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The pros and cons of being an English language assistant in Spain

Every year thousands of non-EU English speakers get to live and work in Spain by becoming language assistants in Spanish schools. There are however pros and cons to the scheme; here's what those who’ve worked as ‘auxes’ think you should know before applying.

The pros and cons of being an English language assistant in Spain
'Auxes' in Spain are generally not badly paid for the hours they work. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP)

The idea behind ‘auxiliares de conversación’ is that they help Spanish school students to improve their speaking and listening skills – something aided by regular interaction with native speakers – and also teach the kids about aspects of their culture, language, history, humour, music, sport and customs.

Auxes, as they are known among the Americans (and language assistants by the British) are paid a monthly stipend in return for assisting English lessons for twelve or sixteen hours a week across Spain and Europe. 

Often these are recent graduates or modern languages students studying as part of their year abroad, and the scheme attracts teachers from the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand, and India.

Although the programme is a fantastic opportunity to live in a new country and immerse yourself in a new culture and language, there are some pitfalls to the programme and things worth bearing in mind when it comes to applying, particularly so after Brexit.

The Local spoke to several auxes and got the lowdown on the pros and cons of the programme:

The Pros

A way into Spain for non-EU applicants

Unless you have a lot of money, you get married to a resident or can find a job in Spain that no EU candidate can do, the chances of you being able to move to Spain as a third-country national are pretty slim. 

One of the easiest ways to get your foot in the door is through this language assistant scheme, which in most cases requires applying for Spain’s long-term student visa. 

This visa has quite a few advantages, such as being able to bring some family members with you, no age limit for applicants, being able to study at university in Spain and being allowed to work up to 20 hours per week. 

Auxes are usually contracted from October to May, but there are ways for them to extend their stay in Spain.

READ ALSO: The pros and cons of Spain’s student visa

No Spanish language requirements, the chance to learn a new language

Spain is one of the few countries that don’t require auxes to have any local language skills when arriving. Although that may present some difficulties when arriving and getting yourself set up (more on that later in the cons section) living in Spain and interacting with native speakers everyday is a priceless opportunity to learn a second language.

Many auxes choose to take Spanish lessons or make use of ‘intercambios de idiomas’ (language exchanges) to practice their Spanish with native speakers and help others improve their English.

You don’t work many hours

Although the salary isn’t the best (see below) most auxes can’t complain as they work so few hours. It varies by region but most language assistantsare contracted to work 12 or 16 hours a week (yes, you read that right) over 3 or 4 days a week.

Most staff at schools are quite understanding, and if you get yourself a good coordinator they are normally quite flexible about taking time off or rearranging classes to allow you to travel and take full advantage of your time in Spain.

It’s paid

Despite working so little, auxes are paid. It’s not the best money in the world and, like with the hours, depends on where in Spain you’re sent, but most are paid between €700 and €1,000 a month. Actually getting that beca (grant), however, can present problems as explained in the cons section.

But all things considered you should remember auxes are paid enough to pay rent and cover most daily costs for very few hours work. Not a bad deal for students and recent graduates, but it’s also very common to top-up pay with private tutoring or work in English academies.

Combining study and work is possible

Many British auxes use the language assistant scheme as part of a study abroad for languages students.

Usually during their third year, they often have to do some (but not much) work for their universities, and often programme coordinators are quite good at allowing you the time to do it.

Daily interaction with native speakers not only boosts your language skills and adds something different to your CV, but for those auxes wanting to become teachers it’s also fantastic experience in the classroom. Whether or not they still want to be teachers by the end of the school year depends on the person – and the kids they’re teaching!

The scheme is a great way for third-country nationals to get to live in the country,but it’s not all advantages. (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP)

The Cons

Like everything in life, even the aux programme has its drawbacks. Most of them are age-old problems common to Spanish society, and many auxes experience them.

You can’t choose where you go

Unfortunately, you can’t choose where exactly you’ll be. You can choose a region and put preferences with regards to whether you’d prefer a city, town, or village, be inland or on the coast, working in a primary or high school, but ultimately go where the regional govt decides they need you.

This means that many auxes are given teaching posts in small towns, and their dreams of living and working in central Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia or Seville never materialise. 

Commuting isn’t always easy

As you could be placed in a school in a small town in the middle of nowhere, it is worth considering whether you’d want to live in the town itself or in a nearby city and commute. Many auxes do the latter, but if you decide to do that you will be reliant on lifts from colleagues and the unpredictability of public transport in rural Spain.

Those who do end up buying or renting a car should consider how long they’re allowed to drive in Spain with their foreign licences. 

Driving in Spain: Who can exchange their licence and who has to resit the exam?

Payment problems

Many auxes biggest complaint. The many quirks of Spanish administration mean several regions are notorious for paying auxes months late – often not until December – so it’s better to arrive with some savings. Valencia is the worst region for this, and in recent years auxes have been forced to protest outside government buildings to get their pay. 

It’s worth doing some research online before applying, especially if you don’t have access to savings or family support before arriving. Those first few months can be tough, and it often depends if you’re paid directly by the school (like in Andalusia) or as a group by the regional government (like in Valencia and Murcia) so make sure to check when applying.

Spanish admin 

Spanish administration in general can be a shock to the system for many arriving from the U.S, U.K, Australia, or Canada. Sorting out things like your NIE and opening a bank account can be overly-complicated and take a long time. This is compounded if you don’t speak the language, and you’ll soon get used to waiting around at the ayuntamiento. 

