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RESIDENCE PERMITS

What’s better in Spain: Permanent residency or citizenship?

If you've lived in Spain for a while and don't plan to leave, you may be wondering about obtaining permanent residency or even taking Spanish citizenship. But what's the difference, and which is better for you?

What's better in Spain: Permanent residency or citizenship?
Photo: Henry Thong/Unsplash

If you’re a non-EU national who has lived in Spain for a few years and you’re thinking about making it home for many years to come, you might’ve considered whether permanent residency is enough to give you the stability and peace of mind you’re after, or if you should take it one step further and become a fully-fledged Spanish national.

But what are the differences between the two? 

The Local has broken it all down below.

Permanent/long-term residency

Very simply put, you can apply for long-term residency (formerly known as permanent residency) in Spain after being registered as a resident and living in the country continuously (and legally) for five years.

Citizenship

After ten years of legal, continuously living in Spain, you can apply for Spanish citizenship, though there are some shortcuts that allow some people to apply sooner: if you are married to a Spaniard, for example, or one of your parents is Spanish.

So, both Spanish citizenship and permanent residency allow you to stay in Spain long-term, but what are the differences between the two?

Which is better, and what are some of the pros and cons of each?

RESIDENCY – PROS

Lower levels of bureaucracy than for temporary residents

As a non-EU national, you might remember that the process when you first applied for Spanish residency was not necessarily straightforward.

You were probably asked to show proof of work, income, health insurance, marriage and dependents, depending on which type of permit you were applying for. 

One good thing about long-term residency is that after you’ve lived continuously in Spain with a temporary residence permit (click here to understand what we mean by continuously), you will not be asked to meet the same rigorous requirements or present the same paperwork when making it permanent.

It’s rather more like a renewal than an application, with time spent outside of Spain the main stumbling block.  

And once you have had your permanent residency card for five years, you will just need to renew it every five years, which is not too much hassle.

Schengen travel

Being a non-EU national who is a permanent resident in Spain means you don’t need to apply for a visa to visit another Schengen country for a period of up to three months and possibly longer, depending on the reason.

Visiting EU countries is much easier when you have a residency card from a Member country, although you don’t enjoy exactly the same rights as a Spanish citizen (more on that below.)

READ ALSO: Q&A: Everything you need to know about Spanish residency for Brits post-Brexit

Access to social security and benefits

Being a long-term resident gives you the right to opt in and access Spanish social security, including the world-renowned public healthcare services, work-related sickness or injury pay, retirement and pensions benefits, child allowance, and maternity and paternity care.

You do however need to be registered and contributing to the country’s social security system, usually through a job, because if you aren’t such rights are not guaranteed to you as a non-EU national. 

No exams

Although Spanish administration can be a little frustrating, at least when applying for long-term residency it’ll just be paperwork and not exam revision. More on that below, in the citizenship section, but a plus of residency is that you don’t have to pass any tests in order to get it.

RESIDENCY – CONS

You don’t have complete flexibility 

You would assume that you’re pretty set on Spain if you’re applying for long-term residency, but it is worth noting that once you have it, you can lose your right to permanent residence if you live outside of Spain for more than two consecutive years.

Long-term residence, in that sense, does decrease the flexibility and spontaneity of your life somewhat compared to being a Spanish national.

READ MORE: What are the reasons for losing Spanish residency?

Financial requirements 

In order to stay long-term, you must be able to prove that you can support yourself and any dependents financially through a demonstrable salary, but it could also be a student scholarship or grant, a pension, or other means of income. 

Losing residency

After getting your permanent residency, you should not spend more than a year at a time outside of Spain, and shouldn’t be outside of Spain for more than 30 months during a five year period. If you live outside of Spain for two consecutive years, you could lose your residency. 

It is possible to get it back, but it involves an appeal process and reintroducing yourself to the quirks of Spanish bureaucracy.

You can’t vote

Unlike when you take Spanish citizenship, long-term residency does not give you the right to vote in Spanish elections nor, in case you were planning on starting a career in Spanish politics, running for public office.

READ ALSO: What are the reasons for losing Spanish residency or nationality and can I get it back?

CITIZENSHIP 

If you’ve lived in Spain for ten years, you are entitled to become a Spanish citizen. But this is a big decision and comes with both positive and negative consequences. You will gain and enjoy all the same rights as Spaniards, but will also have to give up some things in order to do so.

READ ALSO: Seven reasons to get Spanish nationality (and four not to)

CITIZENSHIP – PROS

You get to enjoy freedom of movement

An advantage that many non-resident UK nationals in Spain have become aware of is that since Brexit they no longer enjoy the freedom of movement to live and work in EU countries, without first having to apply again .

