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MOVING TO SPAIN

The pros and cons of living in Spain’s Marbella

Known not only as a glitzy holiday destination but also a great place to relocate, more and more foreigners are booking one-way tickets and settling in Marbella. Here are the pros and cons to living in this famous small city on the Costa del Sol.

moving to marbella pros and cons
Marbella more than triples its population during the summer month due to the rise in tourism numbers, but what's it like to live there all year round? Photo: Simon Hermans/Unsplash

Marbella may be famous with footballers and social media stars, but is the glitzy jewel in the crown of the Costa del Sol all it’s cracked up to be?

The high-end coastal resort town is well known across Northern Europe as a summer getaway destination where you can enjoy luxury bars, restaurants and hotels right next to the beach, but what’s it like to live there?

The Local has broken down some pros and cons of moving to Marbella.

PROS

Nature

Despite being famous for its luxury restaurants and resorts and its 27 km of coastline, you might not have known that Marbella is also home to some stunning scenery, and the city is surrounded by rolling hills.

There are also two national parks nearby: Doñana National Park, great for birdwatching, and the famous Sierra Nevada, which offers amazing skiing and breathtaking views just a two-and-a-half hours’ drive away.

There aren’t many places that you could go swimming in the sea in the morning, and ski that very same afternoon – Marbella is one of them.

Price

Price is quite a subjective thing. Obviously, it depends on where you’re from, your income and spending habits. In fact, in a place like Marbella price could be even be considered both a pro and a con, depending on your point of view. 

Although it is true that much of Marbella’s appeal is aimed at foreigners with a higher purchasing power, living in Marbella, (though on the whole slightly more expensive than nearby cities, which we’ll touch on later) is still likely to be cheaper if you’re relocating from another country in northern Europe or other developed nations.

Living in Marbella is 43 percent cheaper than living in London, for example, 39 percent cheaper than Paris, and 23 percent more affordable than Berlin. 

Simply put, Marbella is a place where you can enjoy a glitzy lifestyle for a bit cheaper than back home. If you’re relocating from elsewhere in Spain, or southern Europe more broadly, you might need to read our cons section below.

Climate

But the weather is good everywhere in Spain, you might say? Although it is true that Spanish weather is generally much better than most northern European countries, it’s certainly not blue skies and sun all year around across the whole of Spain.

Even within Spain, Marbella boasts one of the best climates in the country. With an average temperature of 16°C during the winter months, 320 days of sun a year, and the coastal breeze to keep you refreshed, locals say Marbella has the best weather in Spain. They might be right!

marbella old town

Marbella Old Town has a lot of charm. Photo: Lynn Vdbr/Unsplash

The old town

When many picture Marbella, they think of the rows of hotels and luxury restaurants. But not all of Marbella is like the flashy Puerto Banús, where foreigners tend to congregate for short stays. Marbella’s old town is much more Spanish, and replete with white washed houses and flowers, narrow, cobbled side streets lined with orange trees and filled with history.

Accessibility

Marbella is extremely well connected both domestically and internationally, with flights to most major cities across the UK and Europe, and you can drive or travel by public transport to nearby Málaga in around an hour, to Seville (3.5 hours), Cádiz (3.5), and Granada (2.45).

CONS

Overcrowding

Like many coastal resort cities, Marbella gets extremely overcrowded in the summer months. Marbella’s official population is around 148,000 but local authorities estimate that that number jumps to as many as 500,000 during the summer months.

Equally, and this could be a positive or a negative, during the winter months Marbella is much quieter.

Many clubs and restaurants don’t even open during the winter season, and if they do, it’ll just be on the weekends.

marbella pros and cons

Marbella is a different place in summer to what it’s like during winter. (Photo by Jorge Guerrero / AFP)


Authenticity

Though its old town is lovely and quaint, Marbella on the whole perhaps isn’t the most authentic Spanish or Andalusian experience you can find in the region.

Far from it, in fact; in the tourist hotspots during the summer season you could hear as much English, German, Dutch or Swedish as you do Spanish.

Marbella officially has around 148,000 residents, of which 39,000 are foreigners, plus the hundreds of thousands that visit every year that bump up the number of unofficial residents.

Traffic

Despite the swathes of tourists that flock to Marbella every summer, it is worth remembering that it is not a big city and the roads can become completely gridlocked with cars and taxis during the seasonal months.

With Marbella’s summertime population multiplying two or three-fold over the summer, the city’s street system often can’t cope, and good luck finding a parking space!

