For members


15 terms you need to know to understand Spanish bureaucracy

Spanish bureaucracy can be as complicated as it is overwhelming. Whether or not you speak the language, getting your head around the terminology can be difficult. The Local has broken down the top 15 terms you should know when braving Spanish bureaucracy.

15 terms you need to know to understand Spanish bureaucracy
A civil servant explains the bureaucratic process in Madrid in March 2000. Photo: Christophe Simon/AFP

Almost all foreigners living abroad love to complain about the bureaucracy in their adopted homelands. This is particularly true in Spain, where processes are known to take weeks or even months and the civil servants are infamous for their unpredictability.

READ MORE: What you need to know – The Local’s A to Z guide to bureaucracy in Spain

Arriving in a new country can be tough as it is, let alone in a different language, so see our guide to the key terminology you’ll need to navigate Spanish bureaucracy below:

Ayuntamiento – The town hall. Get used to this word and building because it’s a place you’ll no doubt spend a lot of time in when doing any official bureaucratic processes or paperwork.

Empadronamiento – One of the first things you must do when you arrive in Spain (to live) is register at the ayuntamiento on the Padrón to prove you are living in Spain. Normally to get the certificate (el certificado de empadronamiento) you’ll need to provide a rental contract or recent bill.

Padrón – The Register of Spanish Inhabitants at the town hall.

Cita Previa – Literally, prior or previous appointment, a lot of bureaucracy requires you to make an appointment online beforehand. This is particularly true in big cities, but often the online booking systems aren’t the most reliable so hanging around until someone sees you works occasionally in smaller towns.

NIE – Your número de Identificación de Extranjeros, or foreigner’s identification number, allocated to you by the police and is essential to be legally resident, pay taxes, buy and sell property, and open a bank account in Spain. Be warned, the process can be quite laborious and involves going back and forth between the police station and bank to pay various small taxes and have papers stamped.

Cuenta Bancaria – bank account. Although you can technically open a bank account without the NIE, without it you’ll only be able to open a bank account for non-residents which includes extra fees.

Gestor – many foreigners in Spain pay for a ‘gestor’ (like an agent) to handle all their administrative and bureaucratic processes, act as a middleman and help with translating.

Tarjeta Sanitaria – health card.

Seguridad social – social security. You’ll be given a number by your employer, if you have one, or you can get one at your nearest INSS office.

IRPFImpuesto sobre la Renta de Personas Físicas is the equivalent of Spanish income tax.

Agencia Tributaria – The tax office.

Autónomos – self-employed. Be aware, the tax rates freelancers and the self-employed pay in Spain is a source of controversy and a fluid situation. The government recently proposed changes to the system.

Declaración de la Renta – annual tax declaration.

Homologación – the word for getting your foreign qualifications validatedin Spanish. This might be necessary when applying for certain jobs.

Funcionario – public worker. It is said that Spanish bureaucracy is personalised – the problem is that it isn’t personalised for you but whichever public official or civil servant you see that day. Funcionarios aren’t known to be the most helpful of people, and won’t take kindly to English speakers.

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For members


The secrets of El Menú del Día: The surprising story behind Spain’s fixed-price lunch menu

Madrid resident Paul Burge discovers the story behind Spain's popular Menú del Día and asks - is it on its way out?

El menú del día is a culinary institution in Spain.
El menú del día is a culinary institution in Spain. Photo: Cpgxk/flickr

Wander up and down any street in Spain and you’re bound to see a blackboard propped up outside almost any restaurant announcing ‘Menú del Día‘.

A list of two courses with various dishes for each will have been hastily scribbled down by the chef that morning. And no menú would be complete without the final flourish of, ‘Pan, Bebida Postre o Cafe‘ (Bread, Drink and Dessert or Coffee) followed by an appetite-inducing and implausibly reasonable price.

There is a catch of course. El menú del día is only available from Monday to Friday and as the name suggests only at lunchtimes, normally 2 – 4pm. You’ll also have a fairly limited two or three options for each course. Hence the incredibly good value. I’ve eaten fixed-price menus in Spain for as little as €7. They can be as ‘expensive’ as €15 at more high-end establishments. But the average is around €12. 

So how did this fantastic value lunch menu come about and why is it so popular today? 

A  maincourse of swordfish and potato at Madrid’s El Maño restaurant. Photo: F Govan

By the late 1950s Franco realised just how much Spain had to gain economically from tourism. The ‘Spain is different’ marketing campaign of the late 1950s saw an enormous boom in tourism from 2.9 million visitors in 1959 to 11.1 million visitors in 1965.

General Franco’s Minister of Information and Tourism, Manuel Fraga subsequently decided to introduce legislation to implement a standardised format for a fixed-price menu to make sure all visitors could enjoy Spanish cuisine.

Originally it was called El Menú Túristico and was aimed specifically at tourists. El Menú Túristico was made law in Spain on March 17th, 1965 and an official state bulletin from the 29th March 1965 described in excruciating detail what was to be provided by all restaurant owners.


Accompanying legislation also laid down the law regarding the management of cafeterias, university and factory canteens, as well as restaurant and café cars on trains.

It was inevitable then that the economical fixed-price menú became incredibly popular with Spaniards, and soon spread right across the country. By the early to mid 1970s el menú túristico had become el menú del día and was available in every single town and city in Spain, as it is today.

Yes, el menú del día is a culinary institution in Spain – culinary may sound a little pretentious, as el menú is anything but. Think basic and hearty.

So what’s the format? 

A typical menú del día of starter, main course, dessert, bread and a drink. Photo: F Govan

The menu includes three courses; ‘primer plato’, ‘segundo plato’ and ‘postre’. First and second courses plus dessert. You’ll also be brought an often generous basket of bread.

So what can you expect to eat?  For the first course you’ll be given between two to four dishes from which to choose, usually based on vegetables, eggs or pulses.

The offerings will vary depending on the time of year, as Spaniards love to use fresh seasonal produce. In colder months, think soups, stews or paella.

When the heat kicks-in salmorejo and gazpacho (cold tomato soups of varying viscosity) are common choices along with salads. Meat and fish dishes are mainstays of the second course, often grilled, sometimes fried. You might be lucky enough to find seafood, calamari or prawns on offer too.

And for dessert? Well, they rarely come as a surprise.

Expect a stream of egg-custard style desserts, like natillas, flan or pudding. Arroz con leche is nearly always on the menú too – creamy rice pudding. Personally, I find these options too heavy after eating two substantial courses. So you can always opt for fruit, which will literally be an orange or an apple which you will need to peel yourself!

‘Un surtido de helados’ – a selection of ice creams is also standard. But why do they only ever have vanilla!? If you get really lucky there might be Tarta de Santiago which is a delicious almond-flavoured cake from Galicia.

Will el menú del día be around forever? 

Photo: AFP

Well, it is no longer the law to provide one. Yet, so ingrained has el menú become in the daily rhythm of life it’s hard to imagine it disappearing. It’s true that gentrification, and the closure of family businesses due to retirement are taking their toll on the bargain menu. 

But menú del días are still springing-up in less traditional restaurants. Italian, Chinese, Indian, Senegalese, you name it, they all commonly offer a fixed-price lunch menu, such has it become a national institution. 
Paul Burge is a former BBC journalist who moved from Oxford, UK to Madrid in 2013 where he now hosts the highly entertaining When in Spain podcast, a free weekly show all about Spain – culture, travel, lifestyle, work, interviews and much more. Follow Paul’s observations and advice about living in Spain on FacebookInstagram, & Twitter .

READ MORE:  Eight steps to dining out like a local in Spain