How many Britons live in Spain in 2022?

The conventional wisdom was that Brexit would cause a mass exodus of UK nationals from Spain's costas. The reality hasn't been so simple, as the latest immigration and residency stats from the Spanish government suggest.

How many Britons live in Spain in 2022?
Britons sit in a British bar in Benidorm on January 31, 2020. Photo: Jose Jordan/AFP

In the aftermath of Brexit, it was widely reported in the British tabloids that there would be a mass exodus of Britons from Spain.

Tens of thousands would sell their properties and leave, Brits were told. British pubs and snooker bars up and down the country would be forced to close down for lack of business, it was thought. A combination of Brexit red tape and notoriously difficult Spanish bureaucracy would, the story went, force Britons from the Costa Brava to the Costa Blanca out in droves.

But the reality hasn’t been that simple. In fact, according to recent data of foreign residents in Spain from the Spanish Ministry of Inclusion, Social Security and Immigration, the number of Britons resident in Spain increased by 7 percent in 2021 compared to 2020.

How many Britons reside in Spain in 2022?

By December 31st 2021, there were 407,628 UK nationals officially living in Spain. In the previous year’s report, the number was 381,448 Britons, and in 2019 the figure stood at 359,471.

This comes as part of a broader trend in Spain’s population. The number of foreign residents in Spain stands, officially, at a whopping 6 million, a figure which represents an increase of 3.6 percent (equivalent to 207,093 people) in the last year alone. 

The latest data from Spain’s National Statistics Institute (INE) states that there were 282,124 Brits registered in Spain in 2021, more than 100,000 fewer than the Migration Ministry’s figures. This may be explained by the fact that INE primarily uses local census information from the town halls (padrón address registrations, birth, deaths etc) rather than migration documents. Either way, INE’s number of Brits in Spain by the end of 2021 is also 30,000 higher than the previous year (250,392).

The Local has analysed other data included in the ministry report relating to UK nationals in Spain to see what other conclusions can be drawn.

British growth leading the way

Of the new arrivals, Colombian nationals are the group that has grown the most, followed by Venezuelans, British and Italians. While a British exodus was expected, the group leaving Spain at the highest rate is Ecuadorians. 

Even as a third-party, non-EU country, the number of Britons resident in Spain – for many of whom their residency is secured by the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement – have experienced a rate of growth on par with the Italians compared to 2020, up by 7 percent compared to 2020.

Britons in Spain are older than most

The average age of the resident foreign population is almost 40 years old and there is, generally speaking, slightly more men than women. The sociological profile of British residents in Spain may be unsurprising to many. The average age is 54 years old, considerably higher than other non-Europeans migrant groups, like Pakistanis and Moroccans (both with median ages of 33 years). 

Around half have swapped their residency cards for TIEs

The figures show that of the Britons living in Spain prior to December 31st 2020 (and thus protected by the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement), most still have the old green residency document, but not by a large margin.

According to the data, 44 percent of Britons resident in Spain have made the swap and now have TIE cards (approximately 179,000), while 55 percent (226,000) are still using their old green residency documents. 

The UK Embassy in Madrid as well as Spanish authorities have for more than a year now strongly encouraged UK nationals protected by the WA to exchange their paper or cardboard Certificado de Registro documents for non-EU TIEs (Tarjeta de Identidad de Extranjero). There is however no deadline for the exchange and the old residency papers remain valid.   

Authorities praise the fact that TIEs are more durable, work as photo ID, are biometric and ensure easy travel across the EU, as in some cases border officials haven’t recognised the green certificates. By contrast, some green certificate holders prefer their original documents as they have no expiry date and don’t have to be renewed as in the case of TIEs.

READ: How Brits can exchange their old green residency documents for TIEs

Interestingly, the migration stats show that 2,467 Britons who haven’t been able to get WA protection either because they arrived in Spain after Brexit, or because they didn’t register previously and haven’t been able to prove they were living in the country before December 31st 2020. For this group, non-EU rules apply and access to Spanish residency can depend on work, marriage or financial means. 

British residents cluster together

Spanish Migration Ministry figures show that they vast majority of Britons resident in Spain with the new TIE card protected by the Withdrawal Agreement live in the provinces of Alicante, Málaga, the Balearic Islands, Barcelona, ​​Murcia, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Almería, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Madrid, Cádiz and Granada – classic British hotspots in major cities and coastal areas. 

