For many years, Spain has enjoyed a reputation as a fantastic vacation destination. Its warm climate, sunny Mediterranean beaches, history, art, and culture, as well as its friendly, easy-going, relaxed atmosphere, have delighted travelers for years.
Spain is a popular retirement choice, especially for people from the United Kingdom. There are approximately 300,000 Britons (working and retired) living in Spain, along with 43,000 from the US and 7,000 from Canada. All told, expats make up about one of every eight people in Spain.
If warm weather is your preference, you’ll find most of Spain to your liking, especially along the Mediterranean coast. Summers there are hot but not oppressive. Malaga, a coastal city in the south, records average highs of 30oC (86oF) in summer. Temperatures rarely dip below freezing in Barcelona, at the north end of the coast; coastal cities farther south never experience freezing temperatures, and it never snows.
Madrid, in central Spain, gets very hot in summer. It’s slightly hotter but less humid than the coast, and may see below-freezing temperatures and snowfall in winter. Spring and fall bring heavy rains.
The northern (Atlantic) coast of Spain is the coolest and rainiest. However, it’s is also the greenest. Bilbao is an attractive, welcoming city that would be a good choice if you prefer this climate.
Sevilla, the largest city in the southern Andalusia region, is about an hour inland, and its climate is comparable to that of Phoenix, Arizona – hot, but dry.
The climate of the Canary Islands remains remarkably constant and very pleasant year-round. Temperatures average 18-24oC (64-75oF) throughout the year. The easternmost islands are semi-arid, while the westernmost islands receive more rainfall. The islands claim to have the most ideal climate in the world, and if you like your weather warm and relatively dry, it would be hard to argue.
Cost of Living
Here’s where most of Spain excels, in comparison with the rest of Western Europe. Only Portugal offers a cost of living that is cheaper than Spain. Compared to France, Italy, Germany, the UK and Scandinavia, Spain is a bargain.
Madrid and Barcelona are Spain’s two largest cities and offer the most in the way of culture, entertainment, and socialization opportunities. With so much to offer, they are popular and therefore expensive, and may be less favorable to retirees for whom lower cost of living is a concern. Compared to the US average cost of living, average costs are 15 percent higher in Madrid and 9 percent higher in Barcelona. If you’re accustomed to living in one of the more expensive US cities, cost of living in Madrid or Barcelona will seem comparable or perhaps slightly cheaper.
When you leave these two large cities, prices drop considerably. The most noticeable price difference is the cost to rent or buy your home. Most of Spain’s other large cities, such as Valencia, Malaga, and Sevilla, are statistically similar to each other.
In general, the costs of restaurant dining, soda, dairy, and meat are slightly higher in Spain. Gasoline, cars, some leisure activities, clothes, and buying a home are considerably higher. Foods other than dairy and meat, beer, wine, local public transportation, and renting a home are usually lower. Rents are considerably higher in Barcelona and Madrid.
Taxes are somewhat higher; the federal tax rate ranges from 25 percent to 54 percent. A married couple with a combined annual income of €100,000 would pay around 33 percent, after deductions. If you live in Spain for at least half of the year, you are considered a Spanish resident for tax purposes, regardless of your visa or citizenship status.
As with many modern countries with tax-supported, socialized healthcare, healthcare in Spain is considerably less expensive than in the US. In terms of quality, Spain’s healthcare system was rated 7th best in the world, according to the often-referenced World Health Organization’s 2000 study.
Free public healthcare is available only to those who have been employed in Spain, and have therefore paid into the system. Most expat retirees will need to join a private healthcare system with private health insurance. Fortunately, this is reasonably priced, and there is a wide variety of plans from which to choose.
Quality of Living
In addition to the warm, sunny climate and the affordable cost of living, other factors contribute Spain’s quality of life. While Barcelona and Madrid are certainly cultural hubs, other cities have plenty to offer too – especially Sevilla. There’s the Picasso Museum in Malaga (his birthplace) and the Guggenheim in Bilbao. There are ancient castles to explore all over the country. And there are beautiful beaches up and down the Mediterranean coast.
Many of Spain’s cities would make good retirement choices, especially those along the Mediterranean coast and Sevilla, which is about an hour’s drive inland. Each region of Spain has its own distinctive qualities in terms of historical influence, topography, culture, and climate.