Gaining Spanish nationality will give you plenty of choice and freedom in this regard, as becoming Spanish also means enjoying greater rights to live, work and travel where you please across 27 Member States, without having to worry about overstaying under the 90 in 180 days Schengen rule.

The Spanish passport is also one of the most ‘powerful’ in the word, allowing for visa-free travel to 190 different countries across the globe.

You don’t have to worry about time spent outside Spain

If you’re a naturalised Spanish citizen with a Spanish passport and ID, border officials are not going to keep tabs on your absences from Spain. 

Logically, if you’re thinking of applying for Spanish nationality, the idea is that you do so because you’re going to be in Spain long term. But at least you’ll have the peace of mind of knowing that you won’t lose the right to return if you have to leave Spain for some time.

Only foreigners who are not of Spanish origin but achieve nationality through naturalisation and who for a period of three years use their previous nationality (which they were supposed to have given up) risk losing their Spanish nationality.

Spanish nationality is cheap and easy to renew

The price for applying for Spanish nationality is €104.05 in 2022.

Spanish nationality documents (ID card and passport) do need renewal every 10 years, which on paper sounds time-consuming. But all you do is book an appointment at your nearest National Police station (and the online booking service works a treat), go along at your designated time and your documents are renewed in a few minutes. And it’s cheap – €12 for an ID card and €30 for a passport.

You can give Spanish nationality and residency to family

If you’re a Spanish national your children under 18 have the option of obtaining Spanish nationality through patria potestad (parental rights), which isn’t subject to the same long periods of residency in Spain that most foreigners have to abide by for nationality through naturalisation.

If your spouse is not an EU citizen, they can also obtain residency in Spain easily because they’re married to a Spanish citizen and they won’t have to meet other stricter work or visa requirements. After a year, they can also apply for Spanish nationality.

It can also prove easier to grant Spanish residency to other family members such as parents or parents in law. 

CITIZENSHIP – CONS

You have to give up your old nationality

Maybe you feel you’re not ready to give up your passport. Obtaining Spanish nationality means giving up your own nationality unless you’re a citizen from most Latin American countries, Portugal, the Philippines, Andorra and more recently France, all of whom are allowed dual nationality. 

You don’t usually have to hand over your old passport when you obtain your Spanish ID papers but by law, you’re not allowed double nationality.

Identity and nationality are a very personal thing, so give it some time before making such a big decision.

READ ALSO: What are the reasons for losing Spanish residency or nationality and can I get it back?

You have to be patient

Apart from the ten years of almost continuous residency in Spain that you have to prove (it’s five years in most European countries) keep in mind that it takes on average one to three years to obtain Spanish nationality after applying. 

If you don’t hand in the right documents, it could hold up the application even longer.

In Belgium, it takes four months to get a decision on your file on average and less than a year in the Netherlands but admittedly in other countries such as France and Italy it takes as long as in Spain. 

Either way, waiting up to 13 years to achieve Spanish nationality through residency (to then renounce your other nationality) is a very long time. 

EXAMS

In order to be granted Spanish citizenship, you must pass two exams. That’s right – it may have been many years since you were at school or university, but if you want to be Spanish, you need to study for it.

The are the two nationality tests that foreigners must pass to get Spanish citizenship. One tests your level of Spanish, although the threshold is quite low, and the other your knowledge of Spanish history and culture.

These exams are rumoured to be more than manageable, but they are both completed in Spanish so it’s worth bearing in mind before setting off on your quest to become Spanish.

CONCLUSIONS

Obtaining both Spanish citizenship and long-term residency have advantages. They give you peace of mind, free you from the bothersome bureaucracy of Spanish life, and allow you to plan properly for the future.

Deciding between the two (if you’re eligible) is an entirely personal decision. Perhaps you’ve married into a Spanish family, or have had children in Spain, and have integrated into Spanish society to such an extent that you feel becoming a Spanish national is the next step, and the natural thing to do.

If that’s the case, and you’re planning to stay in Spain for the rest of your life, then taking Spanish citizenship seems like a good option to confirm it and give you all the same rights as other Spaniards.

It is perfectly possible, however, to live in and love everything about Spain but still feel a connection and affinity to your home country. The major disadvantage of taking Spanish citizenship is that it forces you to renounce your original nationality.

If this is a step too far for you, and you’re perfectly content living and working in, and being a part of Spanish society, but as a foreigner, it would make more sense to apply for long-term residency and renew it every five years while preserving your own nationality.

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CITIZENSHIP

COMPARE: Which EU countries grant citizenship to the most people? 

Certain countries in Europe grant citizenship to foreign residents far more than others. Here's a look at the latest numbers.

COMPARE: Which EU countries grant citizenship to the most people? 

The number of people who were granted citizenship in a European Union country has risen and fallen in the past few years, a flux often driven by global events. 