The Ministry has perhaps not factored in those with old green residency certificates as they are less likely to have updated their address details recently, as is required from TIE applicants. 

Britons still rank high among both EU or non-EU countries

With the number of Britons resident in Spain increasing despite Brexit, Britain sits third in the league table of total of foreign residents overall: First are the Romanians, with 1.09 million residents, then Moroccans (830,000) and Brits in third with 407,000 nationals resident in Spain, followed by the Italians (377,000), Chinese (230,000), Bulgarians (202,000), French (185,000) and Germans (185,000).

The increase in Britons resident in Spain comes despite both Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic

Not only is the rise in Britons settling in Spain surprising when considered in the context of Brexit, but the increase has also bucked the trend and continued to grow despite the unprecedented global COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, according to figures, the number of Brits who are holders of Spanish residency permits has jumped dramatically not only compared to 2020, but also 2019: from 286,753 recorded in 2019 to 300,640 in 2020 and 313,975 in 2020 – a  9.5 percent increase.

READ ALSO: Six facts Brits in Spain became acutely aware of in 2021

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Anger grows as no solution found yet for in limbo UK drivers in Spain 

British drivers living in Spain are becoming increasingly disgruntled at the lack of solutions two weeks after they were told their UK licences were no longer valid, with the latest update from the UK Embassy suggesting it could still take "weeks" to reach a deal. 

Anger grows as no solution found yet for in limbo UK drivers in Spain 

There is growing discontent among UK licence holders residing in Spain who are currently in limbo, unable to drive in Spain until they either get a Spanish driving licence or a deal is finally reached between Spanish and UK authorities for the mutual exchange of licences post-Brexit.

Since May 1st 2022, drivers who’ve been residents in Spain for more than six months and who weren’t able to exchange their UK licences for Spanish ones cannot drive in Spain.

There are no official stats on how many Britons of the 407,000 UK nationals who are residents in Spain in 2022 are affected; according to the UK Embassy the “majority exchanged” as advised.

But judging by the amount of negative comments the last two updates from the British Embassy in Madrid have received, hundreds if not thousands are stuck without being able to drive in Spain.  

May 12th’s video message by Ambassador Hugh Elliott left many unhappy with the fact that the forecast for a possible licence exchange agreement will be in the “coming weeks”, when two weeks earlier Elliott had spoken of “rapidly accelerating talks”. 

Dozens of angry responses spoke of the “shocking” and “absolutely ridiculous” holdup in negotiations that have been ongoing for more than at least a year and a half, and which the UK Embassy has put down to the fact that Spain is asking the British government to give them access to DVLA driver data such as road offences, something “not requested by other EU Member States”.

Numerous Britons have explained the setbacks not being able to drive in Spain are causing them, from losing their independence to struggling to go to work, the hospital or the supermarket, especially those in rural areas with little public transport.  

“I know personally from all the messages you’ve sent in, just how incredibly disruptive all of this is for many of you,” Elliott said in response. 

“If you are struggling to get around you may find additional advice or support from your local town hall, or charities or community groups in your area and the Support in Spain website is another very useful source of organisations that can provide general support to residents.

“And if your inability to drive is putting you in a very vulnerable situation, you can always contact your nearest consulate for advice.”

There continue to be disparaging opinions in the British community in Spain over whether any pity should be felt for UK licence holders stuck without driving, as many argue they had enough time to register intent to exchange their licences, whilst others clarify that their particular set of circumstances, such as arriving after the December 2020 ‘intent to exchange’ deadline, made this impossible. 

OPINION: Not all Brits in Spain who didn’t exchange UK driving licences are at fault

So is there any light at the end of the tunnel for drivers whose UK licences aren’t valid anymore in Spain or soon won’t be?

“The agreement we’re working towards now will enable UK licence holders, whenever they arrived in Spain or arrive in the future, to exchange their UK licence for a Spanish one without needing to take a practical or a theory test,” Elliott said on Thursday May 12th of the deal they are “fully committed” to achieve.

READ ALSO: How much does it cost to get a Spanish driving licence?

And yet it’s hard for anyone to rest their hopes on this necessarily happening – sooner or later or ever – in part because the embassy advice for those with UK licences for whom it’s imperative to continue driving in Spain is that they should take steps to get their Spanish licence now, while acknowledging that in some places there are “long delays for lessons” and getting your Spanish licence “doesn’t happen overnight”.

READ ALSO: What now for UK licence holders in Spain?