. But again,, they’re nice people. Here are the main things you need to know to be ready.

  1. Get everything stamped. This sounds stupid because we stamp nothing in the US, except maybe a notary when you buy a house or something. But other than that, stamps went away with the British departure after the revolution in 1776. We had a Tea Party in Boston over a stamp so we did away with them and never looked back. But in Europe – and in Spain, for sure – they’re still all the rage and they wants stamps. This means you’ll have to get your bank to stamp your bank statements. Your bank manager will respond with ‘Huh?’ and you’ll say ‘Yeah, I know’ and then you’ll explain that you don’t really care that all he has is an address stamp with the bank’s name on it. You just need him to take that stamp and use it on the summary page of your bank statements. You only need the summary page – not to detailed portion of the statement.
  2. Get new versions of any certificates – birth, marriage or otherwise. The dates on the back where we certify documents in this country can’t be very old. 3-6 months. So if you got married 20 years ago and you have an original? That will be too old. They’ll worry you got divorced in the meantime. Doesn’t make sense? Doesn’t matter, just get a newer certified copy.
  3. If your state – like Arizona – doesn’t do background checks, start early. We couldn’t go to the local or state police because Arizona doesn’t provide that service, so we had to go the FBI route. The FBI route takes more than 4 months. That’s too long. So pay for the outside vendor overnight fingerprint service, and pay for the service that sends your back ground through in less than a week. It will cost you but it’s worth it for less stress.
  4. Pay for extra ORIGINAL copies of translations. This is important because, while the consulate website tells you that you only need certain things when applying for your spouse, in the end they’ll require all the same things you got for your individual visa. And you’ll want those extra certified copies, cause they’ll ask for them, at the last minute, while in the middle of the interview where you didn’t know you needed them.
  5. Make copies of everything, but in Black and White ONLY. The consulate had a hard time telling what was the original and what was the copy. The original would be in color, because it’s an original. The copy would be in black and white because its a copy. That is exactly what they expect. It will confuse them if you don’t do this.
  6. Watch this video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wtbQUaC9mE  -This actually happened to us in our interview. They wanted to know why our translations weren’t stapled. They had me reach out to our translator to ask her why. She freaked out because official translations are never stapled. I offered to staple them myself. They said that only she could affix the staple (the same staple in every stapler in the world), if she said a staple was required, but she said it wasn’t. It was like it was the first time the consulate had ever taken in paperwork from one of their own official translators, yet it wasn’t. CRAZY!

To Move or Not to Move your stuff from the US (including a vehicle)

We got rid of nearly all of our stuff, except 325 cubic feet of boxes and my couch. I simply couldn’t part that stuff. But here’s the thing, I’ve been in Spain living without it for 4 months. And in that time, I’ve had to purchase some of what is right now on a boat heading my way, because well, I needed to eat on something, cook food, wear clothes and sit on a couch. SO, I bought so many things that I could have left 90% of what we paid to ship over here. Here’s my advice”

  1. Get rid of everything. Everything you think you need – you probably don’t. But here, lets test what you really need. Box it up and store that stuff for 4 months in a storage place before you get on a plane to move to Spain. Then, after 4 months, if you really really still need it, pay to ship it. But I will bet you will hardly remember what was in those boxes because you had to go buy a lot of it to survive. And you’ll find you’ll ship less than half of what you originally planned on shipping. This will save you thousands of $$ and headaches. Believe me. I found out the hard way because I have a couch on the way that will (crossing my fingers) fit into the 7th floor apartment window via crane when it gets here the first week in June.
  2. Shipping a Vehicle and Getting a Spanish Driving License. Are you planning on doing this? We are, but we haven’t found an English language driving school – and that is required to get a license. So Jeff’s motorcycle is here but we are struggling to determine how he’ll get his license, how we’ll meet the requirements to license our motorcycle, and on and on. Think about it before you ship a vehicle. It better be the one motorized thing you own that you want to be buried with – or it can be replaced.

Preparing for your move (finding an apartment/home)

Hiring a moving specialist in the country is key. There are people who do this kind of work for a living. We hired Linda and Janus at Moving to Valencia https://movingtovalencia.lbiz.es  They were pros and really made the situation full service. Its sort of ala carte in that you can have them do all the leg work, soup-to-nuts, from helping you get a bank account, health insurance (for your visa), find an apartment – and on and on. Or just use them for one or two things. We will have them assist us with our visa renewal too. Services like this are the best investment you’ll make and it will save time and headaches. But on top of that, here is what I would recommend.