Marbella’s economy is highly dependant on tourism and hospitality. Photo:Astrid Schmid/Pixabay

Price 

But how can price be both a pro and a con? Well, it can be true that Marbella is both cheaper than most places in Europe, but also that its prices have been pushed up by the influx of rich tourists trying to take advantage of that.

It’s worth remembering prices in Marbella have been driven up compared to most other places in the province and broader Andalusia region.

Málaga province, where Marbella is located, was the second province with the highest rise in property price rises in all of Spain between 2015 and 2020, according to figures published by Spain’s Urban Agenda Ministry in 2022.

According to Spanish property search engine Fotocasa, in the upmarket Puerto Banús area homes are going for €5,305/sqm (the average home price is over €800,000), whereas in Marbella Old Town it’s more reasonable but still fairly pricy at €3,318/sqm (€486,710 for a home on average).

Rents are also on the up in 2022, rising by 19 percent in Marbella and Málaga province over the last year, according to Idealista.

Andalusia, and southern Spain in general, is full of towns and cities that are generally more cost-effective and authentically Spanish.

Seasonal economy

As Marbella fills up during the summer months and empties out in the winter, its economy is very heavily reliant on leisure and tourism.

That means that job opportunities can be harder to come by during the winter months.

Nor can you expect salaries to be much better than anywhere else in Spain, despite the generally higher cost of living. 

Unless you’ve got a pension, or savings, or a regular income from abroad, finding a job may be more difficult during that time of the year because much of the tourism sector cuts back if not shuts down entirely.

The international nature of Marbella does mean that the real estate industry stays strong year round, though.

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MOVING TO SPAIN

Six hard facts Americans should be aware of before moving to Spain 

There are 40,000 US nationals living in Spain but the road to residency and integration isn’t always straightforward for them. Here are six practical points Americans should factor in before embarking on a move to 'España', from work, to tax and healthcare.

Six hard facts Americans should be aware of before moving to Spain 

If you’re a US national who is considering making a move to Spain, you’ve no doubt already been captivated by all the country has to offer: the food, the people, the rhythm of life, the culture, the wine (of course), the scenery, the festivals, and so on. 

There’s a long list of quality-of-life positives that come with a move to Spain which could indeed make you happier than you are in the US. 

But before you start considering a permanent or long-term move to the country of your dreams, you should first think of the practicalities and potential downsides of such a big life change. 

MAP: Where in Spain do all the Americans live?

Above all is the fact that despite the United States’s reputation as a world leader in many regards, for the Spanish government you’re a third-country national with the same rights (or lack thereof) as any other non-EU national, from a Chinese person, to an Australian or an Indian citizen.

This is the crux of the matter, and a factor which will influence most of the important points to be aware of that we will now list.

Finding work or building a career isn’t easy

You’ll no doubt already know that Spain is renowned for its high unemployment rate, unstable work market and relatively low wages, but as a non-EU national there is an added set of obstacles to consider.

Firstly, applying for residency through a contract job is near impossible. Spanish employers would have to first demonstrate that they have been unable to find a suitable EU candidate for the position before being able to sponsor/hire you. 

Alternatively, you’d have to have the skills and experience which are included in Spain’s shortage occupation list, but this is made up almost entirely of jobs in the maritime and shipping industry.

It is true that Spain is set to make it easier to recruit non-EU foreigners to cover some of its most pressing labour shortages, but these are mainly in the tourism, hospitality and agricultural sectors.

Then there’s the nightmare non-EU foreigners in regulated professions are currently enduring – think doctors, dentists, engineers, lawyers and so on – as the validation of their qualifications (known as homologación) is a pricy and convoluted process which takes at least three years. Others who need to have their qualifications verified for non-regulated professions (known as equivalencia) will have to wait two years on average.

With that in mind, setting up your own business might be one of the best bets to make a living for yourself and gain Spanish residency. This self-employed work visa is also a bit arduous as you’ll need proof of financial means and a business plan among other requirements, but on the whole it’s probably one of the most feasible residency options.

The Spanish government did announce an upcoming Startups Law and digital nomad visa in 2021, legislation which could indeed make it easier for Americans to remote work from Spain, but it isn’t clear yet when this will be approved.

A final option is that of becoming an English-language assistant at a Spanish school. It’s an easy way to get into Spain, it offers decent pay for the few hours you’re required to work and it can be a stepping stone to other work goals from within Spain.  

You need a lot of money to ‘buy’ Spanish residency

If you’re retired or don’t plan to work in Spain, then you’ll need to show you have the financial means to cover your costs. 

