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EXPLAINED: The visas Americans need to live and work in Spain 

Alex Dunham
Alex Dunham - [email protected] • 15 Nov, 2021 Updated Mon 15 Nov 2021 14:59 CEST
EXPLAINED: The visas Americans need to live and work in Spain 

A move to Spain is a dream for many US nationals who have fallen in love with the country, but what are the work permit options available to Americans who need a job in order to be allowed to live here?


Let’s cut straight to the chase - it can be a challenge for Americans, as well as other non-EU nationals, to get a work visa in Spain. But it’s far from impossible.

US nationals don’t have the automatic right to get a job in Spain or anywhere else in the EU because of their status as third-country nationals within Europe’s single market.

They technically don’t have the right to apply for a job or a work visa from Spain either, having to carry out the application from the US or wherever they are through the Spanish consulate, just as it is for other non-EU nationals.

So what are the options for Americans of working age who want to live and work in Spain and who can’t afford other schemes such as Spain’s non-lucrative visa or the so-called golden visa?

The two main choices are a work permit as an employee and a work permit as a self-employed worker, both of which have their challenges as non-EU citizens.


Work permit as an employee (por cuenta ajena)

In order to be considered for a job as a non-EU national, in the majority of cases the position must be on Spain’s shortage occupation list.

The latest 12-page list published by Spanish employment agency SEPE is downloadable here, but overall the type of positions advertised are 95 percent in the maritime and shipping industry (from naval mechanics to ferry staff, chefs and waiters), as well as sports coaches.

In all fairness, it’s a pretty limited and disheartening list for the majority of American professionals interested in a move to Spain, but it is usually updated every quarter so there could be new positions opening. 

You also have to consider that your employer will have to declare that there was no suitable Spanish or EU candidate available to fill the position. The fact that it’s listed as an ocupación de dificil cobertura (skills shortage) is likely to play in your favour as that gives Spain’s employment ministry no choice but to accept non-EU nationals as candidates.

It is technically possible to apply for a work permit for a job that isn’t on SEPE’s list, but your prospective employer will have to vouch for you further still and really convince Spanish civil servants that there weren’t any local candidates available.

Photo: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

If you have found a job offer that you’re suitable for, you must start your application from the Spanish consulate in the US or the country in which you live, that’s if there is of course interest on the part of your prospective employer as they have to sponsor you and start the application procedure themselves at their regional department of Labour and Immigration.

So even if you had scouted for work while ‘on holiday’ in Spain and managed to agree to a deal with your future boss, you wouldn’t be able to do any of the paperwork from Spain.

Bear in mind that your proficiency in Spanish may also be a key factor in landing the position and that your profession and qualifications (especially regulated ones like doctors, architects, lawyers) may need to be recognised first.

The standard employee’s work permit in Spain lasts one year and can be easily renewed if your work conditions haven’t changed.

If you work for a company in the US that has a branch or branches in Spain, it’s worth enquiring with your HR department about how other employees have previously been transferred to the Spain office. 

You would have to convince your employer that the relocation to Spain is worth it for them in the business sense, if you want them to sponsor you of course. 


What about English teaching and au pair work for Americans in Spain?

Teaching English is a job that many anglophones in Spain take up as native teachers are very much sought after and the pay isn’t too bad either.

It’s one of the best options for Americans to live and work in Spain, as thousands of US nationals, Australians, Canadians and other English-speakers from non-EU countries who come to Spain to teach each year can vouch for.

The most common work permit used by non-EU English speakers who have completed a TEFL (Teaching English as Foreign Language) is in fact the student visa, which allows them to study at a recognised institution while teaching English on the side.


There is also the “Auxiliares de Conversación” Programme which is run by the Spanish government and sees people from the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia recruited to be English language assistants in Spanish schools. 

READ ALSO: Where do all the Americans live in Spain?

There are other schemes available to non-EU English teachers so the best place to start is with the language schools and organisations themselves: send out some emails and find out what choices are available to you personally.

In terms of au pair work in Spain for Americans, there is a specific one-year visa they can apply for at the Spanish embassy or their closest consulate in the US. Applicants must be aged 17 to 30, have an au pair agreement with a Spanish host family stating salary and conditions as well as proof of sufficient finances and private health cover.

There are also Spanish work visa options for seasonal workers, although these usually come with lacklustre conditions and low pay. 


Work permit for self-employed people (por cuenta propia)

For US citizens looking to move to Spain and set up their own business or register as self-employed workers (autónomos), the process is fairly complicated.

You will have to demonstrate that you have the right qualifications to fulfil said position and prove that you will have sufficient earnings in Spain.

All this will have to feature in a comprehensive business plan which you’ll have to present, covering everything from a marketing plan, the readiness of financing and payments and other information about your operations. Overall, you’ll have to demonstrate that your business will be successful within three years.

Being able to show any contracts or commissions from Spanish companies or the required licences or registrations depending on your industry may help with the process.

If you thought that was tricky, wait for it. You’ll have to send this business plan to five separate Spanish institutions for their approval:

Unión de Profesionales y Trabajadores Autónomos –  UPTA

Confederación Intersectorial de Autónomos del Estado Español – CIAE

Organización Profesionales autónomos – OPA

Unión de Asociaciones de trabajadores Autónomos y emprendedores-  UATAE

Federación Nacional de Trabajadores Autónomos – ATA

Photo: TGG23/Pixabay

They will review it and send a viability certification if they agree the business will be successful. 

If they approve the business plan, you’ll have to send this together with all the other paperwork to Spain’s Ministry of Labour and Immigration. The permit is also valid for a year but after five you’ll be eligible to a long-term five year work permit.

Again, it could be that you need to have your qualifications verified by the Spanish Ministry of Education if you work in a regulated field, a painstaking process which currently takes two years on average.

This all sounds pretty challenging, but this is one of those times where it’s definitely worth enlisting the help of a Spanish immigration or international labour lawyer with experience helping US citizens with this self-employment visa. 

They will know how to navigate the complicated Spanish bureaucracy and give you a true picture of what immigration and labour authorities are expecting from your application. 

Bureaucracy is one of the main pitfalls of life in Spain for foreigners and it’s often best to accept that paying someone who understands ‘the system’ will save you time, plenty of headaches and possibly even money in the long run. 






It’s fair to say that moving to Spain from the United States is usually a lifestyle choice more than a career move. 

Spain, with its notoriously high unemployment rate, has a slight protectionist attitude towards its work market, wanting to offer the few jobs that are on offer to its local population or at least EU candidates. 

This can also be seen in how long they take to process the recognition of qualifications of non-EU nationals, at least four times longer than in Germany or Ireland.


Salaries are also generally lower than those in the United States. However, the allure of Spain’s culture, people, food, history, public healthcare and plenty more may matter more to you than money. 

The country always scores high for quality of life on expat surveys, but not so for career prospects.

It may be that English teaching is still the easiest option for landing a job in Spain for Americans, but US citizens in other work fields shouldn’t be put off by the paperwork and seek professional help if they truly want to live and work in Spain.



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