  1. Spend the money and fly to whatever Spanish city you’re considering and rent a flat in advance. It will help with your peace of mind when it comes time for you to cut the cord and actually move. I did this several months before our move and it made us feel 100% more secure knowing we had an address to call our own. It also made registering with the town hall super easy and our immigration documents were taken care of the first day we got to Valencia.
  2. Open a Bank Account right away. Having a bank in Europe is easier and you can transfer money into it using TransferWise. Its an online currency service that charges market rates for currency exchange and nominal fees to transfer money from your US account. You’ll become adept at the currency market if you sign up for their alerts. When the dollar gets strong against the Euro – where ever you are, including the dentist’s office – pull the trigger. They have an app for that.
  3. Get Health insurance lined up on that trip. Getting insurance in Spain can be daunting and doing it face to face with a real person who can answer questions (even via Google translate) is the best way to go. Your Spanish bank will also sell medical insurance.
  4. Find a good lawyer in the city. Most lawyers require a fee to have an initial consult in Spain. Mine was only 100 euros and I left feeling like I had all my bases covered with him representing me. He reviewed our lease contract and even arranged the payment to our landlord from the bank. We use https://abogadium.com/abogado/98/eduardo-alcoy-blat

Arrival and registering with the Town Hall and Immigration

If I had to do it again, I would have had a bunch of passport sized photos taken in the US and brought them with me. It seems I need one every time I turn around. The first was for registering at the town hall and immigration. And then for our metro passes, and then and then and then. Just have a bunch of them. You can also take some at any train or metro station. I’m not sure why there are photo booths at every train station to take passport photos, but there are. Sometimes, shhhh, don’t tell anyone, but I’ll just go in and take more. I know I’ll need them and now I have a tan from the beach. No one ever said I wasn’t a little vain.

Medical Professionals

Find a Dr. right when you get here. Schedule a physical and get set up in their system. That way, when you discover you have kidney stones, you’re not scrambling when you’re ill. Seems like common sense, but you’ll have a lot on your plate and other stuff to think about so it might fall through the cracks. Put it on the list of things to do in your first month or so. Learn from my mistakes here. It was a hard lesson – not a joke about the kidney stones.

Remember, if you ever have tests ordered by a Dr. in Spain, print the results when they send them to you (or go get them at the lab) and take them to our follow up appointment. The Dr. will not be sent the results and will rely on you to bring them to be reviewed or you’ll just waste the appointment. This is for privacy purposes.

Paying for Good Advice

I am on many, many online forums for Expats. I hear complaining and questions and more complaining. A lot of issues regarding Spanish laws and how the navigate the bureaucracy – trying to avoid the fees or the tax. Here’s the thing – Pay for good advice from a gestor, abogado, relocation specialist, insurance agent, etc. Being Penny Wise and Pound Foolish is just dumb.

I’ve seen this with my parents as they have gotten older. In a spate of righteous indignation or getting ‘mad at the tax man’ they’ve decided to not pay, or cancel insurance – just because they ‘don’t like Obama’. And here’s the thing – it came back to bite them financially (not Obama). And now they don’t have something they really need because they were trying to save money they didn’t need to try to save. They just got mad and maybe a little greedy.

I’ve asked the question before on those forums – ‘Why don’t you go see a lawyer rather than asking for random advice on FB or other places? That seems like it would save you some heartache.’ And the answer is always ‘That’s too expensive,’ But then they’re shortly posting about the fine they were levied (that they don’t think is fair) or the bill or denunciation they received in the mail. Paying for advice on how to do it right the first time, when you have no real clue how it ought to be done, is smart. And will save you months of sleepless nights – when the outcome could be so much more predictable and certain with a pro.

Getting a Spanish Driving License

*Updated December 2018

I have learned a lot about this process for American’s moving to Spain. I’m in the thick of it now. First, know that if you gain residence in Spain, your US license, in combination with an International driving permit, is not valid after 6 months from the date you enter the country. I learned from a policeman recently that its the same as driving without a license if you’re stopped and show your US license and NIE card (they can take you to jail). And worse, if you have car insurance in Spain and don’t have a driving license – after 6 months, the insurance company is not obligated to pay any claims. Because, technically, you don’t have a license to drive in the country. Even if it’s your own car or motorcycle.

The irony is that you can’t apply for a driving theory test until you’ve lived here for 6 months. So invariably, it means you’ll go a period of time without driving legally, if you choose to do so. As far as the process to get a driving license goes, here is what I know so far.

  • You can study for your written exam online. There are plenty of online services that offer practice tests and other Spanish driving knowledge. Someone who reads this blog sent me her English driving manual of Spain so I had a hard copy too. But the following link for the online study is what I used.  http://www.practicatest.com 

Documents Americans need to take to sign up for your theory test (EU and countries with a license agreement with Spain will require different things):

  • Two passport photos
  • Your NIE card (if your address has changed you’ll need a fresh Padron from the town hall since it will be past the 3 months when you got your first one)
  • Your passport
  • copies of all of the above documents
  • Medical/psychological certificate you can acquire at your local certified center for just that purpose 

Make an appointment online and bring these to your local Jefatura de Trafico. They will help you fill out the rest of the forms you’ll need, and make the appointment for your theory test at a different location. Remember to ask specifically that you take this in English.

Pro tip: Don’t bother going to the Jefatura (DMV) early. Their system will only allow you to take a ticket 30 minutes prior to your appointment. 