This can best be done through Spain’s non-lucrative visa or the so-called golden visa. 

As the name suggests, the non-lucrative visa (NLV) is a residency permit which doesn’t allow you to work in Spain or technically carry out professional activities you have abroad from Spain.

A US national wanting to apply for the NLV for the first time in 2022 will need to prove they have €27,792 ($31,390) for one year, an amount which rises if you include other family members. You’ll have to show proof of financial means when you renew the NLV again.

You can find more in-detail information on the NLV’s financial requirements as well as a breakdown of the pros and cons in the articles linked directly below:

As for the other main option for those who won’t work in Spain – the golden visa – the main options are buying a property (or more) worth €500,000+ (the option most applicants choose) or investing €1 million in a Spanish company or having €1 million in a Spanish bank account.

READ MORE: What foreigners should be aware of before applying for Spain’s golden visa

So all in all, applying for Spanish residency as a US citizen who can’t or doesn’t want to work in Spain involves having a lot of money saved up.

Public healthcare is the standard in Spain, but access to it as an American is subject to conditions

As you hail from a country where healthcare is notoriously not available to all, you may have assumed that here in Spain, where the approach is starkly different, anyone can walk into a public hospital and receive treatment. 

And there would be nothing wrong in thinking that initially, but the truth is that access to Spain’s sanidad pública is based on social security contributions, which are paid through your taxes as a contract employee or self-employed worker.

What this means is that if you’re a US national residing in Spain you won’t automatically get access to Spain’s public healthcare system. 

In fact, if you’re applying for the NLV or golden visa, you will have to take out comprehensive private health insurance for your application to be accepted, something which can be difficult and costly if you have pre-existing conditions.

You should also keep in mind that there’s a scheme called the “convenio especial” (special agreement) which allows foreigners who have been registered as residents in Spain for a year to pay a monthly sum into the country’s public health system to have access to it.

Under 65s pay a fixed monthly fee of €60 per month and over 65s pay €157 per month to obtain full cover through Spain’s public health system.

You’ll have to resit your driving exam again

The US is for the most part a nation of drivers. In Spain, if you live in a town or city you will be able to move around easily on foot or by using the country’s efficient public transport network.

However, if your intention is to buy a car and continue driving in Spain, keep in mind that after six months of residency in the country you will need to resit your driving exam again in Spain and get a Spanish driving licence.

Unfortunately, Spain and the United States have no mutual licence exchange agreement or recognition scheme.

READ MORE: How much does it cost to get your driving licence in Spain?

It’s certainly frustrating to think that you will have to cough up a considerable amount of money for something that you already know how to do, but on the plus side you’ll get to understand Spanish roads and driving, and possibly learn how to use a stick (gearbox) as most cars are manual in Spain.

You have to commit to living in Spain

Keep in mind that when you obtain Spanish residency, it won’t necessarily entitle you to enter and leave the country for the rest of your life, especially if you spend extended periods of time outside of Spain. Permits have to be renewed and their conditions respected.

At first you will be given temporary residency (which lasts five years) and with this permit you risk losing residency when you leave Spain for more than six months in a period of one year.

In the case of sporadic absences from Spain, the sum of these periods outside of the country during those five years of temporary residence must not exceed ten months if you intend to apply for permanent residency. 

Permanent residency is valid for ten years (you can then renew it or apply for Spanish citizenship), but you can lose your residency if you’re outside of Spain for more than 12 months continuously, or for more than 30 months during the last five years.

Only the golden visa offers more lenient rules in terms of time spent outside of Spain. 

None of this means that you can’t spend several months at a time back home in the States – in fact extenuating circumstances such as caring for a sick family member, work or study allow for a bit more time outside Spain – just keep in mind that you have keep tabs on long absences outside of Spain as a non-EU citizen.

You have to pay taxes in Spain even if you’re not working here

As a Spanish resident (someone who spends more than 183 days in a calendar year in Spain), you have to pay taxes here.

Foreign residents in Spain pay tax on their worldwide income at personal tax rates which are progressive, from 19 percent to 45 percent.

Fortunately, there is a treaty between Spain and the US which helps determine which country to pay taxes to and the tax deadlines.

Equally, if you live in Spain and own assets abroad worth more than €50,000, you have to declare all this to the Spanish taxman, through the Modelo 720.

There are plenty more tax matters to keep in mind if you have assets and/or income sources on both sides of the Atlantic (it may be worth consulting a tax expert), so just keep in mind that if you move to Spain you will have to deal with all of this complex scenario.

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