The Canary Islands offer nearly ideal weather and reasonable cost of living, and there is an abundance of natural beauty and plenty to explore around the seven major islands. Each of the islands is different in terms of what it has to offer, but bear in mind that you will be living on a somewhat isolated island chain.
Throughout Spain, people are relaxed. In Spain, the emphasis is on enjoying food and wine, relaxing, socializing, and just enjoying life. After all, this is the country that brought us paella, tapas, gazpacho, and sangria.
Like anywhere else, Spain is not perfect and not everyone has a pleasant expat experience in Spain. People often complain about slow and inattentive service, crushing bureaucracy, dishonest business dealings, and crime – although crime statistics on Numbeo.com look pretty good. Some folks have experienced bias directed towards anyone who is not Spanish.
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Spain is one of the most gay-friendly countries in the world. It was the third country to offer marriage equality (in 2005), and a recent Pew Research poll revealed that Spain has the lowest percentage of people who find homosexuality “morally unacceptable” (just 6%). In contrast, 55% find being gay “morally acceptable” (second highest) and 38% feel that it is not a moral issue.
Gay communities can be found in cities throughout the country. Sitges (south of Barcelona) and Torremolinos (south of Malaga) are very popular gay beach destinations, with numerous gay bars, restaurants and accommodations. And of course there’s Ibiza, the party capital of Europe, with the world’s largest disco. While Ibiza’s huge dance and party scene isn’t exclusively gay, gays are welcome and visible.
Maspalomas, on the southern tip of Gran Canaria, is another gay destination. The area offers six gay or gay/lesbian resorts, about two dozen gay bars and discos, and a gay beach in the Dunas de Maspalomas (sand dunes). This area seems to have the largest gay community in the Canary Islands.
As I have written previously, vacation destinations don’t necessarily make good places for permanent living. But knowing that these places exist in Spain gives you a good idea of the overall welcoming atmosphere, and it’s nice to know that you have some good options for weekend trips.
The Canary Islands look fascinating; I definitely want to travel there to check them out. In addition to the nearly ideal weather and reasonable cost of living, there is an abundance of natural beauty and plenty to explore around the seven major islands. Each of the islands is different in terms of what it has to offer.
The main word of caution I would offer you regarding the Canaries is the same advice I would give you about living on any island: Is the island large enough for you? Does it offer enough in terms of what you will want to do with your life on a day-to-day basis? You don’t want to become bored or feel trapped after living there after only a short time.
As I mentioned above, real estate in Madrid and Barcelona is comparatively expensive. In many areas along the Mediterranean coast, prices are depressed. During the 1990s and early 2000s, the real estate market was hot and many areas along the coast were overbuilt. When the world economic crisis hit in 2007, the real estate bubble popped. Developers went bankrupt and banks folded. Many condos are still available below cost, although the market is recovering and bargains may not last too much longer. Still, prices should remain reasonable and affordable for the foreseeable future.
Whenever you decide to move to a new country, I always advise renting there for six months to a year before you buy. This will allow you to experience the area as a resident, rather than a vacationer, and see whether or not you truly want to live there permanently. It also allows you to experience the area during different seasons and to thoroughly research the market and become familiar with local laws and practices.
Immigrating to Spain
If you are a citizen of another European Union nation, it is easy to move to Spain. For residents of non-EU countries, you’ll need a visa.
For a resident visa, the application process is tedious and bureaucratic, but doable. As long as you can prove that you have sufficient financial resources, no criminal record, and you purchase private health insurance coverage, you should be able to get your visa.
Other articles you will enjoy:
Fabulous Places to Retire: France
Fabulous Places to Retire: Uruguay
Fabulous Places to Retire: Colombia
Fabulous Places to Retire: Portugal
Fabulous Places to Retire: Malta
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© 2014 Dave Hughes. All rights reserved.
Updated January 7, 2020.
Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife: Pedro Szekely. Some rights reserved.
Dunas de Maspalomas, Gran Canaria: McDave Hamburg. Some rights reserved.
Malaga: Pletro Zuco. Some rights reserved.
Sitges: Enric Archivell. Some rights reserved.
Granada, Spain (Pinterest image): David Mark
Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Sevilla, and Ibiza sidewalk café: Dave Hughes. All rights reserved.