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Brexit: Six facts Brits in Spain have become acutely aware of in 2021

Year one of the Brexit era has made Britons in Spain more aware than ever of their new status as non-EU citizens and all the consequences that come with it. Here’s what we’ve learned over the course of 2021. 

Brexit: Six facts Brits in Spain have become acutely aware of in 2021
From Blighty to Benidorm, the dream is over for many Brits who this year have realised that a life in Spain will no longer be possible post-Brexit. Photo: Jose Jordán/AFP

Firstly, a disclaimer. This isn’t an article aimed at pointing the finger of blame towards Brexit voters based in Spain or listing a number of ‘told you so’ examples of real drawbacks that were crossed off as ‘Project Fear’ claims. 

Over the course of 2021, Britons residing in Spain who voted for or against Brexit, those who saw the writing on the wall and those who dreamt of having their cake and eating it, have all learnt something, perhaps unknowingly.

Questions remain unanswered and problems unsolved as we venture into 2022, but almost 365 days since Brexit became official on January 1st 2021, here’s what we know now more than ever.

Brexit reality bites

In the end, Brexit did mean Brexit and on March 31st 2021 thousands of Britons living or spending part of the year in Spain – but who were not residents – had to either finally register or leave the Schengen Area as their first 90-day limit as non-EU nationals came to a close. 

The Schengen rules aren’t new or specific to Britons and the loss of freedom was widely reported long before Brexit came into force, but the reality of having your time in Europe limited has still proven to be a hard pill to swallow for many Brits, even for those who saw it coming.

UK nationals who could prove they were living in Spain before December 31st 2020 have been able to become residents, but Spanish immigration officials have understandably not taken the rules lightly and have had to reject applications from those who couldn’t provide the right documentation.

Other not-so-obvious reality checks that have dawned on Britons in 2021 relate to dealing with customs. 

Sending parcels in the post between the UK and Spain has become more expensive, carrying certain products in your suitcase when travelling to Spain is no longer possible and even using a moving company to send your belongings over to Spain is a lot more complex now

Unfortunately, it seems like there’s more changes to get used to soon as the UK’s full customs controls start on January 1st 2022.

Spain wants to help

Even Britons who have been tangled up in Brexit-induced Spanish bureaucracy have to recognise that the country has treated them well and been far more welcoming and accommodating than the UK has towards its European population.

As Spain’s Secretary of State for Migration Hana Jalloul put it just days before Brexit came into force: “I know that many of you have built your homes here and we want you to stay. You are part of the Spanish family. You are part of us”.

Unlike in other EU countries, there is no official deadline for under-the-radar Britons to register and Spain has denied false reports that it would round up and deport overstayers without visas or permits, even though they may be subject to a penalty under Schengen rules.

Spanish authorities have also set up an easy process for residents with the old green certificate to exchange it for the TIE and just recently Spain has scrapped the costly and complex work visa process required from British artists who wish to perform in Spain.

And the Valencian regional government has even said it is in favour of non-resident UK nationals having more than 90 days in their territory, with president Ximo Puig calling for “Brexit to be as Brexit-less as possible”.  

The matter of Gibraltar’s future and its status within the EU remains to be decided in 2022, but overall Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has maintained a pragmatic stance vis-a-vis the UK’s exit from the bloc. (Photo by Christopher Furlong / POOL / AFP)

Expect the unexpected

Unforeseen problems have arisen with the paperwork involved in Britons’ changing status as non-EU citizens.

It started with airline staff not recognising the old green residency documents of a number of British passengers, denying them boarding or entry to Spain.

Airport officials had either not seen this sheet of paper before – which isn’t a photo ID but still an official residency document – or they assumed it should have been replaced with the new TIE card. 

Spanish authorities even created an official document for UK nationals to take with them to the airport stating that the green certificates are still valid. 

The lack of understanding by some officials regarding the ID rules has also seen Cajamar bank erroneously warning its British customers that it would close their accounts unless they provided a TIE card, and Spain’s traffic authority the DGT requiring a TIE card for the licence exchange when other documents were valid.

A clean break was never going to be possible, but it would be naive to think there won’t be more similar issues to deal with in 2022. 

Moving to Spain post-Brexit is a rich man’s game

No offence meant to those with a sizable bank account but let us elaborate. 

If a UK national wants to move to Spain to live and work post-Brexit, their prospective employer has to prove they can’t find an EU candidate that can do the job. The alternative is to find a job on Spain’s shortage occupation list, 95 percent of which are positions in the maritime and shipping industry).

Then there’s getting a self-employment work permit. For this, you’ll need a comprehensive business plan that gets checked by a panel of experts, you’ll have to get your qualifications recognised by Spain’s Ministry of Education and you’ll be expected to prove you’ll have sufficient earnings and run a successful business. 