READ MORE: 15 terms you need to know to understand Spanish bureaucracy

Sticking to the expat groups

Although many auxes take advantage of their time in Spain to learn the language and integrate into their town, it’s not uncommon for younger auxes to stick together in groups and spend all their time with one another speaking in English. If that’s how you want to spend your time – great.

If not, consider requesting a smaller town placement that will allow you to properly immerse yourself in Spanish culture.

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VISAS

Which countries does Spain have working holiday visa agreements with?

The working holiday visa is perhaps the best option for young non-EU foreigners who want to take a gap year in Spain. But which countries are part of this reciprocal scheme, who's eligible and how do you apply?

Which countries does Spain have working holiday visa agreements with?

Getting a visa to temporarily live and work in Spain can be a tricky process if you’re a non-EU national, with everything from proof of high levels of income to medical insurance or specific job skills being required. For young third-country nationals, it’s often not possible to meet such requirements.

However, there are some young foreigners who can come to Spain for one year, travel around the country, learn Spanish and take on a part-time job thanks to reciprocal agreements that exist. 

Enter Spain’s working holiday visa, also called the Youth Mobility visa, a scheme that allows young people from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan and South Korea to live and work in Spain for a one-year period.

READ ALSO: Worker, retiree or investor: What type of Spanish visa do I need?

What are the visa rules?

Keep in mind that your primary goal when applying for this visa should be to travel and live in Spain. Working should be a secondary motive to be able to earn money for your travels.

You will only be able to have a job for a total of six months during your one-year stay in Spain. You can also only work for one employer for a maximum of three months. This means that you will have to find a minimum of two different jobs during your stay.

The visa also allows you to visit other EU countries during your stay in Spain if you wish to travel within the bloc too.

Alternatively, you are also permitted to study or do an internship.

Note that the scheme is only for individuals. You cannot bring children along with you,  partners or spouses will have to apply for their visas separately. 

Who can apply?

Unfortunately, not everyone can apply for the working holiday visa for Spain. The Spanish government only has agreements with Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan and South Korea, meaning this visa is only available to those from these five specific countries.

These agreements are reciprocal, meaning that young Spaniards can also get a working holiday visa to live in any one of the above countries for a specific amount of time.

Unfortunately, for those in Spain who want to have a gap year abroad, these reciprocal schemes are only available to Spanish citizens, not foreign residents in Spain.

Keep in mind though, your country (the country of which you are a national) may already have a working holiday visa agreement with one of these five countries.

For example, the UK has agreements with Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan, so you may be able to apply on the basis that you’re a UK citizen.

Other than your nationality, one of the main prerequisites for the working holiday visa to Spain is age. You are only eligible to apply if you’re between the ages of 18 and 30 (or 35 for Canadians).

Keep in mind that only a certain number of these visas are available each year. For example, from 2023, there will be a total 2,000 available to those from New Zealand, while there are 3,400 available to those from Australia. Once this number has been reached, Spanish consulates will not grant anymore for that year and you must wait until the following year to apply again.

READ ALSO: Spain and New Zealand to increase number of working holiday visas

Visa pre-requisites

There are certain documents you must produce and certain criteria that you must meet in order for your visa to be approved. These include:

  • Having a return or onward ticket out of Spain
  • Having the necessary funds to support yourself during at least the first three months of your stay. (The amount required may be slightly different depending on which country you’re from. Canadians for example need to show they have savings of at least €1,857 or CAD 2,504.75).
  • Medical insurance
  • A police check or clear criminal record
  • A certificate showing you have completed at least two years of higher education
  • A basic level of Spanish (Be aware that this is not a requirement for those from all five countries, but it is a requirement for those from Australia and Japan. There is no mention of this requirement for those from Canada or New Zealand).
  • Some consulates may also require you to have proof of accommodation for at least the first week of your stay. This rule doesn’t apply across the board, but certain consulates such as the Spanish Consulate in Toronto, Canada will ask for it.

What types of jobs can I get?

You are eligible to apply for casual and temporary jobs. You should be aware that unemployment levels are very high in Spain (currently at 13.65 percent), so it will be difficult to compete against locals for jobs, who will always be given priority.

The key is to rely on your native language skills to find jobs that locals may not be able to do such as:

  • language teacher
  • waiter in a tourist restaurant
  • tour guide
  • receptionist in a hotel or resort
  • bar staff in nightclubs for tourists
  • nanny for families who want their kids to learn other languages

How to apply?

You can apply for Spain’s working holiday visa through your local Spanish consulate. Some consulates will allow you to apply online, while others require you to make an appointment and go in person.

You should be given a checklist from the consulate of all the specific documents they need from you, but the list above gives you a good idea of what you’ll need to show.

You will also need to pay the application fee. The amount varies depending on which country you’re applying from. For example, the fee for those from Canada is CAD 150. 

Make sure to check online or phone ahead to find out when the applications open for the year you want to apply, so that you don’t miss out.

Once your application has been granted and you have arrived in Spain, you will need to apply for a Número de Identidad de Extranjero or NIE within the first month, in order to be able to work.

You can apply for this by making an appointment at your local police station or Foreigner’s Office (Oficina de Extranjeros), filling out the necessary forms and presenting your visa. You may also need to show your other documents again such as private medical insurance. 

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