Brexit, for instance, is likely to have played a role when the 27 EU countries recorded 844,000  ‘new citizens’ in 2016, a number that reached almost a million if the applications for UK citizenship are taken into account. 

The pandemic might have had an impact too, as fewer people were able to move across borders compared to the past.

According to the latest data by the EU statistical office Eurostat, in 2020 EU member states granted citizenship to 729,000 people, an increase from 706,400 in 2019 and 607,113 ten years earlier (2011).

The vast majority, around 620,600 or 85 percent, were previously citizens of a non-EU country, while 92,200 (13%) were nationals of another EU member state. Only Hungary and Luxembourg granted a majority of new citizenships to other EU nationals (67% and 63% respectively). Some 7.9 percent of people acquiring citizenship in the EU in 2020 were previously stateless.

Which countries grant most new citizenships? 

Each country has different rules about naturalisation, for example with regard to residence requirements, dual citizenship or family ties. 

Five countries account for almost three quarters (74%) of new citizenships granted in 2020: Italy, Spain, Germany, France and Sweden. 

Italy granted citizenship to 131,800 individuals, some 18 percent of the EU’s total. The Italian statistical office Istat noted that 80 percent were resident in Italy, an increase by 26% compared to 2019, while citizenships by marriage declined by 16.5 percent. The biggest proportion of ‘new citizens’ were from Albania, Morocco and Brazil, while Romanians were the largest group among EU nationals, followed by Polish and Bulgarians. 

Spain granted citizenship to 126,300 people, or 17 percent of the EU’s total, an increase by 27,300 – the largest in Europe – over 2019. Romanians were again the largest group of new Spanish passport holders among other EU nationals, followed by Italians and Bulgarians. The largest groups of new citizens were from Morocco, Colombia and Ecuador. 

Third in the ranking, Germany granted citizenship to 111,200 people, some 15 percent of the EU’s total, but 20,900 fewer than the previous year. The three largest groups acquiring German passport among non-EU nationals were from Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Britons were fourth.

Germany usually does not allow dual citizenship for non-EU nationals, but made an exception for British citizens until 31st December 2020, the end of the post-Brexit transition period. Although Germany’s new government is to change the law to allow for dual citizenship for third-country nationals.

Romanians, Polish and Italians were the largest groups of EU citizens naturalised in Germany in 2020. 

France granted 12 percent of new citizenships in the EU: 86,500 people in 2020.

In absolute terms, this was the largest decrease in the EU, with 23,300 fewer people naturalising as French than in 2019.

Among non-EU nationals, Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians were the largest groups acquiring French citizenship. Britons were fifth. Romanians, Portuguese and Italians were the biggest groups from the EU. France, together with Germany, has a lower naturalisation rate of foreigners than the EU average (1.7 and 1.1  per 100 foreign citizens respectively compared to the EU average of 2). 

With 80,200 new citizenships, or 11 percent of the EU’s total, Sweden recorded a growth of 16,000 compared to 2019 and was the country with the highest number of new citizens in relation to the total population.

Sweden is also the country with the highest naturalisation rate (8.6 per hundred foreign nationals compared to 2/100 across the EU). People from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan were the largest groups naturalizing in Sweden among non-EU nationals, and Britons were fifth. Polish, Finnish and Romanians were the largest groups among EU citizens. 

As for the other countries covered by The Local, Denmark granted citizenship to more than 7,000 people, quadrupling the number who became Danish in 2019. The largest groups of new citizens originally from outside the EU were from the UK, Pakistan and Ukraine and, within the EU, from Poland, Germany and Romania. 

Austria, which allows dual citizenship in rare circumstances, recorded 9,000 new citizens, with the largest groups from Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia and Turkey (non-EU) and Romania, Germany and Hungary (EU). 

Overall, the largest groups acquitting citizenship in EU countries in 2020 were Moroccans (68,900 persons), Syrians (50,200), Albanians (40,500), Romanians (28,700) and Brazilians (24,100). 

Britons were the first non-EU group acquiring citizenship in Denmark, Ireland and Luxembourg and among the top three in Cyprus and Latvia. However the number of Britons acquiring citizenship of an EU country decreased by 13,900 compared to the previous year.

Naturalisation in an EU member state automatically grants EU citizenship and therefore rights such as free movement and the ability to vote in that country as well as in local and European elections around the bloc.

In terms of gender, women were more likely than men to acquire citizenship (51 percent versus 49 percent), except for Bulgaria, Italy, Lithuania, Hungary, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia and Sweden. 

The median age of persons acquiring citizenship was 33 years. 36 percent of ‘new citizens’ were younger than 25, 42 percent were aged 25 to 44, and 23 % were children below the age of 15.

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK. 

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