How about English teaching, you may ask? Landing a teaching job was very easy for many Britons in Spain in pre-Brexit times but currently the same rules relating to having to first find an EU candidate apply and there’s no scheme yet that allows them to work as language assistants as for other non-EU anglophones such as Americans or Australians.

So with finding work proving extremely complex for Britons moving to Spain in 2021, what’s the best alternative to be able to become a resident? 

The non-lucrative visa, which involves having to prove yearly income or assets worth €27,800 in 2022 for one person without being allowed to work in Spain, or the so-called golden visa, for which you have to splash out €500,000 on a Spanish property.

That’s the reality that Britons who want to move to Spain from January 1st 2021 face. Either you have money, or your path to residency will be a very challenging one.

People dance at a British-owned pub during a Brexit celebration party in Jimera de Libar, Andalusia, on January 31st, 2020, as European officials removed the British flag from the ceremonial entrance of the European Council's Europa Building in Brussels on Friday ahead of Brexit. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)
Brits at a British-owned pub in Jimera de Libar (Andalusia) celebrate the UK’s confirmed exit from the EU on January 31st, 2020. Were they aware of the consequences their decision would have on their lives in Spain? (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO/AFP)

Becoming a non-EU national is a step back

If Brits viewed themselves as expats before – a term which has been controversial long before the Brexit vote – they should certainly consider themselves migrants now. 

Apart from the difficulties in finding work or getting residency as listed above, the days of coming and going as you please under freedom of movement are over, especially for those who aren’t residents. 

Even those who are registered now have to factor in how much time they can spend outside of Spain without losing their residency.

Living or spending long periods of time in Spain and Europe is no longer a universal right for Britons, it’s something they have to pamper and pay attention to.

UK nationals in Spain are now in the same boat as many other non-EU nationals: their driving licences aren’t officially recognised (yet), nor are their qualifications, owning a home in Spain doesn’t guarantee residency and they don’t enjoy the overall protection and flexibility that comes with being an EU citizen. 

The dream is over for many

The sad truth is that 2021 has taught us that current and future generations of Britons – potentially hundreds of thousands of people – will miss out on the chance of living in Spain post-Brexit. 

Young British university students can’t spend a year in Spain on Erasmus and are at the mercy of the decisions made by the British government regarding the UK’s new Turing Scheme. 

Britons of all ages can no longer pack their bags, move to Spain on the fly and settle in while finding a job in person. 

Even those who plan ahead face an uphill battle.

For those who used to split their time between Spain and the UK as they wished, many of them with second homes in the country, it’s now a case of keeping a close check that they’ve not overstayed their Schengen time limit as non-residents. 

And retirement to Spain on a budget is now just a pipe dream, with concerns over healthcare, pensions and finances dissuading many. 

Here’s to hoping for greener pastures in 2022.

Member comments

  1. Can someone advise, or provide a signpost to do my own research, on how long a Spanish Resident (with a Temporary TIE card) on a British passport is allowed to stay out of Spain for each year, and over the five year period (for which a temporary TIE card needs to be held before changing to a permanent TIE card)?

    Many thanks in advance.

  2. Hi Martin,
    During the first 5 years of residency (“temporary”), you cannot exceed 182 days (6 months) outside of Spain each year, and no more than 10 months total over the 5 years. This period may be increased to one period of 12 months for exceptional circumstances, e.g. serious illness, pregnancy and childbirth, study or vocational training.

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For members


Liz Truss: What does the new UK PM mean for Brits in Spain?

Following the announcement that Liz Truss will replace Boris Johnson as the UK’s new Prime Minister, political correspondent Conor Faulkner analyses what this could mean for Brexit and the 400,000 UK nationals who reside in Spain.

Liz Truss: What does the new UK PM mean for Brits in Spain?

On Monday September 5th, it was announced that members of UK’s Conservative party had finally elected a new leader and thus a new Prime Minister, after Boris Johnson was forced to resign at the start of the summer.

Beating rival Rishi Sunak with 57 percent of the vote, just 80,000 Conservative party members elected the former Foreign Secretary as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.

READ ALSO: ‘Iron weathercock’ – Europe reacts to Liz Truss becoming new UK PM

But what, if anything, does her election mean for Brexit and the 400,000 Britons living in Spain? 

Will she be a continuity politician or will she forge a new path (for better or worse) in British-European relations?

Truss the Remainer

During the 2016 EU referendum campaign, Liz Truss campaigned for Remain. “I don’t want my daughters to live in a world where they have to apply for a visa to work in Europe,” she famously said.