The place where you take both the theory test and the practical test is far – a 20 euro cab ride far (and that’s hard to do in Valencia) outside of town in the middle of a rice field. It doesn’t look like any official building and has bars on the windows like something from an old Hollywood spaghetti western. It looked dodgy enough that when the cab driver said ‘Aqui’ I was a little hesitant about getting out of the car. The building is surrounded by cafes where you can go – if you get there too early, like me – and continue to study the book and drink copious amounts of coffee while your caffeinated-self vacillates between total confidence and jittery panic. 

Then, about 15 minutes before your test – you meander across the parking lot and enter a room lined with benches and closed doors. There is no one to greet you, and no number to reassuringly grab, to give you that false sense that someone knows you’re there, and this isn’t some sort of psychological test from a Stephen King novel. It sort of made me miss the militant security guard at the Jefatura in downtown Valencia.

At about 5 minutes til your appointed testing time, a door will open. And they’ll start calling out names to line up and have their ID’s checked. Then you are assigned a seat with a computer. You’ll enter your NIE number and the test will begin. But not before a man will stand up and give you explicit instructions in either Valenciano or Spanish.  I was pretty sure he was giving out all the answers and I understood none of it.  

The technology they’re using is Windows XP or some similar vintage. It, and I were not friends by the end of my repeated pecking at a screen that did not register when I had made a selection until I did it 10 times for each question. I went over my answers to the 30 question three times. And then I clicked the finalized button. 

I thought it would score my exam right away – like the Practicatest service I have been using. But it didn’t. I asked the woman running the show and she said I could find out my results online in the afternoon. I’m pretty sure this is the smartest way to do it. No one going postal because they failed. You can do that in the privacy of your own home.

Now that I passed my teoreco comun, I will be allowed to sign up for lessons at an Autoescuela of my choice. I can find one that has lessons in English, but my exam will be in Spanish so I’ll let you know how that goes. The practical driving test must be taken in a car with dual controls. So it pretty much guarantees that you have to pay an Autoescuela for at least a couple of lessons, let them schedule the practical driving test, pick you up and take you to your test, and then drive you home – pass or no pass.

From start to finish, it will have taken about a month of study/practice tests before my theory test.  Because of the holidays – it will take about 8 weeks before I can complete my lessons and schedule a practical driving test. That’s a long time when I already know how to drive. But we’ll go into the spring with a new perspective, a driving license and a car to continue to explore.

Keeping in touch with family and friends

Social media is great – sometimes. I’m not a fan of Facebook with all their selling my info for nefarious purposes. Luckily, there are a host of other ways to stay in touch with our friends and family – back home, and around the world. These days, a lot of people have personal websites, twitter, their own blogs and so on. So staying in touch is easy and real time.

I use WhatsApp in Spain and also to talk to my family via voip. Its easy, and on wifi it costs me nothing. Our friends can follow along on my blog to keep up to date as much, or as little, as they like. I like that better than FB.

Finding new friends in Spain

Meeting people has not been a problem. Valencia is a small town and we have met people through the ‘MeetUPs’ app listing local events. I’ve met other expats at popular restaurants. And there is always ‘InterNations’. It’s an organization that links people with similar interests who are expats and live near each other. This is a great group but I have gotten hit on by a lot of guys – none who are Spanish so it’s more Americans and Scandinavians for whatever reason. Disconcerting and kind of creepy so be careful out there.

I’ve also participated in a lot of the tours put on by local organizations. I’ve made new friends and we connect for lunch or local events like wine tastings and the like. It’s been great.

I also joined a local gym and a yoga studio. This has helped expand my friend who are locals to Valencia and helped my Spanish.

Finding your Comfort Zone

There are a lot of things that are different. But there are ways to find what’s comfortable. In Valencia, there are many grocery stores but the one with the most familiar layout – if you’re from the West Coast of the US, will be Consum or Carrefour. They also carry the most US brands and their staff are really nice. Moving to Spain is not a contest to see how much you can escue all the comforts you’re familiar with. Sometimes, you need Heinz ketchup and that’s OK.

But remember that most grocery stores – and stores in general – are closed every Sunday. Keeping your finger on Spanish and local holidays is important too. All of a sudden you can find yourself with an empty fridge and nothing – and I mean nothing – is open. So stay on top of it.

Learn to Relax

OK, this is one of the most important things and one of the hardest to learn. It’s the whole reason you moved to Spain. Chill the HELL out!! It’s not the US! Nothing is a big deal. You’ll figure it out. The sky is not falling and if all else fails – use Google translate!

Open another bottle of wonderful (crazy cheap) Spanish wine (It’s not France) – I like a good red from Rioja – and just look at the sky. The clouds are drifting by. It’s probably sunny. Your neighbors, out the window of your flat, are at one of million cafes down there, drinking something good. Chatting with friends. They’re not worried, so you shouldn’t be either.

Life is good in Spain – come join us!