‘The queuing is ridiculous’: What Spanish bureaucracy is really like

No-one knows more about the issues with paperwork in Spain than our readers. Here's what they had to say about Spain’s ill-reputed red tape and some tips for those knee deep in files.

'The queuing is ridiculous': What Spanish bureaucracy is really like
Photos: AFP

Cita previa: the two words in the Spanish language with the greatest ability to turn your day upside down. 

Maybe we’re exaggerating a little, but if you are familiar with this expression (scheduled appointment in Spanish), you’re probably used to dealing with Spain’s public institutions and the often draining paperwork, queuing and gatekeeping that comes with it.

We asked our readers with experience of dealing with Spanish red tape to spill the beans and tell us what’s good, bad and ugly about the system.

Here are your answers and advice.

Is Spanish bureaucracy really THAT bad and why?

The general consensus among respondents was a “yes, but…” answer.

There are those who refer to it as flat-out “remarkably annoying”, others called it “not terrible” and the more pragmatic said “it gets better”.

But overall our readers do think Spanish bureaucracy leaves a lot to be desired.

Brian Wall from Malaga says that “there appears to be no accountability from the lowest clerk to their manager, from his manager to his supervisor and so on up through the chain.”

“They need to review so many issues that could be done much simpler,” argues Karen Williams. “All the queuing for numbers at offices early morning is quite ridiculous”.

Long waiting times and seemingly long-winded and illogical procedures are a recurring complaint among our commentators.

“Turned my car from another EU country into a Spain-registered vehicle, it took 9 months,” writes Wayne Campbell.

“Administration(s) didn’t hand over all the necessary documents, or gave wrong or partial information, or there was data missing on official documentation and so on.”


It’s worth noting that many bureaucratic processes can now be done online in Spain to avoid queuing and booking appointments, but the face-to-face system is still not as standardized as one might hope for.

Several readers commented on how things seem to be done differently depending on what city or region of Spain you’re in, what office you’re visiting or even which civil servants are working that day.

Maybe the luck of the draw plays a bigger part than we all think.

What are the most annoying experiences you’ve had with Spanish red tape?

In order to get a new proof of address, I had to travel to my old town at the crack of dawn to get it from the town hall there because seemingly the internet doesn't exist and the town hall here couldn’t get it for me,” Spain resident Adam Miller recalled.

“We were lucky to get someone who got us the certificate there and then after pleading with them, otherwise we would have had to repeat the trip two days later.”

Paul Giblin, who lives in Madrid, remembers “being told I needed a new residency permit to register as self-employed at Hacienda and then being told I needed the self-employment registration to get a new residency permit.Kafkaesque to say the least!”.

But other readers argue that “it’s all relative”, and that compared to other countries such as the US and France, public service delivery in Spain is not only better but friendlier.

However, the protagonist of this hilarious video on Spanish bureaucracy might argue otherwise. 

What tips would you offer anyone who’s new to Spanish bureaucracy?

If you’ve moved to Spain, you know already that dealing with red tape is a given, so maybe it’s a case of just learning how to handle it better.

Many of readers speak of the importance of “learning Spanish” to avoid misunderstandings. That may seem like an obvious tip, but for those who aren’t fluent, here is a glossary/guide to the most useful Spanish red tape words.

Another handy piece of advice is to stay informed, as Galicia resident José Añon suggests: “If you know a Spanish local/resident that can help you with paper work, it would help you out quite a lot.”

The safest bet to get the job done, especially for procedures that require a lot of paperwork, is to enlist the help of a gestor (an administrative advisor).

Several of our readers recommended hiring these kind of professionals to get round the queuing, delays and ‘lost on red tape Spanish translation’ moments.

Some of the most reasonably priced gestorías (administration offices) are startups that work online, with monthly service fees around the €50 mark.

They usually get you to forward them the paperwork they need and offer you an online profile from which to manage and view your affairs more easily.

Some may offer their online services in English as well, but if you would rather meet face to face with a gestor, it’s worth googling “gestoría English” and your city or town in Spain to see what you get.

To finish off the lowdown on Spanish bureaucracy, Robert Cripps from Galicia proposes being “patient, friendly, don’t forget to smile and take every possible piece of paper, even if you don't think you'll need it.

“And be thankful you're not in France.”

SEE ALSO: The Local's A to Z guide to bureaucracy in Spain 


Member comments

  1. The difficulty of the Spanish system is that the instructions for procedures are not clear. Different provinces can have different requirements for the same application and the government informativon “lists” of requirements can differ depending on where you find them online and also different from the sheets in government offices. Then there is the issue of where to even go to find out what you need to do. My Spanish teacher told me it is NOT my Spanish that is making these processes difficult. It is difficult and confusing for everyone. Now you need an appointment just to ask a question and it takes at least a month to get a reply to an email (which may or may not have a helpful answer) if you get an answer at all. Even the digital certificate system, seemingly easier can be difficult to navigate at first. The certificate is not available for minors and the clave is only available if minors (including babies) have their own mobile number that accepts texts!!

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Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.


Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 


Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.


Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.


The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.