Having once been a member of the Liberal Democrats and decidedly more pro-European, Truss’s conversion to Euroscepticism came after she had voted Remain in the EU in the June 2016 referendum.

Did the much hallowed Brexit benefits become clear to her in the aftermath of the result? Possibly. Or, as Brexit became a litmus test of loyalty and Conservatism, did her position shift to fit the intra-party politics of her party?

Although one may hope that her former pro-European positions might mean a softening in UK-EU relations in the post-Johnson era, Truss’s dependence on the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative parliamentary party during her leadership campaign suggests she may be kneecapped in her ability to strike compromises with the EU.

Truss the Foreign Secretary

Owing to Truss’s tendency to be a bit of a political flip-flopper and change her positions at the whim of career progression, it is therefore quite difficult to predict her future behaviour with regards to Spain. We can, however, make some educated guesses based on her time as Foreign Secretary.

Going off her tenure in the Foreign Office, it seems Truss may view relations with Spain more positively than perhaps with other EU member states or the block as a whole.

In December 2021, Truss travelled to Madrid to meet with her then counterpart José Manuel Albares to build “closer economic, tech and security ties” with Spain, and to “support” the 400,000 Britons living in Spain. 

“We’re significant trading partners, with the UK as Spain’s biggest European investor,” she said, “and the UK as the top destination for Spanish investment. By boosting our trading ties even further, both Spain and every region and nation of the UK will benefit.”

Yet, Truss has also strongly hinted that she would be willing to overhaul Article 16 and put the Northern Ireland protocol at risk. If she is willing to jeopardise peace and potentially break international law to appease her political base in England, particularly within her own parliamentary party, one must wonder about the seriousness with which a few hundred thousand Brits up and down Spain’s costas will be taken. 

Reaction in Spain

Spain’s leading newspaper El País believes Truss will continue the populist strategy of Johnson. Truss was, even in her acceptance speech on Monday, loyal to her predecessor. 

She “promises citizens a rose-tinted future, without clarifying how she intends to achieve it”, the paper believes.

Sue Wilson, Chair of Bremain in Spain, told The Local that she expects Truss to “carry on with the policies of Johnson, and be led, presumably, by the same right-wing forces of the Conservative Party.

“I suspect that, as far as what affects British citizens in Spain, that continuity will simply mean we remain invisible and left to our own devices,” Wilson added.

“Britons in Spain have been left in bureaucratic limbo since the Brexit vote six years ago. Whether it be the ongoing confusion over driving licenses or renewing residency or getting new TIE cards, many Britons abroad have felt abandoned by the UK government.”

Wilson and other members of Bremain in Spain will take part in the National Rejoin March in London on Saturday September 10th to “deliver a warning to the new PM about the impact of Brexit on the spiralling cost of living crisis in the UK”,  to express a “clear and loud message” that “Brexit has failed” and to promote “Rejoin the EU” as a “mainstream” call to action.

“For six years now, Brits living in Europe have been dealing with fear, uncertainty and stress, thanks to Brexit. We have already lost important rights, and many are concerned that even those secured could be at risk. Truss plans to proceed with the Protocol Bill which threatens the legally binding international treaty that secured those limited rights. In the process, she seems determined to do further damage to UK/EU relations and our international reputation.”

Anne Hernández, head of Brexpats in Spain, told The Local Spain: “Our problem as Brits in Spain might be if she actually applies Article 16, meaning a no deal Brexit, and she has threatened that. Although I’m not sure how that might affect our rights.”

The overriding feeling among UK nationals in Spain about Truss in No. 10 is the feeling of trepidation that Hernández describes.

With its fourth leader in six years and the third to take the helm of Britain in the post-Brexit world, for Brits abroad Truss’ rise to Downing Street has prolonged that uncertainty. 

With her apparent willingness to simply tear up internationally binding agreements, many will worry if the situation in Spain will be taken back to square one.

One would hope that her previously positive interactions with the Spanish state could mean that she lends a hand in resolving some of these lingering administrative issues affecting Britons in Spain, but the propensity to change her politics when it suits her make this unpredictable, and her reliance on Eurosceptic forces within her party make it unlikely.

How about Gibraltar?

This unpredictability could be of particular concern for UK nationals in Gibraltar. After voting Remain by a whopping 96 percent, the tiny British territory was not included in the main Brexit deal that came into effect from January 2021, and complicated multilateral negotiations between Gibraltar, London, Madrid and Brussels have rumbled on without resolution. 

Truss’ rhetoric on Gibraltar during her tenure as Foreign Secretary was as combative as her anti-EU talking points during the Tory leadership campaign, continuing the us-against-them language: “We will continue to defend the sovereignty of Gibraltar.”